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.
In the debate over universal healthcare, one question has rarely been asked of its supporters: “What examples from U. S. history support the transfer of funds and power from private to government control?” In other words, do we have historical precedents for subsidizing businesses, or having them taken over by government, which then improved American lives?
I know of no peacetime example that would encourage those who want to put our healthcare system–roughly one-sixth of the U. S. economy–under government direction. No supporter of healthcare has come forth with a single example of such a transfer improving the quality of American society.
Let’s review some historical examples. President George Washington experimented with government control when he advocated federally funding a new fur company to occupy the northwest territory and thereby help prevent the British from encroaching on U. S. land through their large Hudson Bay Company. Unfortunately, Indians and trappers alike despised the inefficient government fur company, and under President Monroe the U. S. disbanded the near bankrupt company, sold its assets, and allowed the more competent private U. S. companies to do all the nation’s fur trading.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed a bill to build the country’s first transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. The federal government would do the financing. After granting roughly $60 million in land and another $60 million in federal loans, the bureaucrats were in dismay. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific had done a poor job of construction, and the road went bankrupt several times by the end of the 1800s.
Airplanes were another example. By 1900, some Americans worried that Europeans would invent the airplane and possibly use it to dominate others (including the U. S.) militarily. Government support, so the argument went, was therefore essential to stimulate Americans to inventive greatness. Samuel Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institution, received a federal subsidy to continue his research into manned flight. Langley conducted two public experiments with his federal dollars–launches right outside of Washington, D. C. Unfortunately, both flights crashed ignominiously into the Potomac River. Within two weeks after the second launch, the Wright Brothers–two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio–flew the first successful airplane in North Carolina, financing the venture with $2,000 of their own money.
For some reason, federal subsidy and control often diminish the chance of an enterprise being successful. In some cases, this occurs because federal officials do not have the same abilities as entrepreneurs–or the same incentives, to make an enterprise run efficiently and profitably. Another reason is federal control equals political control of some kind. What is best for politicians politically is not often what is best for businesses economically. Polticians want to win votes, and they can do so by giving targeted voters benefits while dispersing costs to others.
During the New Deal era of the 1930s, for example, some observers were amazed that in the midst of massive government programs to build bridges, erect school buildings, and conserve forest land, that unemployment fluctuated and remained at more than 20 percent in 1939–ten years after the Great Depression began. Why, in the midst of such visible job-creation, was unemployment so inflated?
First, President Roosevelt was targeting these jobs to districts he wanted to carry politically. The money was not necessarily going where it was most needed. Second, to get these federal dollars, they had to be taken from taxpayers and in doing that, the top marginal tax rate jumped from 25 to 63 percent in 1932; then to 79 percent in 1935; and finally–in the midst of World War II–to 94 percent in 1945. What incentives do businessmen have to invest when most of their profits are confiscated by government? Thus, politicians not only misuse much of the money to secure votes, but they stifle entrepreneurs from starting new businesses that would employ Americans and end high unemployment.
That oddity of massive government job-creation leading to higher unemployment brings us to the present and helps explain why President Bush’s “stimulus package” of $154 billion actually helped lead to increased unemployment and why President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package last year led to even more unemployment. The created jobs were often political rewards; key parts of the economy remained unstimulated, and entrepreneurs–with the prospect of new taxes–had no incentive to invest and create the real jobs this country needs.
Asking the right questions focuses attention in the right direction: What federal subsidies and takeovers have ever improved the prosperity or quality of life for most American citizens? Until health care advocates, cap and trade supporters, and stimulus package gurus can answer that question clearly and with persuasive evidence we should reject further federal intrusion in the U. S. economy.
Posted on: Friday, January 29, 2010 - 19:21
SOURCE: Commentary (1-28-10)
Not surprisingly, given how little room he devoted to foreign affairs, the State of the Union address was more remarkable for what he didn’t say than for what he did. This was his message on Afghanistan: “We are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.” Really? That’s why he sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing our troop total eventually to some 100,000 — so they can come home? If that was the goal, why not keep them in the United States? Obviously there are pressing reasons why the lives of these soldiers are being risked in combat, but Obama did not spell them out. He should have, because his West Point address raised more questions than it answered about what end-state the U.S. is seeking and what specific policies should be enacted to achieve it. But he did nothing to dispel that confusion, which is prevalent among U.S. commanders on the ground, as well as among both our allies and enemies in the region....
I would have thought that by now Obama, like most presidents, would have made the pivot toward foreign policy — that he would have realized he needs to focus more on dealing with real crises abroad rather than manufactured crises, such as health care, at home. Judging by this State of the Union, that hasn’t happened yet.
Posted on: Thursday, January 28, 2010 - 13:19
SOURCE: OpEdNews (1-26-10)
Howard Zinn is a historian, author, social activist, and American icon. His book"A People's History of the United States" has sold over two million copies. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Howard. The dust has had a chance to settle a bit since last month's airing of your documentary"The People Speak." What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
We've received lots of nice messages on"The People Speak." The History Channel tells us that eight million people have seen part or all of the film, and two million on the first night it was shown (apparently they have no way of telling if a viewer cuts out on the program). It will be on the History Channel again February 22nd and March 1st....
...[W]ould you like to comment on the Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down corporate campaign finance limits?
Liberals get excited about things like that as if they signal a dramatic change. No, the corporations ran our elections before the decision and will do so now -- just with a fig leaf of"legality." The designation of corporations as"persons" which started in 1886 is just proof of how our legal system, the Constitution, the courts have always been tools of the wealthy classes....
On the international front, Haiti recently suffered a devastating earthquake. At this point, we still don't know how many people died as rescue and medical efforts continue. Americans have a notoriously short attention span and aren't generally interested in other nations' history. If we were to look beyond the corruption of Duvalier father and son, we would see that America had a hand in making Haiti what it is today, wouldn't we?
Haiti is one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. foreign policy because Haiti is a neighbor (as is Cuba, where a similar relationship has persisted) and we have treated Haiti with cruelty all through our history. When it became the first independent black Republic in this hemisphere, defeating the Napoleonic army, the administration of Thomas Jefferson (ironically, author of our Declaration of Independence) refused to recognize it.
And in the early 20th century, repeated Marine excursions to put down rebellions, and in 1916, the supposed"idealist" and proclaimer of"self-determination" Woodrow Wilson sent an occupation army, killing several thousand Haitians who would not accept our rule. The occupation lasted eighteen years.
And since then, as you note, support of the Duvalier dictatorship. And hostility to Aristide the first democratically elected president. And for some time now, strangling Haiti economically, and ruining its rice crop for the benefit of U.S. exporters. If we weren't spending hundreds of billions on stupid wars, we could have made much of Port-Au-Prince less vulnerable to natural disasters.
Posted on: Thursday, January 28, 2010 - 13:11
SOURCE: Economic Times (1-25-10)
[Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Ziegler Professor at Harvard Business School. This interview appeared in the Economic Times.]
You have held the position that the financial crisis has not entirely played itself out. How long more do you think there is to go and why do you think so?
In the sense that there are still significant problems in the US financial system and the European financial system, there are substantial losses in commercial real estate in the US. There are substantial amounts of money that are still, it seems to me, have to be written off by European banks. So, for that reason alone, losses will continue to hit banks throughout 2010. Secondly, an increasingly improvised reconstructive response, of which the Volcker plan is a recent example, will, in fact, undermine confidence in the financial sector. Which is why we saw a sell of stocks immediately after the Obama announcement.
Thirdly, the fiscal consequences of Obama’s response to the crisis are almost certainly going to have costs. If you have a massive explosion of public debt, one consequence is likely to be upward pressure on long-term interest rates, which must act as a drag on the economy....
You said you are more an India bull than a China bull. What are your reasons?
I think, in the short term, there are reasons to be nervous. Chinese-led credit growth spun out of control last year and I think there has to be more tightening to prevent bubbles in the real estate and stock markets....
And one reason that I’m long on India than China is that India has a better institutional basis of development than China does. I think that representative government, rule of law, meaningful private property — these are key to success. They were keys to western success.
China doesn’t have these things. In the end, if you don’t have these things, you are just a planned economy with a market wrapped around that.
