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: Weekly Standard / AEI (10-14-08)
Discerning Barack Obama's foreign policy in any detail is far from easy. The great majority of his statements on the subject consist of criticism of the Bush administration. Asked during the first presidential debate how he sees"the lessons of Iraq," Obama replied,"I think the first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place." Later he added:"The strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there. The question is, was this wise?" The constant lamentation over Bush's mistakes, justified though it may be, leaves obscure what Obama thinks we should do now. A close examination of his pronouncements on foreign affairs nevertheless suggests the general outlines of his likely foreign policy. Like the Clinton administration, an Obama administration would set out determined to rely on diplomacy, backed where necessary by economic sanctions and, in some cases, limited and precise military strikes--the sole exception being Afghanistan, where Obama proposes an open-ended commitment of American troops to win on what he regards as the central front in the war on terror.
Obama and his team have made it clear that they intend to rely on diplomacy to achieve most of their objectives in the world. Obama's declaration that he would meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad"without preconditions" defines his approach to the Iranian challenge. Asked in a 2004 debate with his Republican Senate opponent Alan Keyes how he would handle potential threats from Iran and North Korea, Obama answered,"Well, I think that we have to do everything we can diplomatically." Noting the failure of the international nonproliferation regime, he blamed U.S. strategy and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which he said"has to be rewritten and renegotiated." In April 2007, he recognized that Iran and Syria"want us to fail" in Iraq:"I am under no illusions there." But given what he believes are common strategic interests, he continued,"It's absolutely critical that we talk to the Syrians and the Iranians about playing a more constructive role in Iraq." During the January 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama cited the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program as evidence that"if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior."
Criticized for promising to meet with Ahmadinejad, Obama added nuance in the first presidential debate:"Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he might not be the right person to talk to." The conversation then descended into an argument about the meaning of"without preconditions," with Obama explaining:"It means that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, 'Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you.' There's a difference between preconditions and preparations. Of course we've got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks." It is not clear whether the Obama team envisages reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. During the Cold War, the United States had full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union--and negotiated with Moscow, as Obama often points out. Denis McDonough, Obama's foreign policy coordinator, noted in June 2008 that"every one of our European allies maintains full diplomatic relations with Iran. So I am very confident that our European allies would welcome greater American engagement in this." It is extremely difficult to negotiate presidential-level summits when major issues are at stake even with full diplomatic teams in both capitals, so the question of Obama's intention to reestablish relations is important.
A similar emphasis on diplomacy characterizes Obama's approach to North Korea, Russia, and Lebanon. In May 2008, he responded to Hezbollah's attack on the Lebanese government by calling on"all those who have influence with Hezbollah [to] press them to stand down," and added,"It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy." His approach to North Korea is similar. In September, Susan Rice, senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, said that he"would have a tough policy that combines stronger sanctions, but to pursue this through diplomatic means to the maximum extent possible." Obama called for a"sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" toward North Korea in an article in the July/August 2007 Foreign Affairs, and also proposed creating a more permanent"international coalition" to replace the"ad hoc" Six Party Talks the Bush administration has pursued.
Harsh words toward Russia following the invasion of Georgia in August were tempered by Obama's principal Russia adviser, Michael McFaul:"As a general philosophy, we are better off in direct negotiations with them, and trying to do things of mutual interest, versus isolating, containing them." On those grounds, Obama and his advisers have rejected the idea of expelling Russia from the G-8 and blocking its full accession to the World Trade Organization and continue to emphasize negotiating arms control agreements with Moscow aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals, making the current intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty global, and containing the dangers of nuclear proliferation from Russian scientists, among other things.
Economic Sticks and Carrots
Obama recognizes that diplomacy will not always achieve his objectives and that it cannot be successful on its own. In such cases, his preferred course of action is to adopt or increase punitive economic sanctions on the offending regime. In May 2007, he complained that Bush's sanctions package against Sudan was inadequate:"Conspicuously absent from this package of sanctions is maximal punitive action against the Sudanese oil industry. Targeted pressure by the international community against the Sudanese oil economy is a much-needed step to stop the killing and displacement of innocent civilians in Darfur." Noting that Tehran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a"game changer" that"we cannot tolerate," Obama explained in the first presidential debate:
"Now here's what we need to do. We do need tougher sanctions. I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation from countries like Russia and China that have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon."
In the second debate, he expanded on the theme:
"If we can work more effectively with other countries diplomatically to tighten sanctions on Iran, if we can reduce our energy consumption through alternative energy, so that Iran has less money, if we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis."
He has also proposed sanctioning Venezuela for supporting the FARC rebels in Colombia and supports tougher sanctions on North Korea for violating its various agreements to suspend its nuclear program. In June, Obama explained,"Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to reimpose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." In September, he supported maintaining the embargo on Cuba"until we are seeing clear signs of increased political freedom and so we can maintain leverage in any direct negotiations that may take place." He has also proposed raising tariffs on Chinese products to force China to revalue the yuan.
Where sanctions are inappropriate or impossible, Obama proposes to manipulate American foreign assistance to achieve similar goals. During the second debate, he proposed responding to the Russian challenge by giving Poland, Estonia, Latvia,"and all of the nations that were former Soviet satellites""financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild their economies." He strongly backed the proposal of his running-mate, Joe Biden--subsequently echoed by the Bush administration--to give Georgia $1 billion in economic assistance. Since he rejected direct economic pressure on Russia, Obama seeks instead to create pressure by helping the economies of all of Russia's neighbors.
In the case of Pakistan, Obama calls for a policy that" compels Pakistani action against terrorists who threaten our common security." He would do that by conditioning U.S. military assistance on Pakistan's performance in the fight against al Qaeda. He would also offer economic assistance to"add to the standard of living and quality of life" in the tribal areas (in the words of Susan Rice) and to help in"building schools and building infrastructure in the country to help develop and give opportunity to the Pakistani people" (as Obama himself said in July).
Elsewhere in the world, Obama has proposed simply increasing American foreign assistance both for general purposes and in response to specific problems. He promised to"substantially increase our [economic] aid to the Americas" and proposed that the United States"help the Lebanese government deliver better services to the Shiites 'to peel support away from Hezbollah.'" He has not made clear how the Lebanese government will be able to do this in areas militarily controlled by Hezbollah. He summed up his approach by declaring,"The United States needs a foreign policy that 'looks at the root causes of problems and dangers.'" This sentiment echoes an earlier declaration about Latin America:"Helping to lift people out of widespread poverty is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values."
Small-Footprint, Limited Military Strikes
Obama has been at pains since 2002 to make clear that he doesn't oppose wars--he opposes"dumb wars." He has repeatedly emphasized his willingness, even eagerness, to use military force in certain cases, but he is unwilling to have American soldiers on the ground in numbers anywhere except Afghanistan. His objective in Iraq is to withdraw all American combat forces as rapidly as possible. As he said in July 2007:"The mission I'm defining is one in which we are withdrawing in a gradual fashion, that we are helping to train Iraqi forces, and that we're going to initiate diplomacy as a more important tool at this point than the surge in order to achieve our goals." Asked if he would give General David Petraeus more time if the American commander asked for it (this was before the general's September 2007 congressional testimony), Obama answered:"There is no scenario that I can imagine right now in which over the next eight weeks we'll see a magic transformation in Iraq." More recently, Obama and Susan Rice have reiterated his determination to"end this war responsibly" by withdrawing American forces--within 16 months, they've said on numerous occasions--leaving behind only enough troops to"protect our embassy and civilians operating in Iraq, continue any operations that may be necessary to target remaining al Qaeda remnants, and finally continue the mission of training the Iraqi security forces."
With regard to Iran, Obama says,"I would not take the military option off the table, and I will never hesitate to use our military force in order to protect the homeland and the United States' interests." He explicitly rejected the idea of keeping military forces in Iraq to counter Iran in November 2007, however:"We should not take steps that would increase troop presence inside Iraq with an eye towards blunting the impact of Iran. I always think that's a mistake." In 2004, in fact, he argued that American forces in Iraq reduced our ability to strike Iran militarily:"I am less optimistic about our ability to deal with the threat in Iran, in part as a consequence of Iraq. Because I think that the Iranians at this stage are fairly confident that it's going to be difficult for us to mount any significant military strike there, but I would reserve all options." The military option Obama has in mind for Iran--to the extent he considers it live at all--appears to be a limited precision-strike, presumably against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
Obama also favors limited military precision-strikes against al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan. The parameters of such strikes are unclear. As controversy grew over whether Obama had or had not proposed"invading" Pakistan, the senator clarified his position, noting in the first debate:"If the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out." He subsequently added, however,"You've got cross-border attacks against U.S. troops [in Afghanistan]. And we've got a choice. We could allow our troops to just be on the defensive and absorb those blows again and again and again, if Pakistan is unwilling to cooperate, or we have to start making some decisions." This would appear to imply a willingness to hit not only al Qaeda targets, but also Taliban targets (since the Taliban stages by far the largest number of cross-border raids) in Pakistani territory. In almost all other conversations, however, both Obama and Susan Rice have been careful to say only that he would hit al Qaeda targets. It is not entirely clear from Obama's comments that he makes a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, moreover, which could dramatically affect the scale of any action he might take.
Obama has made much of his determination to stop or prevent genocide around the world, even if it means using military power. In practice, however, he does not appear to support deploying American soldiers in any numbers to enforce this determination. In July, he denied that preventing genocide in Iraq was sufficient reason to keep large numbers of American forces there, adding,"By that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done. Those of us who care about Darfur don't think it would be a good idea." Earlier this month he spoke again of the genocide in Darfur and concluded by recommending"logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone," and helping the African Union troops to stop the killing.
For all of Obama's emphasis of the priority of Afghanistan over Iraq, he has offered very little in the way of detailed proposals for winning the war there. In the second debate, he summed up the three points of his approach as being"to get more troops into Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to do what it needs to do, eliminate some of the drug trafficking that's funding terrorism." In particular, he proposes sending"two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan." Getting those forces to Central Asia he believes is so important that we must"end the war in Iraq" in order to do it.
Obama's commitment to maintaining as many as seven U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan (his additional three plus the three already engaged in combat and one in training Afghan security forces) appears to be limitless. He has not suggested that sending perhaps 10,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan (three combat brigades) would be decisive any time soon, nor has he explained how he would do better in combating the drug trafficking problem than the NATO forces that have been working on the problem since the start of the war, nor has he described how he would help the Afghan government become more effective. His approach to dealing with safe havens in Pakistan appears to combine economic aid for the surrounding areas with precision strikes against key leaders there.
In short, the surge of troops for Afghanistan Obama is proposing is likely to be anything but brief--his strategy appears to anticipate the need for at least 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan throughout his presidency, and probably more. It is not, in fact, a surge but a fundamental redeployment from an open-ended commitment in Iraq to an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan.
Obama's foreign policy plans do not appear to recognize that Iraq will continue to be an extremely important area of interest for the United States for years to come, whatever the outcome of the current conflict. Although Obama is at pains to describe the nature of America's relations with Islamabad, Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, Havana, Damascus, and Brussels, he does not describe the relationship he expects to see with Baghdad. Will Iraq be friendly toward the United States? The possibility in his plans that America might continue to train Iraq's military forces (but only if the Iraqis meet our benchmarks and requirements) suggests that Obama imagines at least a reasonably positive relationship. The determination to continue to use American Special Forces and precision weapons to whack terrorists in Iraq presupposes some sort of Iraqi permission. At least, Obama has not indicated that he would conduct such operations against the will of Iraq's government, as he has said he would do in Pakistan. Obama certainly does not see an American presence in Iraq as any sort of constraint on Iranian behavior there or anywhere else. Is Iraq itself going to be a bulwark against Iran, a partner of Iran, Tehran's client, or neutral? Obama does not say.
It is unclear, in fact, whether Obama imagines that Iraq will survive at all. He continues to assert that the surge has failed because"the Iraqis still haven't taken responsibility, and we still don't have the kind of political reconciliation" required, as he explained to Bill O'Reilly in September. His plan for Iraq claims that U.S. withdrawal will facilitate the rebuilding of Iraqi society:"A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order." He recognizes, however, that it may not work: U.S. forces will help train Iraqis"as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism." If Iraq's leaders did start moving toward sectarianism, Obama's plan, it appears, would cut off U.S. assistance, but would not attempt to stop the violence. Only in the worst case would Obama intervene again, reserving"the right to intervene militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal violence within Iraq." The Obama plan aims at forcing Iraqis to make their country work but appears ambivalent about the likelihood they will succeed--and would curtail relations with Iraq if the attempt failed, re-engaging only if there were a genocide.
This approach makes sense only on the assumption that Iraq is not intrinsically important to American security, while Afghanistan is the key. Obama seems willing to accept a failed and even violent state in Iraq while insisting on an open-ended commitment to establishing a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan with a government that is"responsive to the Afghan people." Obama does not see Iraq as any sort of focal point for Iranian-American relations (except that he expects to talk the Iranians into helping us advance our supposedly common interests in Iraq). He most certainly rejects the notion of Iraq as an important front in the war on terror.
This approach is problematic. Iraq has never been irrelevant to the modern Middle East and won't be in the coming eight years. Iraq has oil reserves potentially as great as Saudi Arabia's; a large population astride the Sunni-Shia faultline; borders with Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait; a Kurdish population that both aspires to a region-shattering declaration of independence and harbors an anti-Turkish terrorist group; is the traditional center of Shia Islam; and suffers from two low-level terrorist campaigns waged by al Qaeda and Iranian proxies. Iraq, moreover, has not been part of the international community for 40 years. The rise of a new, Shia-dominated Arab state in Mesopotamia that attempts to rejoin the regional community will shake up Arab politics, whatever the success or failure of U.S. plans. As a first priority, an Obama administration will have to develop a more balanced approach to Iraq, one that recognizes the country's regional importance, considers the real nature of American interests there, and commits to one vision of Iraq's future and the Iraqi-American relationship.
Return to the 1990s
Obama's foreign policy principles are not new. Broadly speaking, they are a return to the principles that guided Bill Clinton's approach to the world, adjusted incompletely to the global changes that have occurred since Clinton left office. It is worth reviewing the Clinton foreign policy both as an indicator of how an Obama administration (which will incorporate many former Clintonites) will act and as a way of evaluating the likely success of some of Obama's proposals.
Having campaigned on the slogan"It's the economy, stupid," Clinton took office with American forces engaged in two theaters. In Iraq, they maintained no-fly zones, while concentrations of ground troops protected Kuwait. In Somalia, the ill-considered humanitarian relief effort launched by George H. W. Bush was drawing American forces into a civil war.
Clinton established the pattern for his relationship with Saddam Hussein at once. Following word of an attempted assassination of Bush during an April 1993 trip to Kuwait, Clinton ordered the launch of 23 cruise missiles against targets in Iraq. Meanwhile, determined to get American forces out of Somalia, Clinton's defense secretary Les Aspin refused the requests of U.S. leaders in the theater to send armored vehicles to U.S. troops operating in an increasingly dangerous environment. The refusal was based largely on the desire to avoid being seen as"escalating" American involvement in a conflict from which Clinton was attempting to escape. The result was that the United States did not have the capabilities necessary to rescue Special Forces shot down during an operation in October 1993. Some of those soldiers were subsequently captured, killed, and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, turning the orderly withdrawal of American troops from Somalia into a humiliation.
Apprised of the likely costs of a war against North Korea during the first confrontation over Pyongyang's nuclear program in 1994, Clinton opted for diplomacy, negotiating the first of a series of deals to which today's Six Party Talks (and the ongoing Korean nuclear program) are the successor. Continuing the feckless policy of George H. W. Bush in the Balkans, Clinton pressed the Europeans to take responsibility for security on their own continent and worked to find a diplomatic, multilateral solution to the spiraling civil war and ethnic cleansing there. As U.N. forces in Bosnia were about to be overrun, Clinton intervened decisively, launching a large-scale air campaign in conjunction with our NATO allies and then deploying more than 20,000 American troops to Bosnia. Clinton continually promised that the deployment, to which many Republicans and some Democrats objected, would be short, but American troops remained in Bosnia from 1995 to 2005. Civil wars spread across the former Yugoslavia, arguably in part because of Western inaction early in the conflict, and in 1999 Clinton intervened again with a massive NATO air campaign against Serbia, followed by the deployment of U.S. ground forces to Kosovo, which remained there until 2007.
