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Archive for April, 2011

Posted by alexthurston on April 25th, 2011

Washington on the Rocks
An Empire of Autocrats, Aristocrats, and Uniformed Thugs Begins to Totter
By Alfred W. McCoy and Brett Reilly

In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from U.S. embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close U.S. allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.

Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a U.S. world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites” and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable U.S. foreign policy choices over the past half-century.

Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer — and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab spring,” this is now so much clearer — is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.

Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.

Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control — and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards. 

If the “velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the “jasmine revolutions” now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.

Putting the Military in Charge

To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the Cold War’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.

Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many — as Washington saw it — susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.

After a review of the “threats” facing the U.S. in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.’s.”

It was a moment to remember, for the President of the United States had just articulated with crystalline clarity the system of global dominion that Washington would implement for the next 50 years — setting aside democratic principles for a tough realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader willing to support the U.S., thereby building a worldwide network of national (and often nationalist) leaders who would, in a pinch, put Washington’s needs above local ones.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. would favor military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East, and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia. In 1958, military coups in Thailand and Iraq suddenly put the spotlight on Third World militaries as forces to be reckoned with.  It was then that the Eisenhower administration decided to bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for further “training” to facilitate “the ‘management’ of the forces of change released by the development” of these emerging nations. Henceforth, Washington would pour military aid into the cultivation of the armed forces of allies and potential allies worldwide, while “training missions” would be used to create crucial ties between the U.S. military and the officer corps in country after country — or where subordinate elites did not seem subordinate enough, help identify alternative leaders.

When civilian presidents proved insubordinate, the Central Intelligence Agency went to work, promoting coups that would install reliable military successors –replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country’s oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (and then the young Shah) in 1953; President Sukarno with General Suharto in Indonesia during the next decade; and of course President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, to name just three such moments. 

In the first years of the twenty-first century, Washington’s trust in the militaries of its client states would only grow.  The U.S. was, for example, lavishing $1.3 billion in aid on Egypt’s military annually, but investing only $250 million a year in the country’s economic development. As a result, when demonstrations rocked the regime in Cairo last January, as the New York Times reported, “a 30-year investment paid off as American generals… and intelligence officers quietly called… friends they had trained with,” successfully urging the army’s support for a “peaceful transition” to, yes indeed, military rule.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington has, since the 1950s, followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies that included a shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai), and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Across this vast, volatile region from Morocco to Iran, Washington courted these royalist regimes with military alliances, U.S. weapons systems, CIA support for local security, a safe American haven for their capital, and special favors for their elites, including access to educational institutions in the U.S. or Department of Defense overseas schools for their children.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up this record thusly:  “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy… in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”

How It Used to Work

America is by no means the first hegemon to build its global power on the gossamer threads of personal ties to local leaders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain may have ruled the waves (as America would later rule the skies), but when it came to the ground, like empires past it needed local allies who could serve as intermediaries in controlling complex, volatile societies. Otherwise, how in 1900 could a small island nation of just 40 million with an army of only 99,000 men rule a global empire of some 400 million, nearly a quarter of all humanity?

From 1850 to 1950, Britain controlled its formal colonies through an extraordinary array of local allies — from Fiji island chiefs and Malay sultans to Indian maharajas and African emirs. Simultaneously, through subordinate elites Britain reigned over an even larger “informal empire” that encompassed emperors (from Beijing to Istanbul), kings (from Bangkok to Cairo), and presidents (from Buenos Aires to Caracas). At its peak in 1880, Britain’s informal empire in Latin America, the Middle East, and China was larger, in population, than its formal colonial holdings in India and Africa. Its entire global empire, encompassing nearly half of humanity, rested on these slender ties of cooperation to loyal local elites.

Following four centuries of relentless imperial expansion, however, Europe’s five major overseas empires were suddenly erased from the globe in a quarter-century of decolonization. Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese empires faded fast from Asia and Africa, giving way to a hundred new nations, more than half of today’s sovereign states. In searching for an explanation for this sudden, sweeping change, most scholars agree with British imperial historian Ronald Robinson who famously argued that “when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators,” their power began to fade.

During the Cold War that coincided with this era of rapid decolonization, the world’s two superpowers turned to the same methods regularly using their espionage agencies to manipulate the leaders of newly independent states.  The Soviet Union’s KGB and its surrogates like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania enforced political conformity among the 14 Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and challenged the U.S. for loyal allies across the Third World.  Simultaneously, the CIA monitored the loyalties of presidents, autocrats, and dictators on four continents, employing coups, bribery, and covert penetration to control and, when necessary, remove nettlesome leaders.

In an era of nationalist feeling, however, the loyalty of local elites proved a complex matter indeed.  Many of them were driven by conflicting loyalties and often deep feelings of nationalism, which meant that they had to be monitored closely.  So critical were these subordinate elites, and so troublesome were their insubordinate iterations, that the CIA repeatedly launched risky covert operations to bring them to heel, sparking some of the great crises of the Cold War.

Given the rise of its system of global control in a post-World War II age of independence, Washington had little choice but to work not simply with surrogates or puppets, but with allies who — admittedly from weaker positions — still sought to maximize what they saw as their nations’ interests (as well as their own). Even at the height of American global power in the 1950s, when its dominance was relatively unquestioned, Washington was forced into hard bargaining with the likes of the Philippines’ Raymond Magsaysay, South Korean autocrat Syngman Rhee, and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem.

In South Korea during the 1960s, for instance, General Park Chung Hee, then president, bartered troop deployments to Vietnam for billions of U.S. development dollars, which helped spark the country’s economic “miracle.” In the process, Washington paid up, but got what it most wanted: 50,000 of those tough Korean troops as guns-for-hire helpers in its unpopular war in Vietnam.

Post-Cold War World

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War, Moscow quickly lost its satellite states from Estonia to Azerbaijan, as once-loyal Soviet surrogates were ousted or leapt off the sinking ship of empire. For Washington, the “victor” and soon to be the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, the same process would begin to happen, but at a far slower pace.

Over the next two decades, globalization fostered a multipolar system of rising powers in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Ankara, and Brasilia, even as a denationalized system of corporate power reduced the dependency of developing economies on any single state, however imperial.  With its capacity for controlling elites receding, Washington has faced ideological competition from Islamic fundamentalism, European regulatory regimes, Chinese state capitalism, and a rising tide of economic nationalism in Latin America.