Look at what Soviet Union was in the 1930s. If you went there in 1936, you would be very impressed — they were building huge canals, buildings, highways, large cities and what not. But it became clear by the 1970s that the negative externalities of industrialisation were huge and the impact of population control and central planning were negative. And sure enough, Russia fell apart. Now, I’m not saying that it’s going to happen in China any time soon. But if you take a 20-year timeline, China has huge demographic problems. If you look at the environmental costs of their development, it’s huge....
Whereas in India, all that is really needed, and I know this sounds terribly simplistic, is improving primary and secondary education for a majority of people and improving infrastructure. And then let the markets rip. Indians are very entrepreneurial. Everywhere you go, people are selling stuff, even if it is only a pile of spices. I think unlocking the entrepreneurial energy of India will lift a large number of people out of poverty....
The classic newspaper headline in Europe or in the US is “The crisis of capitalism”. Magazines will say ‘The end of free markets’ or ‘Capitalism falls from grace’. That’s the kind of classic media simplification. There isn’t any credible alternative to capitalism out there. Even the Chinese recognise that Capitalism is the most efficient way of organising a modern economy. What is at stake here is not whether or not capitalism has a future. What is at stake is how exactly we should regulate market mechanisms and how big the role of the state should be. I think from that point of view, only a surprisingly little separates diverse positions. Because those who are Keynesians and proponents of large deficit finance stimulus programs aren’t against capitalism, they just accept Keynes’ modification that at times of a severe contraction in demand, the state ought to step in....
My argument about the US, between 2003 and now, has been that while the global economy needed a liberal empire to underwrite economic gaps and to spread a commitment towards economic freedom, the US is unlikely to play that role very well because of three deficits: financial, manpower and attention.
The difference between China and the US couldn’t be starker. The Chinese have a massive financial surplus, not a deficit. They have a massive manpower surplus. And they certainly don’t have an attention deficit. They have a very long-term gameplan and the plan is to use their accumulated surpluses to acquire large amounts of the world’s commodities. Sub-Saharan Africa is part of that strategy, and so is to an extent part of South America....
So, if the world is going to become a Chinese world in the next 25-50 years, I don’t think that is a very promising scenario. I’d rather have American power perpetuate because for all its faults. It is a power that is fundamentally committed to the spread of economic and political freedoms.
And you have not revised this position despite the messy war in Iraq and the engagement in Afghanistan?
...I don’t think my position has changed. I have been critical of President Bush to the extent of arguing that the Republicans should vote for Kerry in 2004. But I think the fundamental objective remains correct. The United States cannot just sit back and pretend that it does not have global responsibilities. It does. And not just for self-interested reasons, but also I think as a principle, it includes transforming failed states into functional states....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 18:51
SOURCE: National Review Online (1-27-10)
The populist anger that, in sequential fashion, accounted for Bush’s drop in the polls, Republicans’ loss of majority status in Congress, and Obama’s winning the presidency, was predicated on unhappiness with the war, out-of-control federal spending and deficits, congressional corruption, and Wall Street.
Obama & Co., however, have trumped Bush on most of those counts: They have quadrupled the deficit; Geithner, Dodd, and Rangel have shown an even more cavalier attitude toward the law than certain congressional Republicans did; and Obama has surpassed Bush in bailouts and guarantees to the big banks.
In short, I don’t think those who are angry about out-of-control federal spending and the proposed government takeover of healthcare see Obama as a fellow traveler...
It was fanciful for the president on the eve of this week's election to warn that the direction of his agenda would be predicated on the outcome in Massachusetts — and then, roughly 24 hours later, send his operatives out to assure everyone that Scott Brown's victory had not much to do with anything in Washington.
When the most interviewed, photographed, and talkative president in recent history insists that his problems are a result of neglecting to communicate with the American people ("We lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people"), something seems unhinged.
All that deception and contradiction do nothing to mitigate the popular outrage against Obama's broken promises on everything from airing the healthcare debate on C-Span to closing down Guantanamo this week. The growing denial of reality is really hard to juxtapose with the effectiveness of Obama's 2008 campaign; it almost reminds one of Nixon's slick 1972 CREEP campaign followed by his descent into "Let me be perfectly clear" denials during much of 1973. Perhaps, in a way, it all makes perfect sense: The arrogance instilled by a successful campaign leads to excess that finishes in nemesis....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 17:50
SOURCE: The Free Press (1-27-10)
The Supreme Court's atrocious Citizen's United green light for unlimited corporate campaign spending had a willing accomplice---the American Civil Liberties Union.
As long-time supporters, we are horrified by the ACLU's betrayal of political reality and plain common sense.
Standing proudly with the victorious corporate hacks on the steps of the SCOTUS was none other than the legendary First Amendment crusader Floyd Abrams....
But perhaps the organization has confused those valid First Amendment cases with a Citizen's United decision perpetrated by the most virulent judicial opponents of individual speech in the history of the Court. In reference to this case the ACLU says it "has consistently taken the position that section 203 is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it permits the suppression of core political speech, and our amicus brief takes that position again."
We respectfully---but vehemently---disagree. Simply put: money is not speech, corporations are not people....
The moneyed power of these corporations and their access to the First Amendment through the myth of "personhood" has been the ultimate pox on American politics since the 1880s....
We are confident the activist community can survive this latest assault on democracy. It will not be easy, but it can be done.
A good first step would be for the ACLU to face reality and now oppose the false claims anti-human money machines have made on our sacred Bill of Rights.
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 17:13
SOURCE: Huffington Post (1-27-10)
While President Obama addresses the US Congress in his historic State of the Union tonight, our nation will sit back and burn an estimated 115,000 tons of coal. Close to 250,000 tons of CO2 will be released from coal-fired plants during the hourlong presentation; hundreds of pounds of toxic mercury emissions will enter our air, and inevitably, into the lives of our children.
As we watch the President on our televisions and computer screens generated by coal-fired electricity, arsenic from coal ash, along with boron, selenium and lead, will quietly seep into our watersheds. Drawing from American Lung Association estimates, three American citizens will die prematurely during the State of the Union due to illnesses related to coal-fired plant pollution; three coal miners will also die today from black lung disease. Millions of tax dollars will be allocated in this single hour to cover the external health care and environmental costs of coal.
And the deadly myth of the Saudi Arabia of coal will burn on....
(I write now as a cultural historian, and the grandson of a union coal miner who barely survived a cave-in, and suffered from black lung disease; and, as someone who has not only chronicled the two centuries of economic despair and displacement in the coalfields, but witnessed the destruction of his family's nearly 200-year-old historic homestead and waterways on the edge of a federally recognized Wilderness Area from stripmining in Illinois.)
When George Washington addressed the US Congress in the first State of the Union in 1790, hundreds of black slaves toiled like human bulldozers, chains "fastened by straps around his breast, which he hooks to the corve, and thus harnessed, and in a stooping posture, he drags his heavy load over the ﬂoor of rock." The death toll of slaves in the coal mines for over a century was horrific.
And yet, the energy demands--and economic development and profits--of our growing nation outweighed Washington's call for the US Congress to apply some foresight to the future welfare of American citizens. As early as 1790, a Philadelphia newspaper lamented: "The increasing scarcity and dearness of ﬁrewood indicates the absolute necessity of attending in the future to the coal mines of this country."
Even in the land of Lincoln, and Obama, the US Congress allowed Illinois to insert a loophole in the state's 1818 constitution for legal slavery in the salt wells and adjacent coal mines.
Yes, Virginia, Illinois was a slave state.
Recognizing that more than one-third of the state's tax revenues came from the salt wells fueled by coal mining, the anti-slavery advocates capitulated to the demands of the slave-owning companies. In essence, the inalienable rights of man in other free states came in a distant second to the power of the tax revenues for Illinois's emancipationists.
This deceptive argument of economic gain and necessity from coal has been saddled to our energy policies for 200 years....
Here in the Saudi Arabia of coal, we hope our nation will learn and recognize our history, and act on it, as George Washington declared in his first State of the Union: "By convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burdens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society."
