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: NYT (3-2-09)
The speech, titled “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit,” offered a novel explanation for the rapid rise of the U.S. trade deficit in the early 21st century. The causes, argued Mr. Bernanke, lay not in America but in Asia.
In the mid-1990s, he pointed out, the emerging economies of Asia had been major importers of capital, borrowing abroad to finance their development. But after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 (which seemed like a big deal at the time but looks trivial compared with what’s happening now), these countries began protecting themselves by amassing huge war chests of foreign assets, in effect exporting capital to the rest of the world.
The result was a world awash in cheap money, looking for somewhere to go.
Most of that money went to the United States — hence our giant trade deficit, because a trade deficit is the flip side of capital inflows. But as Mr. Bernanke correctly pointed out, money surged into other nations as well. In particular, a number of smaller European economies experienced capital inflows that, while much smaller in dollar terms than the flows into the United States, were much larger compared with the size of their economies.
Still, much of the global saving glut did end up in America. Why?
Mr. Bernanke cited “the depth and sophistication of the country’s financial markets (which, among other things, have allowed households easy access to housing wealth).” Depth, yes. But sophistication? Well, you could say that American bankers, empowered by a quarter-century of deregulatory zeal, led the world in finding sophisticated ways to enrich themselves by hiding risk and fooling investors.
And wide-open, loosely regulated financial systems characterized many of the other recipients of large capital inflows....
Posted on: Monday, March 2, 2009 - 14:37
SOURCE: Salon (2-3-09)
In particular, Obama's plan to leave 35,000 to 50,000 support troops in Iraq between August 31, 2010 and December 31, 2011, has made the left of his party as nervous as a vegan in a butcher shop. Congressional leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have urged that the number be reduced to 15,000. One can only imagine that the Democratic Party leadership wants to campaign for congress in fall 2010 on having ended the Iraq War, and retaining 50,000 troops there would make that difficult. So has Obama been reduced to "Bush Lite" on the Tigris? In his first detailed policy speech on Iraq, did he renege on his commitment to get out -- or did he skillfully calibrate his plan to avoid any of the booby traps Mesopotamia might still hold for an American president?
Obama cannot afford to make his calculations about Iraq solely with an eye to domestic American politics. He extended his original proposal of a 16-month withdrawal of active combat brigades to 18 months so as to leave more troops in place to help with the next Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2009. It is stil the case that Iraqi elections can only go forward if the country is locked down and vehicular traffic forbidden, preventing car-bombings and coordinated guerrilla strikes. It might be possible for the Iraqi military to provide security for national elections in 2013 should the country's future ruler or rulers deign to hold them, but the Iraqi military cannot hope to do so this year....
It would be wrong to overlook these simple words: "And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011." Though the word "troops" referred to the Army and the Marines, not to the Air Force and Navy, what Obama said on Friday was a firm pledge to leave. And by binding himself to a security agreement formally passed by the Iraqi parliament, Obama was eschewing unilateralism and the patronizing hubris that marked Bush's discourse on Iraq. The Iraqi and Arab press understood this point immediately, and led their accounts of Obama's speech with that sentence about removing troops. Obama was not signaling any diffidence about ending the Iraq War before the end of his term. He was attempting to provide for an orderly withdrawal that will ensure that U.S. troops are not drawn back in by a subsequent security collapse.
Posted on: Monday, March 2, 2009 - 13:12
SOURCE: NYT (2-28-09)
THIS recession, which began in December 2007, has already lasted longer than the average postwar recession. If it turns out to be as bad as the most protracted of the postwar downturns, we will touch bottom next month.
But my strong suspicion is that we are now in something more like a Great Recession. It won’t produce as steep a fall in American output as the Depression did, but it may prove to be as prolonged.
The depression that began in August 1929 did not hit its nadir until 43 months later. The one that started in October 1873 was shallower but lasted 65 months. If the economy were to keep shrinking for that long, we wouldn’t start coming out of this until after May 2013.
Is that possible? This is a crisis of excessive debt, the end of the Age of Leverage. It will take longer than a few more months to resolve bank and household insolvency, especially with asset prices continuing to fall so rapidly. Even with zero interest rates and huge deficits, Japan suffered a “lost decade” in the 1990s — and that was when the rest of the world was doing well. This recession is taking place as the rest of the world is doing even worse than the United States. The collapse of trade as measured by East Asian export data is petrifying.
So far in this recession, remember, we have had only two consecutive quarters of declining gross domestic product. At the moment, I find it quite easy to imagine two consecutive years of contraction. And I don’t rule out two more lean years after that.