As U.S. power and influence declined, Washington’s attempts to control its subordinate elites began to fail, often spectacularly — including its efforts to topple bête noire Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup, to detach ally Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia from Russia’s orbit in 2008, and to oust nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian elections. Where a CIA coup or covert cash once sufficed to defeat an antagonist, the Bush administration needed a massive invasion to topple just one troublesome dictator, Saddam Hussein.  Even then, it found its plans for subsequent regime change in Syria and Iran blocked when these states instead aided a devastating insurgency against U.S. forces inside Iraq.

Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president it installed in power, Hamid Karzai, who memorably summed up his fractious relationship with Washington to American envoys this way: “If you’re looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you’re looking for a partner, yes.”

Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that offer uncensored insights into Washington’s weakening control over the system of surrogate power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn of Haaretz could see “the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy.” No longer, he added, are “American ambassadors… received in world capitals as ‘high commissioners’… [instead they are] tired bureaucrats [who] spend their days listening wearily to their hosts’ talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state.”

Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to manage an unruly global system of increasingly insubordinate elites by any means possible — via intrigue to collect needed information and intelligence, friendly acts meant to coax compliance, threats to coerce cooperation, and billions of dollars in misspent aid to court influence. In early 2009, for instance, the State Department instructed its embassies worldwide to play imperial police by collecting comprehensive data on local leaders, including “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.” Showing its need, like some colonial governor, for incriminating information on the locals, the State Department also pressed its Bahrain embassy for sordid details, damaging in an Islamic society, about the kingdom’s crown princes, asking: “Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?”

With the hauteur of latter-day imperial envoys, U.S. diplomats seemed to empower themselves for dominance by dismissing “the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans,” or by knowing the weaknesses of their subordinate elites, notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s “voluptuous blonde” nurse, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s morbid fear of military coups, or Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud’s $52 million in stolen funds.

As its influence declines, however, Washington is finding many of its chosen local allies either increasingly insubordinate or irrelevant, particularly in the strategic Middle East. In mid-2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia reported that “President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” relying “on the police for control,” while “corruption in the inner circle is growing” and “the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.” Even so, the U.S. envoy could only recommend that Washington “dial back the public criticism” and instead rely only on “frequent high-level private candor” — a policy that failed to produce any reforms before demonstrations toppled the regime just 18 months later.

Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts… are being suffocated.” However, as the embassy admitted, “we would not like to contemplate complications for U.S. regional interests should the U.S.-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.” When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House “to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership.” And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president’s downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as “a stalwart ally… a force for stability and good in the region.”

As the crisis in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing “the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” After 40 years of U.S. dominion, the Middle East was, he said, “a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education.”

Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation’s capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.

For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. He has also convened the “Empires in Transition” project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, and America’s Decline. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying U.S. foreign policy in Asia. 

Copyright 2011 Alfred W. McCoy and Brett Reilly

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Posted by The Agonist on April 22nd, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

April 21

VOA – The Pentagon says U.S. President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed drones (unmanned aircraft) over Libya.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the Predator drone is an example of the unique military capabilities that the United States can contribute to the NATO-led campaign in Libya. He denied that the use of the drones is in any way an indictment of the alliance’s capabilities.

Asked why the United States is not deploying ground troops, Gates said regime change is best achieved by citizens and not imposed by the outside. He said the goal of the U.S. is to degrade the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to make it easier for the people to rise up against him. He also said he believes that over time Mr. Gadhafi will be more constrained militarily and financially due to international military actions and sanctions.

Hours earlier at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there are reports that Gadhafi’s forces may have used cluster bombs in the fighting against rebels.

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Posted by The Agonist on April 21st, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Kabul | April 21

Reuters/IRIN – One irony of the current security situation in Afghanistan is that foreign forces, whose ostensible aim is to protect civilians while fighting the Taliban, may be responsible – directly or indirectly – for the bulk of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, whose number is rising.

About 400 individuals were displaced each day in 2006-2010 – 730,000 in total – mostly due to military operations by US/NATO forces, according to the Oslo-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an affiliate of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The so-called “surge” in US/NATO troops and increased counterinsurgency operations in 2010 resulted in the displacement of about 85,000 people in the volatile south of the country alone. About 10,000 were also displaced by anti-insurgent offensives in the north, IDMC said.

“The US and ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] currently lack an understanding of internal displacement in the context of their operations,” Jacob Rothing, an IDMC country analyst, told IRIN, adding that their own standard operating procedures to minimize civilian displacement were not developed and used by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, local militias hired by the government and its US/NATO allies for counterinsurgency purposes, were extorting communities and grabbing land, resulting in further internal displacements, Rothing alleged.

ISAF said it could not “agree or disagree” with the allegation that forces under its command were responsible for most of the civilian displacements in Afghanistan.

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Posted by alexthurston on April 21st, 2011

Is the World Too Big to Fail?
The Contours of Global Order

By Noam Chomsky

The democracy uprising in the Arab world has been a spectacular display of courage, dedication, and commitment by popular forces — coinciding, fortuitously, with a remarkable uprising of tens of thousands in support of working people and democracy in Madison, Wisconsin, and other U.S. cities. If the trajectories of revolt in Cairo and Madison intersected, however, they were headed in opposite directions: in Cairo toward gaining elementary rights denied by the dictatorship, in Madison towards defending rights that had been won in long and hard struggles and are now under severe attack.

Each is a microcosm of tendencies in global society, following varied courses. There are sure to be far-reaching consequences of what is taking place both in the decaying industrial heartland of the richest and most powerful country in human history, and in what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the most strategically important area in the world” — “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment,” in the words of the State Department in the 1940s, a prize that the U.S. intended to keep for itself and its allies in the unfolding New World Order of that day.

Despite all the changes since, there is every reason to suppose that today’s policy-makers basically adhere to the judgment of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influential advisor A.A. Berle that control of the incomparable energy reserves of the Middle East would yield “substantial control of the world.” And correspondingly, that loss of control would threaten the project of global dominance that was clearly articulated during World War II, and that has been sustained in the face of major changes in world order since that day.