The Kosovo air campaign badly damaged relations with Russia, which regarded it as an illegal attack against Russia's traditional ally, Serbia. U.S.-Russian relations had been deteriorating before that attack, partly in response to the process of NATO enlargement begun in 1997, when Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary started talks with the alliance. The process culminated in their accession to full membership in 1999, 12 days before the war in Kosovo began. Russia, then as now, regarded the eastward expansion of NATO as a violation of a pledge Bush had given Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War. Then as now, Moscow linked NATO decisions in the Balkans to Russian operations in the Caucasus: Six months after the start of air operations in Kosovo, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin acting prime minister and almost immediately launched a large-scale military operation in Chechnya that brutally crushed a separatist movement there. Putin and other Russian leaders now commonly cite the U.S.-European recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year as the basis for their invasion of Georgia in August.
Clinton's policy toward Iraq--one of diplomacy, multilateralism, economic sanctions, and spasmodic military action--was also counterproductive. Economic sanctions did fearful damage to the Iraqi economy and embittered a generation of Iraqis against the United States. The oil-for-food program established to alleviate the worst of the suffering backfired. Corruption marred the U.N. administration of the program, while Saddam redirected funds to his own comfort and security at the expense of his people. Continual low-level military confrontation, rising to air and cruise-missile strikes in 1996 and 1998, kept Saddam in perpetual fear of losing power. He responded with vicious suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings immediately after the Gulf war, tightening of military and police controls throughout the country, and the"Return to Faith" campaign enlisting Islam to the cause of the secular Baathist regime.
The"Return to Faith" campaign focused heavily on Sunni Islam, and Saddam continued to oppress Iraq's Shia. The religious leader of the Shia community, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, went into seclusion; the more radical, more political, and fiercely anti-American Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr (father of Moktada al Sadr) was murdered by Saddam's thugs in 1999. The campaign also had the effect of injecting radical Islamism into Iraq's Sunni community.
By 2002, Saddam had made sufficient common cause with al Qaeda that Baghdad was home to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who would head Al Qaeda in Iraq until the Coalition killed him in 2006, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Zarqawi's successor. Neither was involved in the 9/11 attacks, but both were intimately connected with the global al Qaeda movement with which they worked closely after the 2003 invasion. It appears that the surge has driven Masri out of Iraq, possibly to al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Even granting, therefore, that sanctions and military actions persuaded Saddam to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction programs, they did so at a very high price to the Iraqi people (which opponents of the 2003 invasion were prepared to continue to inflict indefinitely), and at the cost of driving a formerly bitter foe of Islamism to start making common cause with Islamists and radicalizing his own society. And even at that, U.S. policy before 2003 failed to secure Saddam's compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding unfettered inspections that would have demonstrated the end of his WMD program--with the result that almost every government and analyst believed that Iraq had a WMD program in 2003. Bush administration failures and mistakes seriously exacerbated many of these problems in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and ended up imposing an additional fearful price on the Iraqi people and on America. Even a skillful war plan, on the other hand, would have faced the significant challenges arising from more than a decade of sanction-and-strike policies.
The single worst failure of the first Bush and Clinton administrations, however, is the one that appears most likely to be replicated by Obama. After Soviet military forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States gratefully turned its attention away from a country it had never understood. We were surprised and dismayed but unwilling to act when the Soviet puppet-government did not fall at once, but instead held onto power until 1992. We were equally surprised, dismayed, and unwilling to act as the radical Taliban forces--including some groups we had helped arm and train against the Soviets--began to take control of Afghanistan, assisted by Pakistan.
As Osama bin Laden established base camps with Taliban support, Americans took little notice and no action. When al Qaeda bombers hit U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Clinton administration launched a volley of cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan (and Sudan), with no effect. It handed over to the second Bush administration a well-established terrorist network with unfettered access to resources and training bases in Afghanistan, and it had made no preparations to do anything about it--not even a war plan for going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Eight months after Bush took office--and eight years after the first World Trade Center bombing--al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. As policy failures go, that was rather dramatic. The unwillingness of the Obama campaign to think seriously about what happens in Iraq after our forces have withdrawn raises the specter of a repetition of this scenario.
If Obama takes office in January 2009, he will face a daunting set of challenges in the world. After the knife-fight of this presidential election, he and his team will need to take a deep breath and reflect. The temptation to excoriate the policies of one of the most unpopular presidents in history as a means of winning office was natural. The fierce battle Obama had to fight to secure the nomination in the first place created cleavages within the Democratic foreign policy elite that have further complicated the development of a coherent and consistent approach to national security. And the bitterness of the debate over the Iraq war has distorted the thinking of almost every political leader and many an analyst. Between an Obama election and inauguration, the new team will have to make up the ground the campaign has lost in thinking through its policies on the issues it will have to tackle from its first moment in office, for there is reason to fear that many of the current default policies are mistaken. The world has changed a great deal since the Clinton years, and even then the Clinton foreign policy was far from successful. Obama and his team will have a very short time to adjust their ideas to the world as it is now.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 - 09:18
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (10-15-08)
These domestic policies at home were complemented by wars and belligerence abroad, which further took the eye of the public off the epochal bank robbery being conducted by the American neo-Medicis, and which were a useful way of throwing billions in government tax revenue to the military-industrial complex, which in turn funded the think tanks and reelection campaigns of the right wing politicians. The Reagan fascination with private armies and funding anti-communist death squads contributed mightily to the creation of al-Qaeda, blowback from which fuelled even bigger Pentagon budgets, spiralling upward and feeding on itself. Terrorism is much better than Communism as a bogey man, since you can just intimate that there are a handful of dangerous people out there somewhere, and force the public to pay over $1 trillion to combat them. In fact, of course, less US interventionism abroad would create less blowback, and genuine threats are better addressed through good police work by multilingual FBI agents than by a $700 billion Pentagon budget.
As a result of the Second Gilded Age and its serf-like subservience to big capital, most corporations in the US don't pay any income taxes, despite doing $2.5 trillion annually in business.
The Reagan Revolution included the stupid idea that you can cut taxes, starve government, abolish regulation of securities, banks, & etc., and still grow the economy. The irony is that capitalist markets need to be regulated to avoid periodically becoming chaotic (as in 'chaos theory,') but the people who most benefit from regulation are most zealous in attempting to abolish or blunt it.
What those policies did was create the preconditions for a long-term bubble or set of bubbles that benefited (for a while) the wealthiest 3 million Americans and harmed everyone else.
The average wage of the average worker is lower now than in 1973 and has been lower or flat for the past 35 years. That's the condition of the 300 million or so Americans.
In the meantime, the top 1 percent has multiplied its wealth many times over and now takes home 20% of the national income, owning some 45 percent of the privately held wealth in the US.
The Right keeps promising us growth, but it turns out that"growth" is mainly for them, i.e. for the 3 million (and indeed mainly for about 100,000 within the 3 million).
Those 3 million are a new aristocracy, lords of the economy, who reward each other with tens of millions in bonuses for ceremonial reasons that have nothing to do with the jobs they actually perform. Bush has been trying to make them a hereditary aristocracy by getting rid of the estate tax.
That is why banks are refusing the government bailout if it restricts the salaries of the top officers-- you don't mess with the feudal lord's prerogatives.
The enormous wealth of a thin sliver or people at the top of US society allows them to buy members of congress and to write the legislation that regulates their industries.
Congress capitulates to this 'regulatory capture' because its members have to buy hugely expensive television ads to remain competitive in elections. So they fundraise from the rich, and the rich have expectations (as Keating did of McCain).
These problems could be fixed with a graduated income tax and a closing of tax loopholes ( after we get out of the recession or crash or whatever this is); by legislation criminalizing regulatory capture; by requiring mass media to run political ads for free as a public service (the public owns the airwaves); and by much shortening the election season (please).
A lot of America's fiscal and educational problems were caused by congressionally mandated fixed sentences imposed on judges with regard to marijuana possession, as a sop to the New Puritans that make up 1/3 of the Republican Party. You have a lot of people serving 5 years in jail for having small amounts of pot. The states had to build new prisons to hold them all. They took the money out of the budget for higher education, abolishing the whole idea of state universities and causing tuitions to rise.
So you've got more ignorant people (because people can't afford even"state" college), and fewer high-tech firms are founded; and you're feeding and housing large numbers of harmless potheads with your tax dollars instead. The US maintains a vast gulag of nearly 2 million prisoners, putting us in the same league as Putin's Russia. No country in Western Europe incarcerates a similar proportion of its population.
Mexico's president wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin for personal use, though an arrest on possession charges would require entry into a program to kick addiction.
Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs; decriminalizing marijuana altogether (and taxing the resulting industry); removing mandatory federal sentencing requirements; and letting states go back to educating their children instead of putting millions in jail; would solve another big batch of America's problems.
So there you have it. Abolish puritanism in government policy; go back to using the government to regulate industries and finance and provide services; and fight terrorism with better public diplomacy and better police work instead of with militarization-- and you might get out of this thing intact.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 - 09:16
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (10-15-08)
The situation in Pakistan for ordinary people is indeed tough. Fuel and wheat prices have skyrocketed.
But all along, a third of the population has had to live on less than a dollar a day and the NIE wasn't so worried about them a few years ago.
But I'm suspicious that all the talk about instability and 'no government' is really a way of saying that US intelligence agencies liked having a military dictatorship there much better than they like having an elected parliamentary regime.
Actually, the Pakistani bureaucracy does a fairly good job for a third world country, and the employees of the bureaucracy at the non-political level don't change with the change of governments. I don't know what they mean by 'no government.' The elected government headed by the Pakistan People's Party has a majority and is not in danger of falling. The new president, Asaf Ali Zardari, is widely thought to be corrupt, but then the impeachment charges prepared against ousted military dictator Pervez Musharraf alleged the same thing of him, so it is hard to see how things have gotten worse in that regard.
The campaign of bombings and attacks by the Tehrik-i Taliban guerrillas of the Pushtun tribal agencies are worrisome, but life goes on in big cities such as Lahore, which are distant from the tribal areas, despite occasional attacks there.
Moreover, the Pushtuns of the North-West Frontier Province voted in a secular party in the last elections, and even a lot of people in the tribal areas oppose the neo-Taliban.
American reports about Pakistan are schizophrenic, because t hey say the Pakistani army is not fighting the Taliban. But the Pakistani military has chased 300,000 from their homes in Bajaur, one of 7 tribal agencies, and has engaged in firefights with dissident Muslim groups there. I mean, what do the authors of the NIE want?
The Pakistani military admittedly does not attack the Pushtun tribes it is paying to make trouble in southern Afghanistan, but then their activity is abroad and directed from Islamabad. The Mohmands and other tribes in Bajaur have been fighting the Pakistani military, which has hit them hard in retaliation.
The idea that the 3.5 million Pushtuns of the tribal areas could take over a country of 165 million with one of the most professional armies in Asia is just silly.
The most worrisome thing that has happened in the past year from my point of view was the 3-day orgy of destruction engaged in by Sindhis after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last December, suggesting that Sindhi subnatio nalism was extremely strong. But the PPP is a party rooted in Sindh, though it has supporters in the other provinces, and its ascendancy should assuage Sindhi feelings. Sindhis make up about 25% of the Pakistani population.
If Pakistan can whether the ethnic tensions in the rest of the country, surviving the terrorist attacks emanating from the tribal areas will be easy.
People who know Pakistan well are more afraid of the right wing elements in the Pakistani military (whom the CIA has long funded and coddled) than they are about an elected civilian government being weak or corrupt.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 - 09:13
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (10-14-08)
What in the world is Barack Obama thinking? Mercifully, he plans to scale down and end the Iraq misadventure, yet he insists he will expand the effort in Afghanistan, and pursue Osama bin Laden to the ends of Tora Bora. In his first debate with John McCain, Obama said: "We have seen Afghanistan worsen, deteriorate. We need more troops there. We need more resources there. . . . So I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan." (http://www.iht.com)
Are Obama's foreign policy advisers, like those in the State Department in the 1960s who talked of falling dominoes and drawing the line in the sand in Vietnam, absolutely ignorant of history and of the limitations of American power? Or has he surrounded himself with the Clinton's advisers of the 1990s who drove us deeper into the quagmire of Iraq, and gave aid and comfort to the neo-cons who harbored grandiose visions of expanding American power and influence in the Middle East?
We can also ask whether Obama plans to follow Niall Ferguson and his merry band of neo-con followers who want America to be what the British Empire failed to be -- oblivious, of course, to the graveyard that was Afghanistan for British imperial dreams. Or do Obama and his advisers forget how we gleefully supplied the mujahideen with awesome weapons to turn their country once again into a graveyard -- this time for Soviet ambitions? In those days, the lessons of Vietnam still remained clear and the CIA indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation for making Afghanistan the Soviet's Vietnam.
Now we have a preview of a forthcoming national intelligence estimate, pointing to the obvious: the Taliban has recovered its strength, nearly in proportion to the ineffectiveness and corruption in the present Afghan government. This report, not due for completion until after the November election, nevertheless, has been dutifully leaked (New York Times, October 9, 2008). Such thinking parallels the conclusions the British have reached.
The UK commander in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, praised his forces for having taken "the sting out of the Taliban for 2008." But he also issued a warning for lower expectations. "We are not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army," the Brigadier said. Shades of Vietnamization! (Financial Times, October 6, 2008.) Other NATO commanders in the field also have warned that military means alone are not going to reduce the threat. Ultimately, negotiations will have to bring a political solution.
The Bush White House reacted with predictable anger. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe (see "Ubiquitous Gordon Johndroe moves to the NSC, http://www.potomacflacks.com) insisted that "we plan on winning in Afghanistan. It's going to be tough and going to take some time, but we will eventually succeed." Meantime, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked Saudi Arabia to mediate with the Taliban -- apparently not without irony, given the Saudi commitment to fundamentalist thought, only several degrees from Taliban policies.
The White House was noticeably silent after the UK's Defense Ministry reacted to its field commander's assessment, saying it "did not have a problem" with warning the British people not to plan on "a decisive military victory' and instead prepare for the best deal that can be made.
So, back to October 2008 and the American election. John McCain apparently has little interest in Afghanistan. For him, as he repeatedly said, his line in the sand for the War on Terrorism is Iraq. What else can we expect of him? He brushed aside the debate moderator's attempt to draw him out on the lessons of Vietnam; he slipped that knot by simply using Iraq in his topic sentence. McCain's time as a POW marginalized him at a time when America learned the painful lesson of the limits of power. At least until the Bush White House sold its snake oil conclusions on the threat from Iraq.
And Barack Obama? Is the healthy healing and reinvigoration of his promise to be dashed on the rocks of Afghanistan and Tora Bora? Why are Democrats and liberals so fearful of the war-loving Right that they think they must have their own adventures? Fortunately, such "progressive" stalwarts as Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, and several others, apparently are feeling a little less heat and have withdrawn support from the onerous H.Con.Res.362 that would have paved the way for a naval blockade of Iran. Obama must recognize that he cannot appease the neo-cons, the Right, or whatever we call those who nurture our great national industry of dispatching mercenaries around the globe.
Obama and his advisers would do well to understand Afghanistan's history -- and for good measure, its geography. We can ill-afford the costs of the lives and treasure resulting from mistakes, based on the premise of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, that we "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." There are limits to our power -- sadly, presidential candidates will not utter that truth.