Posted on: Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 20:26
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (3-1-09)
Sometimes, it's the everyday things, the ones that fly below the radar, that matter.
Here, according to Bloomberg News, is part of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's recent testimony on the Afghan War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
"U.S. goals in Afghanistan must be 'modest, realistic,' and 'above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war,' Gates said. 'The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.'"
Now, in our world, a statement like this seems so obvious, so reasonable as to be beyond comment. And yet, stop a moment and think about this part of it:"there must be an Afghan face on this war." U.S. military and civilian officials used an equivalent phrase in 2005-2006 when things were going really, really wrong in Iraq. It was then commonplace -- and no less unremarked upon -- for them to urgently suggest that an"Iraqi face" be put on events there.
Evidently back in vogue for a different war, the phrase is revelatory -- and oddly blunt. As an image, there's really only one way to understand it (not that anyone here stops to do so). After all, what does it mean to"put a face" on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean putting an Afghan mask over what we know to be the actual"face" of the Afghan War -- ours -- a foreign face that men like Gates recognize, quite correctly, is not the one most Afghans want to see. It's hardly surprising that the Secretary of Defense would pick up such a phrase, part of Washington's everyday arsenal of words and images when it comes to geopolitics, power, and war.
And yet, make no mistake, this is Empire-speak, American-style. It's the language -- behind which lies a deeper structure of argument and thought -- that is essential to Washington's vision of itself as a planet-straddling goliath. Think of that"Afghan face"/mask, in fact, as part of the flotsam and jetsam that regularly bubbles up from the American imperial unconscious.
Of course, words create realities even though such language, in all its strangeness, essentially passes unnoticed here. Largely uncommented upon, it helps normalize American practices in the world, comfortably shielding us from certain global realities; but it also has the potential to blind us to those realities, which, in perilous times, can be dangerous indeed. So let's consider just a few entries in what might be thought of as The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.
War Hidden in Plain Sight: There has recently been much reporting on, and even some debate here about, the efficacy of the Obama administration's decision to increase the intensity of CIA missile attacks from drone aircraft in what Washington, in a newly coined neologism reflecting a widening war, now calls"Af-Pak" -- the Pashtun tribal borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since August 2008, more than 30 such missile attacks have been launched on the Pakistani side of that border against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The pace of attacks has actually risen since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, as have casualties from the missile strikes, as well as popular outrage in Pakistan over the attacks.
Thanks to Senator Diane Feinstein, we also know that, despite strong official Pakistani government protests, someone official in that country is doing more than looking the other way while they occur. As the Senator revealed recently, at least some of the CIA's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cruising the skies over Af-Pak are evidently stationed at Pakistani bases. We learned recently as well that American Special Operations units are now regularly making forays inside Pakistan"primarily to gather intelligence"; that a unit of 70 American Special Forces advisors, a"secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command," is now aiding and training Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops, again inside Pakistan; and that, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these American efforts, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban is actually expanding, even as Pakistan threatens to melt down.
Mystifyingly enough, however, this Pakistani part of the American war in Afghanistan is still referred to in major U.S. papers as a" covert war." As news about it pours out, who it's being hidden from is one of those questions no one bothers to ask.
On February 20th, the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger typically wrote:
"With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government... Under standard policy for covert operations, the C.I.A. strikes inside Pakistan have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the Bush administration."
On February 25th, Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported that new CIA head Leon Panetta essentially bragged to reporters that"the agency's campaign against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas was the 'most effective weapon' the Obama administration had to combat Al Qaeda's top leadership... Mr. Panetta stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but he said that 'operational efforts' focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful." Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal reported the next day that Panetta said the attacks are"probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now." She added,"Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, [Panetta] said."
Uh, covert war? These" covert""operational efforts" have been front-page news in the Pakistani press for months, they were part of the U.S. presidential campaign debates, and they certainly can't be a secret for the Pashtuns in those border areas who must see drone aircraft overhead relatively regularly, or experience the missiles arriving in their neighborhoods.
In the U.S.," covert war" has long been a term for wars like the U.S.-backed Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which were openly discussed, debated, and often lauded in this country. To a large extent, when aspects of these wars have actually been" covert" -- that is, purposely hidden from anyone -- it has been from the American public, not the enemies being warred upon. At the very least, however, such language, however threadbare, offers official Washington a kind of"plausible deniability" when it comes to thinking about what kind of an"American face" we present to the world.