From the outset of the war in 1939, Washington anticipated that it would end with the U.S. in a position of overwhelming power. High-level State Department officials and foreign policy specialists met through the wartime years to lay out plans for the postwar world. They delineated a “Grand Area” that the U.S. was to dominate, including the Western hemisphere, the Far East, and the former British empire, with its Middle East energy resources. As Russia began to grind down Nazi armies after Stalingrad, Grand Area goals extended to as much of Eurasia as possible, at least its economic core in Western Europe. Within the Grand Area, the U.S. would maintain “unquestioned power,” with “military and economic supremacy,” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. The careful wartime plans were soon implemented.

It was always recognized that Europe might choose to follow an independent course. NATO was partially intended to counter this threat. As soon as the official pretext for NATO dissolved in 1989, NATO was expanded to the East in violation of verbal pledges to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It has since become a U.S.-run intervention force, with far-ranging scope, spelled out by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who informed a NATO conference that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system.

Grand Area doctrines clearly license military intervention at will. That conclusion was articulated clearly by the Clinton administration, which declared that the U.S. has the right to use military force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources,” and must maintain huge military forces “forward deployed” in Europe and Asia “in order to shape people’s opinions about us” and “to shape events that will affect our livelihood and our security.”

The same principles governed the invasion of Iraq. As the U.S. failure to impose its will in Iraq was becoming unmistakable, the actual goals of the invasion could no longer be concealed behind pretty rhetoric. In November 2007, the White House issued a Declaration of Principles demanding that U.S. forces must remain indefinitely in Iraq and committing Iraq to privilege American investors. Two months later, President Bush informed Congress that he would reject legislation that might limit the permanent stationing of U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq or “United States control of the oil resources of Iraq” — demands that the U.S. had to abandon shortly after in the face of Iraqi resistance.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the recent popular uprisings have won impressive victories, but as the Carnegie Endowment reported, while names have changed, the regimes remain: “A change in ruling elites and system of governance is still a distant goal.” The report discusses internal barriers to democracy, but ignores the external ones, which as always are significant.

The U.S. and its Western allies are sure to do whatever they can to prevent authentic democracy in the Arab world. To understand why, it is only necessary to look at the studies of Arab opinion conducted by U.S. polling agencies. Though barely reported, they are certainly known to planners. They reveal that by overwhelming majorities, Arabs regard the U.S. and Israel as the major threats they face: the U.S. is so regarded by 90% of Egyptians, in the region generally by over 75%. Some Arabs regard Iran as a threat: 10%. Opposition to U.S. policy is so strong that a majority believes that security would be improved if Iran had nuclear weapons — in Egypt, 80%. Other figures are similar. If public opinion were to influence policy, the U.S. not only would not control the region, but would be expelled from it, along with its allies, undermining fundamental principles of global dominance.

The Invisible Hand of Power

Support for democracy is the province of ideologists and propagandists. In the real world, elite dislike of democracy is the norm. The evidence is overwhelming that democracy is supported insofar as it contributes to social and economic objectives, a conclusion reluctantly conceded by the more serious scholarship.

Elite contempt for democracy was revealed dramatically in the reaction to the WikiLeaks exposures. Those that received most attention, with euphoric commentary, were cables reporting that Arabs support the U.S. stand on Iran. The reference was to the ruling dictators. The attitudes of the public were unmentioned. The guiding principle was articulated clearly by Carnegie Endowment Middle East specialist Marwan Muasher, formerly a high official of the Jordanian government: “There is nothing wrong, everything is under control.” In short, if the dictators support us, what else could matter?

The Muasher doctrine is rational and venerable. To mention just one case that is highly relevant today, in internal discussion in 1958, president Eisenhower expressed concern about “the campaign of hatred” against us in the Arab world, not by governments, but by the people. The National Security Council (NSC) explained that there is a perception in the Arab world that the U.S. supports dictatorships and blocks democracy and development so as to ensure control over the resources of the region. Furthermore, the perception is basically accurate, the NSC concluded, and that is what we should be doing, relying on the Muasher doctrine. Pentagon studies conducted after 9/11 confirmed that the same holds today.

It is normal for the victors to consign history to the trash can, and for victims to take it seriously. Perhaps a few brief observations on this important matter may be useful. Today is not the first occasion when Egypt and the U.S. are facing similar problems, and moving in opposite directions. That was also true in the early nineteenth century.

Economic historians have argued that Egypt was well-placed to undertake rapid economic development at the same time that the U.S. was. Both had rich agriculture, including cotton, the fuel of the early industrial revolution — though unlike Egypt, the U.S. had to develop cotton production and a work force by conquest, extermination, and slavery, with consequences that are evident right now in the reservations for the survivors and the prisons that have rapidly expanded since the Reagan years to house the superfluous population left by deindustrialization.

One fundamental difference was that the U.S. had gained independence and was therefore free to ignore the prescriptions of economic theory, delivered at the time by Adam Smith in terms rather like those preached to developing societies today. Smith urged the liberated colonies to produce primary products for export and to import superior British manufactures, and certainly not to attempt to monopolize crucial goods, particularly cotton. Any other path, Smith warned, “would retard instead of accelerating the further increase in the value of their annual produce, and would obstruct instead of promoting the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness.”

Having gained their independence, the colonies were free to ignore his advice and to follow England’s course of independent state-guided development, with high tariffs to protect industry from British exports, first textiles, later steel and others, and to adopt numerous other devices to accelerate industrial development. The independent Republic also sought to gain a monopoly of cotton so as to “place all other nations at our feet,” particularly the British enemy, as the Jacksonian presidents announced when conquering Texas and half of Mexico.

For Egypt, a comparable course was barred by British power. Lord Palmerston declared that “no ideas of fairness [toward Egypt] ought to stand in the way of such great and paramount interests” of Britain as preserving its economic and political hegemony, expressing his “hate” for the “ignorant barbarian” Muhammed Ali who dared to seek an independent course, and deploying Britain’s fleet and financial power to terminate Egypt’s quest for independence and economic development.

After World War II, when the U.S. displaced Britain as global hegemon, Washington adopted the same stand, making it clear that the U.S. would provide no aid to Egypt unless it adhered to the standard rules for the weak — which the U.S. continued to violate, imposing high tariffs to bar Egyptian cotton and causing a debilitating dollar shortage. The usual interpretation of market principles.