Would that Obama repeat in 2008 what he said in 2002: he did not oppose war; only dumb ones. Our diminished capacities and resources make such endeavors problematic. Then, too, we might do something other than ignore present realities and forget the past.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 - 09:00
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (10-14-08)
1. A big reason third-party candidates don’t fare well in America is that they’re usually not really competitive for winning electors. Perot got 19% of the popular vote in 1992. But he didn’t win any electors because he didn’t win the plurality of the vote in any particular state. Perot’s vote was probably significantly depressed by voter perception that it’s a waste to vote for a candidate who can’t possibly win the electors in your state. That was certainly the explanation for the rapid decline of support in the last weeks of the campaign for independent candidate John Anderson in 1980. Ralph Nader also experienced a last-minute loss of support in 2000. From Gore’s standpoint, Nader didn’t suffer quite enough of a collapse; the votes allegedly wasted on Nader were the real reason Gore fell just short of winning the electors of the crucial state of Florida.
2. A strength of the Electoral College: Every ambitious man and woman has a powerful incentive to find a home in one of the two major parties. Doing what’s required to win a major party’s nomination can’t help but have a moderating effect on candidates with extreme views. No moderation, in fact, usually means no nomination. That’s why neither the Rev. Pat Robertson nor the Rev. Jesse Jackson emerged as his party’s nominee. A weakness of the Electoral College: It’s very hard to bring real change through starting a new party. In the midst of our economic crisis, lots of Americans probably wish they could choose a third-party alternative such as Mayor Bloomberg.
3. The fact that it’s obviously pointless to vote for a candidate who’s not competitive for your state’s electoral vote actually points to the main weakness of the Electoral College. Voters have little incentive to turn out in non-competitive (non-Battleground) states. It makes no difference at all whether Obama gets 28% or 41% of the vote in Utah; he’s getting no electors either way. And the same thing could be said about McCain in Massachusetts. The campaigns, knowing this, usually focus most of their time, effort, and money in relatively few states, virtually ignoring a majority of the country’s voters.
4. A strength of the Electoral College: It forces candidates to campaign on a state-by-state basis. A weakness: It keeps them from having any reason to wage genuinely national campaigns aimed equally at each American voter.
5. The main reason there won’t be any Electoral College reform any time soon is that our present system actually tends to favor the Democratic candidate. New York and California are both solidly Democratic states, and so the Republican candidate starts way behind.
6. The election of 2000—with the Republican Bush narrowly winning the electoral vote and narrowly losing the popular vote—was a bit of a fluke. And if you believe that Gore really carried Florida, it wasn’t even that.
7. 2004 was more revealing. Bush won the popular vote by something like three million votes. But his electoral vote victory depended on his very narrow margin in Ohio. If something like thirty thousand Ohio voters had voted for Kerry instead of Bush, Kerry would have won the election while suffering a significant defeat in the popular vote.
8. The main weakness of one candidate winning the popular vote and the other the electoral vote is the effect such a result can have on the presidency. A considerable part of the president’s power comes from the mandate he or she receives through popular election. At least these days, a president without a mandate can easily lack the energy to govern effectively. Consider, for example, how President Bush languished until 9/11–the crisis that energized him, no doubt for both good and bad. Also consider how weak President McCain would be if he got elected the way Bush did.
9. It seems that the big danger posed by the Electoral College this year would be Obama winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote. The resulting racial animosity would make that result seem especially illegitimate.
10. But a very close popular vote this year might cause us to be reminded of a virtue of the Electoral College. The electors might still give us a clear winner. In 1960, the popular vote was a virtual tie, but Kennedy’s electoral vote majority was decisive enough. The worst-case scenario would be controversial recounts in a couple of exceedingly close states. The whole nation wouldn’t have to be recounted. That, in fact, would be mission impossible, and allegations of voter fraud would run amok on both sides.
In any case, the most cogent argument against just about every proposal to reform or eliminate the Electoral College is that each would require the nationalization of our election laws. That would be a major change in the way we conduct our democracy, with all sorts of unexpected consequences. Right now, strictly or legally speaking, there is no national “popular vote,” but only fifty state results that are unofficially aggregated by the media. All in all, we don’t have enough evidence that the Electoral College is broke enough to need fixing.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 - 11:55
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-13-08)
Among my somewhat over-the-hill crowd -- I'm 64 -- there's one thing friends have said to me repeatedly since the stock market started to tumble, the global economic system began to melt down, and Iceland went from bank haven to bankrupt. They say,"I'm just not looking. I don't want to know." And they're not referring to the world situation, they're talking about their pension plans, or 401(k)s, or IRAs, or whatever they put their money into, so much of which is melting away in plain sight even as Iceland freezes up.
I've said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality at an extreme moment, but also as a statement of denial and despair. The point is: Why look? The news is going to be worse than you think, and it's way too late anyway. This is what crosses your mind when the ground under you starts to crumble. Don't look, not yet, not when the life you know, the one you took for granted, is vanishing, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.
Today, in my world at least, this is the most commonplace of comments. It's just not a line I've seen much when the press and TV bring on the parade of financial experts -- most of whom are there largely because they didn't have the faintest idea that anything like this might happen. Whether they're reporting on, or opining about, the latest market nosedives, panic selling, chaotic bailouts, arcane derivatives, A.I.G. facials, or bank and stock-exchange closures, it still always sounds like someone else's story. I guess that's the nature of the media.
It's professional for reporters and pundits to write or talk about the pain of others, not their own. Normally, you just assume that's the case. So, for instance, when Frank Bruni, in a front pageNew York Times piece on the second presidential debate, writes,"Now the situation looks gloomier still, with markets in other continents tumbling -- with a world of hurt at hand," it really doesn't cross your mind that he might be including Frank Bruni in that description.
Here's a rock-you-to-your-socks fact I happened to read in a news report the afternoon of the day that Barack Obama and John McCain had their town hall meeting with 80 uncommitted voters and moderator Tom Brokaw. In the last 15 months, according to the Associated Press, Americans lost $2 trillion from their retirement plans. Now, that's a world of hurt and you could feel it the moment Brokaw first called on an audience member. Allen Shaffer rose and asked:"With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what's the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?" I have no idea what Shaffer's situation is, but I'll tell you this, his didn't sound like a reporter's question. It sounded close to the bone. It sounded like a world of hurt. Not surprisingly, neither presidential candidate actually responded, in part, undoubtedly, because to be close to the truth either would have had to say something like: Hey, how the hell do I know?
At this point, despite the onslaught of news about how bad things are, dotted with portrayals of Americans in trouble, I suspect there's quite a gap between the world as reported and the world as felt by most Americans. Let me give you a simple example. In the news these days, it's common to hear that we are at the edge of a real recession or, as International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it,"the cusp of a global recession," or even the verge of a "deep recession."
Recently, the word"depression" has finally made it onto the scene. Little wonder, as ever more financial institutions totter, while, for the first time in memory, the initials GM and the word"bankruptcy" repeatedly end up in the same headlines."Depression" arrived on the media scene, however, in a formulaic way and usually quite carefully hemmed in as part of a comparison: If X does or doesn't happen, this will be"the worst crisis since the Great Depression," or simply that it is"the worst [you fill this in] since the Great Depression."
And yet a recent CNN poll indicates that nearly 60% of Americans think an actual depression, even a great depression -- not a situation bad enough to compare to one -- is"likely." To many of us, it's already starting to feel that way and that's no small thing. When you see a Wall Street Journal headline like last Friday's --"Market's 7-Day Rout Leaves U.S. Reeling" -- don't you feel like you're in a different world, however the experts care to define it?
The edge of panic in the voice of a friend telling me about the 401(k) she's not looking at catches the story for me. It's visceral and scary and, let's face it, whether this is the half-forgotten past coming back to bite us or the future kneecapping us, it's depressing as hell.
And speaking of depressions no one is much talking about, let me just say what a journalist can't: I'm depressed.
It crept up on me, but I can date the feeling to the first week of October because a friend emailed me on September 29th this way:"I'm given to gloomy thoughts… You really get the sense that things are on the verge of spinning out of control."
I remember the email I wrote back with a certain embarrassment. I was neither gloomy nor down, I responded. My reigning feeling was one of"awe" -- that you could live your whole life and never experience a moment like this one. At about the same time, I told another friend that I found it staggering to turn a corner, bump into History, and discover that he's unbelievably gargantuan.
Even as I sent that email off, it felt kind of callous to me, but it was what I thought I felt. The media claims to know -- and report on --"our pain," just as the presidential candidates claim to feel it. How could they? I didn't even know my own. It took a remarkably long time to notice that weird feeling -- as if another body were sagging inside mine -- I identify with depression, and so finally say to myself: Okay, maybe you were awed, maybe you still are, but you also feel gloomy as hell.
Here's the strange thing: I've been running TomDispatch.com these last nearly six years. I've written (or posted) with regularity on how the Bush administration, with its blind, fundamentalist faith in military power, had pushed an imperial America into a precipitous decline. In July 2006, I typically ended one dispatch on the subject, "The Force Is Not With Them," this way:
"Oh, and there's one fundamentalist character I've left out of the mix, someone who definitely bows down to force. Call everything that's happened these last few years Osama's dream. It's hard not to think of William Butler Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,' and then wonder: 'And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'"
I posted a piece at TomDispatch in April of this year in which, to some criticism, Wall Street expert Steve Fraser specifically brought up the"D" word in this passage:
"Nonetheless, the current breakdown of the financial system is portentous. It threatens a general economic implosion more serious than anyone has witnessed for many decades. Depression, if that is what it turns out to be, together with the agonies of a misbegotten and lost war no one believes in any longer, could undermine whatever is left of the threadbare credibility of our Gilded Age elite."
Last January, I even posted an essay by Chalmers Johnson, bluntly entitled "Going Bankrupt," suggesting that we were fast heading the way of Argentina 2001. I've certainly long been convinced that we were spinning out of control, that this was madness, and that we were, in some fashion, heading down.
But a near global financial collapse and crash in a matter of weeks? I can't claim that such a possibility even crossed my mind. And anyway, who can ever claim that learned and lived history bear much relation to each other any more than do the experiences of reporting and being reported upon.
That was a thought, a construct. This is my life. That was so much writing on the page. This is the world I'm sending my children into (which depresses me more than anything). I find I have no particular faith that, in the worst of times, the best of things will happen.
Now, at least, the media is talking about the Great Depression and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fireside chats, and the like. Even Barack Obama did so the other day in an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson. But, of course, the Great Depression brought Hitler as well as Roosevelt to power. And if people are disturbed by the anger, the threats, the rage exhibited recently at McCain/Palin rallies, then hold your hats as things turn truly grim. So I sit here and worry. And I know I'm not alone.
In these last days, I've thought some about my parents, about their whole generation which lived through the Great Depression, those fathers and mothers who had a"depression mentality" for which we, the young growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, had no patience, and about which we had next to no curiosity whatsoever. I sure didn't anyway. That was so past. Despite the good times, they feared otherwise.
It's unnerving when history becomes yours, when no one can tell you where the bottom is, or what life will be like after that bottom is reached. It's one of those moments when you discover why overused phrases -- I think here, for instance, of"through a glass darkly" -- were overused in the first place.
What a grim Alice-in-Wonderland feeling this turns out to be -- in which the world simultaneously seems to shrink to you and expand to take in everything. Maybe this was what it felt like in parts of Asia as the great meltdown of 1997 began, or in Argentina as national bankruptcy hit in 2001. I wouldn't know. Those were distant tsunamis to which we were immune. It was Washington then that dispatched the International Monetary Fund to other countries in such crises to"impose discipline." Now, ominously, the IMF (and the World Bank) are imposingly back in Washington -- and not for a night on the town either.
The Invisible Ruins
I'm a New Yorker and, soon after September 11, 2001, my daughter and I took the subway downtown to see the damage for ourselves. The jets had been screaming overhead the preceding days, and that acrid smell from the collapse of the towers had drifted up the island. But walking in that area, which wasn't yet known as Ground Zero, glimpsing down blocked-off side streets those humongous shards of the World Trade Center, that was staggering. The indescribable scale of destruction was something the small screen simply couldn't transmit. Within a few minutes, still blocks away, our throats were already raw and we were hacking and coughing.
As for so many people then, life brought films to my mind. In my case, those giant shards conjured up, as I've written elsewhere, the final scene of the original Planet of the Apes -- that unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty atilt and half-buried in the sands of time as the two humans escape down the beach on horseback.
And yet in September 2001, the real damage was largely confined to a number of square blocks of downtown Manhattan, including the shut-down Stock Exchange on Wall Street, as well as part of a single building in Washington DC and a field in Pennsylvania. This, we were told, was"the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century." And soon enough, with a helping hand from the Bush administration, Americans from Akron to El Paso were officially -- and mistakenly -- terrified for their lives and for their country. In the next seven years, the Bush administration managed to turn that misplaced fear into something like prophecy and bring down the house.
Today, on a visit to lower Manhattan, there would be no smoldering fires, no smoke, no raw throats, no gaping holes, no smashed buildings, no ruins, and yet, as you walked those streets, you would almost certainly be strolling among the ruins, amid the shards of American financial, political, and even military superpowerdom. Think of it as Bush's hubris and bin Laden's revenge. You would be facing the results, however unseen, of the real 9/11, which is still taking place in relative slow motion seven years later. It should scare us all.
Hey, I'm depressed, aren't you?
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 22:30
SOURCE: http://balkin.blogspot.com (10-9-08)
David Savage of the L.A. Times asked me to list the worst Supreme Court decisions of the past fifty years-- dating back to 1958. It's hard to say what makes a decision bad. It could be an incorrect reading of precedent, a mangling of history, or a failure to exercise judgment and understand the long-term consequences of a decision. In any case, here is a list of five decisions that I think, for various reasons, are the worst of the past half-century, and why I think they were bad.
1. Clinton v. Jones (1997). Clinton v. Jones held that sitting Presidents may not delay civil litigation directed against them during their term in office. Clinton v. Jones badly misjudged how a president's political opponents could use the civil justice system to create scandals and bog down a presidency, thus effectively hijacking most of Clinton's second term. I am pretty certain that if the Justices had a do-over, Clinton v. Jones would have come out the other way.
2. Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). Bowers held that states could imprison homosexuals for having sex with their partners and it facilitated many different forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians. It is one of the worst civil rights decisions since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which gave the Supreme Court's blessing to Jim Crow.
3. Bush v. Gore (2000). Bush v. Gore was a self-inflicted wound that made the Court appear overtly partisan. It compounded this problem by suggesting that the new rule it announced would probably never apply to any future case. By intervening in an election dispute that would have been resolved by Congress without its help, the Court made itself partially responsible for the debacle of the last eight years.
4. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973). This decision is not well known but had important long term effects. It held that education is not a fundamental right and effectively announced the end of constitutional protections for the poor. It shifted the focus of constitutional reform of public education from class and race to just race, which proved to be a dead end. Moreover, it helped divorce the question of racial integration from issues of school quality and equal educational opportunity, which, along with shifting demographics and housing patterns, made racial integration increasingly irrelevant to the problems of inner city schools. The next year, the Supreme Court decided Miliken v. Bradley (1974), which relieved suburban school districts of most of their obligations to work with inner city school districts to integrate schools and share burdens. Together, Rodriguez and Miliken made Brown v. Board of Education practically irrelevant, with the result that our public schools today are once again heavily segregated by race. If any two cases can be said to have "overruled" Brown in practice, it would be the deadly duo of Rodriguez and Milliken.
5. United States v. Miller (1976). Another little known decision with important ramifications, Miller held that when a person reveals information about themselves to a third party, they waive all their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. This decision makes the Fourth Amendment increasingly irrelevant in an information age where people must share personal information-- including health and financial data-- with others all the time. As the Internet has made privacy a central civil liberties concern, Miller made the Constitution's central guarantee of privacy largely ineffective in the digital age.
No doubt one could extend the list. Obviously, your list of worst decisions will depend heavily on your views about constitutional interpretation as well as your politics. People who oppose abortion rights would certainly list Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood as among the worst decisions of all time, much less the past 50 years. Probably Kelo v. New London will top many people's lists, although I think that whether Kelo is correct or not, it prove to have fewer bad consequences than many people have feared, largely because public pressure will lead state and local governments to impose new limits on takings practices.