Imperial Naming Practices: In our press, anonymous U.S. officials now point with pride to the increasing"precision" and"accuracy" of those drone missile attacks in taking out Taliban or al-Qaeda figures without (supposedly) taking out the tribespeople who live in the same villages or neighboring compounds. Such pieces lend our air war an almost sterile quality. They tend to emphasize the extraordinary lengths to which planners go to avoid" collateral damage." To many Americans, it must then seem strange, even irrational, that perfectly non-fundamentalist Pakistanis should be quite so outraged about attacks aimed at the world's worst terrorists.
On the other hand, consider for a moment the names of those drones now regularly in the skies over "Pashtunistan." These are no less regularly published in our press to no comment at all. The most basic of the armed drones goes by the name of Predator, a moniker which might as well have come directly from those nightmarish sci-fi movies about an alien that feasts on humans. Undoubtedly, however, it was used in the way Col. Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne Division meant it when he exhorted his brigade deploying to Iraq (according to Thomas E. Ricks' new book The Gamble) to remember:"You're the predator."
The Predator drone is armed with"only" two missiles. The more advanced drone, originally called the Predator B, now being deployed to the skies over Af-Pak, has been dubbed the Reaper -- as in the Grim Reaper. Now, there's only one thing such a"hunter-killer UAV" could be reaping, and you know just what that is: lives. It can be armed with up to 14 missiles (or four missiles and two 500-pound bombs), which means it packs quite a deadly wallop.
Oh, by the way, those missiles are named as well. They're Hellfire missiles. So, if you want to consider the nature of this covert war in terms of names alone: Predators and Reapers are bringing down the fire from some satanic hell upon the peasants, fundamentalist guerrillas, and terrorists of the Af-Pak border regions.
In Washington, when the Af-Pak War is discussed, it's in the bloodless, bureaucratic language of"global counterinsurgency" or"irregular warfare" (IW), of"soft power,""hard power," and"smart power." But flying over the Pashtun wildlands is the blunt-edged face of predation and death, ready at a moment's notice to deliver hellfire to those below.
Imperial Arguments: Let's pursue this just a little further. Faced with rising numbers of civilian casualties from U.S. and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan and an increasingly outraged Afghan public, American officials tend to place the blame for most sky-borne" collateral damage" squarely on the Taliban. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen bluntly explained recently,"[T]he enemy hides behind civilians." Hence, so this Empire-speak argument goes, dead civilians are actually the Taliban's doing.
U.S. military and civilian spokespeople have long accused Taliban guerrillas of using civilians as "shields," or even of purposely luring devastating air strikes down on Afghan wedding parties to create civilian casualties and so inflame the sensibilities of rural Afghanistan. This commonplace argument has two key features: a claim that they made us do it (kill civilians) and the implication that the Taliban fighters"hiding" among innocent villagers or wedding revelers are so many cowards, willing to put their fellow Pashtuns at risk rather than come out and fight like men -- and, of course, given the firepower arrayed against them, die.
The U.S. media regularly records this argument without reflecting on it. In this country, in fact, the evil of combatants"hiding" among civilians seems so self-evident, especially given the larger evil of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that no one thinks twice about it.
And yet like so much of Empire-speak on a one-way planet, this argument is distinctly uni-directional. What's good for the guerrilla goose, so to speak, is inapplicable to the imperial gander. To illustrate, consider the American"pilots" flying those unmanned Predators and Reapers. We don't know exactly where all of them are (other than not in the drones), but some are certainly at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas.
In other words, were the Taliban guerrillas to leave the protection of those civilians and come out into the open, there would be no enemy to fight in the usual sense, not even a predatory one. The pilot firing that Hellfire missile into some Pakistani border village or compound is, after all, using the UAV's cameras, including by next year a new system hair-raisingly dubbed "Gorgon Stare," to locate his target and then, via console, as in a single-shooter video game, firing the missile, possibly from many thousands of miles away.
And yet nowhere in our world will you find anyone making the argument that those pilots are in"hiding" like so many cowards. Such a thought seems absurd to us, as it would if it were applied to the F-16 pilots taking off from aircraft carriers off the Afghan coast or the B-1 pilots flying out of unnamed Middle Eastern bases or the Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia. And yet, whatever those pilots may do in Afghan skies, unless they experience a mechanical malfunction, they are in no more danger than if they, too, were somewhere outside Las Vegas. In the last seven years, a few helicopters, but no planes, have gone down in Afghanistan.