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 16:54
SOURCE: The Root (1-25-10)
America’s ambivalence about a black republic of former slaves in this hemisphere manifested itself at the time the revolt broke out in 1791. St. Domingue (the indigenous people called it “Haiti”) was “the pearl of the Antilles;” trade with the island “accounted for a third of France’s external commerce,” as Donald Hickey argues. “When news of the slave revolt reached the United States,” Hickey writes, “the first impulse of the Federalist administration was to aid the white planters.” The government, led by George Washington, advanced the French planters $726,000, sold them arms and ammunition, American merchants sold them food, and some Americans even fought against the rebels. But “the official government aid, however, came to an end in 1793 when the planter regime in the colony collapses and the blacks established control over most of the island.” And in 1798, at Toussaint’s request, the Congress even authorized President John Adams to reopen trade with Haiti, a provision embraced by the Federalists, even southerners, and opposed by Republicans. All of that began to change when Thomas Jefferson became president.
By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862....
The American occupation of Haiti lasted between July 28, 1915, and August 15, 1934. As James Weldon Johnson concluded as early as 1920, “If the United States should leave Haiti today, it would leave more than a thousand widows and orphans of its own making, more banditry than has existed for a century, resentment, hatred and despair in the heart of a whole people, to say nothing of the irreparable injury to its own tradition as the defender of the rights of man.” As W.E.B. Du Bois, ever the speaker of truth to power, put it in a debate over American foreign policy 1930, the United States invaded Haiti to protect the financial interests of the National City Bank. The audience demanded that he be “thrown out.”...
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - 12:05
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (1-26-10)
[Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.]
Back in 2007, when General David Petraeus was the surge commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he had a penchant for clock imagery. In an interview in April of that year, he typically said: “I'm conscious of a couple of things. One is that the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.” And he wasn’t alone. Military spokespeople and others in the Bush administration right up to the president regularly seemed to hear one, two, or sometimes as many as three clocks ticking away ominously and out of sync.
Hearing some discordant ticking myself of late, I decided to retrieve Petraeus’s image from the dustbin of history. So imagine three ticking clocks, all right here in the U.S., one set to Washington time, a second to American time, and the third to Pentagon time.
In Washington -- with even the New York Times now agreeing that a “majority” of 100 is 60 (not 51) and that the Senate’s 41st vote settles everything -- the clock seems to be ticking erratically, if at all. On the other hand, that American clock, if we’re to believe the good citizens of Massachusetts, is ticking away like a bomb. Americans are impatient, angry, and “in revolt” against Washington time. That’s what the media continue to tell us in the wake of last week’s Senate upset.
Depending on which account you read, they were outraged by a nearly trillion dollar health-care reform that was also a giveaway to insurance companies, and annoyed by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley calling Curt Schilling a “Yankees fan” as well as besmirching handshaking in the cold outside Fenway Park; they were anxious about an official Massachusetts unemployment rate of 9.4% (and a higher real one), an economy that has rebounded for bankers but not for regular people, soaring deficits, staggering foreclosure rates, mega-banking bonuses, the Obama administration’s bailout of those same bankers, and its coziness with Wall Street. They were angry and impatient about a lot of things, blind angry you might say, since they were ready to vote back into office the party not in office, even if behind that party’s “new face” were ideas that would take us back to the origins of the present disaster.
A Blank Check for the Pentagon
It’s worth noting, however, that they’re not angry about everything -- and that the Washington clock, barely moving on a wide range of issues, is still ticking away when it comes to one institution. The good citizens of Massachusetts may be against free rides and bailouts for many types, but not for everybody. I’m speaking, of course, about the Pentagon, for which Congress has just passed a record new budget of $708 billion (with an Afghan war-fighting supplemental request of $33 billion, essentially a bail-out payment, still pending but sure to pass). This happened without real debate, much public notice, or even a touch of anger in Washington or Massachusetts. And keep in mind that the Pentagon’s real budget is undoubtedly close to a trillion dollars, without even including the full panoply of our national security state.
The tea-party crews don’t rail against Pentagon giveaways, nor do Massachusetts voters grumble about them. Unfettered Pentagon budgets pass in the tick-tock of a Washington clock and no one seems fazed when the Wall Street Journalreveals that military aides accompanying globe-hopping parties of congressional representatives regularly spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on snacks, drinks, and other “amenities” for them, even while, like some K Street lobbying outfit, promoting their newest weaponry. Think of it, in financial terms, as Pentagon peanuts shelled out for actual peanuts, and no one gives a damn.
It’s hardly considered news -- and certainly nothing to get angry about -- when the Secretary of Defense meets privately with the nation’s top military-industrial contractors, calls for an even “closer partnership,” and pledges to further their mutual interests by working “with the White House to secure steady growth in the Pentagon's budgets over time.” Nor does it cause a stir among the denizens of inside-the-Beltway Washington or the citizens of Massachusetts when the top ten defense contractors spend more than $27 million lobbying the federal government, as in the last quarter of 2009 (a significant increase over the previous quarter), just as plans for the president’s Afghan War surge were being prepared.
Nor is it just the angry citizens of Massachusetts, or those tea-party organizers, or Republicans stalwarts who hear no clock ticking when it comes to “national security” expenditures, who see no link between our military-industrial outlays, our perpetual wars, and our economic woes. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a bona fide liberal economist/columnist like Paul Krugman include the Pentagon and our wars in the litany of things potentially bringing this country down?
Yes, striking percentages of Americans attend the church (temple, mosque) of their choice, but when it comes to American politics and the economy, the U.S. military is our church, “national security” our Bible, and nothing done in the name of either can be wrong.
Pentagon Time Horizons
Which brings us to Pentagon time. Yes, that third clock is ticking, but at a very different tempo from those in Washington or Massachusetts.
Americans are evidently increasingly impatient for “change” of whatever sort, whether you can believe in it or not. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is patient. It’s opted for making counterinsurgency the central strategy of its war in Central and South Asia, the sort of strategy that, even if successful, experts claim could easily take a decade or two to pull off. But no problem -- not when the Pentagon’s clock is ticking on something like eternal time.
And here’s the thing: because the media are no less likely to give the Pentagon a blank check than the citizens of Massachusetts, it’s hard indeed to grasp the extent to which that institution, and the military services it represents, are planning and living by their own clock. Though major papers have Pentagon “beats,” they generally tell us remarkably little, except inadvertently and in passing, about Pentagon time.
So, for the next few minutes, just keep that Pentagon clock ticking away in your head. In the meantime, we’ll go looking for some hints about the Pentagon’s war-fighting time horizons buried in news reports on, and Pentagon contracts for, the Afghan War.
Take, as a start, a January 6th story from the inside pages of my hometown paper. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt began it this way: “The military’s effort to build a seasoned corps of expert officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates into the program, according to some senior officers and participants.” At stake was an initiative “championed” by Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal to create a “912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years.”
The news was that the program, in its infancy, was already faltering because it didn’t conform to one of the normal career paths followed in the U.S. military. But what caught my eye was that phrase “up to five years.” Imagine what it means for the war commander, backed by key figures in the Pentagon, to plan to put more than 900 soldiers, including top officers, on a career path that would leave them totally wedded, for five years, to war in the Af-Pak theater of operations. (After all, if that war were to end, the State Department might well take charge.) In other words, McChrystal was creating a potentially powerful interest group within the military whose careers would be wedded to an ongoing war with a time-line that extended into 2015 -- and who would have something to lose if it ended too quickly. What does it matter then that President Obama was proclaiming his desire to begin drawing down the war in July 2011?
Or consider the plan being proposed, according to Ann Scott Tyson, in a January 17th Washington Post piece, by Special Forces Major Jim Gant, and now getting a most respectful hearing inside the military. Gant wants to establish small Special Forces teams that would “go native,” move into Afghan villages and partner up with local tribal leaders -- “one tribe at a time,” as an influential paper he wrote on the subject was entitled. “The U.S. military,” reported Tyson, “would have to grant the teams the leeway to grow beards and wear local garb, and enough autonomy in the chain of command to make rapid decisions. Most important, to build relationships, the military would have to commit one or two teams to working with the same tribe for three to five years, Gant said.” She added that Gant has “won praise at the highest levels [of the U.S. military] for his effort to radically deepen the U.S. military's involvement with Afghan tribes --- and is being sent back to Afghanistan to do just that.” Again, another “up to five year” commitment in Afghanistan and a career path to go with it on a clock that, in Gant’s case, has yet to start ticking.