Sometimes it is difficult to know how bad a decision is until many years later. There are many cases that, when they originally came down, I thought were very bad indeed. However, years later, even though the reasoning remains bad, the Court effectively distinguished or confined them, or their bad effects were limited. Chou En Lai once said of the French Revolution that it is too soon to tell whether it was a success. The same can be said, in reverse, for whether a Supreme Court decision is a disaster.
If I wanted to make a list solely of bad interpretations of the Constitution of the past fifty years, the list would be much longer. Here I limit myself to bad interpretations that also had pernicious consequences-- where the Supreme Court not only made really bad constitutional arguments but was willfully blind to the consequences of what it was doing.
Bowers v. Hardwick is a little different: I had little doubt when it was decided in 1986 that eventually the case would be reversed or made irrelevant by legislation, although during the 17 years it was on the books it had very bad consequences for gays and lesbians. But Bowers seemed remarkably homophobic-- the Court went out of its way to rewrite the Georgia statute so that it concerned only homosexuals so that it could avoid addressing the rather embarrassing fact that the statute banned sexual conduct by gays and straights alike. And the opinion was such a slap in the face to gays-- at one point Justice White labels their claims facetious-- that I thought it was really unworthy of the Court, and therefore belongs in the class of worst decisions.
As you will see from my list, some of these are cases where the Court intervened when it should have stayed out, and some are cases where the Court left an issue up the political process where it should not (Kelo, by the way, falls in that category, if you think it is one of the worst.). The idea of good or bad judging is really orthogonal to the hackneyed debates over judicial activism and judicial restraint. If a constitutional right should be protected, courts shouldn't refuse to protect it.
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 18:17
SOURCE: CNN (10-13-08)
PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- There is a big question that hangs over this presidential campaign: Will a majority of voters give their support to the presidential candidate who is the intellectual in the contest?
Barack Obama has all the credentials of the famous "pointy-headed" intellectuals in the Democratic Party who have traditionally gone down to defeat.
He has degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, he taught at the University of Chicago, and, yes, he even wrote his own books. In speeches and debates, he has bombarded voters with detailed arguments about public policy. When his character is attacked, his instinct is to respond with facts and figures.
It is extremely surprising that Obama has this done this well given his intellectual persona. Anti-intellectualism, as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted, has been a tradition in American history.
Since World War II, Republicans have been very successful at making Democrats who appear too intellectual the subject of derision, symbols of how liberals are out of touch with average Americans and lack the passion needed for leadership.
In the 1952 presidential election, Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, unleashed a vicious attack on Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who had received degrees from Princeton and Northwestern Law School, for being an "egghead" too closely associated with the university class rather than the working class.
Nixon linked softness on Communism with intellectualism, saying that "Adlai the Appeaser . . . got a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."
The anti-intellectual argument continued to be a powerful tool for conservatives. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan mocked Jimmy Carter as a president who could not lead in part because he became so bogged down by the details and facts that he could not see his way out of economic and foreign crises.
In their famous 1980 debate, Reagan responded to Carter's scholarly recitation of the problems in the health care system and of Reagan's opposition to Medicare, by smiling, laughing, and just saying, "There you go again."
Vice President George H.W. Bush used this line of attack against Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was extremely intelligent and comfortable with the complicated policy issues. He also was advised by some of the brightest minds in the academic world....
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 17:47
SOURCE: Real Clear Politics (10-13-08)
On CNN last evening both David Gergen and Ed Rollins echoed the current mantra that the "old" noble McCain is gone-and a "new" nastier one has emerged, largely because of his attacks on Ayers, perhaps his planned future ads on Wright, and a few unhinged people shouting at his campaign stops.
Recently Christopher Buckley endorsed Obama, likewise lamenting the loss of the old noble McCain. New York Times columnist David Brooks dubbed Palin a "cancer," and he suggested that Obama's instant recall of Niehbuhr sent a tingle up his leg as Obama once did to Chris Matthews as well.
A couple of thoughts: the George Bush, Sr. / Willie Horton campaign was far tougher; so were the Bush 2000/2004 efforts. If anything, McCain's campaign is subdued in comparison to what we've seen on both sides in past years. Indeed, McCain as a vicious campaigner is a complete fabrication, but, again, a brilliant subterfuge on the part of Team Obama that, in fact, has run, via appendages, the far more vicious race.
Obama and his surrogates have repeatedly engaged in racial politics (as Bill Clinton lamented when in fury he denounced the "race card"). When there was never evidence that McCain was using race as a wedge issue, it was clear Obama most surely was--preemptively, on at least two occasions--warning Americans he would soon be the victim of opposition racial stereotyping.
His surrogates like Biden and those in the Senate continue to link legitimate worries about Obama's past with racism. Second, for about 3 months all we've heard are references to McCain's age, with adjectives and phrases like confused, can't remember any more, disturbed, lost his bearings, etc.
Moreover, so far, McCain supporters have not broken into Biden's email, or accused Biden of being a Nazi, or accused anyone of not bearing one of their own children, or photo-shopped grotesque pictures of Obama on the Internet (as in the Atlantic magazine case). I don't think deranged McCain supporters in Hollywood or television almost daily are quoted as damning Obama in unusually crude terms. Nor are white racist ministers calling McCain a 'messiah' or McCain operatives fraudulently swarming voter registration centers. And on and on....
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 17:41
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (10-10-08)
Perhaps just as bad for the long-term future of the Republican Party the McCain-Palin campaign has adopted a new vicious tone. This harkens back to previous campaigns, when we have seen Republicans embrace a strategy rooted in Cold War conservative attacks by Republicans on Democrats for their alleged ties to communists.
This is in stark contrast to one of the most successful Republican campaigner in recent history- Ronald Reagan. He believed that to succeed, conservatives also need to sell a positive vision for America or they would suffer the fate of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The central conservative message, according to Reagan, had to revolve around what conservative policies could do to make America a better and stronger place. Reagan's rhetoric was framed in optimistic and positive terms.
While many Americans strongly disagreed with what Reagan said and he could be as tough as any politician, his insistence on counterbalancing his message with a positive outlook was essential to his victories. Jimmy Carter's pollster Patrick Caddell had noted early on how difficult it would be to turn Reagan into another Goldwater, given that his demeanor and language made him appealing to main street America. In contrast to Carter's pessimism in 1980, Reagan said that "the American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves." Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign featured an ad, "Morning in America," which provided an optimistic description of the American economy and local communities.
During the past week of the current campaign, desperate to reverse the falling polls, the Republicans have decided to take the low road and have rejected Reagan's formula for conservative success. Governor Palin has been giving speech after speech focusing on Barack Obama's relationship to a former member of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, to suggest that Obama has unexplained relations with "terrorists." Yesterday, McCain for the first time brought up the issue and today released an ad on the subject. "When convenient he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied," according to the television spot.
Recent postings on YouTube have captured extremely aggressive words coming from the people lined up to see McCain and Palin. Palin said nothing at one event when someone in the crowd, revved up by talks about terrorism, screamed out "Kill Him!"
The damage that Republicans are inflicting to the conservative movement could be severe, even if this causes some bounce at the polls for the GOP, which thus far it has not. Reagan understood that no party could build a strong coalition simply through hatred. If the current sounds and sights define how Americans think about the GOP, McCain could succeed in undoing what Reagan had accomplished for the party back in 1980.
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 10:01
SOURCE: National Review Online (10-10-08)
Wall Street melted down. The New York–Washington media elite went ballistic over vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Alaskan mom of five in near suicidal fashion was ordered by the campaign to put her head in the Charlie Gibson-Katie Couric guillotine. A trailing McCain — while sober and workmanlike in the first two debates — failed to close the ring and hammer the agile Obama as a charismatic charlatan.
The result is that with not much more than three weeks left in the campaign, a number of conservatives have all but accepted (if a few not eager for) an Obama victory. Others are angry at the McCain campaign’s supposed reluctance to go after Obama’s hyper-liberal, hyper-partisan Senate record, his dubious Chicago coterie, his serial flip-flops, and his inexperience. And how, most wonder, can McCain regain the lead lost three weeks ago, when the media has given up any pretense of disinterested coverage, time is growing ever more short, prominent conservatives such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, and Kathleen Parker have suggested Sarah Palin would be unfit to assume the presidency, and former Romney supporters are raising again their unease with the once again too moderate-sounding McCain?
Yet for all the gloom, there are several reasons why this race is by no means over.
First, it is not clear that panic, hysteria, and the “Great Depression” will continue to be the headlines and lead-ins each night for the next three weeks. We may be soon reaching a bottom in the stock market. Sometime in the next few days, wiser investors should see that trillions of global dollars are now piling up and could begin to prime the economy — and that still valuable stocks, for a brief period, are up for sale at once-in-a-lifetime bargains. With the sudden collapse of oil prices, the West has been given a staggering reprieve of hundreds of billions of dollars in savings on its imported fuel bills. That economy too will result in more liquidity at home. Given the shameless behavior of Wall Street, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it will be unlikely that we will revert soon to the Wild West speculation that had for the last six years transformed the once pedestrian notion of seeing a house as a home and refashioned it into either a politically correct entitlement or a Las Vegas poker chip to be thrown down on the roulette table.
It is still possible that, by the week before the election, there will be a sense of respite rather than continued anger and panic — and any day in which hysteria is not the topic of the day benefits McCain. In this regard, McCain must keep reminding in simple fashion that Freddie and Fannie were catalysts that drew in the Wall Street sharks: crooked officials cooked the books to get mega-bonuses; they got away with their crimes by lavishing money on mostly Democratic legislators (including Obama); and hand-in-glove they all covered — and still are covering — their tracks under a reprehensible politically correct cynicism....
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 09:55
SOURCE: LAT (10-11-08)
In answering Gwen Ifill's question about vice presidential powers at last week's debate, Joe Biden redirected attention to the still not very well known concept of the "unitary executive."
Biden charged that Dick Cheney had become "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history" because of his attempts to create a super-powerful unitary executive. Biden didn't take time to explain exactly what he meant, but it's an extremely important, poorly understood subject, and it's time to question the presidential candidates -- closely -- about it.
Plenty of presidents have worked to increase presidential power over the years, but the theory of the unitary executive, first proposed under President Reagan, has been expanded since then by every president, Democrat and Republican alike. Reagan's notion was that only a strong president would be able to dramatically limit big government. Perhaps drawing on a model for unitary corporate leadership in which the CEO also serves as chairman of the board, the so-called unitary executive promised undivided presidential control of the executive branch and its agencies, expanded unilateral powers and avowedly adversarial relations with Congress.
In the years that followed, Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society conservatives worked to provide a constitutional cover for this theory, producing thousands of pages in the 1990s claiming -- often erroneously and misleadingly -- that the framers themselves had intended this model for the office of the presidency.
Unitarians (for lack of a better word) want to expand the many existing uncheckable executive powers -- such as executive orders, decrees, memorandums, proclamations, national security directives and legislative signing statements -- that already allow presidents to enact a good deal of foreign and domestic policy without aid, interference or consent from Congress. Ardent proponents even insist that there are times when the president -- like a king -- should operate above the law.
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 09:45
SOURCE: Newsweek (10-20-08)
The election of 1980 had a more lasting effect. Republicans would be in the White House for five out of seven terms and control Congress for most of the time between 1994 and 2006. Conservative think tanks, intellectuals and media would help conservative ideas gain mainstream legitimacy.
So which election will 2008 be like? The answer will make a huge difference in terms of whether this is a temporary turn in an otherwise conservative era or we are possibly starting a new political period. We can see similarities between the condition of conservatism today and liberalism in the late '70s that lead to the conclusion that the political status quo is in jeopardy.
Failed leadership: In 1980, liberals were devastated after Jimmy Carter lost. Although he was a centrist, he still represented the Democratic brand and became a national symbol for why Washington needed new leadership. Today conservatives are in a similar position. George W. Bush will end his term with some of the lowest approval ratings in presidential history. Many Republicans are deeply dissatisfied with him. He's tarnished the brand name of the GOP in ways that are comparable to what Carter did in 1980. John McCain has defined his candidacy in opposition to the Washington establishment of Bush, even while defending many of his policies.
Opposition mobilized: Though historians once focused on the unrest on college campuses among longhaired hippies, the real story, we now know, was that during the 1960s and 1970s, conservative activists built organizational strength. Evangelical leaders in the Sun Belt developed institutions capable of raising money and bringing out the vote. Conservatives established new think tanks, as well as new media outlets like talk radio, to spread their ideas. When a candidate emerged in 1980 to tap into the strength of this movement, they were ready to go.
While liberals have not quite achieved the strength of the conservative mobilization, we have evidence that something new is underway. In response to the Bush administration and decades of feeling excluded, Democrats have created a strong grass-roots infrastructure, which was pivotal to Barack Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton. During the summer, the Obamaites devoted extensive resources to making sure this apparatus was ready for November. Liberals have also developed an extensive Netroots presence and established new think tanks and media outlets. Posts on Talking Points Memo have influenced nightly network-news coverage....
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 - 09:07
SOURCE: Times (UK) (10-12-08)
On the morning of Franklin D Roosevelt’s inauguration as US president on March 4, 1933, the governors of New York and Illinois closed their banks.
Roosevelt proclaimed a national bank holiday, which closed all the banks in the country until Congress could reconvene to pass banking legislation. The whole system appeared to have ground to a halt.
The following Sunday, he addressed the nation on the radio and explained how the banks were to be reopened on a phased basis. “Confidence and courage,” he told listeners, were the essentials of success in carrying out that plan. “It is better to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.”
Seldom has presidential rhetoric been put to the test so quickly. No one knew for sure which banks were sound. If FDR’s appeal failed and depositors withdrew their money, more banks would fail and there was no Plan B.
The next day, March 13, Americans put more money into the banks than they withdrew. In the next week most banks reopened. Even bankers were amazed.
Why did FDR succeed in his appeals, where today’s leaders have failed? He did not come into office with a plan to deal with the banking crisis. Officials dusted off old ideas and the key measure was to recapitalise the banks by government purchase of their stock. Similar measures are now in train in the 2008 crisis...
Posted on: Sunday, October 12, 2008 - 14:07
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-7-08)
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama called the forthcoming presidential election a"defining moment" in this country's history. It is conceivable that he is right. There are precedents in American history for an election inaugurating a period of reform and political realignment.
Such a development, however, is extremely rare and surrounded by contingencies normally beyond the control of the advocates of reform. So let me speculate about whether the 2008 election might set in motion a political reconfiguration -- and even a political renaissance -- in the United States, restoring a modicum of democracy to the country's political system, while ending our march toward imperialism, perpetual warfare, and bankruptcy that began with the Cold War.
The political blunders, serious mistakes, and governmental failures of the last eight years so discredited the administration of George W. Bush -- his average approval rating has fallen to 27% and some polls now show him dipping into the low twenties -- that his name was barely mentioned in the major speeches at the Republican convention. Even John McCain has chosen to run under the banner of"maverick" as a candidate of" change," despite the fact that his own party's misgoverning has elicited those demands for change.
Bringing the opposition party to power, however, is not in itself likely to restore the American republic to good working order. It is almost inconceivable that any president could stand up to the overwhelming pressures of the military-industrial complex, as well as the extra-constitutional powers of the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the entrenched interests they represent. The subversive influence of the imperial presidency (and vice presidency), the vast expansion of official secrecy and of the police and spying powers of the state, the institution of a second Defense Department in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, and the irrational commitments of American imperialism (761 active military bases in 151 foreign countries as of 2008) will not easily be rolled back by the normal workings of the political system.
For even a possibility of that occurring, the vote in November would have to result in a"realigning election," of which there have been only two during the past century -- the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and of Richard Nixon in 1968. Until 1932, the Republicans had controlled the presidency for 56 of the previous 72 years, beginning with Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. After 1932, the Democrats occupied the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.
The 1968 election saw the withdrawal of the candidacy of President Lyndon Johnson under the pressure of the Vietnam War, the defeat of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That election, based on Nixon's so-called southern strategy, led to a new political alignment nationally, favoring the Republicans. The essence of that realignment lay in the running of Republican racists for office in the old Confederate states where the Democrats had long been the party of choice. Before 1968, the Democrats had also been the majority party nationally, winning seven of the previous nine presidential elections. The Republicans won seven of the next ten between 1968 and 2004.