When the Afghan mujahedeen fought the Soviets in the 1980s, the CIA supplied them with hand-held Stinger missiles, the most advanced surface-to-air missile in the U.S. arsenal, and they did indeed start knocking Soviet helicopters and planes out of the skies (which proved the beginning of the end for the Russians). The Afghan or Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists have no such capability today, which means, if you think about it, that what we here imagine as an"air war" involves none of the dangers we would normally associate with war. Looked at in another light, those missile strikes and bombings are really one-way acts of slaughter.
The Taliban's tactics are, of course, the essence of guerrilla warfare, which always involves an asymmetrical battle against more powerful armies and weaponry, and which, if successful, always depends on the ability of the guerrilla to blend into the environment, natural and human, or, as Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong so famously put it, to"swim" in the"sea of the people."
If you imagine your enemy simply using the villagers of Afghanistan as"shields" or"hiding" like so many cowards among them, you are speaking the language of imperial power but also blinding yourself (or the American public) to the actual realities of the war you're fighting.
Imperial Jokes: In October 2008, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, refused to renew the U.S. lease at Manta Air Base, one of at least 761 foreign bases, macro to micro, that the U.S. garrisons worldwide. Correa reportedly said:"We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami -- an Ecuadorean base. If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States."
This qualifies as an anti-imperial joke. The"leftist" president of Ecuador was doing no more than tweaking the nose of goliath. An Ecuadorian base in Miami? Absurd. No one on the planet could take such a suggestion seriously.
On the other hand, when it comes to the U.S. having a major base in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian land that not one in a million Americans has ever heard of, that's no laughing matter. After all, Washington has been paying $20 million a year in direct rent for the use of that country's Manas Air Base (and, as indirect rent, another $80 million has gone to various Kyrgyzstani programs). As late as last October, the Pentagon was planning to sink another $100 million into construction at Manas"to expand aircraft parking areas at the base and provide a 'hot cargo pad' -- an area safe enough to load and unload hazardous and explosive cargo -- to be located away from inhabited facilities." That, however, was when things started to go wrong. Now, Kyrgyzstan's parliament has voted to expel the U.S. from Manas within six months, a serious blow to our resupply efforts for the Afghan War. More outrageous yet to Washington, the Kyrgyzstanis seem to have done this at the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has the nerve to want to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in what used to be the borderlands of the old Soviet Union.
Put in a nutshell, despite the crumbling U.S. economic situation and the rising costs of the Afghan War, we still act as if we live on a one-way planet. Some country demanding a base in the U.S.? That's a joke or an insult, while the U.S. potentially gaining or losing a base almost anywhere on the planet may be an insult, but it's never a laughing matter.
Imperial Thought: Recently, to justify those missile attacks in Pakistan, U.S. officials have been leaking details on the program's"successes" to reporters. Anonymous officials have offered the "possibly wishful estimate" that the CIA" covert war" has led to the deaths (or capture) of 11 of al Qaeda's top 20 commanders, including, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report,"Abu Layth al-Libi, whom U.S. officials described as 'a rising star' in the group."
"Rising star" is such an American phrase, melding as it does imagined terror hierarchies with the lingo of celebrity tabloids. In fact, one problem with Empire-speak, and imperial thought more generally, is the way it prevents imperial officials from imagining a world not in their own image. So it's not surprising that, despite their best efforts, they regularly conjure up their enemies as a warped version of themselves -- hierarchical, overly reliant on leaders, and top heavy.
In the Vietnam era, for instance, American officials spent a remarkable amount of effort sending troops to search for, and planes to bomb, the border sanctuaries of Cambodia and Laos on a fruitless hunt for COSVN (the so-called Central Office for South Vietnam), the supposed nerve center of the communist enemy, aka"the bamboo Pentagon." Of course, it wasn't there to be found, except in Washington's imperial imagination.
In the Af-Pak"theater," we may be seeing a similar phenomenon. Underpinning the CIA killer-drone program is a belief that the key to combating al-Qaeda (and possibly the Taliban) is destroying its leadership one by one. As key Pakistani officials have tried to explain, the missile attacks, which have indeed killed some al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures (as well as whoever was in their vicinity), are distinctly counterproductive. The deaths of those figures in no way compensates for the outrage, the destabilization, the radicalization that the attacks engender in the region. They may, in fact, be functionally strengthening each of those movements.
What it's hard for Washington to grasp is this:"decapitation," to use another American imperial term, is not a particularly effective strategy with a decentralized guerrilla or terror organization. The fact is a headless guerrilla movement is nowhere near as brainless or helpless as a headless Washington would be.
