Wow, that didn't take long at all. Scant days after the American war machine took the cloaking device off its direct military involvement in Yemen, we have an alleged attempted terrorist attack by an alleged attempted terrorist who, just scant hours after his capture, has allegedly confessed to getting his alleged attempted terrorist material from ... wait for it ... Yemen!
Yemen-trained terrorists on the loose in American airplanes! At Christmas! Great googily moogily! It's a good thing our boys are on the case over there right now, pounding the holy hell outta some of them Al Qaeder ragheads! And to think, a few pipsqueaky fifth columnists had been starting to wonder why we were killing dozens of innocent civilians on behalf of an authoritarian regime embroiled in a three-way civil war on the other side of the world.
Well, now they have their answer, by God! Alleged attempted terrorists allegedly trained in Yemen! What else do you need -- a freaking warrant or something? We would obviously be justified in nuking that desert hell-hole and everybody in it! Just think of it -- some guy with some kind of something on an airplane, right there in the Heartland! You gonna stand for that? Exterminate the brutes!
And yet, because we are good, because we are godly, because our heart is always in the right place, even when -- as President Obama himself admitted in his noble Nobel Speech -- we sometimes make mistakes, we have not brought down the full force of the iron rod that God himself has placed into our hands for the chastisement and right order of the world. No, there will be no nukes falling on the children of Yemen tonight. But boy howdy, they'd better get ready for some sure-enough heavy ordnance -- fired from distant ships, from far-flung bases and from computer consoles in leafy Stateside suburbs, where you can bravely kill some alleged attempted somebody-or-other (and everyone in their immediate vicinity), and still make it home in time to to eat supper with the kids.
So here we are. Just one day after the alleged attempted terrorist incident in Detroit, we already have headlines blaring in the New York Times, the "paper of record," tying the alleged attempt to Yemen. How quick and convenient is that? Already the echo chamber is roaring with the all-justifying cacophony: "Terror, Yemen, al Qaeda, Homeland, Bomb, Terror, Yemen, Yemen, al Qaeda."
And it must be true, right? I mean, just look at how well-sourced the NYT story is. "A law enforcement official" -- Police captain? State trooper? G-Man? Traffic cop? -- said that the alleged attempted terrorist said he'd got his "explosive chemicals" from Yemen. (Elsewhere in the paper, other unnamed officials told NYT reporters that the alleged material strapped to the alleged attempted terrorist was "incendiary," not explosive. But who cares? "Bomb, Terror, Yemen!")
Of course, the NYT noted that "authorities have not independently corroborated the Yemen connection claimed by the suspect" (nor, they could have added, have they independently corroborated that the claim was actually made), but still, the completely anonymous "law enforcement official" said that the suspect's claim "was plausible," and even added: "I see no reason to discount it."
Well, it doesn't get more solid than that, does it? They nailed that story down so tight you couldn't pry it open with God's own crowbar. An anonymous source confirmed the plausibility of his own claim. Man, that's ironclad. It's certainly good enough to light up the media firmament with headlines linking "terror in the Heartland" with the empire's newest killing field in a volatile foreign land.
And it turns out that the suspected attempted terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was already on the radar of our all-encompassing security services -- just like the last Muslim terrorist in the heartland, Major Nidal Hasan. (And, for that matter, just like many of those accused of carrying out the 9/11 attack.) As in almost all of these cases, the question arises: Who is running whom? (For more, see "Darkness Renewed: Terror as a Tool of Empire.")
But this query is precisely the kind of pantywaist handwringing that rightly goes down in the flood of the he-man Homeland Security strutting that always follows these incidents. As we noted here the other day, there's no time for depth, context, history -- or even facts -- when the "frame" is screaming "Terror!"
In any case, whatever facts about the case -- or rather, shards and splinters of filtered information -- that are allowed to emerge from the depths of the security apparat, you can be absolutely sure that, as always, the "facts will be fixed around the policy."
And what is that policy? Why, endless war, of course! The American war machine (which now dominates most of "civilian" society as well) is like a shark: it must keep moving, and feeding, or die. "Terror, Bomb, Yemen!"
In his compelling 2008 book X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, director Alex Cox delivers a powerful insight about modern movie audiences that helps illuminate the bizarre, amnesiac nature of modern political audiences as well.
The book as a whole provides a riveting account of the circumstances surrounding the making of ten films shot by the Liverpudlian director, from his film school days at UCLA in the late seventies to his groundbreaking "microfeature," Searchers 2.0, in 2006. One of the films put under the microscope of Cox's affable, witty but hard-hitting analysis is Three Businessmen, from 1998. A work of hyper-realistic surrrealism, the film tells the story of two vaguely and dubiously employed salesmen who meet in a Liverpool hotel then set off to find a place to eat -- and somehow traverse the entire earth in a single night, popping up in such places as Tokyo, Rotterdam, and the Spanish desert (where they meet the titular third companion), yet believing all the while they are still just a few blocks from their hotel.
Falling outside recognizable genre categories, the film puzzled many viewers -- and more importantly, many movie execs and money men. Looking back at its reception, Cox writes:
This brings me to the bigger problems of Three Businessmen -- the way we watch a film. Consider the scenes with Benny and Frank (Miguel Sandoval and Cox) aboard the Metro. While we're aboard the train, it's pretty similar to the Liverpool Merseyrail: a Metro interior is a Metro interior, after all. The train that Miguel and I boarded in Liverpool was painted yellow; the train from which we emerged in Rotterdam was green. You might think this was a pretty clear visual clue: trains don't change colour, after all. Yet almost no one in the audience noticed it. This taught me that people watch films on a shot-by-shot basis. What they see now, they accept as 'reality' within the frame; what was on the screen five minutes ago is already forgotten.
This passage is a near-perfect description of the mechanics of political perception in our day, especially in the land that Gore Vidal famously dubbed the United States of Amnesia. And how could it be otherwise? For almost all of us, politics exists largely (if not solely) on the screen -- the television, the computer, the Blackberry, the iPhone. The electorate is almost entirely an "audience," and nothing else; actual political engagement is left to the "experts": the vicious in-fighters of power-gaming factions (and the witless sycophants who dance attendance on them in the media, the think tanks and academia), and the handful of "cranks," on both right and left, who still raise hell at public hearings and sometimes even take to the streets -- where they are invariably herded into nice, neat "free speech zones," far from any point where their "unserious" opinions might inflict discomfort on the powerful.
The flattened images, the passing wads of constantly updated, continually washed away digital text, throw up their limited frames -- without depth, without history, without context -- and imprint them on our chaotic mental receptors with the frantic, primeval urgency of "now". Now is all there is, now is all we see, now is what we are relentlessly conditioned to accept.
What color is the train? It looks green today. Wasn't it yellow yesterday? Maybe not. Maybe it's always been green.
One of the large mental health hospitals in Israel was recently surprised to receive a young, good-looking patient in a psychotic state who was accompanied by a personal security guard, Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday.
The doctors, who asked why the woman was accompanied by a guard, were shocked to learn that she was a Mossad agent and that the security guard was not assigned to her in order assure her safety or protect her life, but to ensure that she not reveal any state secrets in her shaky mental state.
The Mossad guard's orders were clear: "It is forbidden that the organization's secrets be passed on to those unauthorized to hear them." The doctors, who are unaccustomed to the presence of a third party during their treatment sessions, were left with no choice but to acquiesce to their demands. In addition, the staff had to receive a security clearance before being allowed to work on her exceptional case.
To their complete amazement, another young woman, also accompanied by a secret agent charged with ensuring that the she not leak any state secrets, arrived at the institution just a short time later. The doctors learned that she, too, is a Mossad agent.
It seems evident that the young women were driven mad by acts they have witnessed -- or carried out. These act were literally unspeakable crimes of state -- hence the presence of the state's goons to prevent the slightest whisper of the dark deeds from escaping.
This story's efficacy as both paradigm and prophecy for our modern world could hardly be bettered.
While we were all out doing our Christmas shopping, the highest court in the land quietly put the kibosh on a few more of the remaining shards of human liberty.
It happened earlier this week, in a discreet ruling that attracted almost no notice and took little time. In fact, our most august defenders of the Constitution did not have to exert themselves in the slightest to eviscerate not merely 220 years of Constitutional jurisprudence but also centuries of agonizing effort to lift civilization a few inches out of the blood-soaked mire that is our common human legacy. They just had to write a single sentence.
Here's how the bad deal went down. After hearing passionate arguments from the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court acquiesced to the president's fervent request and, in a one-line ruling, let stand a lower court decision that declared torture an ordinary, expected consequence of military detention, while introducing a shocking new precedent for all future courts to follow: anyone who is arbitrarily declared a "suspected enemy combatant" by the president or his designated minions is no longer a "person." They will simply cease to exist as a legal entity. They will have no inherent rights, no human rights, no legal standing whatsoever -- save whatever modicum of process the government arbitrarily deigns to grant them from time to time, with its ever-shifting tribunals and show trials.
This extraordinary ruling occasioned none of those deep-delving "process stories" that glut the pages of the New York Times, where the minutiae of policy-making or political gaming is examined in highly-spun, microscopic detail doled out by self-interested insiders. Obviously, giving government the power to render whole classes of people "unpersons" was not an interesting subject for our media arbiters. It was news that wasn't fit to print. Likewise, the ruling provoked no thundering editorials in the Washington Post, no savvy analysis from the high commentariat -- and needless to say, no outrage whatsoever from all our fierce defenders of individual liberty on the Right.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to review a lower court’s dismissal of a case brought by four British former Guantanamo prisoners against former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the detainees’ lawyers charged Tuesday that the country’s highest court evidently believes that "torture and religious humiliation are permissible tools for a government to use."
...Channeling their predecessors in the George W. Bush administration, Obama Justice Department lawyers argued in this case that there is no constitutional right not to be tortured or otherwise abused in a U.S. prison abroad.
The Obama administration had asked the court not to hear the case. By agreeing, the court let stand an earlier opinion by the D.C. Circuit Court, which found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – a statute that applies by its terms to all "persons" – did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo, effectively ruling that the detainees are not persons at all for purposes of U.S. law.