Of these two realigning elections, the Roosevelt election is certainly the more important for our moment, ushering in as it did one of the few truly democratic periods in American political history. In his new book, Democracy Incorporated, Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin suggests the following:"Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs."
However, the founders of this country and virtually all subsequent political leaders have been hostile to democracy in this sense. They favored checks and balances, republicanism, and rule by elites rather than rule by the common man or woman. Wolin writes,"The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. Democratic advance proved to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete.
"The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete: women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered."
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal introduced a brief period of approximate democracy. This ended with the U.S. entry into World War II, when the New Deal was replaced by a wartime economy based on munitions manufacture and the support of weapons producers. This development had a powerful effect on the American political psyche, since only war production ultimately overcame the conditions of the Great Depression and restored full employment. Ever since that time, the United States has experimented with maintaining a military economy and a civilian economy simultaneously. Over time, this has had the effect of misallocating vital resources away from investment and consumption, while sapping the country's international competitiveness.
Socioeconomic conditions in 2008 bear a certain resemblance to those of 1932, making a realigning election conceivable. Unemployment in 1932 was a record 33%. In the fall of 2008, the rate is a much lower 6.1%, but other severe economic pressures abound. These include massive mortgage foreclosures, bank and investment house failures, rapid inflation in the prices of food and fuel, the failure of the health care system to deliver service to all citizens, a growing global-warming environmental catastrophe due to the over-consumption of fossil fuels, continuing costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more on the horizon due to foreign policy failures (in Georgia, Ukraine, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere), and record-setting budgetary and trade deficits.
The question is: Can the electorate be mobilized, as in 1932, and will this indeed lead to a realigning election? The answer to neither question is an unambiguous yes.
The Race Factor
Even to contemplate that happening, of course, the Democratic Party first has to win the election -- and in smashing style -- and it faces two formidable obstacles to doing so: race and regionalism.
Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not telling the truth -- either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queen's College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject, starting with the phenomenon known as the"Bradley Effect."
The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles, who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points, but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That's the potential Bradley effect.
Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical purposes, means either a driver's license or a passport. Many states drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate procedures for those who have been in prison -- where, Hacker points out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one -- to be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require heroic organizational efforts.
The Regional Factor
Regionalism is the other obvious obstacle standing in the way of attempts to mobilize the electorate on a national basis for a turning-point election. In their book, Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics, the political scientists Earl and Merle Black argue that the U.S. electorate is hopelessly split. This division, which has become more entrenched with each passing year, is fundamentally ideological, but it is also rooted in ethnicity and manifests itself in an intense and never-ending partisanship."In modern American politics," they write,"a Republican Party dominated by white Protestants faces a Democratic Party in which minorities plus non-Christian whites far outnumber white Protestants."
Another difference on the rise involves gender imbalance. In the 1950s, the Democratic Party, then by far the larger of the two parties, was evenly balanced between women and men. Fifty years later, a smaller but still potent Democratic Party contained far more women than men (60% to 40%)."In contrast, the Republican Party has shifted from an institution with more women than men in the 1950s (55% to 45%) to one in which men and women were as evenly balanced in 2004 as Democrats were in the 1950s."
Now, add in regionalism, specifically the old American antagonism between the two sides in the Civil War. That once meant southern Democrats versus northern Republicans. By the twenty-first century, however, that binary division had given way to something more complex --"a new American regionalism, a pattern of conflict in which Democrats and Republicans each possess two regional strongholds and in which the Midwest, as the swing region, holds the balance of power in presidential elections."
The five regions Earl and Merle Black identify -- each becoming more partisan and less characteristic of the nation as a whole -- are the Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains/Plains, and Pacific Coast. The Northeast, although declining slightly in population, has become unambiguously liberal Democratic. It is composed of New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont), the Middle Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania), and the District of Columbia. It is the primary Democratic stronghold.
The South is today a Republican stronghold made up of the eleven former Confederate states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). A second Republican stronghold, displaying an intense and growing partisanship, is the Mountains/Plains region, composed of the 13 states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
A second Democratic stronghold is the Pacific Coast, which includes the nation's most populous state, California, joined by Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The Midwest, where national elections are won or lost by the party able to hold onto, and mobilize, its strongholds, is composed of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The two most important swing states in the nation are Florida (27 electoral votes) and Ohio (20 electoral votes), which the Democrats narrowly lost, generally under contested circumstances, in both 2000 and 2004.
These five regions are today entrenched in the nation's psyche. Normally, they ensure very narrow victories by one party or another in national elections. There is no way to get around them, barring a clear and unmistakable performance failure by one of the parties -- as happened to the Republicans during the Great Depression and may be happening again.
Why This Might Still Be a Turning-Point Election
Beyond these negatives, in 2008 there have been a number of developments that speak to the possibility of a turning-point election. First, the weakness (and age) of the Republican candidate may perhaps indicate that the Party itself is truly at the end of a forty-year cycle of power. Second, of course, is the meltdown, even possibly implosion, of the U.S. economy on the Republican watch (specifically, on that of George W. Bush, the least popular President in memory, as measured by recent opinion polls). This has put states in the Midwest and elsewhere that Bush took in 2000 and 2004 into play.
Third, there has been a noticeable trend in shifting party affiliations in which the Democrats are gaining membership as the Republicans are losing it, especially in key battleground states like Pennsylvania where, in 2008 alone, 474,000 new names have gone on the Democratic rolls, according to the Washington Post, even as the Republicans have lost 38,000. Overall, since 2006, the Democrats have gained at least two million new members, while the Republicans have lost 344,000. According to the Gallup organization, self-identified Democrats outnumbered self-identified Republicans by a 37% to 28% margin this June, a gap which may only be widening.
Fourth, there is the possibility of a flood of new, especially young, first-time voters, who either screen calls or live on cell phones, not landlines, and so are being under-measured by pollsters, as black voters may also be in this election. (However, when it comes to the young vote, which has been ballyhooed in a number of recent elections without turning out to be significant on Election Day, we must be cautious.) And fifth, an influx of new Democratic voters in states like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico threatens, in this election at least, to dent somewhat the normal regional loyalty patterns described by Earl and Merle Black.
Above all, two main issues will determine whether or not the November election will be a realigning one. Republican Party failures in managing the economy, in involving the country in catastrophic wars of choice, and in ignoring such paramount issues as global warming all dictate a Democratic victory. Militating against that outcome is racist hostility, conscious or otherwise, toward the Democratic Party's candidate as well as deep-seated regional loyalties. While the crisis caused by the performance failures of the incumbent party seems to guarantee a realigning election favoring the Democrats, it is simply impossible to determine the degree to which race and regionalism may sway voters. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
Posted on: Saturday, October 11, 2008 - 23:15
SOURCE: Truthout.org (10-7-08)
John McCain’s personal account of his life has shaped a powerful political narrative that accords him deference on the full range of policy issues. His first effort at shaping that narrative received a remarkable boost when the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report gave him space for what is perhaps the longest article the magazine had ever run, a 12,000-word piece composed entirely of his unedited and often rambling account of his prisoner-of-war experience. Ever since, McCain has added compelling details at key points in his political career. When his stories are placed beside documented evidence from other sources, significant contradictions often emerge. One such case involves McCain’s experience in the devastating fire and explosions that killed 134 sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War three months before he was shot down over North Vietnam. McCain has made claims about this accident that differ dramatically from parts of the official Navy report and accounts of reliable eyewitnesses.
In considering the 1967 catastrophe, it is important to note that the official report concluded that no individual bore responsibility for the fire or its spread. There are a number of conflicting accounts of the Forrestal accident, but here is the story as based on the strongest sources. The fire started at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, July 29, 1967, as 30-year-old Lt. Cmdr. John McCain sat on the port side of the Forrestal in his A-4 Skyhawk going through preflight checks. To his right was Lt. Cmdr. Fred White, also in an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. A Zuni rocket on another airplane accidentally fired and flew across the flight deck, passing through White’s auxiliary fuel tank and falling into the ocean. Fuel spilled onto the deck from White’s craft and ignited. McCain told his biographer, Robert Timberg, and repeats in his own book, “Faith of My Fathers,” that the rocket hit his own plane and knocked two bombs from it into the burning fuel as he scrambled out of his cockpit and raced to safety across the deck.1
There was, in fact, a single bomb—not two—that dropped to the deck. It exploded 90 seconds after the fire broke out, intensifying the blaze until it raged out of control. White and Thomas Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger, were among the first to be killed instantly or mortally injured, along with most of the firefighting crew. McCain’s plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, was one of those who suffered fatal wounds at this point.
A camera on the deck recorded images showing that the Zuni rocket struck White’s plane. The Navy report later attributed the dropped bomb to White’s plane, although the film footage does not seem to establish this definitively. However, McCain has said many times that the Zuni rocket caused the bomb (two bombs in McCain’s version) to fall from his own craft.
Some of those who were on the Forrestal and other persons familiar with the ordnance told me that because the rocket did not hit McCain’s craft, only actions by the pilot could have caused any bomb to fall from McCain’s Skyhawk. These sources—who spoke under the condition that they not be publicly identified—agree with each other that, if any bomb fell from the McCain airplane, it was because of actions that he took either in error or panic upon seeing the fire on the deck or in his hasty exit from the plane. Two switches in the cockpit of a Skyhawk need to be thrown to drop such a bomb, according to the sources.
Whatever the circumstances of the fire’s origins, McCain did not stay on deck to help fight the blaze as the men around him did. With the firefighting crew virtually wiped out, men untrained in fighting fires had to pick up the fire hoses, rescue the wounded or frantically throw bombs and even planes over the ship’s side to prevent further tragedy. McCain left them behind and went down to the hangar-bay level, where he briefly helped crew members heave some bombs overboard. After that, he went to the pilot’s ready room and watched the fire on a television monitor hooked to a camera trained on the deck.
McCain has never been asked to explain why he claims that the Zuni rocket struck his plane. If a bomb or bombs subsequently fell from McCain’s plane as he has said, it seems to strongly suggests pilot error, and if a bomb or bombs did not fall from his plane, it suggests rash disregard for important facts in his accounts of the accident.
There is plenty more about this story that raises questions about McCain’s truthfulness and judgment. In the first hours after the fire, he apparently did not claim to have been injured. New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, who helicoptered out to the ship the day after the tragedy and sought out McCain as the “son and grandson of two noted admirals,” never mentioned him being wounded, although he reported on him more than on any other crew member. This would be an odd omission on Apple’s part if McCain indeed had been wounded, given that service wounds are usually highlighted in such reports during wartime. McCain’s own father, after seeing his son several weeks later, sent a letter to relatives and friends about the fire saying, “Happily for all of us, he [John] came through without a scratch.”2
A week after the fire, McCain made a statement in which he said that when he was on the hangar deck he noticed that he had a wound on his knee and small shrapnel cuts in his thigh and shoulder. He was not treated in sick bay, however, and he tells a story in “Faith of My Fathers” that seems to be at variance with the facts. He writes that he went to sick bay to have his wounds treated but when he got there, a “kid” who was “anonymous to me because the fire had burned off all of his identifying features” asked him if another pilot in the squadron was OK. When McCain replied that he was, the “kid” said “Thank God” and died before McCain’s eyes. McCain said that experience left him “unable to keep my composure,” and that is why he left sick bay without being treated.
Lt. j.g. Dave Dollarhide witnessed that encounter because he was in sick bay, having broken his hip escaping from his plane, which had been immediately to the left of McCain’s when the blaze started. Dollarhide knew McCain and also the “kid,” a young man whom McCain knew well because he was his own plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, who was terribly burned when the first bomb exploded on the ship. Notwithstanding McCain’s dramatic account of witnessing someone die before his eyes, Zwerlein did not die then but instead was evacuated to the hospital ship USS Repose, where he expired three days later. On the basis of Dollarhide’s account, if McCain left sick bay without being treated it was not because someone died before his eyes.3
McCain’s actions after the fire show a determination to exit the ship as quickly as possible. When New York Times reporter Apple finished gathering his notes on the fire, McCain boarded a helicopter with him and flew to Saigon. Given that fires still burned on the ship and some of his fellow airmen were gravely wounded and dying, McCain’s assertion that he left the carrier for “some welcome R&R” in Saigon has a surreal air. Apple, now dead, said nothing in his news reports about inviting McCain to leave the ship, although he did report talking to him in Saigon later that day. McCain does not mention receiving permission to leave the still-burning ship. Merv Rowland, a commander and chief engineering officer of the Forrestal at the time of the fire, told me that he had not known that McCain left the ship within 30 hours of the fire and that he found this “extraordinary.” Rowland added that only the severely wounded were allowed to leave the ship and that no one, as far as he knew, would have been given permission to fly to Saigon for R&R. McCain’s quick flight off the Forrestal meant that he missed the memorial service for his dead comrades held the following day in the South China Sea.
Not long after McCain left, the Forrestal set off without him on its somber voyage to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where it would undergo initial repairs. He rejoined the ship a week later when it was docked at Subic Bay. There he gave an official statement and asked for a transfer to the aircraft carrier Oriskany.
Apple filed two stories about McCain’s time in Saigon. Apple’s first story said: “Today, hours after the fire that ravaged the flight deck and killed so many of his fellow crewmen, commander McCain sat in Saigon and shook his head. ‘It was such a great ship,’ he said.”4 Apple’s second story was filed three months later, just after McCain was shot down over Hanoi. In that story Apple wrote: “It was almost three months ago that the young, prematurely gray Navy pilot was sitting in a villa in Saigon, sipping a Scotch with friends and recalling the holocaust that he had managed to live through. He was John Sydney [sic—spelling is Sidney] McCain, 3rd, a lieutenant commander. The day before, he had watched from the cockpit of his Skyhawk attack plane as flames suddenly engulfed the flight deck of the Forrestal, on which his squadron was based. ‘It’s a difficult thing to say,’ he remarked after a long time. ‘But now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.’ ”5
The record suggests that after McCain left the burning Forrestal for the greater ease of Saigon, he saw his Navy career as being in jeopardy. Soon, he went to London, where his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., was stationed as commander in chief of the United States Naval Forces in Europe. Sen. McCain has written little about the fire, and his book does not mention any conversations with his father about bombs dropping from his plane on the Forrestal or his leaving the ship. However, it is difficult to imagine that he did not discuss the tragedy and his own personal difficulties because, by McCain’s own account, his father had intervened on his behalf before. After seeing the admiral in London, McCain went to the French Riviera, where he spent his nights gambling at the Palm Beach Casino.6
McCain’s book skips over the weeks after the Forrestal fire, but Timberg says that the young naval officer spent the months of August and September 1967 “unsure of his status.” Following McCain’s application for a transfer to the Oriskany, his orders were delayed, and in September he returned to his home in Jacksonville, Fla. There, an old friend, Chuck Larson, saw a change in McCain: The pilot was discouraged about his future. McCain confided to Larson that he might have to get out of the Navy because, in the words of the Timberg biography, “his past had become a burden” and “whenever he joined a new outfit he was dismayed that his reputation for mayhem had preceded him.”7 Aside from any questions about his Forrestal actions, McCain had, in his short Navy career, crashed two planes and flown a third into power lines in Spain because of, as he put it, “daredevil clowning.”8
The investigation into the Forrestal fire was in the hands of Adm. Thomas Moorer, chief of naval operations and a close friend of McCain’s father. (Their friendship was why Moorer would personally convey the news to Adm. Jack McCain three months later that his son had been shot down in Vietnam.) Moorer gave the investigation to Rear Adm. Forsyth Massey, who handed in his report on Sept. 19, 1967. McCain received orders to report to the Oriskany on Sept. 30.9
During the period when John McCain was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, less than a month after being assigned to the Oriskany, recent events—the Forrestal fire and his possible role in its growth, misgivings about “dropping more of that stuff” on Vietnam, his decision to leave the stricken ship for some “R&R” in Saigon, anxiety about his naval career—were fresh in his mind. What had been going on in McCain’s life may cast light on some of the decisions he made later as a prisoner of war. While he was a POW, he famously refused to be released early, electing not to leave his comrades behind.