It is small wonder that the “campaign of hatred” against the U.S. that concerned Eisenhower was based on the recognition that the U.S. supports dictators and blocks democracy and development, as do its allies.

In Adam Smith’s defense, it should be added that he recognized what would happen if Britain followed the rules of sound economics, now called “neoliberalism.” He warned that if British manufacturers, merchants, and investors turned abroad, they might profit but England would suffer. But he felt that they would be guided by a home bias, so as if by an invisible hand England would be spared the ravages of economic rationality.

The passage is hard to miss. It is the one occurrence of the famous phrase “invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations. The other leading founder of classical economics, David Ricardo, drew similar conclusions, hoping that home bias would lead men of property to “be satisfied with the low rate of profits in their own country, rather than seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations,” feelings that, he added, “I should be sorry to see weakened.” Their predictions aside, the instincts of the classical economists were sound.

The Iranian and Chinese “Threats”

The democracy uprising in the Arab world is sometimes compared to Eastern Europe in 1989, but on dubious grounds. In 1989, the democracy uprising was tolerated by the Russians, and supported by western power in accord with standard doctrine: it plainly conformed to economic and strategic objectives, and was therefore a noble achievement, greatly honored, unlike the struggles at the same time “to defend the people’s fundamental human rights” in Central America, in the words of the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador, one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the military forces armed and trained by Washington. There was no Gorbachev in the West throughout these horrendous years, and there is none today. And Western power remains hostile to democracy in the Arab world for good reasons.

Grand Area doctrines continue to apply to contemporary crises and confrontations. In Western policy-making circles and political commentary the Iranian threat is considered to pose the greatest danger to world order and hence must be the primary focus of U.S. foreign policy, with Europe trailing along politely.

What exactly is the Iranian threat? An authoritative answer is provided by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence. Reporting on global security last year, they make it clear that the threat is not military. Iran’s military spending is “relatively low compared to the rest of the region,” they conclude. Its military doctrine is strictly “defensive, designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities.” Iran has only “a limited capability to project force beyond its borders.” With regard to the nuclear option, “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” All quotes.

The brutal clerical regime is doubtless a threat to its own people, though it hardly outranks U.S. allies in that regard. But the threat lies elsewhere, and is ominous indeed. One element is Iran’s potential deterrent capacity, an illegitimate exercise of sovereignty that might interfere with U.S. freedom of action in the region. It is glaringly obvious why Iran would seek a deterrent capacity; a look at the military bases and nuclear forces in the region suffices to explain.

Seven years ago, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld wrote that “The world has witnessed how the United States attacked Iraq for, as it turned out, no reason at all. Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy,” particularly when they are under constant threat of attack in violation of the UN Charter. Whether they are doing so remains an open question, but perhaps so.

But Iran’s threat goes beyond deterrence. It is also seeking to expand its influence in neighboring countries, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence emphasize, and in this way to “destabilize” the region (in the technical terms of foreign policy discourse). The U.S. invasion and military occupation of Iran’s neighbors is “stabilization.” Iran’s efforts to extend its influence to them are “destabilization,” hence plainly illegitimate.

Such usage is routine. Thus the prominent foreign policy analyst James Chace was properly using the term “stability” in its technical sense when he explained that in order to achieve “stability” in Chile it was necessary to “destabilize” the country (by overthrowing the elected government of Salvador Allende and installing the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet). Other concerns about Iran are equally interesting to explore, but perhaps this is enough to reveal the guiding principles and their status in imperial culture.  As Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s planners emphasized at the dawn of the contemporary world system, the U.S. cannot tolerate “any exercise of sovereignty” that interferes with its global designs.

The U.S. and Europe are united in punishing Iran for its threat to stability, but it is useful to recall how isolated they are. The nonaligned countries have vigorously supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium. In the region, Arab public opinion even strongly favors Iranian nuclear weapons. The major regional power, Turkey, voted against the latest U.S.-initiated sanctions motion in the Security Council, along with Brazil, the most admired country of the South. Their disobedience led to sharp censure, not for the first time: Turkey had been bitterly condemned in 2003 when the government followed the will of 95% of the population and refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq, thus demonstrating its weak grasp of democracy, western-style.

After its Security Council misdeed last year, Turkey was warned by Obama’s top diplomat on European affairs, Philip Gordon, that it must “demonstrate its commitment to partnership with the West.” A scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations asked, “How do we keep the Turks in their lane?” — following orders like good democrats. Brazil’s Lula was admonished in a New York Times headline that his effort with Turkey to provide a solution to the uranium enrichment issue outside of the framework of U.S. power was a “Spot on Brazilian Leader’s Legacy.” In brief, do what we say, or else.

An interesting sidelight, effectively suppressed, is that the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal was approved in advance by Obama, presumably on the assumption that it would fail, providing an ideological weapon against Iran. When it succeeded, the approval turned to censure, and Washington rammed through a Security Council resolution so weak that China readily signed — and is now chastised for living up to the letter of the resolution but not Washington’s unilateral directives — in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, for example.

While the U.S. can tolerate Turkish disobedience, though with dismay, China is harder to ignore. The press warns that “China’s investors and traders are now filling a vacuum in Iran as businesses from many other nations, especially in Europe, pull out,” and in particular, is expanding its dominant role in Iran’s energy industries. Washington is reacting with a touch of desperation. The State Department warned China that if it wants to be accepted in the international community — a technical term referring to the U.S. and whoever happens to agree with it — then it must not “skirt and evade international responsibilities, [which] are clear”: namely, follow U.S. orders. China is unlikely to be impressed.

There is also much concern about the growing Chinese military threat. A recent Pentagon study warned that China’s military budget is approaching “one-fifth of what the Pentagon spent to operate and carry out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” a fraction of the U.S. military budget, of course. China’s expansion of military forces might “deny the ability of American warships to operate in international waters off its coast,” the New York Times added.

Off the coast of China, that is; it has yet to be proposed that the U.S. should eliminate military forces that deny the Caribbean to Chinese warships. China’s lack of understanding of rules of international civility is illustrated further by its objections to plans for the advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington to join naval exercises a few miles off China’s coast, with alleged capacity to strike Beijing.