The lower court also dismissed the detainees’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute and the Geneva Conventions, finding defendants immune on the basis that "torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants."
The Constitution is clear: no person can be held without due process; no person can be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. And the U.S. law on torture of any kind is crystal clear: it is forbidden, categorically, even in time of "national emergency." And the instigation of torture is, under U.S. law, a capital crime. No person can be tortured, at any time, for any reason, and there are no immunities whatsoever for torture offered anywhere in the law.
And yet this is what Barack Obama -- who, we are told incessantly, is a super-brilliant Constitutional lawyer -- has been arguing in case after case since becoming president: Torturers are immune from prosecution; those who ordered torture are immune from prosecution. They can't even been sued for, in the specific case under review, subjecting uncharged, indefinitely detained captives to "beatings, sleep deprivation, forced nakedness, extreme hot and cold temperatures, death threats, interrogations at gunpoint, and threatened with unmuzzled dogs."
Again, let's be absolutely clear: Barack Obama has taken the freely chosen, public, formal stand -- in court -- that there is nothing wrong with any of these activities. Nothing to answer for, nothing meriting punishment or even civil penalties. What's more, in championing the lower court ruling, Barack Obama is now on record as believing -- insisting -- that torture is an ordinary, "foreseeable consequence" of military detention of all those who are arbitrarily declared "suspected enemy combatants."
And still further: Barack Obama has now declared, openly, of his own free will, that he does not consider these captives to be "persons." They are, literally, sub-humans. And what makes them sub-humans? The fact that someone in the U.S. government has declared them to be "suspected enemy combatants." (And note: even the mere suspicion of being an "enemy combatant" can strip you of your personhood.)
This is what President Barack Obama believes -- believes so strongly that he has put the full weight of the government behind a relentless series of court actions to preserve, protect and defend these arbitrary powers. (For a glimpse at just a sliver of such cases, see here and here.)
One co-counsel on the case, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, zeroed in on the noxious quintessence of the position taken by the Court, and by our first African-American president: its chilling resemblance to the notorious Dred Scott ruling of 1857, which upheld the principle of slavery. As Fisher notes:
"Another set of claims are dismissed because Guantanamo detainees are not ‘persons’ within the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – an argument that was too close to Dred Scott v. Sanford for one of the judges on the court of appeals to swallow," he added.
The Dred Scott case was a decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1857. It ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants — whether or not they were slaves — were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States.
And now, once again, 144 years after the Civil War, we have established as the law of the land and the policy of the United States government that whole classes of people can be declared "non-persons" and have their liberty stripped away -- and their torturers and tormentors protected and coddled by authority -- at a moment's notice, with no charges, no defense, no redress, on nothing more than the suspicion that they might be an "enemy combatant," according to the arbitrary definition of the state.
Barack Obama has had the audacity to declare himself the heir and embodiment of the lifework of Martin Luther King. Can this declaration of a whole new principle of universal slavery really be what King was dreaming of? Is this the vision he saw on the other side of the mountain? Or is not the nightmarish inversion of the ideal of a better, more just, more humane world that so many have died for, in so many places, down through the centuries?
In recent days we have all witnessed two vomitous eruptions of moral nullity that would tax the powers of a Voltaire or a Vidal to do them proper justice; they quite o'er-crow the meager gifts of a hack like me. But I will sketch a few observations here nonetheless, if only to add one more small voice to those few who bear witness to the evils perpetrated by our unaccountable leaders.
Since leaving office, Tony Blair has dipped his blood-smeared snout into various corporate troughs, amassing millions, while simultaneously becoming one of the great whited sepulchres of our day, making a great show of his conversion to Catholicism, his "faith foundation," and so on. He has even lectured at Yale Divinity School. But this holy huckster looks more haunted every day. The glaring, bulging eyes, the frantic rictus of his grin – indistinguishable from the grimace of a man in gut-clenching pain --- and the ever-more strident, maniacal defense of his war crimes give compelling testimony to the hellish fires consuming his psyche.
Next month, Blair will go before the Chilcot Inquiry, a panel of UK Establishment worthies charged with investigating the origins of Britain's role in the invasion of Iraq. Although the worthies have been remarkably toothless in their questioning of the great and good so far – the smell of whitewash is definitely in the air – the inquiry has at least performed the useful function of bringing the forgotten subject of Iraq back into the public eye, while collating and confirming, with sworn testimony, much of what we have learned in dribs and drabs over the years about the rank, deliberate deceit behind this murderous catastrophe. One choice bit that has emerged from the inquiry is the revelation that the centerpiece of Blair's case for immediate war – the claim that Saddam Hussein could hit Europe with WMD-loaded missiles on just 45 minutes' notice – came from unconfirmed, third-hand gossip passed along by an Iraqi taxi driver.
As Blair's turn on the well-padded Chilcot cushion draws near, he has launched frantic efforts to keep his testimony secret while at the same time trying to undercut the rationale for the whole war origins inquiry, which has focused on the professed justification for the invasion: disarming Iraq's (non-existent) WMD. So last week, Blair gave an interview to a friendly, timorous chat-show host in which he made the brazen admission – no, the proud boast – that he would have found a way to drive Britain into war with Iraq even if he had known for certain that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. (And of course, given the nature of the "'intelligence" that Blair used in his pre-war WMD claims it is certain that Blair was indeed certain that Saddam had no such weapons when the invasion was launched).
Thus it is now Blair's contention that there is no charge to answer concerning the origins of the war; all this WMD guff is meaningless. He would have found "other arguments" to persuade Britons to follow George W. Bush into the war that American militarists had long been planning.
Blair's admission has drawn a remarkable response from another Establishment mandarin, Sir Ken Macdonald, who served for five years as Director of Public Prosecutions under Blair's government – and now works in private practice at a major law firm…alongside Tony Blair's wife, Cherie. The headline in The Times puts it plainly: "Intoxicated by power, Blair tricked us into war." In his column, Macdonald writes:
The degree of deceit involved in our decision to go to war on Iraq becomes steadily clearer. This was a foreign policy disgrace of epic proportions and playing footsie on Sunday morning television does nothing to repair the damage. It is now very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tony Blair engaged in an alarming subterfuge with his partner George Bush and went on to mislead and cajole the British people into a deadly war they had made perfectly clear they didn’t want, and on a basis that it’s increasingly hard to believe even he found truly credible.
...Mr Blair’s fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards power. Perhaps this seems odd in a man who drank so much of that mind-altering brew at home. But Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him. In this sense he was weak and, as we can see, he remains so. Since those sorry days we have frequently heard him repeating the self-regarding mantra that “hand on heart, I only did what I thought was right”. But this is a narcissist’s defence and self-belief is no answer to misjudgment: it is certainly no answer to death. “Yo, Blair”, perhaps, was his truest measure.
Macdonald also gives us a sneak peek inside the workings of the elite, with observations that doubtless apply equally well across the ocean:
In British public life, loyalty and service to power can sometimes count for more to insiders than any tricky questions of wider reputation. It’s the regard you are held in by your peers that really counts, so that steadfastness in the face of attack and threatened exposure brings its own rich hierarchy of honour and reward. Disloyalty, on the other hand, means a terrible casting out, a rocky and barren Roman exile that few have the courage to endure. So which way will our heroes jump?
We must hope in the right direction — for it is precisely this privately arranged nature of British Establishment power, stubborn beyond sympathy for years in the face of the modern world, that has brought our politics so low. If Chilcot fails to reveal the truth without fear in this Middle Eastern story of violence and destruction, the inquiry will be held in deserved and withering contempt.
It is almost certain that the Chilcot inquiry will produce little more than the usual blood-flecked whitewash. Certainly, Tony Blair will face no official action for his crimes; he will not even lose any of his corporate sponsors, unlike the heinous Tiger Woods, whose sexual intimacy with consenting adults is obviously far worse than the murder of more than one million innocent people. (We'll never see Woods lecturing at Yale Divinity School now!)
But keep looking at Blair's face; watch, year by year, as it brings forth the hideous fruits of the inferno within. For as one of his illustrious countrymen once put it: "Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ."
"A narcissist's defense." As a description of Obama's Peace Prize speech, Macdonald's phrase could hardly be bettered. But the intense, near-pathological self-regard in the speech was not Obama's alone, of course; we must do him the credit of acknowledging that in this regard, at least, he was what we so often proclaim our leaders to be: the embodiment of the nation. His soaring proclamation of American exceptionalism, in a setting supposedly devoted to universal principles of peace, was breathtaking in its chutzpah – but entirely in keeping with the feelings of the vast majority of his countrymen, and the ruling elite above all.
Many have already remarked on Obama's adoption in the speech of Bush's principle of unilateral, "pre-emptive" military action, anytime, anywhere, whenever a leader declares his nation is under threat. This approach -- which Bush called "the path of action" -- was roundly scorned by critics of the former regime, many of whom now scramble to praise Obama's "nuanced" embrace of aggression. But again, let us give credit where it is due; in this aspect of the speech, Obama did in fact go beyond Bush's more narrowly nationalist conception, saying: "I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation."
Thus Obama would, apparently, extend the right of unilateral military action to "any head of state" that feels the necessity of defending his or her nation. But of course this is just empty verbiage, a pointless, bald-faced lie that not even Bush would have tried to get away with. Would Obama accept a unilateral, pre-emptive strike by Tehran against Israel, where legislators and government officials routinely talk of attacking Iran? Would Obama cheer the "right" of Russia to strike unilaterally at Poland if the U.S. "missile shield" deal, now on hold, was suddenly consummated? Would Obama support a unilateral strike by India at Pakistan -- or vice versa -- in the still-seething cauldron of tensions on the subcontinent, where both nations legitimately feel threatened by the other? Would he support the right of Kim Jong-il to "defend his nation" by attacking South Korea the next time there is a threatening border incident there?
No, it is clear that only the United States -- and its allies, like Israel -- are to be allowed the supreme privilege of unilateral war. The line was inserted in the speech simply because it would sound good in the moment, and create a temporary emotional reaction that might carry listeners past the macabre incongruity underlying the entire event: giving a peace award to the bloodstained leader of a military machine hip-deep in the coagulate gore of two, vast, civilian-slaughtering wars.