Or just to run through a few more examples:
* In August 2009, the superb Walter Pincus of the Washington Postquoted Air Force Brigadier General Walter Givhan, in charge of training the Afghan National Army Air Corps, this way: "Our goal is by 2016 to have an [Afghan] air corps that will be capable of doing those operations and the things that it needs to do to meet the security requirements of this country." Of course, that six-year timeline includes the American advisors training that air force. (And note that Givhan’s 2016 date may actually represent slippage. In January 2008, when Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell, who was then commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force, discussed the subject, he spoke of an “eight-year campaign plan” through 2015 to build up the Afghan Air Corps.)
* In a January 13th piece on Pentagon budgeting plans, Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press reported: “The Pentagon projects that war funding would drop sharply in 2012, to $50 billion” from the present at least $159 billion (mainly thanks to a projected massive draw-down of forces in Iraq), “and remain there through 2015.” Whether the financial numbers are accurate or not, the date is striking: again a five-year window.
* Or take the “train and equip” program aimed at bulking up the Afghan military and police, which will be massively staffed with U.S. military advisors (and private security contractors) and is expected to cost at least $65 billion. It’s officially slated to run from 2010-2014 by which time the combined Afghan security forces are projected to reach 400,000.
* Or consider a couple of the long-term contracts already being handed out for Afghan war work like the $158 million the Air Force has awarded to Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., for “indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rotary wing aircraft, personnel, equipment, tools, material, maintenance and supervision necessary to perform passenger and cargo air transportation services. Work will be performed in Afghanistan and is expected to start Apr. 3, 2009, to be completed by Nov. 30, 2013.” Or the Pentagon contract awarded to the private contractor SOS International primarily for translators, which has an estimated completion date of September 2014.
Ending the Pentagon’s Free Ride
Of course, this just scratches the surface of long-term Afghan War planning in the Pentagon and the military, which rolls right along, seemingly barely related to whatever war debates may be taking place in Washington. Few in or out of that city find these timelines strange, and indeed they are just symptomatic of an organization already planning for “the next war” and the ones after that, not to speak of the next generation bomber of 2018, the integrated U.S. Army battlefield surveillance system of 2025, and the drones of 2047.
This, in short, is Pentagon time and it’s we who fund that clock which ticks toward eternity. If the Pentagon gets in trouble, war-fighting or otherwise, we bail it out without serious debate or any of the anger we saw in the Massachusetts election. No one marches in the streets, or demands that Pentagon bailouts end, or votes ‘em (or at least their supporters) out of office.
In this way, no institution is more deeply embedded in American life or less accountable for its acts; Pentagon time exists enswathed in an almost religious glow of praise and veneration -- what might once have been known as “idolatry.” Until the Pentagon is forced into our financial universe, the angry, impatient one where most Americans now live, we’re in trouble. Until candidates begin losing because angry Americans reject our perpetual wars, and the perpetual war-planning that goes with them, this sort of thinking will simply continue, no matter who the “commander-in-chief” is or what he thinks he’s commanding.
It’s time for Americans to stop saluting and end the Pentagon’s free ride before America’s wars kill us.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 17:23
SOURCE: Politico (1-20-10)
A year ago, the 30-year conservative ascendancy in American politics seemed to have run its course. Barack Obama entered the White House with a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson’s liberal landslide in 1964. With huge majorities in both houses, including a supposedly “filibuster-proof” 60 votes in the Senate, and an epoch-changing economic crisis, an era in American public life appeared to end....
After a year of hard slogging, yesterday’s special election in Massachusetts made clear that reports of the demise of the Reagan Revolution were premature.
Obama’s first year as president has not only dramatized the potent institutional constraints that the U.S. government places on any would-be transformational leader—first among them the Senate, whose arcane rules guarantee disproportionate power to states with more cattle than people. A fact that explains why the United States possesses the best system of grazing subsidies in the industrialized world and the worst national health insurance....
Despite populist outrage over corporate bonuses, neither political party showed any real zest to impose substantial new regulation on the financial sector. Opting for stability over reform, Obama reappointed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke; his other key economic policy advisers, Clinton administration veterans Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, shared the former president’s embrace of a Third Way that relied on market mechanisms, rather than government action, to address the nation’s problems. Obama himself, even as he pushed a massive short-term stimulus bill, spoke early and often about deficit control....
For Reagan’s election in 1980 marked an arrival as much as a departure--the culmination of a generation-long conservative mobilization that took the right from the political wilderness in the 1950s and 1960s through a period of heady grassroots organizing in the 1970s. Reagan’s triumph owed much to the right’s persistent efforts to proselytize its ideals, pioneer new political tactics and build potent organizations....
Despite hoopla about the “Netroots” and the excitement that Obama’s historic candidacy generated in 2008, no such grassroots movement had prepared the way for a liberal reconstruction of U.S. public life.
Even with that kind of foundation, Reagan’s achievements were piecemeal and hard-bought. Obama’s road is tougher and he cannot escape the shadow of Reagan’s handiwork.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 12:14
SOURCE: Informed Comment (1-25-10)
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assert two things about the audio. First, I do not think it is genuine. Second, I think it demonstrates that Bin Laden, whether he is dead or alive, is now irrelevant.
Nothing about this 'message' smells right.
The audio's claim that Bin Laden was behind the Christmas day bombing is dubious. The modus operandi of Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bore no resemblance to that of Bin Ladin's al-Qaeda. Bin Laden plans operations for years beforehand; attempts to arrange for simultaneous large attacks or attacks on symbolic targets; and uses teams. One guy hastily recruited in an amateurish attempt that only blows up his own crotch? That isn't al-Qaeda.
Another clue: the alleged Usamah listed only one grievance, that of Palestine, and he framed it in terms of the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Wouldn't he have some concerns about the US drone strikes on the positions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the northwest of Pakistan and in Afghanistan? About Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war? If this is a recent audio, as shown by the reference to the December 25 attack, why not gloat about the attack on the CIA forward operating base by an al-Qaeda double agent only a few days afterward?...
The new audio makes no reference to Jerusalem or al-Aqsa at all, just to Gaza. It would just be uncharacteristic for Bin Laden to neglect to mention them....
I don't know if the old monster is dead, and some clever young engineers just have a program to emulate his voice, or whether he is alive and horribly disfigured (we have not seen him in an authentic video since October 2004). But I do have the severest doubts that he issued this audio message. And the interesting thing is that even if he did, almost no one in the Muslim world seems to care.
All the police work so far in the public record points to Yemen as the place Abdulmutallab was radicalized, trained and equipped for this mission. Bin Laden has no command and control capabilities in Yemen, and that his father hailed from there before moving to Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century is irrelevant. "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" is 300 guys holed up in isolated Maarib in Yemen. Bin Laden has no means to communicate with them (he no longer uses cell or satellite phones because the US can trace them). AQAP already announced that it was behind the Christmas bomb plot, and it wouldn't be like the real Bin Laden to upstage them.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 11:55
SOURCE: Huffington Post (1-25-10)
President George H.W. Bush once admitted that he was not good at the "Vision Thing." He was not able to convey a broader agenda that outlined the direction in which he wanted to move the country.
President Obama has suffered from the vision thing as well, both on national security and domestic policy. One of the distinguishing characteristics about the current Commander-in-Chief has been a reluctance to put forth arguments that explain what his White House is all about. As numerous commentators have observed, President Obama is a pragmatist, a politician who responds to events and works within the limits imposed by institutions rather than trying to shape and transform them....
Playing defense on national security can quickly turn into a huge political liability for presidents. One of the worst cases was President Lyndon Johnson, who took office in November 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson entered the White House as a product of 1950s America. He was haunted by fears of the Republican Right--a cohort in the GOP who had spent the 1950s attacking Democrats for having "lost" China to communism in 1949, for failing to pursue alleged communist spies within the U.S., and for getting the U.S. bogged down in a military stalemate in Korea. These Republicans had undermined the political advantage achieved by FDR on national security in WWII, taking control of the White House and Congress in 1952 after raising the question of whether Democrats were weak on defense. Johnson's primary response was to prove that he and Democrats were equally tough against foreign adversaries. In the process, he accelerated America's involvement in Vietnam. In the end, the move did little to protect him from conservatives, who continued to attack him for not doing enough in Vietnam while he also lost the support of liberals....