In contrast, the West understands that such U.S. operations are all undertaken to defend stability and its own security. The liberal New Republic expresses its concern that “China sent ten warships through international waters just off the Japanese island of Okinawa.” That is indeed a provocation — unlike the fact, unmentioned, that Washington has converted the island into a major military base in defiance of vehement protests by the people of Okinawa. That is not a provocation, on the standard principle that we own the world.

Deep-seated imperial doctrine aside, there is good reason for China’s neighbors to be concerned about its growing military and commercial power. And though Arab opinion supports an Iranian nuclear weapons program, we certainly should not do so. The foreign policy literature is full of proposals as to how to counter the threat. One obvious way is rarely discussed: work to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region. The issue arose (again) at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference at United Nations headquarters last May. Egypt, as chair of the 118 nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, called for negotiations on a Middle East NWFZ, as had been agreed by the West, including the U.S., at the 1995 review conference on the NPT.

International support is so overwhelming that Obama formally agreed. It is a fine idea, Washington informed the conference, but not now. Furthermore, the U.S. made clear that Israel must be exempted: no proposal can call for Israel’s nuclear program to be placed under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency or for the release of information about “Israeli nuclear facilities and activities.” So much for this method of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.

Privatizing the Planet

While Grand Area doctrine still prevails, the capacity to implement it has declined. The peak of U.S. power was after World War II, when it had literally half the world’s wealth. But that naturally declined, as other industrial economies recovered from the devastation of the war and decolonization took its agonizing course. By the early 1970s, the U.S. share of global wealth had declined to about 25%, and the industrial world had become tripolar: North America, Europe, and East Asia (then Japan-based).

There was also a sharp change in the U.S. economy in the 1970s, towards financialization and export of production. A variety of factors converged to create a vicious cycle of radical concentration of wealth, primarily in the top fraction of 1% of the population — mostly CEOs, hedge-fund managers, and the like. That leads to the concentration of political power, hence state policies to increase economic concentration: fiscal policies, rules of corporate governance, deregulation, and much more. Meanwhile the costs of electoral campaigns skyrocketed, driving the parties into the pockets of concentrated capital, increasingly financial: the Republicans reflexively, the Democrats — by now what used to be moderate Republicans — not far behind.

Elections have become a charade, run by the public relations industry. After his 2008 victory, Obama won an award from the industry for the best marketing campaign of the year. Executives were euphoric. In the business press they explained that they had been marketing candidates like other commodities since Ronald Reagan, but 2008 was their greatest achievement and would change the style in corporate boardrooms. The 2012 election is expected to cost $2 billion, mostly in corporate funding. Small wonder that Obama is selecting business leaders for top positions. The public is angry and frustrated, but as long as the Muasher principle prevails, that doesn’t matter.

While wealth and power have narrowly concentrated, for most of the population real incomes have stagnated and people have been getting by with increased work hours, debt, and asset inflation, regularly destroyed by the financial crises that began as the regulatory apparatus was dismantled starting in the 1980s.

None of this is problematic for the very wealthy, who benefit from a government insurance policy called “too big to fail.” The banks and investment firms can make risky transactions, with rich rewards, and when the system inevitably crashes, they can run to the nanny state for a taxpayer bailout, clutching their copies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

That has been the regular process since the Reagan years, each crisis more extreme than the last — for the public population, that is. Right now, real unemployment is at Depression levels for much of the population, while Goldman Sachs, one of the main architects of the current crisis, is richer than ever. It has just quietly announced $17.5 billion in compensation for last year, with CEO Lloyd Blankfein receiving a $12.6 million bonus while his base salary more than triples.

It wouldn’t do to focus attention on such facts as these. Accordingly, propaganda must seek to blame others, in the past few months, public sector workers, their fat salaries, exorbitant pensions, and so on: all fantasy, on the model of Reaganite imagery of black mothers being driven in their limousines to pick up welfare checks — and other models that need not be mentioned. We all must tighten our belts; almost all, that is.

Teachers are a particularly good target, as part of the deliberate effort to destroy the public education system from kindergarten through the universities by privatization — again, good for the wealthy, but a disaster for the population, as well as the long-term health of the economy, but that is one of the externalities that is put to the side insofar as market principles prevail.

Another fine target, always, is immigrants. That has been true throughout U.S. history, even more so at times of economic crisis, exacerbated now by a sense that our country is being taken away from us: the white population will soon become a minority. One can understand the anger of aggrieved individuals, but the cruelty of the policy is shocking.

Who are the immigrants targeted? In Eastern Massachusetts, where I live, many are Mayans fleeing genocide in the Guatemalan highlands carried out by Reagan’s favorite killers. Others are Mexican victims of Clinton’s NAFTA, one of those rare government agreements that managed to harm working people in all three of the participating countries. As NAFTA was rammed through Congress over popular objection in 1994, Clinton also initiated the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border, previously fairly open. It was understood that Mexican campesinos cannot compete with highly subsidized U.S. agribusiness, and that Mexican businesses would not survive competition with U.S. multinationals, which must be granted “national treatment” under the mislabeled free trade agreements, a privilege granted only to corporate persons, not those of flesh and blood. Not surprisingly, these measures led to a flood of desperate refugees, and to rising anti-immigrant hysteria by the victims of state-corporate policies at home.

Much the same appears to be happening in Europe, where racism is probably more rampant than in the U.S. One can only watch with wonder as Italy complains about the flow of refugees from Libya, the scene of the first post-World War I genocide, in the now-liberated East, at the hands of Italy’s Fascist government. Or when France, still today the main protector of the brutal dictatorships in its former colonies, manages to overlook its hideous atrocities in Africa, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy warns grimly of the “flood of immigrants” and Marine Le Pen objects that he is doing nothing to prevent it. I need not mention Belgium, which may win the prize for what Adam Smith called “the savage injustice of the Europeans.”

The rise of neo-fascist parties in much of Europe would be a frightening phenomenon even if we were not to recall what happened on the continent in the recent past. Just imagine the reaction if Jews were being expelled from France to misery and oppression, and then witness the non-reaction when that is happening to Roma, also victims of the Holocaust and Europe’s most brutalized population.