After McCain made his first run for the presidency, in 2000, Gregory Freeman wrote a book on the fire, “Sailors to the End.” Freeman’s 2002 book appears to be mostly reliable, but it ignores key parts of the official report and hews closely to McCain’s claim that the Zuni rocket struck his plane, not Fred White’s, causing the two thousand-pound bombs to drop into the burning fuel.
In addition to following McCain’s misleading narrative of the Zuni rocket accident to the letter, Freeman published an uncredited hand-drawn sketch purporting to show the Forrestal deck just before the fire. In that sketch, the plane in which White died is stripped of White’s name, even though Freeman printed the names of the other pilots near McCain’s plane and told their stories. The only place that White’s name appears is at the back of the book in a list of those who died. In the narrative of “Sailors to the End,” Fred White’s name is conspicuous by its absence.
After erasing White, Freeman’s sketch presents an incorrect line between the original position of the Zuni rocket and McCain’s plane, instead of showing the actual line that the rocket took in striking White’s plane. This sketch alone will cause the unwary reader to believe there is visual evidence to support the claim that the Zuni rocket hit McCain’s plane, not that of White, the pilot lost on the Forrestal and now airbrushed out of history, at least in Freeman’s book.
McCain wrote a glowing blurb for Freeman’s book, drawing and all, calling it a “riveting account.” The presence of his enthusiastic blurb on the book cover raises another issue: Freeman relied heavily on interviews of survivors who were close to the Forrestal events but he never quotes McCain directly or mentions having requested an interview with him. Because his book pushes McCain’s misleading and unsubstantiated account, Freeman should make public whether McCain, or people around him, played a role in the genesis of “Sailors to the End.”
“I’m an old Navy pilot. I know when a crisis calls for all hands on deck,”10 Sen. McCain said recently in explaining why he was temporarily suspending his presidential campaign and calling for postponement of the first debate between himself and Democratic candidate Barack Obama, which eventually occurred as scheduled. At the one time in his life when he was faced with a real crisis on deck, we now know, McCain left the crisis to others and descended to safety below. As to the question of whether the first bomb to explode on the Forrestal dropped from his plane through pilot error, it is not reassuring to hear him describe his attitude as a Navy pilot toward safety procedures. He told reporters during his 2000 presidential campaign that his motto in those days was: “Kick the tires and light the fires [jet engines]. To hell with the checklist. Anybody can be slow.”11
McCain has gone much further than most veterans in using his military experiences for political purposes, but he has not allowed his military records to be released, save for the list of his awards and medals, all of which were given only after he became a prisoner of war. It is appropriate that he release those records before the election. If his actions contributed to the magnitude of the Forrestal disaster and if he left the burning ship under less than honorable circumstances, that information should be available to voters as they choose their next president. At the very least, John McCain should be asked to explain his actions in the summer of 1967 and tell American voters why he has repeatedly given a false account of Robert Zwerlein’s death.
1 John McCain with Mark Salter, “Faith of My Fathers,” 177-181; Robert Timberg, “John McCain: An American Odyssey,” 71-74.
2 R.W. Apple Jr., “Start of Tragedy: Pilot Hears a Blast As He Checks Plane” (New York Times, July 31, 1967) 1; McCain, 181.
3 James Caiella, “Hell 1051,” Foundation Magazine (fall 2003) 52.
4 Apple, ibid.
5 R.W. Apple Jr., “McCain’s Son, Forrestal Survivor, Is Missing in Raid” (New York Times, Oct. 28, 1967) 1.
6 Timberg, 75-76.
8 McCain, 155-156, 159, 172.
9 Ibid., 192, 182.
10“Prepared Remarks by John McCain to the Clinton Global Initiative,” Boston Globe, Sept. 25, 2008, online.
11Roger Simon, “Honest John, on the Loose: With McCain, you get the good, the bad, and the angry,” U.S. News & World Report, posted Sept. 19, 1999.
Posted on: Saturday, October 11, 2008 - 22:47
SOURCE: http://politicalaffairs.net (10-6-08)
Sarah Palin is attacking Barack Obama for "palling around with terrorists," twisting media accounts to falsely connect Obama with the Weather Underground figure Bill Ayers. Let me say that I have no sympathy, and never had, for the anarcho-syndicalist craziness and bona fide infantile leftism, that Ayers and his associates represented nearly 40 years ago, when Obama was in the 3rd grade.
By contrast, Sarah Palin has real and documented connections to the Alaska Independence Party, which is far more extremist than even the most far right of the Republican Party. The main platform of that party, as Alaska Independence Party leaders have stated, is a rejection of the United States and an effort to cause Alaska to leave the union. Given what this party represents today, Palin's ties to that party deserve to be an issue in the campaign.
Alaska Independence Party leaders have also claimed that Sarah Palin was a member before she was elected mayor of Wasilla, which the McCain campaign has denied. Officially, records show that Palin was a registered Republican since 1982, six years before she married her husband Todd, British Petroleum supervisory employee, self-employed fisherman, and snowmobile mobile racer.
The Director of the Alaska Division of Elections has stated that Todd Palin, however, was a registered member of the Alaska Independence Party from 1995 to 2002. Todd Palin, all sources agree, has played a significant role as a policy adviser to his wife's administration. There is significant disagreement about Sarah Palin's attendance at Alaska Independence Party conventions before she became mayor of Wasilla. She did visit their convention after she became mayor, however, which the McCain workers try to downplay as a mere courtesy call. As governor, she sent a video tape to the most recent 2008 convention telling the delegates to "keep up the good work" and calling their convention "inspiring."
Keep up the good work of campaigning for a secession referendum from the US? While mainstream media has portrayed this party as "fringe" and extremist, it is the third leading party in Alaska (albeit a small one in a small state) and has the kind of history which has led to separatist wars in other places like Chechnya, where groups considered lunatic fringe, have taken advantage of economic and other crises to sow hatred and division and violence.
It is also an extreme right-wing party whose leaders in recent years have broken from the Republicans because they see the Bush-Cheney Republicans as "too liberal." Its present leaders have both praised Sarah Palin and denounced John McCain.
Here is a little history on the Alaska Independence Party. The Party was founded by an ultra-rightist gold miner, Joe Vogler in the 1970s with an "anti-American" platform. Palin has denounced those abroad in oil rich countries who "hate America." Joe Vogler hated America. He said in the 1970s, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I have no use for America or her damned institutions."
Later Vogler said that "the fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred of the US government. And I won't be buried under their damn flag....when Alaska is an independent nation they can bring my bones home." He said this in an oral history interview at the University of Alaska in 1991, at which time Bill Ayers had rejected his own past and had become respectable. Two years later Vogler disappeared. A criminal subsequently confessed to murdering him in a conflict over the sale of plastic explosives (which may suggest terrorism).
The Alaska Independence Party, which today favors a referendum on whether Alaska should become an independent country, a commonwealth like Puerto Rico, a state (they have never recognized the legitimacy of Alaskan statehood), or go back to its old territorial status, still pushes an agenda to the right of the present Republican Party.
In 1992, the party ran Howard Phillips for president. Phillips, a long-time ultra-right Republican from Massachusetts, had involved himself primarily in Cold War issues, particularly supporting terrorist guerrilla movements in Latin America and Africa. He was also a major organizational figure in bringing together secular and religious rightists in the 1970s, a founder of the ultra-right US Taxpayers Party (later the Constitution Party), and other extreme right-wing groups. He broke with the Republican Party in the 1970s from the far right.
In 2004, the Alaska Independence Party endorsed a Phillips protegee Michael Peroutka for president on a "Christian heritage platform," supporting an end to federal aid to education and opposition to most federal policies as a matter of principle.
The Alaska Independence Party is currently supporting Reverend Charles Baldwin, a right-wing minister and protege of the late Jerry Fallwell. Baldwin broke with Fallwell and the Republicans in 2000, however, because he considered the Bush-Cheney ticket too far to the left. Baldwin has regularly attacked Bush from the far right, was Peroutka's Vice Presidential running mate in 2004 and, according to press sources, believes in a wide variety of conspiracies (as do many Alaska Independence Party members) popular among militia groups concerning the "New World Order."
Right-wing militia groups at war with the US government spouting philosophies not unlike those of the Alaska Independence Party (which has so far not advocated an armed uprising against the US government) still exist. The Oklahoma City bombing is just one example of terrorism committed by far-right extremists similar in philosophy to the Alaska Independence Party.
Todd Palin continued an official membership in the Alaska Independence Party until 2002, more than 30 years after the Weather Underground went out of existence and Barack Obama was a child. When Todd Palin was a member the Alaska Independence Party, Sarah Palin was the mother of his children. Sarah Palin, as Alaska's governor, told the Alaska Independence Party to "keep up the good work" as they were about to nominate conspiracy buff Charles Baldwin for president.
The Alaska Independence Party has a history which it has not repudiated and a commitment to policies that would be considered "anti-American" across the political spectrum, policies that have produced separatist wars in many parts of the world. Americans deserve to know if Sarah Palin still agrees with that party's views, and even if she wants to be an American rather than an Alaskan citzen.
Posted on: Saturday, October 11, 2008 - 22:15
SOURCE: http://madmanofchu.blogspot.com (10-11-08)
The decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage is a welcome step forward in the struggle to advance the cause of American civil rights. Though it has already (and predictably) been attended by conservative complaints about"legislation from the bench," the decision is in the best tradition of constitutional jurisprudence and faithful to our nation's most basic values. This was noted most forcefully by historian Joseph Ellis (New York Times, February 29, 2004) in the wake of a parallel verdict by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Of the principles encoded in that state's constitution by its author, John Adams, Ellis wrote:
[L]ike Jefferson's more famous formulation of the same message, Adams framed the status of individual rights in absolute and universal terms. Certain personal freedoms were thereby rendered nonnegotiable, and any restrictions on those freedoms were placed on the permanent defensive. At the very birth of the republic, in effect, an open-ended mandate for individual rights was inscribed into the DNA of the body politic, with implications that such rights would expand gradually over time.
In 1848, for example, the women at Seneca Falls cited Jefferson's magic words to demand political equality for all female citizens. In 1863 Lincoln referred to the same words at Gettysburg to justify the Civil War as a crusade, not just to preserve the Union, but also to end slavery. In 1963 Martin Luther King harked back to the promissory note written by Jefferson to claim civil rights for blacks. Now the meaning of the mandate has expanded again, this time to include gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry. With all the advantages of hindsight, it now seems wholly predictable that America's long argument would reach this new stage of inclusiveness.
In Ellis' formulation, the recognition of same-sex marriage rights is an organic development of the intrinsic evolutionary trajectory of our ongoing American Revolution. This assertion finds corroboration in the work of Gordon S. Wood, who wrote in his masterful The Radicalism of the American Revolution:The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society-kinship, patriarchy, and patronage-and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. (page 229)
The radicalism of the American Revolution was to celebrate and give priority to all forms of self-definition and social station rooted in personal autonomy and freedom of choice. Institutions that kept the individual locked into hierarchical structures beyond his or her control-the monarchy, the nobility, the established church-were rejected in favor of liberal safeguards that empowered people to determine their own place in the community and the world. Among the institutions most impacted by these revolutionary currents was the family. Membership in one's natal family was not a matter of personal choice, and thus not only did family ancestry diminish in importance in the revolutionary American society, but a whole series of systemic reforms were embraced that decreased the power of the family over the individual. Consequently, marriage increased in importance as a foundation of one's social and civic identity. Marriage is the only kinship relation that is truly elective, thus marriage has evolved in American law and politics as the paramount familial bond- surpassing all others in intimacy and legal cogency. No U.S. official or institution would allow two spouses to be kept apart by their parents or siblings, for this would be to privilege an involuntary relationship over one forged by a couple's own free will.
Conservative critics typically complain that the legalization of same-sex marriage will"alter" the age-old definition of marriage that has remained unchanged for eons. This is pure fallacy, however. Marriage has been evolving profoundly and constantly within our society and as a result of our republican Revolution. The very fact that the marriage bond in America is first and foremost forged by each spouse's declaration of intent (the fabled words"I do"), and that it can be undone by a reversal of that same intent (among the earliest developments in American family law was a liberalization of the institution of divorce) marks a radical break with the manner in which marriage operated as an institution for most of human history. This principle, moreover, has not been a constant in American history, but has evolved by stages and degrees as our republic has developed. As recently as 1993 spousal rape was not considered a prosecutable crime in many states, a vestige of the old, illiberal doctrine that marriage was a bond rooted in procreational biology rather than mutual affection and consent. The recognition of the rights of same-sex couples to enter the marital bond embodies the same imperative that has impelled the evolution of American marriage as an institution throughout the nation's history: the preservation of individual dignity and personal autonomy (in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the right to"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness").
The most recent decision in Connecticut is a progressive unfolding of this imperative, but it will no doubt engender vehement resistance. Unfortunately, this year's Democratic presidential candidates are committed to the shopworn triangulation that opposes same-sex marriage but embraces" civil unions." At this late hour it is unrealistic to expect Barack Obama and Joe Biden to flip-flop on this issue, and economic issues so overwhelm the discourse of this electoral cycle that consideration of same-sex marriage is not likely to achieve much traction. Political tidal forces are bringing this issue to a head, however, and it will not long be possible for politicians on either side of the aisle to prevaricate. It can only be hoped that Democrats will stop running from their political convictions in this regard, and will embrace the position that clearly occupies the downhill slope of history: that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and one that should be safeguarded for all citizens throughout our American Union.
Posted on: Saturday, October 11, 2008 - 21:20
SOURCE: WSJ (10-10-08)
We are now in the midst of a major financial panic. This is not a unique occurrence in American history. Indeed, we've had one roughly every 20 years: in 1819, 1836, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929, 1987 and now 2008. Many of these marked the beginning of an extended period of economic depression.
How could the richest and most productive economy the world has ever known have a financial system so prone to periodic and catastrophic break down? One answer is the baleful influence of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, to be sure, was a genius and fully deserves his place on Mt. Rushmore. But he was also a quintessential intellectual who was often insulated from the real world. He hated commerce, he hated speculators, he hated the grubby business of getting and spending (except his own spending, of course, which eventually bankrupted him). Most of all, he hated banks, the symbol for him of concentrated economic power. Because he was the founder of an enduring political movement, his influence has been strongly felt to the present day.
Consider central banking. A central bank's most important jobs are to guard the money supply -- regulating the economy thereby -- and to act as a lender of last resort to regular banks in times of financial distress. Central banks are, by their nature, very large and powerful institutions. They need to be to be effective.
Jefferson's chief political rival, Alexander Hamilton, had grown up almost literally in a counting house, in the West Indian island of St. Croix, managing the place by the time he was in his middle teens. He had a profound and practical understanding of markets and how they work, an understanding that Jefferson, born a landed aristocrat who lived off the labor of slaves, utterly lacked.
Hamilton wanted to establish a central bank modeled on the Bank of England. The government would own 20% of the stock, have two seats on the board, and the right to inspect the books at any time. But, like the Bank of England then, it would otherwise be owned by its stockholders.
To Jefferson, who may not have understood the concept of central banking, Hamilton's idea was what today might be called "a giveaway to the rich." He fought it tooth and nail, but Hamilton won the battle and the Bank of the United States was established in 1792. It was a big success and its stockholders did very well. It also provided the country with a regular money supply with its own banknotes, and a coherent, disciplined banking system.
But as the Federalists lost power and the Jeffersonians became the dominant party, the bank's charter was not renewed in 1811. The near-disaster of the War of 1812 caused President James Madison to realize the virtues of a central bank and a second bank was established in 1816. But President Andrew Jackson, a Jeffersonian to his core, killed it and the country had no central bank for the next 73 years.