Presidents who have offered the nation a clear sense of vision on national security have often benefited politically. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President Kennedy started to move away from his hawkish campaign rhetoric of 1960 by emphasizing the centrality of negotiation with the Soviet Union. He resisted political pressure from hawks and Republicans to use force against Cuba and, despite strong conservative resistance, pushed for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Similarly, Reagan continued to champion his vision of peace through strength throughout his presidency. While his arguments did not insulate him from political opposition, his reputation among the public gave him some political room to maneuver when he accepted an opportunity to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987 over arms reduction, a move that many conservatives strongly opposed.
The ways in which presidents have handled the politics of national security is one of the central issues in my new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security--From World War II to the War on Terrorism". While my history of how politics never stopped at the water's edge reveals many dimensions to the challenges that politicians have faced when dealing with these questions and does not provide any single path toward political success, one thing is clear: presidents who don't articulate some kind of distinct national security agenda leave themselves open to continual attack from their opponents and often fall into a defensive posture while trying to formulate their policies. By trying to avoid angering everyone, they often end up pleasing no one. These presidents don't create the political conditions that are needed to pursue major policy breakthroughs in how America interacts with the world.
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010 - 16:58
SOURCE: Boston Review (1-22-10)
The inescapable truth is that “the world” never forgave Haiti for its revolution, because the slaves freed themselves.
By using the sword against their oppressors, the Haitian people turned themselves into Thomas Jefferson’s universal human beings. Yet they were feared and reviled for having done so. International political, economic, and religious ostracism, imposed by their slaveholding neighbors, followed and lasted for close to a century. Not until 1862 did the United States recognize Haiti. What country that profited from slavery could dare to be a good neighbor? The Vatican did not sign a concordat with the new nation until 1860....
A country wracked by more than a decade of invasion and revolution, then faced with financial punishment and isolation for scores of years, could not build the internal framework a strong civil society requires. This new, impoverished nation, endowed with a deeply divided class structure and seeking to survive with only the feeblest of institutions, was befriended by no one. Over time, that comfortable phrase—“misrule, poverty, and political strife”—now used to explain everything in Haiti, became more and more applicable....
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010 - 15:56
SOURCE: The End is Coming (Blog) (1-25-10)
The alleged sleeping around and battering of the highly public figure have indeed become the problem of every American; and by extension, it has become the problem of everyone on earth. With only thirteen years of professional sport under his belt, Tiger Woods has become one of the most legendary golf and dare I say sports stars of all time. It is understandable that he must deal with the unwanted attention that comes as a side-effect of wealth and power. This, however, is something public figures do not understand and indeed refuse to accept. Such is the case now with an athlete that may cause the need for other governmental bailout and such was the case in 1930s England.
The Reluctant King
George V was King of England from 1910 to 1936 and like all good things, his reign came to an abrupt end in 1936 (due to lung disease). His successor would of course be his eldest son (King Edward VIII), a man whom, we assume, had all the time in the world to prepare for this day and the incredible burdens and responsibilities that came with it. People envied his position of power and everyone saw the new monarch as one the most important and influential men in the world, that is, everyone but Edward.
On the 20th of January 1936, Edward became King of the United Kingdom and of the British Dominions as well as Emperor of India, a hefty title indeed. He was immediately an able administrator and a dignified head of state although his public persona remained wanting. Unwilling to sacrifice personal ambition and whims, Edward was never very intimate with the media of the time and indeed took decisions that pushed newspapers into the realm of destructive gossip and wild speculation. He was declared “pro-Nazi’, secretly at first and eventually, it was shouted from the rooftops. Edward seemingly did not care what his people thought of him and didn’t even care to refute the accusation. Furthermore, he continued his preoccupation with exclusively personal affairs so far as to propose marriage to a woman named Wallis Simpson. This woman had been unknown to the public yet would become Queen of England. As if the English (and everyone under British dominion) weren’t irked enough, Mrs. Simpsons was not only divorced (twice) but was also an American! The British Prime Minister (Baldwin) simply refused and condoned the marriage, a union unfit of such an important public figure.
What happened next was unassumingly as selfish as Tiger Woods retreating from public life and making the economy nosedive a little more…King Edward VIII abdicated as Crown of England. After 10 months on the most important and far-reaching throne on earth, he stepped down in order to be with Mrs. Simpson and in order to live in peace. A part of us may think he is a human being with a full right to happiness; in December 1936 however, the British peoples did not see it this way. The following days, months and years after saw an intense constitutional crisis that very nearly abolished British monarchy (a 1000 year-old institution) altogether. The people eventually got through it, but it is amazing to see the decision of one (very public) man could plunge millions of people so deep into national dilemma.
In conclusion, Tiger Woods, much like King Edward VIII, must always think of the larger ramifications of his actions. By signing that first million dollar contract, there is an invisible clause that condemns all singers, actors, sports stars, politicians, etc. to a life of constant scrutiny along with an unfaltering responsibility to live in a way that is least harmful to society. That being said, I reiterate my statement that these public figures rarely understand this responsibility and, as we have seen, seldom accept its inevitability.
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010 - 14:47
SOURCE: American Prospect (1-25-10)
[Mark Schmitt is the executive editor of The American Prospect. Previously he was a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, director of the Governance and Public Policy program at the Open Society Institute, and policy director to Senator Bill Bradley.]
This month marks not just the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration but two years since those intense weeks of the Democratic nominating process in 2008, when Obama emerged as the likely nominee. What was Obama selling? How did he build his coalition? What did we expect when he took office? And how have those expectations worked out in practice?
Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the Prospect discuss Obama at year one.
Every president has a honeymoon. But Obama's really did seem qualitatively more intense than any other new presidency perhaps since Lyndon Johnson inherited the mantle from the martyred Kennedy. I began to think of the possibility of an Obama era, one as (to coin a phrase!)"game changing" as the Reagan era or the Roosevelt era. I conceptualized it in terms of fluid dynamics, a tipping-point strategy. Gently, by degrees, the median voter would see Obama's positions, rooted in traditional Democratic themes of economic solidarity, as the normal, consensual position (just like voters did before Reagan) and that voters would come to see Reagan's children as alien, jarring, and strange....
For the public to tip toward a dominant perception of Obama as the normal, and the Republicans as the strange, some effort was required on Obama's part: some aggressive line-drawing. You [mark Schmitt] were overwhelmingly right when you posited that Obama's rhetoric of trans-ideological bipartisanship can work brilliantly as a method of subverting and breaking the opposition to a social democratic agenda. But it cannot work unless the comforting leader affirmatively draws a marker defining at least a portion of his opposition as outside his governing consensus. As not common sense.
It's great that Obama doesn't criticize" conservatism." A plurality, even a majority, think of themselves as" conservative." But most, I would argue, consider the word" conservative" as a placeholder for a disposition. The most brilliant part of Obama's Inaugural Address was the words by which he described his imminent presidency: prudent, temperate, humility. In contrast with the era that just passed, it would be, a"new era of responsibility." He quoted Scripture: It was time, he said, for the nation to put aside childish things. That laid down a splendid potential point for an eventual pivot in the face of Republican obstructionism: Here's what you elected me to do. Here's why it's prudent, temperate, and responsible. Here are the Republicans who oppose us. They are people worthy of being stigmatized....
"Be mean," is a strategy that usually takes its inspiration from that amazing moment in 1936 when Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced"the forces of selfishness and of lust for power," affirming that"they are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred." (I'm doing you a favor here by substituting FDR for the hypothetical John Edwards character.) That's a strategy worth taking seriously, since"nice" obviously failed. And I don't accept that"Obama doesn't do mean" -- FDR was a pretty nice guy, too, and Obama, against all expectations, showed he could be as tough as he needed to be against some formidable opposition in the 2008 primaries and general election....
The case for mean, I think, is only that it would have more effectively fired up a subset of the grass-roots base of Obama supporters, who in turn would have put some pressure on wavering members of Congress. An FDR-style"I welcome their hatred" would certainly have cemented the allegiance of some portion of the Obama coalition. But drawing such a line is quite a daring move for any president, or anyone in a political situation -- it takes an enormous amount of confidence. Yes, George W. Bush enacted Pat Buchanan's proposal to" cut the country in half," because"we would have the larger half." That achieved some tax cuts, a couple of wars, and some costly delays on causes like health care and climate change. But it did not achieve anything that will last....