In Hungary, the neo-fascist party Jobbik gained 17% of the vote in national elections, perhaps unsurprising when three-quarters of the population feels that they are worse off than under Communist rule. We might be relieved that in Austria the ultra-right Jörg Haider won only 10% of the vote in 2008 — were it not for the fact that the new Freedom Party, outflanking him from the far right, won more than 17%. It is chilling to recall that, in 1928, the Nazis won less than 3% of the vote in Germany.

In England the British National Party and the English Defence League, on the ultra-racist right, are major forces. (What is happening in Holland you know all too well.) In Germany, Thilo Sarrazin’s lament that immigrants are destroying the country was a runaway best-seller, while Chancellor Angela Merkel, though condemning the book, declared that multiculturalism had “utterly failed”: the Turks imported to do the dirty work in Germany are failing to become blond and blue-eyed, true Aryans.

Those with a sense of irony may recall that Benjamin Franklin, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, warned that the newly liberated colonies should be wary of allowing Germans to immigrate, because they were too swarthy; Swedes as well. Into the twentieth century, ludicrous myths of Anglo-Saxon purity were common in the U.S., including among presidents and other leading figures. Racism in the literary culture has been a rank obscenity; far worse in practice, needless to say. It is much easier to eradicate polio than this horrifying plague, which regularly becomes more virulent in times of economic distress.

I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t, someone else will.

This vicious cycle could well turn out to be lethal. To see how grave the danger is, simply have a look at the new Congress in the U.S., propelled into power by business funding and propaganda. Almost all are climate deniers. They have already begun to cut funding for measures that might mitigate environmental catastrophe. Worse, some are true believers; for example, the new head of a subcommittee on the environment who explained that global warming cannot be a problem because God promised Noah that there will not be another flood.

If such things were happening in some small and remote country, we might laugh. Not when they are happening in the richest and most powerful country in the world. And before we laugh, we might also bear in mind that the current economic crisis is traceable in no small measure to the fanatic faith in such dogmas as the efficient market hypothesis, and in general to what Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, 15 years ago, called the “religion” that markets know best — which prevented the central bank and the economics profession from taking notice of an $8 trillion housing bubble that had no basis at all in economic fundamentals, and that devastated the economy when it burst.

All of this, and much more, can proceed as long as the Muashar doctrine prevails. As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous best-selling political works. His latest books are a new edition of Power and Terror, The Essential Chomsky (edited by Anthony Arnove), a collection of his writings on politics and on language from the 1950s to the present, Gaza in Crisis, with Ilan Pappé, and Hopes and Prospects, also available as an audiobook. This piece is adapted from a talk given in Amsterdam in March.

Copyright 2011 Noam Chomsky

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Posted by Peace Action West on April 20th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

I mentioned on the blog last week that April 12th was a Global Day of Action on Military Spending. People around the world planned local actions to highlight the exorbitant amount of global wealth spent on war and weapons (40% of which is spent in the United States).

Leah Bolger of Veterans for Peace, a veteran and dedicated activist we’re partnering with in Oregon, came up with a creative way for the people of Corvallis to send a message about where they would like their tax dollars spent. Here are a few of my favorite photos from the action:

Check out more photos here.

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Posted by alexthurston on April 19th, 2011

Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark
What It Feels Like When a Superpower Runs Off the Tracks

By Tom Engelhardt

This can’t end well.

But then, how often do empires end well, really?  They live vampirically by feeding off others until, sooner or later, they begin to feed on themselves, to suck their own blood, to hollow themselves out.  Sooner or later, they find themselves, as in our case, economically stressed and militarily extended in wars they can’t afford to win or lose.

Historians have certainly written about the dangers of overextended empires and of endless war as a way of life, but there’s something distant and abstract about the patterns of history.  It’s quite another thing to take it in when you’re part of it; when, as they used to say in the overheated 1960s, you’re in the belly of the beast. 

I don’t know what it felt like to be inside the Roman Empire in the long decades, even centuries, before it collapsed, or to experience the waning years of the Spanish empire, or the twilight of the Qing dynasty, or of Imperial Britain as the sun first began to set, or even of the Soviet Empire before the troops came slinking home from Afghanistan, but at some point it must have seemed at least a little like this — truly strange, like watching a machine losing its parts.  It must have seemed as odd and unnerving as it does now to see a formerly mighty power enter a state of semi-paralysis at home even as it staggers on blindly with its war-making abroad.

The United States is, of course, an imperial power, however much we might prefer not to utter the word.  We still have our globe-spanning array of semi-client states; our military continues to garrison much of the planet; and we are waging war abroad more continuously than at any time in memory.  Yet who doesn’t sense that the sun is now setting on us?

Not so many years ago, we were proud enough of our global strength to regularly refer to ourselves as the Earth’s “sole superpower.”  In those years, our president and his top officials dreamed of establishing a worldwide Pax Americana, while making speeches and issuing official documents proclaiming that the United States would be militarily “beyond challenge” by any and all powers for eons to come.  So little time has passed and yet who speaks like that today?  Who could?

A Country in Need of Prozac

Have you noticed, by the way, how repetitiously our president, various presidential candidates, and others now insist that we are “the greatest nation on Earth” (as they speak of the U.S. military being “the finest fighting force in the history of the world”)?  And yet, doesn’t that phrase leave ash in your mouth?  Look at this country and its frustrations today and tell me: Does anyone honestly believe that anymore?

It wasn’t a mistake that the fantasy avenger figure of Rambo became immensely popular in the wake of defeat in Vietnam or that, unlike American heroes of earlier decades, he had such a visibly, almost risibly overblown musculature.  As eye-candy, it was pure overcompensation for the obvious.  Similarly, when the United States was actually “the greatest” on this planet, no one needed to say it over and over again.

Can there be any question that something big is happening here, even if we don’t quite know what it is because, unlike the peoples of past empires, we never took pride in or even were able to think of ourselves as imperial?  And if you were indeed in denial that you lived in the belly of a great imperial power, if like most Americans you managed to ignore the fact that we were pouring our treasure into the military or setting up bases in countries that few could have found on a map, then you would naturally experience the empire going down as if through a glass darkly.