We paid a heavy price for the Jeffersonian aversion to central banking. Without a central bank there was no way to inject liquidity into the banking system to stem a panic. As a result, the panics of the 19th century were far worse here than in Europe and precipitated longer and deeper depressions. In 1907, J.P. Morgan, probably the most powerful private banker who ever lived, acted as the central bank to end the panic that year....
[HNN Editor: Gordon goes on to say that Jeffersoni9an aversion to banks led to their being regulated by the states. He ends by hoping that this latest emergency will result "finally, a unified banking system of large, diversified, well-capitalized banking institutions that are under the control of a unified and coherent regulatory system free of undue political influence."]
Posted on: Friday, October 10, 2008 - 21:32
SOURCE: Japan Focus (Click here to see pictures accompanying this article.) (10-10-08)
The five-day Russo-Georgian War in the Caucasus brought into sharp focus many conflicts rooted in the region’s history and in aggressive US-NATO policies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Notable among these were the military encirclement of Russia and attempts to control energy resources in areas long dominated by the Soviet Union. The net effect was to hasten a dangerous new era of rivalry between the world’s two most powerful nuclear weapons states, one which will be shaped hereafter by the current global recession and the changes it is bringing about in the economic practices of all states.
President Bill Clinton’s resort to force in Kosovo in 1999 was crucial in precipitating this situation. At that moment the US moved to thrust aside international law and the primacy of the Security Council. Clinton justified war as a matter of establishing a more humane international order, and every civilian death that resulted from it became “unintentional collateral damage,” morally justifiable because the end was noble. By substituting a quasi-legal, moral right of humanitarian intervention for the long-established principles of national sovereignty and respect for territorial integrity, US-NATO aggression against Serbia prepared the ground for the Bush administration’s unilateral military interventions. Now, bogged down in illegal, unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US government suddenly appears to have rediscovered the usefulness of norms of international law that it had denied in Kosovo. But it invoked the principle of state sovereignty selectively, attacking Russia for its intervention in Georgia while simultaneously sending its own armed forces and aircraft on cross-border raids into Pakistan.
The search for causes of the Georgia conflict also brought to the fore the American quest for unchallengeable, global military dominance, which requires the Pentagon to plant military bases at strategic places around the world and the Congress to pass ever larger military budgets. In 2002 President George W. Bush adopted the Pentagon strategy, first formulated a decade earlier by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, of making the US the sole superpower, deterring foes and allies alike from even aspiring to regional dominance. When, in pursuit of this ultimate goal, the US pushed NATO further eastward toward the borders of Russia while pouring money and armaments into Georgia and training the Georgian army, it paved the way to the August war. Or, more precisely: the Russo-Georgian War exhibited the features of a proxy war pitting US-NATO imperialism against Russian nationalism.  Russian forces thwarted Georgia’s armed provocations and issued a challenge to American and NATO policies in the borderlands.
Another disruptive trend highlighted by the war is the increasingly fierce competition between US and Russian corporations for control of Caspian Sea and Central Asian oil and gas resources. Georgians, Ossetians, Azerbaijanis, Kazaks, and other peoples in the eastern Caspian Sea basin are hapless pawns in this struggle, which goes on continuously, affecting their territorial and ethnic conflicts in ways they cannot control. The struggle over oil and gas has led the US Central Command, originally established to deal with Iran, to extend its operations from the Middle East to the oil and gas rich Central Asian and Caspian Sea states of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, thus underlining the geopolitics that lay behind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now the Russo-Georgian War.
When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev ordered Russian forces to move through South Ossetia and cross the border into Georgia, they violated the UN Charter.  Their initial justification--defense of the Ossetian’s right of self-determination--was as arbitrary as the one the US and NATO put forward for US-NATO attacks on Kosovo and Serbia, where (unlike in Russia’s case) their own self-defense was never involved. So, in responding unilaterally to a very real threat that had actually materialized, did Russia commit an act of aggression, “the supreme international crime?” Neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly could make that legal determination. Even if they had, Russia would not have taken seriously a US-NATO charge of aggression that served only to emphasize the egregious double standards of their accusers.
In the course of conducting the war, Georgian ground troops and tanks, and some South Ossetian militia, deliberately targeted civilians, committed acts of ethnic cleansing, and wantonly destroyed civilian property in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and in villages along South Ossetia’s border with Georgia proper. The legal scholar Richard Falk argues that Russia too targeted “several villages in the region populated by Georgians.”  If so, there is little evidence that Russia carried out anything like ethnic cleansing. If Russians committed war crimes, they pale in comparison to the crimes the US and its allies perpetrate every day on Iraqi and Afghan civilians. But, as Falk says, all such charges should be investigated regardless of their magnitude.
Last, the crisis in the Caucasus highlighted the narrowly nationalist mindset of Western policy-makers and many of their publics. Secessionist movements exist in many of the multi-ethnic satellite states of the former Soviet Union, where Russians are in the minority. American and NATO policy-makers and neo-conservatives have been only too eager to exploit them. But once Russian tanks and ground forces moved into Georgia, abruptly halted US-NATO encirclement, and exposed the limits of American military power, the Western mass media immediately poured fiery scorn on “brutal Russia,” while ignoring (a) Georgia’s role in starting the conflict, and (b) US and Israeli military support for Georgia. American journalists fostered Russophobic sentiment by disseminating slanted war news, demonizing Russia as the evil aggressor and championing “democratic,” peace-loving Georgia. The American business magazine Fortune decried the bear’s “brutishness” and its threat to an interdependent world;  Forbes lambasted Russia “a gangster state” ruled by a “kleptocracy.”  TV newscasters likened the Russian Federation to Nazi Germany at the time of the 1938 Munich crisis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even asserted an American moral right to lecture Russia on how a “civilized country” should behave in the 21st century. All of which led Vladimir Putin to comment sarcastically, “I was surprised by the power of the Western propaganda machine. . . .I congratulate all who were involved in it. This was a wonderful job. But the result was bad and will always be bad because this was a dishonest and immoral work.” 
When we try to clarify the basic facts of the war, we discover that virtually everything about it is contested, especially the question of who started it. But an abundance of published evidence disconfirms Georgian propaganda and indicates that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili provoked the war with encouragement and material support from the Bush administration. Years earlier, Saakashvili’s regime had drawn up plans for invading South Ossetia, which had been seeking independence from Georgia ever since 1920. He was emboldened to implement those plans (in the midst of the Beijing summer Olympics) because he expected aid from American and NATO allies, whose Afghanistan and Iraq wars he was supporting with 2,000 Georgian troops. 
An on-the-scene report written by the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) military observers stationed in landlocked South Ossetia reportedly confirmed that “shortly before midnight on August 7” Georgian forces fired the first shots. Before that time Russian jets had occasionally entered Georgian air space; there had been minor skirmishes between South Ossetians and Georgians; and Georgian spy drones had flown over Abkhazia, which has important ports on the Black Sea. These actions did not start the war. What did was the late-night bombardment and ground offensive, ordered by Saakashvili, in which U.S. and (to a lesser extent) Israeli-trained Georgian army units used rockets, heavy artillery, and Israeli-supplied cluster bombs to attack Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia and kill Russian soldiers.
It is hard to gauge the resulting scale of death and physical destruction from the Georgian army’s bombardment and land assault, which targeted not only Russians and Ossetians, but also fellow Georgians living in South Ossetia. Russian officials initially claimed that the Georgian attack killed 2,000 South Ossetians, who were Russian citizens.  Later underestimates given in the Financial Times (Sept. 5), suggest the Georgian attack killed “at least 133 civilians,” and 59 Russian soldiers. The Russian ground and air response and aerial bombardment of Georgia killed 146 Georgian soldiers and 69 civilians.  In addition, Russia lost four planes and an unknown number of airmen.Some 30,000 South Ossetians who fled into North Ossetia, plus the Georgians living in Abkahzia and South Ossetia who were driven from their homes, will have to be counted among the victims of the war.
Western intelligence agencies, monitoring signal intelligence from the battle area, have added further details. In breaking the cease-fire and starting the war on the night of August 7-8, Georgian forces had two objectives: one was to oust Russia’s small contingent of lightly-armed peacekeepers who had been in the two semi-autonomous regions since the signing of the 1992 Sochi Agreement establishing a ceasefire between Georgian and South Ossetian forces; the other was to close the narrow Roki tunnel through the Caucasus, cutting off South Ossetia from Russia. The Russian army, though it was alert to an imminent attack, did not begin returning fire or launching air attacks until several hours after Georgia had initiated its offensive.  The estimates of Russia’s response time range widely from 7-8 hours to 12-15.  Moreover, on August 8, before sending large contingents of ground forces across the border into Georgia, Moscow convened an emergency meeting of the Security Council to pass a cease-fire resolution that condemned Georgia for having initiated the conflict. US and British diplomats blocked the Council from acting. 
In short, Russia initially acted defensively to shore up the status quo in South Ossetia and abortively sought UN help. But then its forces pushed deep into Georgia in order to drive home a strategic lesson for the Bush administration, NATO, and its Black Sea neighbors. Having routed the Georgian army, Russian forces quickly occupied strategic points within Georgia, destroyed US-supplied military weapons and infrastructure, including a new, US-built military base. They also destroyed Georgia’s small navy and coast guard. However, Tblisi, the Georgian capital, was carefully avoided, signaling that neither American-style “regime-change” nor post-conflict occupation were Moscow’s goals.
The fighting within Georgia ended on August 12. Acting on behalf of the EU, French president Nicolas Sarkozy brokered an ambiguously worded cease-fire. The document committed Russia to withdraw from Georgia and provided for the stationing of observers from the European OSCE in buffer zones between Russian and Georgian forces. After weeks of negotiations the OSCE bowed out and the European Union agreed to send 200 unarmed observers to the buffer zones.
On August 26, Russia’s president formally recognized the independence of Abkhasia and South Ossetia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, soon visited their capitals. In the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi he announced (Sept. 14) that the new states would have to participate in any future talks with Georgia, the US, and the EU.  No longer engaging in combat, Russia delayed for many weeks before finally withdrawing its troops from most of Georgia proper and indicating that EU monitors would not be allowed to patrol inside the breakaway states. Russia left some troops, however, in the narrow security zones it had set up around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Concurrently, NATO’s militant secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, kept the pressure on Russia by condemning its conduct of the war and restating his “hopes for Georgia’s ‘accelerated’ integration with NATO.” 
Then on October 9, at the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, Medvedev announced that Russia had vacated the buffer zones in Georgia a day in advance of the deadline specified in the armistice agreement. For this he was commended by Sarkozy, who, for the first time, publicly censured Georgia for its “aggression.” But tensions between Europe and Russia, are certain to continue as long as the US persists in using Georgia and Ukraine to advance its national policies, while tensions between Georgian forces, Ossetian soldiers and Russian peacekeepers remain undiminished. A new chapter in the conflict between the US-NATO and Russia, however, has definitely opened, signaled by Mevedev’s speech to Europe’s leaders. He reiterated that Russia was “absolutely not interested in confrontation” and called on them to forge “a new global security framework that would challenge the United States’ ‘determination to enforce its global dominance.’” 
Meanwhile the Russian people have lost any remaining illusions about “the West,” while Russia’s leaders must now worry about zones of ethnic conflict spreading from the North Caucasus through the Black Sea region to Central Asia and beyond.
Framing the War: From the Soviet Union’s Collapse to the “Kosovo Precedent”
Russia’s conflicts with the non-Russian peoples of the Caucasus go back centuries, but the developments that led directly to the Georgian-Russia war start with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991-2. The Soviet collapse ignited euphoria among American and European elites. Imagine how they felt: a new world order in the process of being born, one in which they would be able to redesign Europe without having to take into account the preferences of the Russian giant on their doorstep. While admitting Russia to full membership in the IMF and the World Bank, and making hard currency loans to it, they quickly began to chart a new offensive mission for NATO.
Russia plunged into a protracted, multi-sided decline.  It abandoned its dominant position on both the Baltic and Black Seas coasts. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the five ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia emerged as independent states, eager to attract Western investment, and some even receptive to hosting American military bases. Ukraine, which owns the Crimea, where Russia bases its Black Sea fleet, proclaimed its independence (1991) and soon thereafter expressed a desire to join NATO.  In 1996 Poland joined both NATO and the EU. Once Eastern Europe became wide open to Western economic intervention, Russia could do little to prevent the region’s elites from gravitating to full incorporation in the US empire.
Economically, Russia was sorely beset. Under Boris Yeltsin it had chosen to transit rapidly from over-reliance on central planning to reliance on capitalist markets. Its huge economy contracted; its armed forces’ weaponry and ships decayed. Social pathologies of every kind deepened. Many Russians experienced acute economic hardship while a handful seized opportunities to purchase state-owned enterprises, enrich themselves overnight, and enter the class of Russia’s new elites.
This era of rapid economic redistribution, national humiliation, and social disintegration lasted for about eight years. By 1999 expectations began to rise, driven by rapid economic growth. Russia soon paid off its debts. It did not, however, recover from its enormous demographic decline. No longer a military superpower, its leaders saw Russia as a nation-state with special security concerns because it spanned Eurasia from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific coast, shared borders with 14 other states, and was fully nuclear armed. Over the next few years Russia’s self-confidence grew and its booming market economy allowed it to reappear on the world stage as a major energy exporter to Europe.
In 2000 there were leadership changes in Moscow and Washington. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, took over from Yeltsin and established a personal relationship with the new American president, George W. Bush. Although Putin would have Bush’s full support in suppressing the long-suffering Muslim population of Chechnya, Bush would never treat Russia (or any other country) as an equal. Nor would Bush ever listen to Putin’s criticism of America for acting as if it owned the world and could do as it pleased.
The Bush-Cheney administration believed that the laws and customs that applied to other states did not apply to the United States. It continued to assume, as Clinton’s had, that Europe’s future could be planned with scant reference to Russia’s strategic concerns. Clinton, during his election campaign of 1996, decided to enlarge NATO in order to discipline Russia. Bush went further. He withdrew from treaties and launched repeated assaults on the international order anchored in the UN Charter. Then, in revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attack, he bombed and invaded Afghanistan, which shares a border with Russia. Next, in 2002, over vehement Russian objections, Bush unilaterally withdrew the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That same year the US publicly asserted a right to wage “preventive war” (or war of “anticipatory self-defense”) against states that it unilaterally determined to be threats. In 2003 the Bush administration launched such a war of choice against oil-rich Iraq.
The next year popular protests in Georgia led to toppling its government. Dubbed the “Rose Revolution,” the political change was funded partly by the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy (a semi-official NGO and cold war relic from the Reagan era), and the billionaire investor George Soros. Neither the US nor Britain would ever have tolerated such blatant “democracy promotion” on their soil. Overnight American propaganda turned the autocratic state of Georgia into a “beacon of liberty,” a “democracy” with a “free market economy,” deserving to be supported for NATO membership despite its ongoing ethnic conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Americans, through their “democracy”-promoting organizations, played a similar role in funding the peaceful “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. First, they helped the anti-Russian Viktor Yushchenko rise to power in a politically divided country, less than half of which leaned toward the West; then they supported Ukraine’s right to apply for NATO membership.
For more than a decade, Russian leaders had repeatedly protested US efforts to turn its neighboring states into US clients. But recognizing their own national weakness, and the growing interdependence of nations, their options were limited. They had to work with Washington, and, in principle, were committed to doing so. However, as American leaders pursued their quest for global military dominance, and as they and EU leaders pushed NATO ever closer to Russia’s borders, the leadership in Moscow came to believe they had made too many compromises of vital security interests in order to stay in Washington’s good graces. Just how far could statesmanship and international law go in safeguarding Russia’s borders? Or preventing Georgia from being turned into the “Israel of the Caucasus”? For Russia, events in the multi-ethnic Serb province of Kosovo in 1999 and then in early 2008 highlighted the danger.