...FDR's latest biographer, Jean Edward Smith, emphasizes that as governor of New York, FDR quite deliberately pushed the boundaries of how far a state could go to respond to an economic crisis. Roosevelt showed calculation, even cynicism, in his 1932 claim to be running to balance the budget; it was a political ploy to get thee delegates he needed to win the nomination. And, of course, his 1936 pledge that big business had met its match came after many years in which the New Deal was built in close cooperation with big business, and indeed would continue to be so built. What he did in that speech was lay down a gauntlet to those of great wealth: Cooperate with me and the people, the"you and I" who have a rendezvous with destiny; or oppose us, and cast yourself into the outer darkness.
The key to presidential leadership is that it is the president, through forceful and confident and sweeping rhetoric, who makes the argument about where the line must be drawn -- about what our destiny is, and who is for it, and who has chosen for whatever reasons to be against it. For the line must be drawn somewhere....
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010 - 13:38
SOURCE: Tuscaloosa News (1-24-10)
“The whole of Haiti,” I wrote in my journal in October of 1965, “excluding a minuscule segment, is poverty-stricken beyond belief. We brought some people-to-people stuff in [humanitarian assistance in today’s jargon] but the dent it made was nil at best.”
I was a Lieutenant (j.g.), the Weapons Officer on the USS Donner (LSD 20) making a port of call at Port au Prince forty five years ago. We were on a short cruise in the Caribbean after some refresher training at Guantanamo Bay after three months in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards. Philly in the summertime was fun for Navy types, lots of girls, cool bars in south Philadelphia with cold beer. Gitmo was hot, sweaty and work from before dawn until after dark. Port au Prince left me almost speechless.
Papa Doc Duvalier had been ruling Haiti with an iron fist since 1957 and the U. S. had been trying to isolate and weaken his hold on this impoverished land. One could hardly call it a “nation” as we understand that word, then or today.
If anything, I suspect political scientists and nation watchers would call it a “failed state.” I knew a little of this at the ripe old age of twenty-three since I’d been a history major in college and in spite of my natural inclinations to enjoy the life of an undergraduate to the fullest, had read quite a bit.
From that reading I knew Voodoo was big on the island, the Tonton Macoute were Papa Doc’s bullies and thugs who ran the island, and this was a place like no other I’d seen. I had grown up in Lima, Peru and later lived in Plainfield, New Jersey, right next to “the city,” and in the Navy already made a few other cruises to the Caribbean, at least one to the Mediterranean deployed with the 6th Fleet, and, while no world traveler or raconteur, was not naïve totally about power and poverty in history.
A few years after my first visit to Port au Prince, while in graduate school in New Orleans in the late sixties and early seventies, I read more, and even wrote a paper about the U. S. occupation of the Dominican Republic between 1916-1924.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola (anglicized from the Spanish name, Española), and I discovered that the U. S. had intervened in Haitian affairs also over the years.
Between 1915 and 1934, for example, the U. S. basically occupied Haiti. President Woodrow Wilson sent in a few hundred Marines to restore some order to the country and during the almost twenty year occupation, Americans helped Haitians build roads, introduce basic sanitation services, string electric lines, and train a national police force to help govern professionally and maintain order in the country. Woodrow Wilson—when not saving the world for democracy during the Great War—dedicated himself to teaching Latin Americans how to govern themselves democratically.
If stability and peace are two criteria for a nation, then under the rule of the Americans, Haiti started to move to a nation state. In other words, long before the phrase became current today, the U. S. was “nation building” in Haiti.
But, under the new “Good Neighbor” policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, inaugurated for his first term in 1933, the U. S. pulled out. Intervening in the affairs, and even occupying, another country did not seem to coincide well with being a good neighbor. That was then.
As we neared Port au Prince in the fall of 1965 I was vaguely aware that this place was like no place I’d ever been. I remember the night before we reached port, steaming along the dark coast, leaning on the rail late at night, before or after standing a watch on the Bridge, I forget—and thinking I could hear the beating of drums from the dark mountains in the distance. Some occult ceremony was being celebrated, perhaps an animal sacrificed by the light of a fire somewhere in those dark mountains, the blood drained and….My imagination was on overtime.
The next morning we slowly steamed into the harbor and gingerly tied up at a pier of this tropical capital.
“From our clean decks and spotless living quarters,” I continued in my journal, through binoculars, “we could see the men and women and children wander out of their thatched straw and clapboard hovels, to urinate and defecate with their animals in the yards, porches or whatever the squalid open spaces around their shelters can be called.”
I was stunned, probably as much by the contrast of life aboard a modern American warship and what I was seeing as we threw over the lines to the stevedores and tied up to the pier, as by the squalor itself. Could people really live like this?
There was more to Port-au-Prince than that, of course, but I still can see that slum through the eyes of the young man I was in 1965, young but not necessarily callow, seeing but not particularly wise.
When we went on shore leave, as liberty was called for officers, we were instructed to wear our summer whites. It was the only port I visited in the two years of service on the old Donner as she steamed to and fro in the Caribbean and Mediterranean where officers were required to wear uniforms ashore. Normally we could go on "shore leave" in civilian attire, while the enlisted men went on "liberty" in uniform. You couldn’t miss them in their traditional sailors’ uniforms, but we officers could sometimes blend into local society, especially of course if visiting one of our own ports in the U.S.
For some reason, perhaps to call attention to our presence as the first U.S. Navy ship to visit Haiti in years, perhaps to distinguish us as U.S. naval officers, perhaps to afford us some protection of sorts, we went into town and into the surrounding neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince in summer whites.
They were very white, comfortable, good looking uniforms, open necked shirts, short sleeves, heavily starched trousers, and some discrete insignia to identify you as an officer and a member of the U. S. Navy. Our caps were regulation white as well, with the gold and silver naval officer's seal across the front. You couldn’t miss us either in uniform.
We went ashore and I do remember doing what sailors tend to do in foreign ports, playing a bit in the town. We patronized a “rum” factory, toured the obligatory brothel, tasted the local cuisine, rode in taxis through the tropical night air, listening and smelling the intoxicating sounds and aromas of a warm city close to the water, close to the earth, given to rhythms and drumbeats and lights and shadows that set some of our imaginations aflame.
Over the years since the Americans left Haiti in 1934, we have returned occasionally to “stabilize” the country, suppress violence, and “restore order,” lately in the 1990s and then continuing into the 21st century.
A few years ago, former President Jimmy Carter, a Wilsonian idealist devoted to his predecessor’s principles (both Wilson and Carter were Southerners; although I’m not sure of the significance of that fact), also stepped onto the Haitian stage, with the support of the OAS, to help oversee elections and cultivate democracy on the black island nation. But Jimmy, like his predecessors, was boxing with shadows.
In the globalized world of the times, the U.S. doesn’t do this alone anymore, but is usually part of a multilateral effort to inculcate democracy. Today, the OAS, the U.N., and other agencies I am probably unaware of, all supported with muscle by the U.S., are determined to instill in Haitians much of what Woodrow Wilson devoted himself to in 1915.
How successful have we been in ensuring stable, long lasting, political institutions consistent with representative democracy and a deep commitment to constitutional order? How well have we gone to eradicating the deep divide between the great majority of poor black Haitians and the small ruling elite of largely mulattoes and a few privileged blacks who have traditionally controlled the sources of wealth (largely exports of agricultural crops such as coffee and sugar), the military, and the national police? Has the ideal of political democracy been reflected in its concomitant, economic democracy? Have social and racial injustices been addressed throughout the state?
And then in January, 2010 the most destructive earthquake in the Western Hemisphere struck Haiti, reminding me of my contact with this beleaguered people.
Back in 1965, we formed a little part of the humane bridgehead between the U. S. people and the Haitian people, bringing in pitifully small amount of foods and medicines, but initiating once again an opening between our government and Papa Doc’s then-censured regime.
Part of our visit was to cultivate good diplomatic relations, so when we went ashore, starched, white and golden in our uniforms, “we were entertained royally by the small American establishment,” I remembered. I forget where. Possibly the U. S. embassy, always a nice little piece of America in all the foreign capitals of the world (except of course those we had broken relations with, such as Cuba, North Korea, etc.).