Nonetheless, the feelings that should accompany the experience of an imperial power running off the rails aren’t likely to disappear just because analysis is lacking.  Disillusionment, depression, and dismay flow ever more strongly through the American bloodstream.  Just look at any polling data on whether this country, once the quintessential land of optimists, is heading in “the right direction” or on “the wrong track,” and you’ll find that the “wrong track” numbers are staggering, and growing by the month.  On the rare occasions when Americans have been asked by pollsters whether they think the country is “in decline,” the figures have been similarly over the top. 

It’s not hard to see why.  A loss of faith in the American political system is palpable.  For many Americans, it’s no longer “our government” but “the bureaucracy.”  Washington is visibly in gridlock and incapable of doing much of significance, while state governments, facing the “steepest decline in state tax receipts on record,” are, along with local governments, staggering under massive deficits and cutting back in areas — education, policing, firefighting — that matter to daily life.

Years ago, in the George W. Bush era, I wanted to put a new word in our domestic political vocabulary: “Republican’ts.”  It was my way of expressing the feeling that something basic to this country — a “can do” spirit — was seeping away.  I failed, of course, and since then that “can’t do” spirit has visibly spread far beyond the Republican Party.  Simply put, we’re a country in need of Prozac.

Facing the challenges of a world at the edge — from Japan to the Greater Middle East, from a shaky global economic system to weather that has become anything but entertainment — the United States looks increasingly incapable of coping.  It no longer invests in its young, or plans effectively for the future, or sets off on new paths.  It literally can’t do.  And this is not just a domestic crisis, but part of imperial decline.

We just don’t treat it as such, tending instead to deal with the foreign and domestic as essentially separate spheres, when the connections between them are so obvious.  If you doubt this, just pull into your nearest gas station and fill up the tank.  Of course, who doesn’t know that this country, once such a generator of wealth, is now living with unemployment figures not seen since the Great Depression, as well as unheard of levels of debt, that it’s hooked on foreign energy (and like most addicts has next to no capacity for planning how to get off that drug), or that it’s living through the worst period of income inequality in modern history?  And who doesn’t know that a crew of financial fabulists, corporate honchos, lobbyists, and politicians have been fattening themselves off the faltering body politic?

And if you don’t think any of this has anything to do with imperial power in decline, ask yourself why the options for our country so often seem to have shrunk to what our military is capable of, or that the only significant part of the government whose budget is still on the rise is the Pentagon.  Or why, when something is needed, this administration, like its predecessor, regularly turns to that same military.

Once upon a time, helping other nations in terrible times, for example, would have been an obvious duty of the civil part of the U.S. government.  Today, from Haiti to Japan, in such moments it’s the U.S. military that acts.  In response to the Japanese triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, for instance, the Pentagon has mounted a large-scale recovery effort, involving 18,000 people, 20 U.S. Navy ships, and even fuel barges bringing fresh water for reactor-cooling efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.  The effort has been given a military code name, Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friend”), and is, among other things, an obvious propaganda campaign meant to promote the usefulness of America’s archipelago of bases in that country. 

Similarly, when the administration needs something done in the Middle East, these days it’s as likely to send Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — he recently paid official visits to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt — as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  And of course, as is typical, when a grim situation in Libya worsened and something “humanitarian” was called for, the Obama administration (along with NATO) threw air power at it.

Predictably, as in Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands, air power failed to bring about speedy success.  What’s most striking is not that Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi didn’t instantly fall, or that the Libyan military didn’t collapse when significant parts of its tank and artillery forces were taken out, or that the swift strikes meant to turn the tide have already stretched into more than a month of no-fly zone NATO squabbling and military stalemate (as the no-fly zone version of war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq stretched to 12 years without ultimate success).

Imperially speaking, two things are memorable about the American military effort in Libya.  First, Washington doesn’t seem to have the conviction of what’s left of its power, as its strange military dance in (and half-out of) the air over that country indicates. Second, even in the military realm, Washington is increasingly incapable of drawing lessons from its past actions.  As a result, its arsenal of potential tactics is made up largely of those that have failed in the recent past.  Innovation is no longer part of empire.

The Uses of Fear

From time to time, the U.S. government’s “Intelligence Community“  or IC musters its collective savvy and plants its flag in the future in periodic reports that go under the generic rubric of “Global Trends.”  The last of these, Global Trends 2025, was prepared for a new administration taking office in January 2009, and it was typical.

In a field once left to utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp-fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, and even outright cranks, these compromise bureaucratic documents break little ground and rock no boats, nor do they predict global tsunamis.  Better to forecast what the people you brief already believe, and skip the oddballs with their strange hunches, the sorts who might actually have a knack for recognizing the shock of the future lurking in the present.

As group efforts, then, these reports tend to project the trends of the present moment relatively seamlessly and reasonably reassuringly into the future.  For example, the last time around they daringly predicted a gradual, 15-year soft landing for a modestly declining America.  (“Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, [the country's] relative strength — even in the military realm — will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained.”)

Even though it was assumedly being finished amid the global meltdown of 2008, nothing in it would have kept you up at night, sleepless and fretting.  More than 15 years into the future, our IC could imagine no wheels falling off the American juggernaut, nothing that would make you wonder if this country could someday topple off the nearest cliff.  Twists, unpleasant surprises, unhappy endings?  Not for this empire, according to its corps of intelligence analysts.

And the future being what it is, if you read that document now, you’d find none of the more stunning events that have disrupted and radically altered our world since late 2008: no Arab lands boiling with revolt, no Hosni Mubarak under arrest with his sons in jail, no mass demonstrations in Syria, no economies of peripheral European countries imploding down one by one, nor a cluster of nuclear plants in Japan melting down.    

You won’t find once subservient semi-client states thumbing their noses at Washington, not even in 2025.  You won’t, for example, find the Saudis in, say 2011, openly exploring deeper relations with Russia and China as a screw-you response to Washington’s belated decision that Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak should leave office, or Pakistani demands that the CIA and American special operations forces start scaling back activities on their turf, or American officials practically pleading with an Iraqi government it once helped put in power (and now moving ever closer to Iran) to please, please, please let U.S. troops stay past an agreed-upon withdrawal deadline of December 31, 2011, or Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly blaming the Americans for the near collapse of his country’s major bank in a cesspool of corruption (in which his own administration was, of course, deeply implicated)

Only two-plus years after Global Trends 2025 appeared, it doesn’t take the combined powers of the IC to know that American decline looks an awful lot more precipitous and bumpier than imagined.  But let’s not just blame our intelligence functionaries for not divining the future we’re already in.  After all, they, too, were in the goldfish bowl, and when you’re there, it’s always hard to describe the nearest cats.