Only recently, Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez of the New York Timesreported that, while top U.S. officials were exhibiting optimism about the effectiveness of the missile strikes, Pakistani officials were pointing to"ominous signs of Al Qaeda's resilience" and suggesting"that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes... The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that Al Qaeda had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting 'to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups' within Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Imperial Dreams and Nightmares: Americans have rarely liked to think of themselves as"imperial," so what is it about Rome in these last years? First, the neocons, in the flush of seeming victory in 2002-2003 began to imagine the U.S. as a"new Rome" (or new British Empire), or as Charles Krauthammer wrote as early as February 2001 in Time Magazine,"America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome."
All roads on this planet, they were then convinced, led ineluctably to Washington. Now, of course, they visibly don't, and the imperial bragging about surpassing the Roman or British empires has long since faded away. When it comes to the Afghan War, in fact, those (resupply)"roads" seem to lead, embarrassingly enough, through Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Iran. But the comparison to conquering Rome evidently remains on the brain.
When, for instance, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post recently, drumming up support for the revised, age-of-Obama American mission in Afghanistan, he just couldn't help starting off with an inspiring tale about the Romans and a small Italian city-state, Locri, that they conquered. As he tells it, the ruler the Romans installed in Locri, a rapacious fellow named Pleminius, proved a looter and a tyrant. And yet, Mullen assures us, the Locrians so believed in"the reputation for equanimity and fairness that Rome had built" that they sent a delegation to the Roman Senate, knowing they could get a hearing, and demanded restitution; and indeed, the tyrant was removed.
Admittedly, this seems a far-fetched analogy to the U.S. in Afghanistan (and don't for a second mix up Pleminius, that rogue, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even though the Obama-ites evidently now believe him corrupt and replaceable). Still, as Mullen sees it, the point is:"We don't always get it right. But like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to earn trust. And that makes all the difference."
Mullen is, it seems, the Aesop of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in his somewhat overheated brain, we evidently remain the conquering (but just)"early" Romans -- before, of course, the fatal rot set in.
And then there's the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks, a superb reporter who, in his latest book, gives voice to the views of Centcom Commander David Petraeus. Reflecting on Iraq, where he (like the general) believes we could still be fighting in"2015," Ricks begins a recent Post piece this way:
"In October 2008, as I was finishing my latest book on the Iraq war, I visited the Roman Forum during a stop in Italy. I sat on a stone wall on the south side of the Capitoline Hill and studied the two triumphal arches at either end of the Forum, both commemorating Roman wars in the Middle East... The structures brought home a sad realization: It's simply unrealistic to believe that the U.S. military will be able to pull out of the Middle East… It was a week when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean -- following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans and the British."
With the waning of British power, Ricks continues, it"has been the United States' turn to take the lead there." And our turn, as it happens, just isn't over yet. Evidently that, at least, is the view from our imperial capital and from our military viceroys out on the peripheries.
Honestly, Freud would have loved these guys. They seem to channel the imperial unconscious. Take David Petraeus. For him, too, the duties and dangers of empire evidently weigh heavily on the brain. Like a number of key figures, civilian and military, he has lately begun to issue warnings about Afghanistan's dangers. As the Washington Postreported,"[Petraeus] suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan. 'Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires,' he said. 'We cannot take that history lightly.'"
Of course, he's worrying about the graveyard aspect of this, but what I find curious -- exactly because no one thinks it odd enough to comment on here -- is the functional admission in the use of this old adage about Afghanistan that we fall into the category of empires, whether or not in search of a graveyard in which to die.
And he's not alone in this. Secretary of Defense Gates put the matter similarly recently:"Without the support of the Afghan people, Gates said, the U.S. would simply 'go the way of every other foreign army that's ever been in Afghanistan.'"
Imperial Blindness: Think of the above as just a few prospective entries in The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak that will, of course, never be compiled. We're so used to such language, so inured to it and to the thinking behind it, so used, in fact, to living on a one-way planet in which all roads lead to and from Washington, that it doesn't seem like a language at all. It's just part of the unexamined warp and woof of everyday life in a country that still believes it normal to garrison the planet, regularly fight wars halfway across the globe, find triumph or tragedy in the gain or loss of an air base in a country few Americans could locate on a map, and produce military manuals on counterinsurgency warfare the way a do-it-yourself furniture maker would produce instructions for constructing a cabinet from a kit.
We don't find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running" covert wars" in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view. We're inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that go with it.
If The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak were ever produced, who here would buy it? Who would feel the need to check out what seems like the only reasonable and self-evident language for describing the world? How else, after all, would we operate? How else would any American in a position of authority talk in Washington or Baghdad or Islamabad or Rome?