In March 1999, the US and NATO began bombing Serbia and Serbian units within Kosovo, claiming (among other things) that Belgrade had lost its sovereignty over the region and that the Serbian population deserved the suffering being inflicted upon it. A short time later, NATO formally abandoned its original policy “of only defending the sovereignty and security of its member states from external attack” and embraced “a new self-given right to intervene all over the world.”  The US-NATO bombing of Serbia, which lasted for 76-days, killed about 500 Serbs, turned half the Albanian population of Kosovo into refugees, and did massive physical damage to Serbia’s capital and infrastructure. The US and NATO unleashed their violence without explicit UN Security Council authorization and in flagrant breach of the UN Charter’s provisions governing the use of force in self-defense.
Clinton and his NATO allies asserted their authority to wage wars to avoid humanitarian catastrophes at the very moment that Russia was starting to recover from its economic crisis and military collapse. Russia, which had no voice in NATO policy, was cooperating with the US in reducing nuclear weapons and using its oil and gas resources to develop a market economy. Out of weakness it could do no more than protest vehemently the US-NATO bombing of its long time ally, Serbia. UN ambassador and soon-to-be foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, denounced the war “as an act of open aggression.” He warned that this action would in time spread the “virus of illegal unilateral approaches.”  “Madeleine [Albright],” said the Russian ambassador in Washington to Clinton’s secretary of state, “don’t you understand we have many Kosovos in Russia.” 
All over the world nations condemned the American-European violation of international law. But Washington prevailed. Both the global hegemon and liberal elite opinion in the West vigorously affirmed the propriety of the air campaign against Serbia (i.e. humanitarian interventionism). Meanwhile the US stationed a permanent 7,000-strong military force in Kosovo at a huge, newly built military base--Camp Bondsteel--which linked with its other recently acquired base camps in Macedonia and in the new NATO states of Bulgaria and Romania. A precedent was established for the Bush invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
Nine years later, when Kosovar-Albanian nationalists unilaterally declared independence from Serbia and requested international recognition (Feb. 17, 2008), the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, wanting to legitimate their aggression, quickly granted formal recognition. At the State Department, a spokesman declared that Kosovo would never again be part of Serbia.  Serbs, of course, protested the loss of sovereign rights. They held rallies and even burned the US embassy in Belgrade. Many other nations facing separatist movements also reacted negatively. Spain, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and China (whose embassy in,Belgrade was bombed by NATO planes) all condemned the move, as did Greece, and many Balkan nations including Romania.  Russia refused to recognize Kosovo, while the leaders of Georgia’s tiny separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which looked to Russia for protection, said they would soon send requests to the UN to recognize their independence. Western officials arbitrarily dismissed their assertion of a right of national self-determination on the ground that Kosovo is “a special case,” not an example for Abkhazs and South Ossetians to copy. 
By this time, the whole environment of European and global politics had changed. NATO had expanded in 2004 into the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of which bordered Russia. The “Rose” revolution had opened the possibility of eventual NATO membership for Georgia. And the government of Victor Yushchenko, who had been brought to power in the “Orange Revolution,” was discussing with NATO Ukraine’s possible future membership. For Russia, NATO represented a potential threat along the entire periphery of the former Soviet Union. But even more ominous was the US policy of implanting a first-strike weapons system in the new NATO states of Eastern Europe, notably Poland, which shares a border with Russia and whose territory once offered routes for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. For American domestic consumption, the Bush administration rationalized the missile shield as targeting non-existent Iranian nuclear missiles, but US Polish-based-missiles will actually be aimed at neutralizing Russia’s nuclear defense system.
Thus, inexorably, Russia’s leaders saw the dominos falling, themselves targeted by the encroaching American missile defense system, and their influence in the Caucasus being rolled back. Then the NATO ministers, at their April summit in Bucharest, “welcom[ed] Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership” and agreed to grant them a plan for future admission. Clearly, Russia’s protests had failed to deter NATO expansion or eliminate the possibility of American missile defenses being emplaced on Ukrainian or Georgian territory. This was the context in which war in the Caucasus erupted.
Fallout from the war was felt first in the Caspian and Black Sea regions. Azerbaijan, which since 1994 had allowed Western companies to develop its gas and oil resources, decided to lower its reliance on the trans-Caucasus oil pipeline from its port of Baku to Georgia (for transport to Ceyhan in Turkey), and make a small but permanent increase in oil shipments to Russia and Iran. “We don’t want to insult anyone . . . but its not good to have all your eggs in one basket, especially when the basket is very fragile,” said the vice-president of Azerbaijan’s state oil company. Kazakhstan’s reaction was to enter into talks with Moscow on “new export pipelines to Russia” now that its Georgia route had become less secure. 
Georgia, which the US valued primarily for reasons of control over gas and oil pipelines to Azerbaijan and Central Asia,  and which Israel supported as a market for arms sales and in hope of obtaining the use of air bases from which to attack Iran, has been shorn of its small autonomous enclaves. Although its impetuous strongman, Saakashvili, has redoubled his efforts to secure membership in NATO and military-economic assistance from the West, neither the EU nor NATO are likely to admit Georgia in the near future, let alone allow Saakashvili to manipulate them. Georgia’s resounding defeat has diminished the importance of its pipelines.
Russia showed the world that it would shed blood to prevent further security threats from developing on its own borders, though it would not wage war on a genocidal scale for the sake of controlling foreign oil, as the US does in Iraq. Russia also demonstrated that it could at any time end Georgia’s role as a secure energy corridor through which gas and oil was piped, via Turkey, to the West. At the same time, Putin took pains to reiterate points he and other Russian leaders had been making to Washington for years: namely, there was no need for confrontation and certainly “no basis for a Cold War” “or “for mutual animosity.” “Russia has no imperialist ambitions.” 
Indeed, Russia’s aims were very limited. For nearly two decades it had tried unsuccessfully to get the US and EU to recognize its national security needs and build a real partnership. South Ossetia, which had long been pro-Moscow, did not want to become part of Russia, though Abkazia did. But Russia had no intention of annexing either one and exposing itself to the charge of territorial expansionism.  Russia’s answer to the Kosovo precedent was to grant formal recognition of their de facto independence and to sign friendship treaties with South Ossetia’s leader, Eduard Kokoity, and Abkhazia’s Sergei Bagapsh. The treaties included pledges to defend them by stationing troops (3,600 in each region) and building military bases. At the signing, Medvedev reiterated that “We cannot view steps to intensify relations between the [NATO] alliance and Georgia any other way than as an encouragement for new adventures.” 
But did the Georgian military campaign make Russia more secure from the threat of a nuclear attack? Did it shatter the curve of encirclement that the US and NATO were constructing around it? The Georgian aggressor was easily “punch[ed] in the face” (Putin’s stern words). Yet looking at US-NATO policy, Russia’s leaders see that they have not stopped NATO’s eastward drive and the American implantation of ABM missiles in Poland. The danger remains of the US spreading an arms race through the Caucasus and in Europe generally. NATO defense ministers, coming at this from a confrontational angle, recently reviewed plans to establish a “rapid-response” military force to fight Russia’s future military actions. Medvedev’s announcement (Sept 26) that Russia would build a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent system,” and a new “aerospace defense system,” and have it in place by 2020, should be read as a response to the Georgian war and Western encirclement, even though the planning antedated the crisis.  At a time when Russian leaders need to invest more in modernizing infrastructure and improving the lives of their people, they are forced to cope with the determined efforts of US and EU leaders to surround them with military bases and nuclear missiles. 
Russia cannot ignore either the threat of economic and diplomatic isolation for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians.  Inability to secure international recognition will make it harder for them to prosper, whereas Georgia is already the recipient of a large IMF loan and new promises of EU and American aid. To see Georgia made into a Western showcase state while Ossetia and Abkhazia languish would further harm Russia’s image in the West.
In the process of defending its borders from a real security threat, Russia, partly through its own actions, would suffer a setback in the court of world opinion. Only tiny Nicaragua joined it in formally recognizing the two breakaway republics. The local parliament in separatist-inclined Crimea called on Ukraine’s national parliament to follow Russia’s example, but Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders refused to do so.  The major Western powers refused to accept the validity of the border changes that the war had brought about. South Ossetia and Abkhazia met the factual criteria for statehood, but not the European and American political criteria for recognition.  The consensus of US and NATO leaders was that they lacked real independence from Russian control and did not respect the rights of their minorities, as if the Kosovar Albanians in Europe’s new colony respected the rights of their Serb and Roma minorities. One cannot fail to see the blatant hypocrisy of this stance given US-NATO practice with respect to the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.
On the other hand, Russia’s position, which holds that Georgia had forfeited its claim to these territories by its abuse of the Ossetians and Abkhasians, is equally hypocritical in the light of Putin’s brutal suppression of Chechnya’s secession movement.  It also looks two-faced in Serb eyes especially because recognition of the new Caucasus states appears to violate the principle of territorial unity and integrity, thus undermining Russia’s previous moral opposition to the Kosovo precedent. 
What may be one of the most dangerous outcomes of the Georgia-Russian war is the confrontational response of the Bush administration and most American politicians. While locked into a self-defeating “global war on terrorism,” overstretched militarily, and weakened by a deepening global economic crisis, the US persists in extending its sphere of influence into the Black Sea region. The Bush administration wants to hold on to Georgia as a “transportation route for energy” and a staging base from which to pursue its interests in Eurasia.  It refuses to see the Georgian war as an historically-rooted territorial dispute and continues to encourage Georgia and Ukraine in their bid for eventual NATO membership. Presidential candidates John McCain both Barrack Obama publicly endorse the Bush confrontation with Russia and neither offers any principled critique of US foreign policy. In fact, they seem as willing as Bush to take virtually any action that will keep “Russia bogged down in the Caucasus if it saps Russia’s capacity to play an effective role on the world stage.” 
The major European governments pursue a slightly saner approach, if only because they depend on energy supplied by Russia and are less unified in their foreign and domestic policies. But they are deeply divided on how to treat Moscow, with Germany apparently eager to deepen amicable relations.
Ironically, Russia remains for the time being a US “strategic partner.” The US needs its continued cooperation in Afghanistan, and in dealing with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Putin and Medvedev are not denying the US military the right to ship non-military supplies through Russian territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan, though that option is available to them. But they have weakened US and UN sanctions on Iran, against whom the Bush administration is waging economic and covert war. Russia also sells weapons to Iran and is completing construction of Iran’s Bushehr Atomic Reactor Complex.  In July 2008 Russia strengthened oil ties with Iran by a cooperation agreement that the giant state corporation, Gazprom, signed to develop Iran’s oil and gas fields. It recently concluded similar deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In short, when it comes to dealing with hostile US-NATO actions in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and especially in its “near abroad,” Russia has on its side geography as well as many diplomatic options.
 Political scientist Kato Tetsuro kindly alerted me to the insights of Japanese writers who perceived the Russo-Georgian official state of war as a proxy conflict pitting Russian nationalism against American imperialism. Because Georgia is too far away to have any effect on Japan’s bilateral relations with either Russia or China, and Japanese attention focused on the Beijing Olympics and the Tibet issue, the Japanese mass media and popular journals all but ignored the Russo-Georgian war. That was not the case in India, where sharp commentators quickly noted the proxy nature of the war. See Rama Sampath Kumar, “From Kosovo to Georgia: The US, NATO and Russia,” Economic and Political Weekly, Sept. 6, 2008.
 See Richard Falk, “Assessing the Georgian Crisis, Sept. 14, 2008, posted at Falk’s ZSpace Page, Znet
 Falk, “Assessing the Georgian Crisis.”
 Bill Powell and Mina Kimes, “Just How Scary Is Russia?” Fortune (Sept. 9, 2008), pp. 80-83.
 Forbes, Oct. 13, 2008, p. 25.
 Michael Stott, “Analysis- ‘Dangerous gulf’ opens between Russia and the West,” Reuters North American News Service, Sept. 25, 2008.
 Reuters, “Saakahvili ‘planned S. Ossetia invasion’—ex-minister,” Sept. 14, 2008.
 CBS News, “Georgia Pushes for Truce With Russia,” posted Aug. 10, 2008.
 “US Military Trained Georgian Commandos,” Financial Times, Sept. 5, 2008.
 SPIEGEL Staff, “Did Saakashvili Lie? The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader," Sept, 15, 2008 at Spiegel On Line.
 Posted at moonofalabama.org, Aug. 10. 2008.
 Mark Ames, “Getting Georgia’s War On,” The Nation, Aug. 8, 2008.
 BBCNEWS, “Russia stands by Georgia actions,” Sept. 14, 2008.
 BBCNews, “Nato restates backing for Georgia,” posted Sept. 15, 2008.
 PressTV, “Sarkozy: S. Ossetia siege a mistake,” Oct. 8, 2008
and Olesya Vartanyan and Ellen Barry, “Russians Vacate Buffer Zones in Georgia,” New York Times (Oct. 9, 2008).
 Stott, “Analysis- ‘Dangerous gulf’ opens between Russia and the West,” Reuters North American News Service, Sept. 25, 2008. Krzysztof Bobinski, “The Caucasus Effect: Europe Unblocked,” Open Democracy, Sept. 15, 2008.
 For an overview see Stephen F. Cohen, “The New Cold War and US-Russian Relations,” The Nation (July 10, 2008), also posted at Japan Focus.
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (Basic Books, 1997), pp. 92-3.
 John Laughland, A History of Political Trials From Charles 1 to Saddam Hussein (Peter Lang Oxford, 2008), p. 222.
 Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 272-273.
 Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002), p. 301.
 Nebojsa Malic, “The Edge of Madness: Delusions and Hysteria Rule the Frustrated Balkans,” citing Simon Tisdall, “Bad News for Kosovo Raises Balkan Tension,” The Guardian (UK) Oct. 13, 2006, and posted online.
 Robert Marquand, “Why Kosovo’s Independence Bid Is Unique,” Christian Science Monitor (Feb.15, 2008); Jon Boye, “Separatist Fears Stoke Opposition to Kosovo Move,” Reuters, Feb. 18, 2008.
 “Kosovo Declares Independence, ISN Security Watch, Feb. 18, 2008.
 NATO Press Release, Bucharest Summit Declaration, April 3, 2008.
 Isabel Gorst, “Azerbaijan oil export moves likely to worry West,” Financial Times, Sept. 25, 2008. I am indebted to Noam Chomsky for bringing this article to my attention.
 Noam Chomsky, “Ossetia-Russia-Georgia.”
 Janet McBride,”Putin warns West against starting arms race,” Reuters North American News Service, Sept. 11, 2008.
 AP wire dispatch, “Russia’s Lavrov: S. Ossetia not Joining Russia,” Sept. 11, 2008.
 Reuters, “Russia in Pact with Georgia Regions,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 2008; BBC News, “Russia in Georgia Separatist Pact,” Sept 17, 2008.
 BBC News, Sept. 26, 2008.
 Bridget Kendall, “Putin defends Georgia offensive,” BBC News, Sept. 11, 2008. Putin “accused the Western press of an ‘immoral and dishonest account of what happened” and is quoted by the BBC correspondent as asking: “What did you want us to do? Wave our penknives in the air and wipe bloody snot off our noses?. . . .When an aggressor comes into your territory, you need to punch him in the face—an aggressor needs to be punished.”
 For discussion see “Georgia: Sovereign possibilities,” Sept. 15 at ISN.
 Reuters, “Recognize Georgian regions says Ukraine’s Crimea,” Sept. 17, 2008.
 See the EU “Guidelines on Recognition of New States in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union” in Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law, Fifth Edition (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), p. 185. The criteria are permanent populations, territorial bases, governments, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.
 Falk, “Assessing the Georgian Crisis.”
 Robert Marquand, “Russia’s case on Georgia territories: Like Kosovo or not?” Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 23, 2008).
 M.K. Bhadrakumar, “U.S. sets bear trap in the Caucasus,” The Hindu, Aug. 11, 2008.
 Bhadrakumar, “U.S. sets bear trap in the Caucasus,” The Hindu, Aug. 11, 2008.
 Iran Islamic Republic new Agency, “Iran, Russia Emphasize Need for Regional Cooperation,” Sept. 23, 2008.
Posted on: Friday, October 10, 2008 - 21:08