Obama staked his boldest claim to American exceptionalism with a passage that he lifted, almost verbatim, from his West Point speech just a few days before (see here and especially here), when he announced his second massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan:
Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other people's children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
Here is chutzpah -- and hubris -- raised to the level of the sublime. Obama has taken the words he used to instigate the certain death of thousands of human beings and the acceleration of hatred, extremism, chaos and brutal corruption around the world -- and offered them as justification for the hideous, unabashedly Orwellian doctrine at the core of his speech: War is Peace. In this perverse inversion of values, Obama, as a warmaker, is actually a peacemaker, you see -- and thus a legitimate heir to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who was evoked at several points in the speech.
And here we come to what was for me the most revolting part of the speech. And perhaps the most significant too. All the cant about America's altruism and "enlightened self-interest" in killing millions of people -- Indochina was one of many convenient blank spots in Obama's historical survey-- for the sake of all the children of the world (red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in our sight) was just par for the rhetorical course. It was nothing that had not been said many times before, including the references -- so lauded by Obama's liberal apologists -- to those inadvertent "mistakes" America seems to keep making; out of a surfeit of good intentions, no doubt. But I don't think an American president has so openly and directly traduced the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before. (And to do it while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, no less! Oh, that sublime brass....)
Although larded with usual hyper-yet-flaccid, florid-yet-false oratorical stylings that have become Obama's trademark, his words about King and Gandhi drip with scorn and condescension. I was actually taken aback when I read these passages:
I make this statement [about the moral justification for war] mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.
The intellectual incoherence and arrogant sneering behind this supposedly laudatory passage is staggering. After claiming to be the personal embodiment of King and Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent action, Obama gives the game away with this line: "I face the world as it is." Those other two guys, they were just dreamers, they were unrealistic, they were unserious; they didn't "face the world as it is," they weren't savvy and pragmatic, like me. I have to go to war because I'm a head of state "sworn to protect and defend my nation."
[Here, Obama indulges in a trope that is pandemic among his apologists: the idea that he was somehow forced to become the head of a militarist state waging endless war around the world, that he has somehow woken up and found himself "the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." But of course he chose to pursue this kind of power in this kind of system -- chose it, pursued it, fought like hell to win it. It's what he wanted. Yet still this notion of Obama as a helpless victim of fate -- lost in a world he never made -- persists.]
He then goes on to give the lie to his previously stated admiration for Gandhi and King: "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." Thus, King, Gandhi and any practitioner of non-violent resistance to evil are, ultimately, naive, ineffectual -- weak.
Notice the incoherence – or perhaps deliberate elision – at work here. Obama says he must face down "threats to the American people" -- and then talks about Hitler's armies, immediately coupling, and rhetorically equating them, with al-Qaeda's scattered handful of hidden fugitives. Are the American people now threatened by Hitler's armies? Are al-Qaeda's paltry forces -- less than 100 of them in Afghanistan, according to Obama's own war-wagers -- the equal of Hitler's armies of millions of men?
But there is a deeper untruth beyond these cheap rhetorical tricks. For it is blatantly untrue to say that "a nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies." First of all, one cannot make that statement because this approach was never tried. Therefore you cannot say categorically that it would not have worked. Doubtless it would have cost millions of lives; but as Gandhi himself pointed out, the violent resistance to Hitler's armies also cost tens of millions of lives. But Obama's formulation -- which is a hackneyed one indeed -- only deals with one view of non-violent resistance to Hitler: i.e., from the outside, resisting his armies as they poured across the borders. There is another way in which a non-violent resistance movement without any doubt could have "halted Hitler's armies": if it had taken root and spread throughout Germany itself, including among the armed forces and its supporting industries.
In the event, this did not happen. But it was not, and is not, an impossibility for humankind to pursue such an approach. Therefore it is fatuous and false to state what cannot possibly be known: whether non-violent resistance would have thwarted Nazism, and whether this would have been more or less costly than the way of violence.
Similarly, it is false to say that "negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." The only response to this bald statement is: How do you know? Has anybody tried it? No. Therefore you cannot call it an impossibility -- and then use this supposed, untested "impossibility" as your justification for laying waste to whole nations. You may say that it would be unjust to negotiate with al-Qaeda, that those who use murderous violence to achieve their ends should simply be killed or prosecuted. (Although where would that leave the leaders of the exalted, exceptional, unilateral United States?) But of course this is precisely what Gandhi did: he sat down and negotiated with the representatives of an empire that had caused the deaths of millions of his own people. He negotiated with them in good faith, with good will, despite what they had done and were doing to his people -- and despite the fact that many of his interlocutors, such as Winston Churchill, hated him with a blind, racist fury. And he was successful -- although again, not without cost, both before and after the liberation. But Gandhi, and King, knew the costs of non-violence – because they were genuinely savvy, and genuinely realistic about the nature of evil.
In any case, aside from the particulars of any real situation or hypothetical scenario, the speech is a glaring example of Obama's deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) contempt for the path of peace, and its practitioners. It is also a manifestation of his own inferno, of his desperate need to justify -- to himself and to the world -- his free, deliberate choice to follow the blood-choked "path of action" as the commander-in-chief of a bloated, brutal war machine.
No one forced any of these decisions – or these specious, obscene justifications – on Obama or Blair. It is their own narcissism -- their own lust for power, and their love for the system that gave them that power – that has covered them with the blood and shame that now taint their every word and deed.
The mind boggles. Who ever would have thought, even in their darkest, most paranoid dreams, that the Copenhagen climate change talks would be hijacked by a handful of rich nations seeking to give themselves more power and riches while imposing new burdens and new injustices on the rest of the world? And that amongst this avaricious, duplicitous elite one would find the government of a man who now bears the Nobel laurel for his unstinting dedication to the welfare of all humanity?
Yet as unlikely as it may seem - the rich screwing the poor? What next? – that's exactly what has happened at the great international conference that opened this week in Denmark with the avowed intent of pulling the planet back from the brink of a potentially fatal disequilibrium. America, Britain, and, er, Denmark are among the handful of rich nations who have drawn up a secret draft agreement that they hope to impose on the conference in its closing days, when the elite's heavy hitters like Barack Obama and Gordon Brown swan in to take a bow.
The plan would let rich nations emit twice as much per capita pollution as developing countries, while the latter will be subject to stiff new dictates from the rich in order to receive technical assistance for climate change programs. The elite plan also calls for completely bypassing the UN – the only international forum in which poor nations feel they stand on a slightly more equal footing with the elite – and turning over climate change funding and future negotiations to an "independent" board … most likely run by that reliable appendage of empire, the World Bank. As the Guardian reports:
The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN's role in all future climate change negotiations.
The document is also being interpreted by developing countries as setting unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for developed and developing countries in 2050; meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much under the proposals....
The draft hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank; would abandon the Kyoto protocol – the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions; and would make any money to help poor countries adapt to climate change dependent on them taking a range of actions.
The so-called Danish text, a secret draft agreement worked on by a group of individuals known as "the circle of commitment" – but understood to include the UK, US and Denmark – has only been shown to a handful of countries since it was finalised this week.
..."It is being done in secret. Clearly the intention is to get [Barack] Obama and the leaders of other rich countries to muscle it through when they arrive next week. It effectively is the end of the UN process," said one diplomat, who asked to remain nameless.
A spokesman for Cafod, a development charity with close links to some of the poorest countries in the world, said: "This draft document reveals the backstage machinations of a biased host who, instead of acting as nonpartisan broker, is taking sides with the developed countries.
"The document should not even exist. There is a UN legal process which is the official negotiating text. The Danish text disrespects the solid, steady approach of the UN process."
Another shock! Elites clubbing together in secret, seeking to circumvent legal processes for their own corrupt advantage? And, and, and....Americans being involved in such dirty business?! Say it ain't so, O!
The Copenhagen talks have become captive of what we might call the "Reform Syndrome"; i.e., the absolute, urgent imperative to put together a crappy deal that gorges the rich and hobbles the poor in egregious ways -- but which can be palmed off on a compliant media and a diverted public as some kind of "reform." The important thing is that an illusion of positive action be created -- while the same-old same-old keeps grinding on behind the scenes.
This scenario has been playing out in the most crude and brazen fashion during the "debate" over health care "reform" in the United States, which has seen a "progressive" administration literally sell its "reform" agenda to the very corporate interests that are the ostensible target of the reforms, allowing them, again literally, to write most of the "reform" legislation themselves.
And this has been the modus operandi of most of the international climate change efforts, which have seen no appreciable reduction in the pollution that is driving the destabilization of the planet -- but has seen the creation of vast new "carbon trading" markets an other speculative ventures for the rich and powerful to feast upon.
Genuine climate change experts like Sir David King of the UK have been saying that no deal would be far better than the kind of bad deals that are brewing in Copenhagen. And that was before the secret agenda of the "circle of commitment" was revealed. (The same dynamic applies to health care reform, of course: better no bill at all than the monstrosity now wending its way through Congressional intestines. Back off, buckle down, and start again.)
The details of the elite's Copenhagen agenda will now doubtless now be modified -- or plastered over with a new coat of PR paint -- in the light of the firestorm the revelations have provoked. But the true intention of the rich nations in these negotiations -- as in all others -- is clearer than a shining stream pouring down from a melting ice cap: the weakest go to the wall.
But as Arthur Silber pointed out last month in his articles on global warming, this is what our "complex, intricate... corporatist system," with its "dizzyingly numerous interconnections between "private" business and government," does. This is what it's for. And, as he notes, this is the system that we are trusting to resolve the globe-wrenching problems of climate change.
Silber also makes the pertinent point that while this system goes on its merry way, profiting both from its unceasing pollution of the planet -- which may have already reached the point of no return -- and from the fitful and co-opted attempts to mitigate its effects, millions of people are absorbed by their anxiety over these potential dangers ... even as they ignore, or in some cases, celebrate, vast, man-made catastrophes that could be dealt with today, right now -- and with a bare minimum of cost.
For example, Victoria Brittain details a vast, man-made environmental disaster that could be resolved this afternoon with a single phone call. From the Guardian:
Among all the complex and long-term solutions being sought in Copenhagen for averting environmental catastrophe across the world, there is one place where the catastrophe has already happened, but could be immediately ameliorated with one simple political act.