So it undoubtedly seemed to the Romans, too. And we know what finally happened to their empire and the language that went with it. Such a language plays its role in normalizing the running of an empire. It allows officials (and in our case the media as well) not to see what would be inconvenient to the smooth functioning of such an enormous undertaking. Embedded in its words and phrases is a fierce way of thinking (even if we don't see it that way), as well as plausible deniability. And in the good times, its uses are obvious.
On the other hand, when the normal ways of empire cease to function well, that same language can suddenly work to blind the imperial custodians -- which is, after all, what the foreign policy"team" of the Obama era is -- to necessary realities. At a moment when it might be important to grasp what the"American face" in the mirror actually looks like, you can't see it.
And sometimes what you can't bring yourself to see can, as now, hurt you.
Posted on: Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 20:20
SOURCE: NYT blog (2-26-09)
“And you and I will end the war.”
In early March 1969, after aides complained they had not yet met the new president, the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, arranged for Richard Nixon to talk to his National Security Council staff, of which I was a holdover from the Johnson administration. There were only 20 or so of us there, less than a quarter the size of the mini-foreign ministry the council would become under Kissinger and later administrations. We gathered expectantly in the Cabinet Room, hoping for some personal impression of the man now in the Oval Office. We were not disappointed.
Nixon walked in, tanned and smiling after a weekend in Florida, though typically ill at ease as he moved through quick handshake introductions. He began brief remarks with self-conscious ingratiation, commiserating with the staff for having to deal with what he called “all those impossible fags” in the State Department, oblivious that most in the room were Foreign Service officers on temporary assignment. “Ignore the bureaucrats,” he told them after a swift, fluent run-down of international trouble spots. “I want you to handle the rest of the world.” Turning to Kissinger, he added softly, in what seemed as much an intimacy as a boast, “And you and I will end the war.”
For a moment there was guarded silence, as if we had overheard a private confidence. Then the staff broke into warm applause, and Nixon, visibly surprised yet pleased, abruptly left. Many of the men there that day prided themselves on their worldliness. None could have guessed the irony of what they had seen.
The Vietnam war. No hope so followed Richard Nixon into office as the national yearning to end it. No issue would so haunt and consume his presidency from the first hundred days through the next four years. Though the he enjoyed that winter of 1969, a political honeymoon with the press, public and Congress, the war that drove Lyndon Johnson from office raged on, killing 1,200 Americans and untold Vietnamese every month.
Nixon’s 1968 election victory owed much to his ringing if vague promise to stop the war, as well as to the divisions over Vietnam that split the camp of his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, and the country at large. “We will end this one and win the peace,” Nixon pledged in a constant campaign line, avoiding specifics on grounds of not interfering with a sitting president, but giving the clear impression he had a plan. He seemed under no illusion about his political stakes. “If the war goes on six months after I become president,” he told The Times’s Harrison Salisbury, “it will be my war.” He was determined “not to end up like L.B.J., holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face in the street. I’m going to stop the war — fast.”
After two decades on the national scene, including eight years as vice president and extensive travel abroad, foreign policy was seen as the new president’s forte as well as first priority. His press conference after a February 1969 trip to Europe The Times pronounced a “tour de force” — part of a chorus of national media acclaim, including one editorial headlined “Mission Accomplished.” It was understood from Kissinger background briefings that the European talks dealt with ending the war and the administration was working intensively on “Vietnam withdrawal scenarios.” At a March 4 press conference, the president hinted broadly at United States troop reductions. Asked about reawakened public protest if the war wore on “for months or even years,” he replied offhandedly, “Well, I trust that I am not confronted with that problem, when you speak of years.”
As with most of Richard Nixon’s first hundred days, the reality of Vietnam policy behind the public façade was starkly different. Even as he was treating questions about a prompt peace as if it were a foregone conclusion, Nixon’s private resolve was to win the war — or at least to avoid the appearance of losing it — even if it took as long as the remainder of his term. Soon after they arrived in office, White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman scribbled one of the president’s frequent and typical ruminations:
VN [Vietnam] enemy
Misjudges two things
—the time—has 3 years + 3 mo
—the man—won’t be first P to lose war
“Once Nixon was installed in the presidency, the promised stopping of the war was stood on its head to become one of prolonging it,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in “The March of Folly.” “The new president was as unwilling as his predecessor to accept non-success in the war aim and as fixed in the belief that additional force could bring the enemy to terms.”