And I recorded we “in turn did our best to make our welcome aboard ship as wholesome and American as they (visitors curious about us) expected. I escorted the Colombian and Ecuadorian ambassadors around the ship on Sunday and managed a fairly passable intercourse with my third grade Spanish,” and I added, with the “Colombian Ambassador’s patient tolerance … diplomacy?”
So, there you have it. My memories of Port au Prince.
I am aware of efforts these past 30 or 40 years to lift sectors of the Haitian economy out of the survival stage. Mini-loans for micro-enterprises, soil stabilization projects, reforestation, and scores of, probably, hundreds of missionaries and missions to encourage Christian values and build clinics, schools, churches in a country desperately in need of them all.
Occasionally the Marines have been sent in (2004 for example) to escort politicians (like the president) into exile, elections are “watched,” and humanitarian assistance from organizations such as the World Bank are turned on, or cut off as the case may be, in response to local conditions.
And now perhaps the most disastrous earthquake in the history of the Americas, following four hurricanes which hit the island in 2008, destroying more than 70 percent of Haiti’s crops.
The televangelist Pat Robertson said that a pact was made between Haiti’s rulers and the devil to rid themselves of the French and become independent. Satan agreed and they have ever since been under his thumb. Robertson thought maybe it was Napoleon III who the Haitians wished to overthrow. Napoleon III governed France about a half a century after the Haitian Revolution but I don’t think Robertson was going to let facts get in the way of his view of events.
So, where are we? Is the island doomed because of a pact made with the devil over 200 years ago by a few leaders? Are the French colonizers to blame for not educating their slaves to rule after independence? Are African religions, transmogrified into Voodoo, turning the face of Jesus Christ away and leaving the people and the island to suffer endless shame and defeat? Is the failure of Haiti due to political leaders, lacking in vision and devotion to constitutional principles?
Can a people truly rise above their physical, economic, social, racial and political circumstances and reach levels of sufficiency and even plenty? The answer is yes. Historically people have risen out of the ashes of war, or the poverty of the land, or any other manmade or natural circumstances of disaster and want, and created bounty where none existed. The question is how.
I certainly don’t have answers. I simply go back to that fall day in 1965 when I witnessed a face of humanity I had never seen before.
I thought that it would have changed after almost half a century. It has, but apparently for the worse.
Now it is for the world, and especially for us in America, to reach out truly and help Haiti take the first steps to a new life. There is intelligence, good will, love, determination in the hearts and minds of all Haitians to make this happen. The question is, are all those ingredients in America — and the rest of our partners in the humanitarian effort–to make it happen in Haiti?
And the answer is yes. Anyone who has seen the collective and individual acts of charity, sacrifice, love and outpouring of good will knows this to be true. The question becomes: how to begin the institutional building of a new Haiti, a Haiti that has not seen prosperity since the 18th century when French planters and slave owners transformed the colony of Saint Domingue into the richest plantation economy in the western world, all built on African slaves. That prosperity ended with independence, and the slide down has been almost inexorable since then.
Now is the time to envision the new future. God be with Haiti and those whose responsibility is now to forge a new world for the island nation.
Posted on: Monday, January 25, 2010 - 13:10
SOURCE: Houston Chronicle (1-23-10)
...From the 1620s through our Civil War, generations of Africans were degraded into lifetime servitude in the American states and territories committed to slavery, a status their offspring inherited. In nonslave states, they were relegated to inferior economic and social existences. During the tragically long Jim Crow decades after Appomattox through World War II, many whites used “negro” and its cruder counterpart interchangeably, with little concern about, or even awareness of, their demeaning offensiveness.
In the early 1950s, my doctoral mentor at Columbia University was Henry Steele Commager, a distinguished historian and outspoken anti-McCarthy civil libertarian. Privately, he was furious about those critics who lambasted him for retaining the word “negro” instead of the increasingly used “Negro” in his vastly popular college textbooks and other publications. That word, uncapitalized, was what contemporaries had used, he retorted stubbornly, and scholars should echo past usages....
From the 1950s to the near-present, John Hope Franklin, Harvard's first Negro Ph.D. in history, took sides on the “n” or “N” issue, greatly favoring the latter, as, obviously, I did....
Franklin died in 2009. Well before then he knew, and regretted the fact, that the unity among blacks he had helped to foster by his long crusade to have Negro accepted was declining. That decline is reflected in a politically and economically sensitive issue now facing 2010 Census officials. They must soon select the race/ethnic categories among which respondents will choose as most appropriate for themselves. Although many blacks remain satisfied with Negro, others condemn it as a shameful word suitable only for Uncle Toms.
Searching for a reasonable mid-ground, columnist Clarence Page noted that “I used to be ‘Negro.' I used to be ‘colored,' too. In the late 1960s I became ‘black.' Two decades later I became ‘African-American.' … Today I hear that I am a ‘person of color.' From ‘colored person' to ‘person of color' in [only] 40 years! Who says we haven't made progress!”...
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010 - 15:47
SOURCE: New Politics (1-23-10)
This was a worthy and well-intentioned endeavor, and we ought to be grateful to Clooney and the performers....
But, in most of the show, politics were verboten, as was anything about the history of the place. This left the audience to think that a terrible natural disaster had befallen Haiti, but ignorant of: the country's origins in a successful slave rebellion (with US support for French efforts to crush it); more than a century of French draining the economy for the money value of the slaves they had lost; nineteen years of occupation by the US Marines; US complicity with the Duvaliers; after earlier support, exiling of Jean-Bertrand Aristide on a US plane; the banning of the left party, Lavalas; the crimes committed against the Haitian economy by neoliberal economics via such institutions as the IMF (which, amidst the earthquake announced a wage freeze for public employees in Haiti.). This all added up to an unnatural disaster: enormous poverty, flight from the countryside to the city as the result of the destruction of Haitian agriculture by US dumping (rice) and the promise of low-wage manufacturing jobs (which didn't materialize); once crowded in the city, they put anything over their heads that they could, and of course these poor structures easily collapsed. Cutting down trees to make charcoal was one of the few ways of getting money, and that produced deforestation which produced floods. It denies history to see the US as free of responsibility for these things.
Historians are coming to realize that very few things are simply "natural disasters." Famines, for instance, can be made or exacerbated by governments. (Consider the English role in the 19th century Irish famine.) The earthquake would have been terrible anyplace, but because of Haiti's impoverishment by the West, its impact on life went far beyond 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The horrors visited upon Haiti are no more an "act of god" than were the horrors of Katrina....
The US continues to view Haiti through a racist lens. This was shockingly clear in David Brooks's January 14 New York Times column, "The Underlying Tragedy." "It is time," Brooks writes, "to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty." What follows is pure culture-of-poverty blame-the-victim stuff, reminiscent of, among others, Moynihan on the "pathology" of the Black Family: "Haiti ... suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences," including Voodoo and "high levels of social mistrust." "Responsibility," he froths,"is often not internalized." Brooks has all but told us that they are a nation of welfare queens.
A different manifestation of this kind of thing appears in the portrayal of Haitians as constituting an unruly mob amidst "anarchy" and "chaos." This has been reflected in a shameful US policy of giving preference to the military over relief (food and medicine) on the assumption that the military is needed to keep order. The US simply occupied the Port –au-Prince airport, set up their own air traffic control to replace the damaged original and proceeded to one of the great atrocities of this period: with priority given to US military flights, they turned away eight planes with field hospitals etc. provided by Medecins sans Frontieres....
This takes us a long way beyond George Clooney. But both in popular culture and in foreign policy this country desperately needs to re-examine the lenses through which it views the non-white world.
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010 - 14:31
SOURCE: LA Times (1-21-10)
...Built to enforce laws that specifically excluded Chinese and other Asian immigrants from the country, the Angel Island Immigration Station turned away countless newcomers and deported thousands of U.S. residents who were considered risks to the nation or had entered the country with fraudulent papers. For those who were denied entry because of race and class-biased exclusion laws, Angel Island showed America at its worst as a gate-keeping nation....
Some who spent time on Angel Island went on to become notable figures. Karl Yoneda was a prominent labor organizer on the West Coast. Alexandra Tolstoy, youngest daughter of Leo Tolstoy, founded the Tolstoy Foundation and assisted thousands of refugees from Europe during World War II. Dong Kingman became an artist and lecturer well known for his watercolors....