In Gaza there is now no uncontaminated water; of the 40,000 or so newborn babies, at least half are at immediate risk of nitrate poisoning – incidence of "blue baby syndrome", methaemoglobinaemia, is exceptionally high; an unprecedented number of people have been exposed to nitrate poisoning over 10 years; in some places the nitrate content in water is 300 times World Health Organisation standards; the agricultural economy is dying from the contamination and salinated water; the underground aquifer is stressed to the point of collapse; and sewage and waste water flows into public spaces and the aquifer.
The blockade of Gaza has gone on for nearly four years, and the vital water and sanitation infrastructure went past creaking to virtual collapse during the three-week assault on the territory almost a year ago.
What would it take to start the two UN sewerage repair projects approved by Israel; a UN water and sanitation project, not yet approved; and two more UN internal sewage networks, not yet approved? Right now just one corner of the blockade could be lifted for these building materials and equipment to enter Gaza, to let water works begin and to give infant lives a chance. Just one telephone call from the Israeli defence ministry could do it – an early Christmas present to the UN staff on the ground who have been ready to act for months and have grown desperate on this front, as on so many others.
As Brittain notes, the Israelis have already lifted another part of their strangulating blockade, after a bold intervention by U.S. Senator John Kerry, who in March of this year demanded that the Israelis lift their prohibitions on ... pasta.
But apparently, no American politician can be bothered to pick up a phone to stem the poisoning of the Gaza Ghetto:
Gaza's huge pale sandy beaches used to be society's playground and reassurance of happiness and normality, with families picnicking, horses exercising, fishermen mending their nets, children swimming and boys exercising in the early morning, but these days they are mainly empty, and not just because it is winter. Between 50m and 60m litres of untreated sewage have flowed into the Mediterranean every day this year since the end of the Israeli invasion in January, the sea smells bad and few fish are available in the three nautical mile area Palestinians are allowed in. This resource seems as ruined as the rubble of Gaza's parliament and ministries.
...."We have run out of words to describe how bad it is here," says John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. Ging heads a team of 10,000 mainly Palestinian workers who run the aid supplies that are all that stand between the vast majority of Gazans and destitution. "We have 80% unemployment, an economy at subsistence level, infrastructure destroyed, etc, but even worse than the humanitarian plight is the destruction of civil society."
Ging's great preoccupation is "the 750,000 children susceptible to an environment where things are moving rapidly in the wrong direction, where the injustice is bewildering, and every day worse":
There is a big problem of insecurity and violence here, and it is getting worse. Most adults display stoic resilience, and cling to a belief in traditional values, but there is a compelling narrative by extremists which becomes ever more difficult to combat. Only lifting the siege would change the dynamic.
Or what about the vast, spreading, man-made disaster that is Afghanistan? As Silber notes, many people who decry the potential disasters of climate change actively support the catastrophic intervention in Afghanistan -- which, as we pointed out here, produces the very ills that is ostensibly designed to reduce (just as Israel's choking of Gaza does). Yet here too, the vast suffering and degradation of millions of people could be addressed more effectively at a modicum of the cost it now takes to kill and plunder them.
Jeffrey Sachs (via the Angry Arab) takes up this theme at the Huffington Post, while noting the aforementioned inherent disabilities of our present system to address the problems it ostensibly seeks to resolve:
The framing of Afghanistan's governance problems with the simplistic gloss of "corruption" is yet another trivialization of reality, exceeded only by the idea that Afghan President Hamid Karzai can and will turn off corruption at will, and notably in response to US pressure. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was on the mark when he questioned the ability of Washington, itself in an era of rampant corruption, to clean up corruption elsewhere. A worthy role for Richard Holbrooke, now the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, would be to root out flagrant financial mismanagement at the staff of AIG, where Holbrooke had served on the Board during the buildup of the recent financial bubble. The war industry itself, replete with powerful corporations like Fluor and DynCorp that receive billions of dollars in no-bid Pentagon contracts, are also a likely part of the Washington political momentum.
The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan is in urgent need of the basics for survival in one of the poorest countries on Earth -- seeds, fertilizer, roads, power, schools, and clinics -- much more than it is in the need of another 30,000 troops or added military contractors. Development aid directed to Afghanistan's communities, through the UN, could stabilize Afghanistan far more effectively at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of the coming $100 billion or so per year that will be spent on this military debacle. Yet such support is not forthcoming. ... As Friedman reports, Obama has disdained "nation-building" as "mission creep," thereby disappointingly echoing the Bush administration.
In fact, the US Government's long-standing disdain is for the Afghan people themselves, since there has been not the slightest effort for decades to think through their real needs and wants. As in Vietnam, this mission is all about us. And as in Vietnam, the US escalation has the possibility of causing much broader destabilization in Central and South Asia and the Middle East.
Yes, who could possibly have foreseen that the avatars of such a system would seek to exploit the growing anxiety over climate change to augment their own dominance? Whatever happens to the planet -- or to the Iraqis, or to the Afghans, or to the millions of people going down in the flood of financial flim-flam and health care "reform" scams -- the elites will remain as they are now: well-wadded, well-protected, and well-connected in their fortified enclaves of privilege and power.
To paraphrase John Ging: We are running out of words to describe how bad it is around here.
A series of devastating car bombings rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 121 people and wounding hundreds more, according to preliminary accounts by witnesses, the police and hospital officials....
The attacks were the worst in Iraq since twin suicide bombings destroyed three ministries on Oct. 25, killing at least 155 people. They fit a pattern of spectacular attacks in the capital, followed by weeks of relative calm. In August, two suicide car bombs exploded near the country’s Finance and Foreign Ministries, killing at least 122.
After you have taken a moment to mull this unspeakable rending of human lives -- not just the individuals who were killed but also the lifelong, lacerating grief of their survivors -- a rending which is a direct result of an American invasion and occupation that not only loosed a savage sectarian war in the shattered, conquered land but also actively abetted it at every turn, go back and read the last paragraph of that excerpt again.
The worst attack in -- not years, not decades -- but mere weeks. In other words, it's hardly been a month since the last time, of many times, over and over, like clockwork, that dozens of people were ripped to shreds in the American-caused, American-abetted, American-supported civil wars in Iraq.
Think on that, then think on this: the situation in Iraq is now being held up as a model, a goal, for Barack Obama's massive expansion of the war and occupation in Afghanistan. Obama himself has called the "surge" in Iraq "an extraordinary achievement," and has at every turn promoted and propagated the myth that George W. Bush's escalation of a hideous war of aggression was a resounding success. This myth is based on one thing only: the fact that the peak of the ghastly death rate produced by the American occupation dropped to a somewhat less horrific level. But as countless experts and analysts have pointed out, this drop had very little to do with the addition of some 28,000 American troops. (And parenthetically, what a small thing the Iraqi "surge" seems now, with Obama having already launched two "surges" in Afghanistan, which will, in the end, add up to more than 50,000 troops -- with the concomitant number of mercenaries who now augment, when they do not surpass, the official military contingents in America's imperial campaigns.)
Patrick Cockburn is the latest to put Iraq's "model" surge in its proper perspective, in a piece this week in The Independent:
There are real parallels between the US and British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are not the ones which the White House and Downing Street are publicising. In both countries foreign forces were intervening in a potential or actual ethnic and sectarian civil war. In Afghanistan this is between the Pashtun on one side and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara on the other and has been going on for 30 years. In Iraq it is between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. The Sunni were the predominant community under Saddam Hussein and were displaced by the Shia after a horrendous civil war which reached its peak in and around Baghdad in 2006-07. Sunni insurgents did surprisingly well against US troops, but lost the war against the Shia.
The guerrilla war against the US in Iraq ceased because the Sunni community was being slaughtered by Shia death squads. "Judging by the body counts at the time in the Baghdad morgues, three Sunnis died for every Shia," Dr Michael Izady, who conducted a survey of the sectarian make-up of Baghdad for Columbia University's School of International Affairs, is quoted as saying. "Baghdad, basically a Sunni city into the 1940s, by the end of 2008 had only a few hundred thousand Sunni residents left in a population of over five million." Defeated in this devastating sectarian civil war, the Sunni ended their attacks on US troops and instead sought their protection. The "surge" of 28,000 extra US troops who arrived in the summer of 2007 had a marginal impact on the outcome of the fighting.
Yet it is the mythical success of the US troop "surge" in Iraq in 2007-08 which is being used as a template for US military policy in Afghanistan two years later. A strategy, which did not work in the way the Pentagon said it did in Iraq is now to be applied in Afghanistan where conditions are, in any case, entirely different.
Cockburn goes on to note that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan, just like Bush's in Iraq, is guaranteed (by design?) to enflame ethnic conflict:
The Obama plan outlined last week envisages training 100,000 new Afghan soldiers and 100,000 new policemen over the next three years. But where are these recruits to come from? Given the high desertion rate, the combat strength of the Afghan army is reportedly only 46,000 troops in a country that is larger than France. These troops, and particularly the officer corps, are already disproportionately Tajik, the ethnic group to which a quarter of Afghans belong. The US can only increase the military strength of the Afghan state swiftly by skewing it towards the Tajiks, who were always the core of opposition to the Taliban. This will increase sectarian hatreds.
And of course, the addition of thousands more foreign forces carrying out intensified military operations in Afghanistan will mean thousands more civilian deaths -- one of the primary elements fuelling violent resistance to the Western occupation.
In other words, as always in our bipartisan Terror War, the actual policies pursued by our leaders will, of necessity, produce the opposite result of their stated aims: quelling terrorism, dampening extremism, bringing stability, and, in the words of Obama's escalation speech at West Point, building "a better future for our children and grandchildren" by ensuring that "other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity."
Let's state it again: you cannot achieve such goals, even in the slightest degree, with the foreign policies and military actions of the Bush and Obama administrations. You cannot invade countries, kills thousands upon thousands of innocent people, destroy societies, unleash and foment civil war, impose corrupt, violent, repressive regimes on shattered, suffering people and expect that this will somehow build "a better future" for your children and grandchildren -- much less for the children and grandchildren that you are murdering, brutalizing and traumatizing.