Strategy took shape in the first secret “policy reviews” of a National Security Council dominated by Nixon and Kissinger, whose foreign policy dictates were absolute from the outset. To blunt domestic protest, they would begin American troop withdrawals. To coerce and subdue North Vietnam, something Johnson had not accomplished with 500,000 American troops, they would intensify bombing and vastly expand the forces of South Vietnam, a process known as “Vietnamization.”
Early visitors to his basement office in the White House that winter often advised Henry Kissinger not to fall into past errors in Vietnam. “We won’t repeat the old mistakes,” he would reply. “We’ll make new ones.” Typically clever, the quip proved tragically both true and false as they pursued the war for four more years in Vietnam with American forces on the ground, and for years beyond with bombing and billions in aid in conflicts open and covert across Southeast Asia.
As for new mistakes, Nixon and Kissinger would leave their own legacy with the unprecedented bombing in Cambodia as well as Vietnam, the fitful negotiations with North and South Vietnam involving treachery on all sides, an American invasion of Cambodia, a disastrous South Vietnamese invasion of Laos, and at home a bitter reaction to dissent that ultimately led to the ruin of the Nixon presidency.
At the same time, sure that their two-man rule was superior to the conventional foreign policy regime of politicians and bureaucracy they both deplored, they repeated the blunders of America’s past quarter century in Asia. Like their predecessors, they made policy in cultural-historical ignorance of Vietnam, mistaking its place in the geopolitics of the cold war and underestimating North Vietnam’s stake and will in uniting the divided country. Like officials before them, they took a corrupt regime in the South, spawned by war and American money, for a vital interest of the United States, and pursued manifestly failed policies on contrived grounds of strategic necessity, national honor and partisan compulsion.
The inner effects of the war policy were virulent. The administration was scarcely 50 days old when the President ordered the first secret bombing of Cambodia, with successive waves in April and May. There were soon dark hints to Russia and other powers that the United States exit would involve some brutal escalation of the war if North Vietnam were not forced to settle. “The train has left the station,” Kissinger, on Nixon’s instructions, warned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in one early off-the-record meeting, “and is roaring down the tracks.”
On May 9, The Times’s William Beecher broke the story of the Cambodian bombing, arousing relatively little public reaction but fresh tirades in a White House already enraged at leaks of classified information. As early as April 25, Kissinger had been summoned to the Oval Office to discuss how to stop the leaks with Nixon and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover — “two maniacs trying to outdo each other,” as Kissinger once described the frequent Nixon-Hoover meetings. Ahead lay the infamous wiretaps on journalists and officials, including Kissinger’s own staff, and a twisting sequence leading to the White House “plumbers” and the crimes of Watergate.
Meanwhile, the inherent inconsistencies in the war policy spiraled out in blood and betrayal. Troop reductions, first announced in June, did not long stay domestic protest, further hardening of the self-destructive siege mentality in the White House. Withdrawal from ground combat did work to reinforce the North’s grim determination to outlast the Americans, despite more punishing bombing. Just as predictably, the drawdown ate at the already infirm morale of South Vietnam, and the political-diplomatic intractability of the Saigon regime grew as its position worsened. By the first anniversary of the Nixon Inaugural, 150,000 American troops would be scheduled to leave over the course of 1970, with more to follow. The war had become, wrote one historian, “a race between Vietnamization and the withdrawals.”
Over the winter of 1969-’70, there would be the first of the ultra-secret Paris talks between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese, negotiations that got far nearer a settlement than any account has ever indicated. Yet they were shattered by a military junta overthrowing King Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia. It was that coup, along with the United States bombings and May 1970 invasion of Cambodia, that fired the rise of the once-minor Khmer Rouge, ending in the holocaust of the killing fields.
Military escalation, whether in bombing or a quick punitive invasion of Cambodia (what a later era might call a “surge”), was the paradoxical urge of the combined coercion and exit. “Tulips in Arlington,” was what N.S.C. staff members called the Pentagon’s perennial proposals for a military solution to the problem at hand. When Kissinger assembled his own planners in the autumn of 1969 to consider an all-out punishing blow against North Vietnam —“I can’t believe a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point,” he told aides — attack scenarios, including use of a nuclear weapon to close the main supply route from China, were at hand in the files of the N.S.C.’s military liaison officers. It was a reminder that the Nixon-Kissinger policy was never simply the product of two men, however powerful, but of a broader culture in government that either acquiesced in or actively supported their policy.
It was all to climax in a flurry of savage B-52 bombing and serpentine Kissinger diplomacy in the winter of 1972-1973; and then, with Congressional prohibitions on American bombing and aid, the defeat of a collapsing South in 1975, an end far worse than might have been had by negotiation in 1969.