Now, on its centennial, it offers a timely lesson as America once again turns its attention to the debate on immigration reform. Last month, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced a new comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House. President Obama has pledged to take up the issue early this year. The issues are complex and the emotions are high. The country, entrenched in a global recession and suffering unemployment rates that are the highest they have been in decades, remains divided over possible solutions to our immigration problem....
America's contradictory relationship to immigration is written on the walls of Angel Island. We welcome the "huddled masses yearning to be free," but at the same time, we unfairly detain and deport immigrants based on flawed immigration policies.
On this landmark date in our immigration history, we should remember Angel Island's multiracial history of inclusion and exclusion and recognize that there is no more time to waste. It's time to fix immigration and fulfill America's promise as a nation of immigrants.
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010 - 15:36
SOURCE: OpenDemocracy.org (1-20-10)
To be disappointed is often to have had unreasonable or unachievable expectations.
If many are disappointed with Barack Obama’s first year as United States president it may be because they did indeed expect more from him than he could ever have achieved in this short period.
It is time to move the focus from Obama’s personal and political performance to the problems of the office he has occupied since his inauguration on 20 January 2009. The shift starts with an understanding that a dramatic transformation in the nature of the presidency has occurred over the past century: involving first a revolution in power, which inflated expectations, and then schism, which has made it so hard to fulfil them.
A process that began with Woodrow Wilson, developed even more under Franklin D Roosevelt, and intensified in the post-1945 era saw the United States presidency slowly became more central to the American political system - and so to the vision of Americans. The New Deal, the acquisition of the atomic weapons and of intercontinental means of delivery, the cold war: in combination all these drastically changed the balance of the constitutional system devised by the founding fathers.
Congress retained formidable powers of obstruction, but the White House became the predominant centre of initiative in the American system. Americans looked to their president for action, for comfort and for the fulfilment of what they saw as their national destiny. Harry S Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower managed the emergence of America hegemony with modesty and prudence. John F Kennedy brought a touch of rodomontade to the office, and an imperial nation welcomed an imperial presidency. His successor, Lyndon B Johnson confronted problems, at home and abroad, that had been neglected, if they had been acknowledged at all: racial injustice, a creaking political system, and apparently unlimited thirst for hegemony abroad.
Then came the schism. Since 1968, when Richard M Nixon was elected, the presidency has oscillated between “liberals” and “conservatives”. The essential line of division, however, has been not so much ideological as national. Behind arguments about policy, there is a deep and increasingly angry division between those who recognise and want to address shortcomings in American society and in America’s stance in the world, and those who see it as little better than treason even to mention them.
By 1980, significant problems could hardly be denied. American industry was losing its competitive edge. The American economy was becoming dependent on foreign oil. The dollar was no longer almighty. American society was torn by new conflicts, over race, over feminism, even over the American future, while abroad the American example was no longer uncritically followed.
Ronald Reagan’s response was denial. He proclaimed morning in America, and half the country applauded.
Since Reagan, control of the White House has passed from one side to another of this schism, while expectations of the White House have scarcely diminished. By 2008, the schism between “red” and “blue” America was unbridgeable, fed by mutual contempt and suspicion, but also by incompatible interests.
The grand Democratic coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt, tying together the rural and reactionary south with industrial labour, urban non-Protestants and “hyphenated” Americans conscious of immigrant background, is long gone. In the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965, the party system took a new, sharply adversarial shape.
Along came Barack Obama, a contradictory figure in terms of the political system as it had evolved. Obama not only embodied, he called for change. Yet in an adversarial system, he insisted on compromise, moderation, “reaching across the aisle”. In elegant speeches, he tried to rise above the realities of red/blue antagonism. Those realities now threaten to cripple his presidency.
In his election campaign he addressed, as his first priority, the dangerous absurdity of the American healthcare system. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The sudden national awakening to the seriousness of the financial crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign elected Obama. Certainly he kept his nerve better than John McCain.
The scale of the financial crisis, however, dwarfed even healthcare. And the resistance to healthcare reform did not respond to consensual feelers across the aisle. It may have seemed shrewd, in the context of political convention, to pack the Obama administration with centrist figures such as Tim Geithner and Laurence Summers that were deeply implicated in the reckless deregulation of Wall Street, and a defence secretary (Robert M Gates) from the George W Bush administration. But so far it has not worked.
It has however revealed that Obama, half-African though he may be by ancestry, and progressive, even radical, as he is by instinct, ignores the schism that has divided the parties, paralysed the Congress and made it impossible to meet the impossible expectations heaped on the presidency.
In recent weeks, several thoughtful liberal commentators (among them Paul Krugman and Michael Tomasky) have rightly argued that the disappointment of the Obama year cannot be blamed on the president alone. They have pointed to detailed flaws in the system, such as the need for a “super majority” of sixty votes in the Senate to pass legislation. Such specific flaws may well need correcting. But it is not they that have frustrated Obama’s excellent instincts and prevented him from addressing urgent problems that threaten the country and indeed the world.
The central problem is the gap between the unrealistic expectations heaped on the office of the president and the constrained imposed by the schism between the “red” and “blue” camps. As expectations, stoked up by the media, have risen, so the president’s - any president’s - ability to meet them has been undermined.
The (conservative) political scientist Aaron Wildavsky pointed out as long ago as 1975, the presidency has been not so much weakened as isolated. Franklin Roosevelt relied on four connections to the political system to make him effective, and even Roosevelt was not able to end the depression until war came to his aid. They were the Congress; the Democratic Party; the machinery of the permanent government; and the media. All are now atrophied, or at least partially out of the president’s control.
Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who could sit nose to nose with powerful congressmen and senators of both parties and browbeat them into going along with his projects, Obama has restricted influence on Democrats, and none at all on Republicans. As an instrument of presidential leadership, the Democratic Party is broken: men and women run for office as freelances, they raise their own money and depend little or not at all on presidential support. Still less do they feel obliged to support the president in return.
Where the New Deal attracted the brightest and the best to public service, and Jack Kennedy tried to do the same, the morale of government service has been corroded by ceaseless propaganda against “bureaucracy” and by-passed by corporate power, exerted through lobbying. Where FDR and even Johnson could look for some understanding and some help in promoting their messages, Obama is caught between liberal scepticism and conservative ambush.
What, as Lenin asked, is to be done?
Barack Obama has relied on a combination of centrist symbolism and high-flown rhetoric. Neither has yet been conspicuously successful.
It may be that when he gives his state-of-the-union speech, not yet scheduled, but due in early February 2010 at the latest, the president will be able to claim credit for a major health-reform measure. No “public option” to keep the health-insurance providers honest, but a few million fewer uninsured. It will be disappointing to his core supporters, but it may achieve significant incremental improvement.
On the economy, Obama has fared even worse. The official unemployment rate is a steady 10% in January 2010 but by the most relevant measure it remains as high as 17%. The bankers (like their imitators in Britain) are simply snubbing the administration’s call to revive lending, and helping themselves to high profits, restored share prices and more or less record bonuses. Obama’s core supporters are not only disappointed: they are hurting and many of them are furious. Obama has proposed populist taxation. But the banks have shown that they believe themselves above the reach of a mere president.
Abroad, Hillary Clinton claims in her Hawaii speech on 12 January 2010 that “America is back” in Asia. The administration ignores Europe. It is frustrated, even humiliated, in the middle east. It is reeling in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and facing new dangers in such desperate places as Yemen and Somalia. At the climate-change summit in Copenhagen, President Obama was deliberately snubbed by the Chinese, and with impunity. So much for self-pleasing Washington fantasies about a G2 dyarchy to rule the world!
Barack Obama is a gifted politician and half of America fervently wants him to succeed. He may yet achieve a respectable record in time to prevent the defeats that now threaten him in the mid-term congressional and other elections this coming November.
If he is to meet his own goals and the expectations he aroused so brilliantly a year ago, he must close Guantánamo, persuade his countrymen that he knows what he is doing in Afghanistan and rescue the economy. He must address those two problems that threaten the very viability of his office: the burden of excessive expectations and the grim reality of ideological schism about the state and destiny of the union.
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010 - 13:22