As we said here the other day, only an idiot could actually believe such things. And while our leaders may be moral nullities, they are not idiots. Therefore it is clear beyond all doubt and argument that the stated purposes for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are deliberate, knowing, well-considered lies. Thus all the earnest debates and commentaries on the relative efficacy of various policies aimed at achieving these completely specious goals are pointless. In the end, such diversionary "debates" only serve the causes of war, domination, profiteering and elite power that are, in the end, the only true goals of these campaigns.
Do you want more proof of the inherent subversion of the Terror War's stated goals by the actual policies adopted by our leaders? Then look at Pakistan this week -- or almost any week these days -- where dozens of people were killed in the intensified civil war that has been "ratcheted up" at Washington's insistence.
For the last year, the Obama administration has waged a relentless campaign of hectoring, pressure, humiliation and blackmail to force the Pakistani government to wage open war on Pashtun tribes and sectarian groups opposed to Pakistani collaboration with America's growing military presence in the region.
(And please note: Washington does not object at all in principle to the retrograde religious extremism of the targeted sectarian groups in Pakistan -- or in Afghanistan, for that matter. For one thing, many of these same groups received copious support from America during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. And of course, Obama, like all of his predecessors, joyfully embraces -- even, yes, bows to -- perhaps the most retrograde, extremist religious regime on earth, Saudi Arabia. Never believe -- not for a moment -- that it is the content of faction's belief that determines Washington's attitude toward it. This determination is made solely on the basis of how that group advances -- or impedes -- American policy interests at any given time and place. One need only look at the vicious religious extremists embraced and empowered by the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the past few years to see that.)
And so, bowing to this pressure, throughout the year the Pakistani military has dutifully "ratcheted up" its attacks on its own people. And what has been the inevitable result? More violence, more terrorist attacks, more instability, more extremism.
The first story is a remarkable tale of imperial extortion that nakedly reveals the true nature of American policy in the region: play ball, by our rules -- or get it in the neck. The administration of the new Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now openly telling the Pakistanis that if they do not kill more of their own people, then by God, the Americans are going to do it for them:
The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban inside its borders, warning that if it does not act more aggressively the United States will use considerably more force on the Pakistani side of the border to shut down Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials said.
But because this is the New York Times, one of the great keepers of the American exceptionalism flame, we must have this ludicrous, laughable line inserted right after these direct threats:
United States officials said the message did not amount to an ultimatum....
The Pakistanis got the message, however:
For their part the Pakistanis interpreted the message as a fairly bald warning that unless Pakistan moved quickly to act against two Taliban groups they have so far refused to attack, the United States was prepared to take unilateral action to expand Predator drone attacks beyond the tribal areas and, if needed, to resume raids by Special Operations forces into the country against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders ... A Pakistani official who has been briefed on the meetings said, “Jones’s message was if that Pakistani help wasn’t forthcoming, the United States would have to do it themselves.”
In other words (we're having to use a lot of "other words" in this piece, but that's unavoidable when translating the higher bullshit of government and media), this was the message of the world's greatest beacon of freedom and goodness: "Listen up, Paki -- attack who we say or we're going to invade your fucking country. You savvy me lingo, Sambo?"
Yes, it is that crude; and yes, it is precisely that kind of condescending, dehumanizing racism that lies behind this approach. And try to picture the smug look of smirking satisfaction that accompanied this quote from the story:
A senior administration official, asked about the encounter, declined to go into details but added quickly, “I think they read our intentions accurately.”
And how's this for patting the blackjack in your palm, looking around the room and saying, with a sinister smile: "Nice little shop you got here, pal. Too bad if something, like, happened to it."
“We’ve offered them a strategic choice,” one administration official said, describing the private communications. “And we’ve heard back almost nothing.” Another administration official said, “Our patience is wearing thin.”
But of course what we are talking about here is Pakistan escalating the already extensive -- and heavy-handed, civilian-killing -- "counter-terrorism" operations it has launched at Washington's insistence in the past two years. These attacks have been met with a wave of reprisals from the targeted groups -- as well as by attacks of uncertain provenance. (In the world of "counterinsurgency," where death squads and double agents abound, one can never be sure where the ultimate origin of any attack comes from -- or even if the attackers themselves know who is pulling the strings. For more on this, see here, here and here, among many examples.)
The result of Obama's year-long policy of escalation in Pakistan is clear: more violence, more terrorism, more instability. Yet even after this clear evidence of failure (according to the purported reasons for the escalation), what is the "new" policy after the "strategic review"? The same, only more so. We can thus look forward to a lot more of this:
Militants set off two bombs on Monday night in one of the busiest markets of this eastern Pakistani city, then sprayed the crowd with gunfire, killing at least 54 people, including many women and children, and wounding at least 150 others, Pakistani authorities said on Tuesday.
News agencies reported a fresh attack on Tuesday in the same region. A bomb near the offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate in Multan killed at least 12 people, the reports said.
This was part of a series of attacks that have killed hundreds of people in the past few weeks. As the Guardian noted earlier this month:
...[A] wave of attacks.. started two months ago, on the eve of an army drive into the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. More than 400 Pakistanis have died since early October in attacks on UN offices, security installations and crowded bazaars. The capital, Islamabad, increasingly resembles cities such as Kabul, with rising sandbagged walls, checkpoint-clogged streets and shopping areas bereft of foreigners and, increasingly, Pakistanis.
Nearby Rawalpindi has suffered even more attacks, including a 22-hour siege of the army headquarters in early October that left 23 people dead and badly embarrassed the military.
And so the cycle goes on and on -- now with a Peace Laureate at its head. Looking at this ever-growing darkness, I keep coming back to something I wrote the day after 9/11:
Blood will have blood; that's certain. But blood will not end it. For murder is fertile: it breeds more death, like a spider laden with a thousand eggs. And who now can break this cycle, which has been going on for generations?
"How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it." -- Henry David Thoreau
To me, this quote from Thoreau expresses the only rational, moral and humane stance that a citizen can take toward the vast and brutal machinery of the American imperial state in our time. The crimes of this state are monstrous, and mounting. But what is worse is that these crimes are not aberrations; they are the very essence of the system -- they are its goal, its product, its lifeblood.
Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems, and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.
I believe this is an indisputable fact. Decades of historical evidence give it proof. The last three decades especially have seen the relentless acceleration of this systemic evolution. The quality of life for ordinary Americans, those outside the golden circle of the elite and their retainers, has decayed immeasurably – and measurably. Stagnant wages. Degraded infrastructure. A poisoned food chain. Whole communities -- with all their social, political, cultural and family networks -- gutted by the heedless flight of capital to cheap labor (and slave labor) markets abroad, and by the dissolution of an embodied economic life into the shadow-play of high finance, the ghostly manipulation of numbers that produces nothing of value except gargantuan profits for a very few. A bonfire of public amenities, making daily life harder, harsher, constricted, diminished. Ever-growing social and economic disparity, shrinking the circle of opportunity. Two million citizens behind bars, in prisons overflowing with non-violent drug cases – nightmarish institutions given over to gangs, neglect, punitive regimens and private profit.
Yet this long, grinding process of diminishment and degradation has been accompanied by a never-ending expansion of the war machine into a dominant position over almost every aspect of American life. Not even the ending of the Cold War slowed this excrescence; defense budgets grew, new enemies were found, there were new missions, new commands, new wars. The ruling elite of American society were – and are – obviously willing to let the welfare, prosperity, opportunities and liberties of the common people sink deeper and deeper into the mire, in order to finance a system structured around war, with all the attendant corruption, brutalization and accrual of authoritarian power that war brings.
This is the system we have. It’s right out in the open. There is a deep-rooted expectation – and not, alas, just among the elite -- that the world should jump to America’s tune, by force if necessary. And when, for whatever reason, some part of the world does not jump – or bump and grind – to the Potomac beat, then it becomes a “problem” that must be “solved,” by one means or another, with, of course, “all options on the table,” all the time. And whether these “problems” are approached with blunt, bullying talk or a degree of cajolery and pious rhetoric, the chosen stance is always backed up with the ever-present threat of military action, up to and including the last of those “options” that always decorate the table: utter annihilation.
This is not even questioned, must less debated or challenged. America’s right to intervene in the affairs other nations by violent force (along with a constant series of illegal covert activities) – and to impose an empire of military plantations across the length and breadth of the entire planet – is the basic assumption, the underlying principle, the fervently held faith shared by both national parties, and the entire elite Establishment. And if you want to have the necessary instruments to maintain such a state of hegemony, then you must indeed structure your society and economy around war.
Many nations – all vanished now – have done this. The Roman Empire was one. Nazi Germany was another. At great cost to the economic, social and political life of ordinary Germans, Adolf Hitler geared the state to produce the war machine necessary to assert the dominance in world affairs which he felt was Germany’s natural right. One of his chief aims was to procure enough “living space” and natural resources in Eastern Europe to compete with America’s growing economic might. The Holocaust of European Jews was, for all its horror, just a preliminary to the greater “ethnic cleansing” to come. As historian Adam Tooze reminds us in The Wages of Destruction, the Nazis had drawn up detailed plans for the extermination – by active mass murder and deliberate starvation – of up to 40 million East Europeans.
Today, we all recognize the inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition. We shake our heads and say, “Whatever evils we may be accused of, we have never and would never do such a thing.” Perhaps. But leaving aside for a moment the millions – millions – of African slaves and Native Americans who died in order to procure the living space and natural resources of North and South America for European peoples, it is clear that most Americans – the elite above all – can easily countenance the deaths of, say, more than one million innocent Iraqis, or upwards of three million Southeast Asians, without any disturbance in their sense of national righteousness, their bedrock belief that the United States has the natural right, even the duty, to assert its hegemony over world affairs.
The mass murder in Iraq, the horrible slaughter in Vietnam and Cambodia, the direct involvement in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, Latin America, and the Iran-Iraq War – to name just a few such operations carried out within the last generation – are regarded as actions which, however "mistaken" some might feel them to have been, were undertaken in good faith, to "preserve our way of life" from this or that imminent, overwhelming threat to our very national existence. [Which was, of course, the same reasoning Hitler used to justify his militarism: the urgent need to protect the German people from maniacal, irrational, bloodsworn enemies bent on their total destruction.]