In the meantime, of course, Nixon had been overwhelmingly reelected, his troop withdrawals conquering protest in the end, but then only to suffer his own fall in Watergate, a besieged president holed up in the White House after all. Among his legacies would be more than 20,000 of the 58,195 names on the long black wall of Washington’s Vietnam Memorial. In 1995, Vietnam finally announced casualty figures of four million civilians dead, North and South, and more than a million military, the toll of their own share of wantonness and folly.
For all the obvious differences in men and moment, how Richard Nixon dealt with Vietnam leaves haunting questions for the Obama administration as the new president has announced his own exit from Iraq and a policy review in Afghanistan. Are the policy makers of 2009 in the Middle East and South Asia free of the cultural-historical ignorance that haunted their forerunners in Southeast Asia? Is the new presidency free of the old Washington demons at last — the mistaking of national interest, habits of overreaction, the illusions of omnipotence, the cognitive dissonance at evidence of failure or futility, the military’s preference for the military solution, the absence of reflective thought, the failure to reach out beyond the supposed experts of bureaucracy or establishment for another sensibility and perspective?
Exorcised or not, ghosts of Vietnam hover over the Obama foreign policy, not least in key officials like former National Security Adviser James L. Jones Jr. and the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke — men whose formative career experiences were in Vietnam, and who have not yet told us what they think of the chilling relevance of that history to what they now face.
One parallel is plain as early as the first hundred days. As with Richard Nixon and Vietnam, Barack Obama’s political fate will be inextricably tied to the wars he inherits.
Posted on: Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 20:04
SOURCE: OpenDemocracy (2-25-09)
What happens in the People's Republic of China (PRC) often seems on the surface to confirm just what students of the country have been expecting - yet with a twist thrown in that catches them off-guard. It looks as if 2009 will require getting used to this sense of predictability tinged with surprise.
A case in point is the proliferation of major anniversaries this year - among them the Tibetan uprising (1959) in March, the May 4th Movement (1919), the climax of the Tiananmen protests (1989) in June, and the founding of the republic (1949) in October. What is notable here is the way that the anticipated timing of one or two of these commemorative moments has already been subverted (see "The Year China Jumped the Gun", Nation, 12 January 2009). An aspect of this is the early and unusual appearance of the words "China" and "boycott" (the standard Chinese term is dizhi) in many news stories.
Here's just one example relating to an upcoming anniversary (chosen because it has become entangled with boycott talk). It always seemed likely that a bold new document of dissent would emerge in 2009 as the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989 neared - but "Charter 08" (just the sort of text most people were anticipating) came out, as its name indicates, in December 2008 (see Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China", 5 January 2009).
Charter 08 has become more than a document; it is also an online petition with the aim of pressuring the government to reopen debates on comprehensive political reform (as opposed to the incremental kind discussed since 1989). The disputes it has engendered are evident across a wide range of media and forms of action - and, significantly, are often expressed in the language of boycott (see, for example, Shirong Chen, "China TV faces propaganda charge" [BBC News, 12 January 2009], and "Peking University Law School Requires Student to Boycott ‘Charter 08'" [China Digital Times, 25 January 2009]).
Why significant? It is in part, again, timing (spring has often been a more popular season for China-related boycotts than winter); but in part too because of the way that both long-term patterns and short-term factors combine to make the language of boycott itself a shaping force in current arguments over China's political direction.
The trigger of history
The short-term factors are clear. There was a lot of dizhi argument around China in 2008 - on all sides. The demand for boycotting something was made at various times to foreign leaders (to refuse to attend the Beijing Olympics, in displeasure over Darfur, Tibet, or other issues) and to their citizens (to refuse to buy goods made in China, on account of safety concerns). It was also made of PRC citizens in regard to the purchase of French goods (in protest against the rough treatment of a disabled Chinese athlete in Paris when she was carrying the Olympic torch, and against Nicolas Sarkozy's feting of the Dalai Lama) and to watching CNN, for disparaging comments one broadcaster made about Beijing's leaders, among other reasons). The Olympics may have passed, but the discourse of boycott was widespread enough to make some form of continuation in 2009 inevitable.
The long-term historical patterns are intriguing, in that boycotts played a key role in a number of the many Chinese anniversaries to be marked in 2009. This is especially true of the hallowed May 4th Movement in 1919: the commemoration of an event that looms at least as large in the Chinese patriotic imagination as the Boston Tea Party does in the American one - and shares with its Massachusetts counterpart the centrality of a boycott.
Posted on: Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 14:35