And let us not forget that American war planners also drew up detailed plans involving the extermination of tens of millions of East Europeans in "first strike" nuclear attacks – plans which they often urged national leaders to put into practice. And even today, the constantly asserted vow to keep the nuclear option "on the table" at all times means that every single action or policy toward a "problem" nation carries with it the explicit threat to kill millions of people – to outdo the Holocaust in a matter of minutes.
Can one really look at such plans and attitudes, and at the towering, Everest-like mountain of corpses produced by American polices – just in the last generation – and say that there is not also a form of inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition as well? Is this really a system that one can be associated with honorably in any way? What should we think about a person who wants to lead such a system, who wants to take hold of the driving wheel of the war machine, to use it, to expand it, to accept all of its premises, to keep all of its horrific "options" forever on the table, to feed it and gorge it and coddle it and appease it at every turn, while millions of their own people sink further into degradation and diminishment?
Shouldn't someone who knowingly, willingly, eagerly bent all of their energies toward taking power in such a system instantly and irretrievably forfeit our regard and support? Should we really give such a "leader" the benefit of the doubt, cut him some slack, be ready to praise him when he or his government momentarily behaves in a normal, rational or legal manner? Should we grimly insist that he is the only choice we have, that his heart is probably in the right place, and that all we can do is try and cajole him into being "better"?
In the light of these considerations, it is astonishing to see what has been the main reaction of many leading progressive writers to Barack Obama's murderous escalation of the imperial war in Afghanistan and the dirty war in Pakistan. While voicing their "disappointment" with the decision, they have reserved most of their scorn not for the man who has ordered this new tranche of mass death and inhuman suffering, but for those who have accused Obama of "betrayal."
No, that's not a joke. The new progressive line on the escalation seems to be this: "We knew all along he was going to do it, so what's the big deal?"
That has been the chief response from such high-profile progressives as Digby and Joan Walsh. They seem far more worked up about the fact that some people (such as Tom Hayden, Gary Wills, and others) are accusing Obama of "betrayal" than they are about the thousands of innocent people who will die from Obama's decision, and the long-reverberating evil, at home and abroad, this escalation will engender.
Both Digby and Walsh are at great pains to establish how savvy they have been about Obama from the very beginning. For example, Digby writes: "I never had any illusions about where he and most of the other Democrats were headed with the "Good War" narrative. It always ends up the same way." She ridicules Hayden for declaring, during the campaign, that "all American progressives should unite for Barack Obama," and for now being disappointed that the president is not "the second coming of Gandhi, Houdini and Jesus Christ," as Digby scornfully describes Hayden's earlier belief.
Fair enough. It's true that Obama made no secret of his intent to escalate the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and anyone who didn't expect him to do so was being wilfully blind, or naive. On the other hand, what these savvy commentators fail to note is that Obama has already escalated the Af-Pak war, earlier in his term -- an escalation as large as Bush's "surge" in Iraq. And obviously, this effort didn't work; hence the latest "strategic review" that led to Obama's fateful West Point speech. So although Obama did promise to escalate the Af-Pak conflict during the campaign, he did not promise to keep doing it, over and over, even in the face of obvious failure. Thus it is not inherently "silly" or irrational for an Obama supporter like Hayden or Wills to feel betrayed by this second escalation, and by the transparently specious rationales that Obama offered for it.
But let's leave that aside. For the main issue regarding the escalation is not whether Tom Hayden is silly or if he was too gushing or naive in his earlier support of Obama; the main issue is the actual reality of this murderous course. And here, we come to the matter of the progressives' self-proclaimed savviness.
Digby and Walsh and other savvy progressives say they knew all along that Obama was going to embark on a horrific policy which would inevitably result in the needless death of innocent people, the further war-profiteering corruption of our own political system, and the exacerbation of extremism, hatred, strife and destabilization around the world. Yet they still stretched every nerve and sinew exhorting people to vote for him in the presidential election. Indeed, the entire campaign thrust of these savvy, realistic, pragmatic progressives could be summed up in one oddly familiar line: "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama."
And even as she denigrates Tom Hayden – who at least put his actual body and liberty on the line to oppose an unjust war in Vietnam, taking to the streets in direct action against the state, which then put him on trial as part of the "Chicago Seven" – Digby herself wrings her hands and says we all had no choice but to vote for Obama. There was only him and Hillary, then only him and McCain; what else could we do? Even if we knew – as Digby and Walsh say they knew – that Obama was going to murder people, destabilize the world and continue the Empire's monstrous Terror War, we had no other choice but to vote for him.
No other choice. What else could we do? Aside from the third parties offering alternatives to what Digby calls "a moderate [Democrat] and a doddering right wing fool with his ignoramus running mate," one wonders if our progressives have ever heard of Thoreau -- who, like Hayden, put his actual body and liberty on the line to disassociate himself from a system he regarded as deeply immoral?
In any case, according to our progressives, not only was there no choice but voting for Obama, there is no justification now for criticizing him for doing what we savvy people knew he was going to do. Anyone who, like Hayden and Wills, is now breaking ranks with Obama over Afghanistan is just "having a fit," and being "silly" and "puerile."
No, it seems that the only thing that responsible, savvy progressives can do now is keep faith with the president – keep up our contacts with the Administration, keep our feet "inside the tent," keep our savvy listservs going -- and "push [Obama] to better solutions," as Walsh tells us.
I find all of this remarkable. Again, it's not that Digby, Walsh and others are uncritical of Obama's decision. Walsh declares herself "deeply disappointed, saddened even" by the escalation, and Digby thunders, or rather, sighs, that she wishes "Obama had changed his mind on Afghanistan, and argued for him to do it." She will even "continue to do so" – that is, argue for Obama to change his imperial mind. To argue, appeal, petition, and encourage the leader to better solutions. But obviously there will be none of that civil disobedience stuff that silly-billy Tom Hayden and his ilk pulled in their time.
In fact, Digby seems to slam Hayden directly for the "silliness" of his "behavior" in "his heyday" – that is, when he was taking direct action to try to stop an immoral war. She says of his denunciation of Obama's betrayal: "It's this kind of behavior that has given liberals a bad name since Hayden was in his heyday."
Well, we all need to mind our behavior, of course, just as our parents sternly admonished us. So by all means, let us not be indecorous in our opposition to murder and corruption. Let us not be intemperate in our resistance to evil. And for god's sake, let us not be silly or "have fits" in our dissent against atrocity, deceit and destruction.
I hold no special brief for Tom Hayden, who over the years turned into a standard hack politician, nor do I endorse every point of his new dissent. But if he is using what is left of his notoriety to speak out against this monstrous war and its escalation – for whatever reason, even a baseless sense of "betrayal" – then I say more power to him. What on God's green earth does it matter if someone says they feel "betrayed" by Obama's decision or not? In the light of the death and destruction to come, how could that possibly be important? And how could defending Obama against this charge of betrayal be such a major concern – for people who say they oppose the decision and decry its consequences?
But this is the kind of schizophrenic reaction -- "the president is a murderer/we must vote for the president" -- that is bred by the acceptance of an inhuman system. Thus we see these strange diversions among our leading dissidents ("Silly old Hayden!"), these partisan splittings of infinitesimal hairs ("our guy is 2% less evil than their guy, so we have no choice but to vote for him").
We also see the strange phenomenon, among almost all leading progressives, of leavening criticism of the system with praise for any "constructive" actions or decisions its leaders might produce. For example, Glenn Greenwald recently set out some recommendations on how rational citizens can avoid "the behaviors that turned the Right into a dissent-stifling cult of personality erected around George W. Bush."
Greenwald noted several ways in which right-wing activists muted any ideological or philosophical objections they might have had to a specific Bush policy – his vast expansion of the federal government, for example, which should have been anathema to movement conservatives – and instead rallied blindly around the Leader, no matter what. He then detailed – and rightly condemned – some of the many, many instances when progressive activists have done the same with Obama, and makes the unassailable argument that the justice of a particular cause (public health care, gay rights, torture, civil liberties, etc.) should far outweigh any partisan worries about Obama's political standing.
Most of his recommendations were common sense; their general thrust is somewhat along the lines of an approach examined here on the day after the 2008 election: "WIBDI (What If Bush Did It?): A Prism for the New Paradigm." Or you can even boil it down further, as Bob Dylan did more than 40 years ago in a single memorable phrase: "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters."
But at the head of these suggestions, Greenwald puts this:
If Obama takes action or makes a decision that you think is good and constructive, say so and give him credit.
One looks at this and thinks: Why? Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to make a special effort to commend the leaders of the kind of system described above, one which has "fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for [and ceaseless practice of] war"?
Of course, there is an immediate logic to it. You would do it to establish your credibility, your objectivity, to say, "I'm neither a reflexive Obama-basher nor a swooning cheerleader; I call them as I see them." This in turn would lend more weight to your criticisms of the Administration; when you "hold Obama's feet to the fire" or "push him to better solutions" on this or that issue, your principled dissent can't be dismissed out of hand by the leadership as mere partisan opposition.
And if we were dealing with a different political reality – on a smaller, more human scale, say, with a more equitable distribution of power in society, and a vastly reduced scope (and appetite) for violence, corruption and domination on the part of an unassailable, lawless elite – then perhaps such an approach might do well. But that, alas, is not our reality. We wrestle with a militarized regime whose powers are, as I said in an earlier piece on Thoreau, "so much greater, far more pervasive, more invasive and much more implacable, more inhuman" than the fledgling state our Walden forbear confronted all those years ago. We are dealing with a government that is committing, at every moment – with every breath we take – horrendous crimes against life and liberty, with its murderous wars of aggression and domination, and its ever-spreading authoritarian encroachments.
Again, should we give credit to such a regime, single it out for praise, whenever it happens to behave in a rational manner on one issue or another? After all, functioning governments of every kind do a multitude of worthy things for their people every day. They build roads, lay electric lines and sewer pipes, maintain the food supply, sponsor medical research, facilitate technological developments, adjudicate civil disputes, provide disaster relief, maintain parks and recreation areas, etc., etc. – the list is virtually endless. And this was equally true of, say, Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, and other regimes imbued with a crimeful essence. Would you have told a dissident opposing the depredations of Hitler or Stalin or Franco or Tojo or the apartheid regime in South Africa that he or she must always be sure to point out any constructive thing these governments do, and give them credit for it?
This is not a call to ignore reality. The constructive things that governments do are part of their record. But it's important to note two points here. First, we're not talking about making a casual observation when you glance at the paper – "Glad they're not going to prosecute Grandma for that medical marijuana now" – and factoring that into your general knowledge base. Instead, we're talking about the specific context of Greenwald's recommendations, which deal with those who are trying to make active political and moral judgments about government policy, with the ultimate aim of bringing about a reality that is more just, more humane.
Second, and more importantly, we must emphasize again that we are not dealing with an ordinary situation here, with a system whose good and bad elements are roughly equal (or confined to the historical past), allowing one to sit down and weigh this policy against that one, and, then, upon careful reflection, coming to some judicious assessment. No; we are now – and have been for decades – dealing with a situation of the most frantic and dire moral urgency, the "all-day permanent red" of a system whose purpose, structure, meaning and method have become war, with all the hatred, corruption, degeneration and devolution that war brings.
In such an extreme system, all balance is gone; a constructive act here or there cannot offset those mountains of corpses. And its seems a terrible waste of time and energy to divert one's attention from these horrors – and the urgent need to stop them – just to give a few props for a stray good deed or reasonable move here or there.
The latter approach also involves, consciously or unconsciously, to one degree or another, an association with it, in Thoreau's sense. You have, in effect, accepted power on its own terms. You engage deeply with the system in order to "hold Obama's feet to the fire" (while being careful to acknowledge his "constructive" measures) because you believe this will make the system better. But if the system itself is structured to produce the boundless evils of war and domination and injustice, you cannot make it better. You can only, at the very most, mitigate a few of its pernicious effects, for a time, and only at the margins.
This is by no means an unworthy goal; extreme systems force that kind of triage upon us. Raoul Wallenberg could not end the Holocaust; he could only save what was in relative terms a very small number of people at the margins. But who would deny his heroism, and wish that he had not sought such small but deeply meaningful mitigations? Conversely, who among us would have suggested that Wallenberg, in the dire moral urgency of his mission, take time out to give credit to the Nazis for, say, their "Strength Through Joy" recreational programs for ordinary workers, or their remarkable highway system? Or in our time, do we require Shirin Ebadi to praise the Tehran regime for its social housing programs, or Aung San Suu Kyi to give credit to the Burmese generals for building roads or installing storm drains?
Everyone has to make their own accommodations with reality, of course. And to quote the old song-and-dance man once again: "Life is sad, life is a bust;/All you can do is do what you must." I'm not laying down commandments or prescriptions for anybody. But I will say that Thoreau's stance seems more and more to be the only honorable course for an American to take, in whatever way and to whatever degree he or she finds possible.
And I will also say that those who profess their adherence to "progressive" values such as peace, justice, liberty, equality and truth would serve their cause better by focusing on the essential nature of a system that eviscerates those values, and on the actual operations of power, the crimes and atrocities being committed by the actual wielders and servants of power, instead of mocking people for "throwing fits" and being "puerile" when they denounce the system's leaders for leading the nation deeper and deeper into evil.
How many tomorrows have they given away?
How many compared to yesterday?
How many more without any reward?
How many more can they afford?
-- Bob Dylan, "2x2"
And now it is here. The new "surge" in Afghanistan is underway – the second surge launched by the progressive president in his first year in office. Barack Obama's speech, and the policies embraced in it, and the sinister implications underlying it, are all abysmally awful. They are a death warrant not only for the thousands of Afghan and Pakistani civilians who will be killed in the intensified conflict, but also for the countless thousands of innocents yet to die in the coming generations of a world roiled and destabilized by an out-of-control empire.
Already the evil effects of America's decades-long campaign of violent domination of world affairs will carry on far into the future – even if this campaign were brought to a sudden halt right now. Every one of us – and our children, and our grandchildren – will have to live with terrible consequences of the corrupt and murderous imperial project. There is no escaping this fate. But each day that the imperial project goes forward makes those consequences more horrific, more atrocious, and extends them deeper into the substrate of human existence, and farther and farther into the future.
And as Barack Obama's speech shows, we are plowing ahead on this insane, inhuman course. We are not even attempting to begin to find ways to slow or mitigate the imperial cancer, much less stop it outright; we are just stomping the pedal to the floor, screeching full-throttle to the depths of hell. This is a terrible, sickening moment in American history, yet another fatal turning point in the nation's slow and agonizing demise.
As you might expect, Arthur Silber has provided a deep and thorough analysis of Obama's speech in a genuinely masterful piece entitled, aptly, "A Deadly Liar and Manipulator." I will excerpt some of this essay, but you will cheat yourself of much important insight if you don't read it in full. – Silber rightly notes the most immediate and glaring falsehood in Obama's speech, a piece of howling mendacity so transparent that even the New York Times felt compelled to acknowledge the "seemingly contradictory goals of expanding American involvement in the war even as he sought to bring it to a close." Silber nails the deeper truth behind this "contradiction":
Obama made very clear that he purportedly intends to extricate us from Central Asia by involving us in increasingly complex ways in the affairs of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you think that is a glaringly obvious contradiction, you're entirely correct. How exactly do you leave that region of the world more quickly by involving yourself in ever more complicated and numerous ways? The answer is that you don't. But as my previous article stated, we aren't leaving. Obama and the U.S. government are not unlike the dreaded house guest who insistently tells you he's going home in just another week or two -- honestly, he is, and how could you possibly not believe him? -- even as he redecorates your extra bedroom at notable cost and takes over several of your closets for many of his most precious belongings. You hear his words, and you see what he does -- and your heart sinks as you realize that a life of independence, a life that is yours, is gone.
Consider the extent of our ongoing involvement in all aspects of life in Afghanistan:
Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.
This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai's inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas – such as agriculture – that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
Were Obama and the U.S. appointed dictator of Afghanistan? I seem to have missed that bit of news. Almost immediately after that passage, Obama said: "So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand - America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country."
This is the advantage of holding a gun to someone's head: your victim isn't about to call you a goddamned liar when you can pull the trigger at any moment.
Silber then details Obama's extensive list of the many ways that he promises America will remain enmeshed in the affairs of Pakistan forever, and notes:
If you think we're leaving this part of the world any time soon, or perhaps even in your lifetime, you'll believe anything. But that's all right: lots of Americans do precisely that.
Pakistan is indeed key to this imperial enterprise. As the New York Times noted, beyond Obama's florid yet flaccid rhetoric (which even a diehard fan like Joan Walsh called "the worst major speech of his presidency"), there is a much darker component to his second surge:
Administration officials said that Mr. Obama had signed off on a plan by the Central Intelligence Agency to expand C.I.A. activities in Pakistan. The plan calls for more strikes against militants by drone aircraft, sending additional spies to Pakistan and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.
Expanding the dirty war in Pakistan -- where the overwhelming majority of the people are incensed by the American military and CIA presence in their country -- is absolute madness...if what you really want to do is cure the "cancer" of extremism in the region, or "unleash the great potential" of the Pakistani people. Only an idiot could genuinely believe that murdering civilians and conducting "black ops" all over the country could somehow establish "security and prosperity" in Pakistan; and Obama is no idiot. But he, like all the mandarins of our ruling class, is counting on the fact that you are an idiot.
In the speech, and the PR seeding that surrounded it, Obama and his mouthpieces stress the "success" of the Bush Regime's "surge" in Iraq as an encouraging model for the escalation in Afghanistan. Putting aside the fact that Obama already launched a surge in Afghanistan earlier this year that was just as big as Bush's escalation in Iraq but has proved such a singular failure that he is now launching an even bigger surge, the truth is that the Iraq "surge" had almost nothing to do with the abatement of horrific violence in that conquered land. As we have noted here very often, the "surge" was in fact the final act of a protracted civil war, in which the United States actively abetted the vast ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims on behalf of the extremist Shiite parties empowered by the American invasion. As Juan Cole notes:
The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 and 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing was thereafter so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed.
Cole also notes the instrumental role played by Iran in getting the breakaway Mahdi Army Shiite militia to stand down and cooperate with the American-installed government. In any case, none of the political, social, economic, religious or ethnic circumstances in Iraq apply in Afghanistan. Cole again:
In Iraq, for all its acts of stupidity, the Bush-Cheney regime at least backed the majority, the Shiites. With 60 percent of the population, the Shiites were always likely to win the civil war produced by the power vacuum left by Washington’s defeat of Saddam Hussein and his feared Republican Guards tank corps.
In Afghanistan, the major allies of the U.S. and NATO have been the national minorities -- the Sunni Tajiks, the Shiite Hazaras, and the Uzbeks. Admittedly, they are joined by pro-Karzai Pashtuns, but Pashtun support for the U.S. and NATO is clearly dwindling. Obama’s surge of U.S. troops into Helmand and Qandahar could easily provoke a Pashtun backlash. The Pashtuns are thus not analogous to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. They are a plurality of the population, not a minority, and they have not lost the low-intensity civil war in which the country is embroiled. Nor have they been ethnically cleansed under the current government. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq threw in the towel, joined in elections, and even formed pro-American militias only as it became clear that the Shiites were routing them. The Pashtuns are not in that position.
Standing up an Afghanistan security force is a key element of Obama’s plan, as it was a central strategy in Iraq for the Bush administration and its allies. Doing so in Afghanistan, however, is a far more daunting task than in Iraq... [In the U.S.-built Afghan "National" Army], in the year ending September, one in four had quit or deserted. Only ten percent of troops are literate. (In contrast, 74 percent of Iraqis can read and write.) One in every six Afghan soldiers is alleged to be a drug addict.
The military is, moreover, anything but national. The new report to Congress reveals that the army is disproportionately drawn from and commanded by officers of the Tajik ethnic group, who are 41 percent of the trained troops but only a quarter of the population. The Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group, at 42 percent, are only a third of the troops... Many Pashtun clansmen are fiercely proud and independent, and would be humiliated by having Tajik soldiers lord it over them... The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them -- Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.
So Obama's plan is to follow a strategy that has been proven over and over again to enflame Pashtun resistance and intensify violent ethnic conflict across Afghanistan. Again, only an idiot could actually believe such a policy would be an effective step toward achieving the goals mouthed by Obama in his speech. Perhaps the only thing that does Obama even a modicum of credit, relatively speaking, was the dull, glazed delivery of his address to the cadets; somewhere deep inside him, there was an actual human being who could not wholly hide the fact that he was speaking murderous bullshit -- and knew that it was murderous bullshit.
But let's not get carried away in the credit department. For the fact remains that Obama has embarked on a course of deep, far-reverberating evil, and that he has done this knowingly, willingly, deliberately after months of contemplation and despite every opportunity to do otherwise. And he has done so with a speech that, as Silber notes, was replete with lies and moral corruption.
Here Silber's analysis pierces through to the heart of darkness in the speech, and in the imperial enterprise as a whole:
Look at the final section that begins, "Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values..." Obama tells a series of notable lies here, starting with his very next sentence: "That is why we must promote our values by living them at home – which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay." Guantanamo "will close," at some future date that forever recedes from the present. And Obama may have said the words that "prohibit torture" -- but Bush said the same words, to the same effect. In fact, Obama has emphatically not ended the practice of torture: as proof, consult this article and this one.
But in the debate over troop commitments, there’s an important question about U.S. operations in Afghanistan that risks being overlooked: Why are we running a secret prison there?
On his second day in office, Obama acted on one of his campaign pledges by issuing an order ... designed to shut down secret prisons and ban Bush-era torture practices, and directing that the Red Cross would have access to any detainees. But when we wade into it, the order turns out to be less than meets the eye. Only CIA prisons are shut down. Prisons operated by the Department of Defense remain in place...
Disclosures over the past weekend suggest that there are serious problems in a detention facility operated by the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same outfit linked to executive assassinations, predator drone attacks contracted out to Blackwater, and similar controversies. Here’s the Washington Post account:
Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban. ... The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 — said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.
The techniques described–enforced nudity, sleep deprivation, extended isolation, and sexual humiliation—all belong to the palette approved and used by the Bush Administration. But didn’t Obama ban these techniques? That’s not entirely clear....
Actually, as Silber and his sources show, it is entirely clear: torture continues under Obama -- who, after all, personally appointed a notorious operator of secret JSCOC prisons and commander of death squads and dirty war ops in Iraq, Stanley McChrystal, as his very own top commander in Afghanistan. Obama knows what is going on in Bagram, and he knows exactly what he is getting -- and what he is foisting on the Afghan people -- by putting McChrystal in charge of the occupation.
And still deeper, still darker, with Silber [and see his original piece for the important links]:
Obama's description of the unique role played by the United States tells the usual story of "American exceptionalism." We might appreciate the uniformity of the ruling class's view on this point, captured in this passage from earlier tonight:
Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions – from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank – that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.
This is indistinguishable from the views of Irving Kristol, widely considered the "godfather" of the neoconservative movement, views which I recently recalled in this piece. For Kristol as for Obama, the impersonal, unanswerable forces of history have placed this "special burden" on America's shoulders. We don't want to run the world, but no one else is sufficiently special or unique to do the job; as Kristol so wretchedly and dishonestly put it, it was all just "our bad luck." We had to do it -- for the good of everyone who lives on Earth. This is the all-purpose disinfectant for crimes of staggering magnitude: the U.S. murders more than a million innocent Iraqis, but we did it for the Iraqis' "own good"; we torture, but we only do it because our enemies leave us no choice -- and we learn very early that the infliction of pain is the path to moral improvement, most especially for the improvement of those weaker than ourselves.
Silber also scores the indeed "breathtaking lies" in this passage of Obama's speech:
For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.
You might object to these proclamations by pointing out, as one singularly contradictory fact, that the U.S. maintains a global empire of military bases. Your objection is easily parried by the earlier part of the argument: But don't you see we don't want to do this? This isn't what we would choose, if the world would only behave itself.
Silber concludes by examining the final paragraphs of Obama's speech, passages which Silber says "causes me to conclude that Obama is an extraordinarily dangerous man, and a manipulator of the first order." In his lamed attempt at a stirring crescendo, Obama waves the bloody flag of 9/11:
I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our [world] leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse.
It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united – bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.
This clapped-out treacle -- which sounds like George W. Bush at his most rote and robotic -- leads to a call for similar unity to back this new escalation of a nakedly imperial war. Says Obama:
I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose. For our values are not simply words written into parchment – they are a creed that calls us together, and that has carried us through the darkest of storms as one nation, one people.
America – we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.
While most people will consider these words, for good or bad, as rhetorical flourishes, Silber finds a deeper, malevolent implication behind them:
Read this sentence again: "But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse."
To make certain you understand him, Obama makes the same point a moment later: "I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose."
Obama has put us all on notice: if we disagree with his policies, if we condemn the endless series of aggressive wars waged by the U.S., we are imperiling the strength and security of the United States itself. If we dare to criticize him or the actions of the U.S. government, we are displaying "rancor and cynicism and partisanship" that will "split asunder" the absolutely necessary national "unity." If we challenge Obama on any point of importance, we are "poisoning" the "national discourse."
In other words: disagreement on any matter of moment is not only dangerous, but illegitimate and even immoral. And if you consider the logical end of this argument, and what has happened before in American history (see this post about what happened during both World Wars, under Democratic presidents), there is a further meaning: such disagreement may well be criminal.
No, I am not saying that Obama makes this full argument in explicit terms. He hasn't -- not yet. But look at the meaning of what he has said -- and consider the principles upon which that view rests, and where those principles can lead. ... When Bush or others in his administration made efforts in this direction, they were quickly condemned. If McCain had offered similar statements, he would almost certainly have been similarly condemned, out of primitive partisanship if for no other reason. But who will object when Obama makes such statements?
For Silber has identified one of the prime dangers of Obama's presidency: it has "gutted whatever effective opposition might have existed. To their eternal shame, the Democrats never opposed Bush in any way that mattered -- but at least the *possibility of opposition had not been obliterated entirely. In the near term and probably for longer, that possibility now appears to have been extinguished."
And by opposition, Silber does not mean the partisan braying of whatever imperialist faction happens to be out of power, but, as he wrote before the election, he is referring to:
meaningful political opposition for good -- that is, opposition that might significantly alter the existing system without destroying it (if that is at all possible, which I am almost entirely convinced it is not). But the resentments, the anger and possibly even the hatred [engendered by the system] will remain, and they may grow. What happens then?
We are seeing the result of a now completely disarmed and co-opted opposition to empire even as we speak. We are seeing the rise of religious and political extremism, of vague, inchoate apprehensions among large swathes of the population that they are being badly screwed -- apprehensions that are seized upon and twisted by manipulative elites into irrational diversions (Obama as a socialist!!), nationalist aggression, sexual obsession and religious intolerance. The only goal of these manipulations, of course, is to return the manipulators to full imperial power, while protecting the deeply corrupt system of dominance and privilege as as whole.
But let us not be exceptionalists. The utter degradation of American society by our bipartisan imperialists is a tragedy, but only for those of us who happen to be Americans. The full force of Obama's imperial manipulations -- like those of his predecessors -- will fall like a ravaging fire on the innocent, the defenseless, the vulnerable and the oppressed in foreign lands. These policies, these horrific, sick-making "continuities," will engender untold suffering, unabated anger, rising hatred, and more violence, more brutality, more barbarism, both in the perpetrators and the victims, for years, for decades, for generations to come.
Let no one be in any doubt. What Barack Obama announced on Tuesday is yet another vast, painful, wrenching defeat for all humanity, for the very idea of what it means to be human, for the progress of our whole wretched, imperfect, self-lacerating species. Everything that is best in us is driven back, beaten down, lacerated and abandoned by such defeats. How many more can we afford?
What happened in Switzerland is quite significant. Of course, only an ignorant would associate Switzerland with equality and tolerance: just remember -- as I always remind my students -- that women were only granted the right to vote in 1971. Enough said. But what is quite outrageous is the extent to which US (and Western) media are not treating this as the international outrage that it is. Just ask yourselves: how would the Western media have reacted if the ban affected synagogues and not mosques? Would you not have seen stories against it on the front pages of ALL US newspapers? If this ban affected synagogues, for example, the US government would have convened a special session of the US Security Council and the special UN commission on Human Rights. Worse, look at the way in which media will now begin justification of the ban, and notice how the Western media link religious intolerance with references to fanatical groups and to Bin Laden. What is the link? I don't get it, I guess. And here is the New York Times' first sentence in covering the story: "In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam..." Can you imagine the New York Times ever justifying, or even explaining away, a ban affecting Judaism with a sentence like: "In a vote that displayed widespread anxiety about Judaism..." And is anxiety about a religion not an exact case of religious intolerance? I mean, Nazis displayed widespread anxiety about Judaism and that is why we condemn them as the anti-Semitic bigots that they were.
Meanwhile, in The Nation, in a piece written before the vote, Laila Lalami delivers a scathing, fact-based critique of the latest salvo from the ever-respectable, ever-serious contingent of gilded racists who command top media venues, top publishing houses -- and top dollar -- to spread their fact-free, hatemongering (and sex-obsessed) fantasies about a monolithic Musim horde "taking over" Europe. (That good old Steyn-Hitchens-Amis crowd: see here, here, here and here.)
Lalami takes on the deceitful, weedy handwringing of Chistopher Caldwell in his new book, That Dusky Hunk Wants My Woman and I'm Too Scared to Stop Him. (Or words to that effect.) Lalami's measured, detailed, informed and genuinely serious reply systematically destroys every one of the book's main "arguments" -- if such a term can be applied to Caldwell's brutally simplistic mental noodlings.
There is a great deal of deeply sinister nonsense being deliberately and expensively bruited about on the "threat" posed by Muslims (including those mistakenly identified as Muslims, such as Arab Christians, and of course the innumerable atheists, like AbuKhalil, who happen to be of Muslim heritage). We must arm ourselves against the foul tide with all the truth that we can find. Lalami's essay is an important work in this regard, and should be read in full.