Nor should we be surprised that, like so many other Americans, they too were in denial. 

After all, our leaders spent years organizing their version of the world around a “Global War on Terror,” when (despite the 9/11 attacks) terror was hardly America’s most obvious challenge.  It proved largely a “war” against phantoms and fantasies, or against modest-sized ragtag bands of enemies — even though it resulted in perfectly real conflicts, absolutely genuine new bases abroad, significant numbers of civilian dead, and the expansion of a secret army of operatives inside the U.S. military into a force of 13,000 or more operating in 75 countries.

The spasms of fear that coursed through our society in the near-decade after September 11, 2001, and the enemy, “Islamic terrorism,” to which those spasms were attached are likely to look far different to us in retrospect.  Yes, many factors — including the terrifyingly apocalyptic look of 9/11 in New York City — contributed to what happened.  There was fear’s usefulness in prosecuting wars in the Greater Middle East that President Bush and his top officials found appealing.  There was the way it ensured soaring budgets for the Pentagon and the national security state.  There was the way it helped the politicians, lobbyists, and corporations hooked into a developing homeland-security complex.  There was the handy-dandy way it glued eyeballs to a one-event-fits-all-sizes version of the world that made the media happy, and there was the way it justified ever increasing powers for our national security managers and ever lessening liberties for Americans. 

But think of all that as only the icing on the cake.  Looking back, those terror fears coursing through the body politic will undoubtedly seem like Rambo’s muscles: a deflection from the country’s deepest fears.  They were, in that sense, consoling.  They allowed us to go on with our lives, to visit Disney World, as George W. Bush urged in the wake of 9/11 in order to prove our all-American steadfastness.

Above all, even as our imperial wars in the oil heartlands of the planet went desperately wrong, they allowed us not to think about empire or, until the economy melted down in 2008, decline.  They allowed us to focus our fears on “them,” not us.  They ensured that, like the other great imperial power of the Cold War era, when things began to spiral out of control we would indeed sleepwalk right into the imperial darkness.

Now that we’re so obviously there, the confusion is greater than ever.  Theoretically, none of this should necessarily be considered bad news, not if you don’t love empires and what they do.  A post-imperial U.S. could, of course, be open to all sorts of possibilities for change that might be exciting indeed.

Right now, though, it doesn’t feel that way, does it?  It makes me wonder: Could this be how it’s always felt inside a great imperial power on the downhill slide?  Could this be what it’s like to watch, paralyzed, as a country on autopilot begins to come apart at the seams while still proclaiming itself “the greatest nation on Earth”? 

I don’t know.  But I do know one thing: this can’t end well.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com.  His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by Peace Action West on April 18th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

As many Americans scramble to file their taxes at the last minute today, it is a useful time to reflect on how those tax dollars are being spent and whether the government’s budget reflects our values.

The congressional budget debates happening now make it all too apparent that the answer is no. The poor and middle class in this country are bearing the brunt of billions of dollars of budget cuts. What do we get in exchange? A $100 billion-per-year war that shows little sign of succeeding or making Americans safer. (To see what portion of your taxes went to pay for the Afghanistan war, check out this tax calculator from Rethink Afghanistan).

To make sure that members of Congress know we expect them to right this wrong, a group of labor leaders in Oregon sent a letter today to the state’s representatives and senators urging them to take advantage of every opportunity to push for an end to the war. You can read the full letter and see the list of signers below:

Dear Oregon congressional delegation,

As labor leaders dedicated to protecting the best interests of working Oregonians, we are writing to thank those of you who have gone on the record supporting an end to the war in Afghanistan and urge you to intensify your efforts to end this costly and unnecessary war.

Oregonians have already spent more than $3 billion on the war, and there is no end in sight. President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget includes devastating cuts that impact the poor and working class—from low income home heating assistance to community service block grants to Pell grants—while allocating another $107 billion to continue the war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, American soldiers and their families bear a costly burden to continue this war. More than 1,400 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, and suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rates for veterans have hit record highs.

We have seen the outrage at this attack on the middle and working classes erupt in the streets of Madison, WI, and throughout the country. Our supporters and members cannot tolerate government actions that prioritize continuing a war beyond the ten-year mark over building our communities at home.

This tradeoff in spending is especially egregious given the lack of evidence that the war in Afghanistan contributes to improving American security. By all major indicators—US casualties, civilian casualties, corruption, security—the military strategy is failing. With fewer than 100 Al Qaeda members reportedly in Afghanistan, we are asking Americans to spend more than $1 billion for per Al Qaeda fighter while they struggle to make ends meet at home.

There are much more cost effective alternatives in Afghanistan that stand a better chance of success. The US should implement a nonmilitary strategy based on regional diplomacy, political negotiations, development and humanitarian aid and divert the saved resources toward economic opportunities in Oregon and around the country.

It is unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of working people in order to fund a war that isn’t making Americans safer. We urge you to take action to pressure the administration to end the war, including cosponsoring and voting for legislation to end the war and speaking out forcefully for a new approach.

Sincerely,

Tom Chamberlain, President
Oregon AFL-CIO

Gary L. Gillespie, President
Oregon AFSCME Council 75

Richard Sanders, Executive Director
Oregon Education Association

Linda Burgin, President
Heather Conroy, Executive Director
SEIU Local 503, OPEU

Madelyn Elder, President
Communication Workers of America Local 7901

Ken Saether, President
Communication Workers of America Local 7906

Robert Petroff, President
Oregon Machinists Council

Jonathan J. Hunt, President-Business Representative
Amalgamated Transit Union Division 757

Mike Richards, Executive Secretary/Treasurer
Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 11

Gregory A. Pallesen, Vice President
Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers

Ryan Takas, Union Representative
International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5

Margaret Butler, Director
Portland Jobs with Justice

Jim Alexander, Chair
Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice


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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on April 14th, 2011

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

The House of Representatives is expected to vote soon, perhaps by tomorrow morning, on the People’s Budget put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

A vote in favor of the People’s Budget is a vote against the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the People’s Budget would end the wars.

In particular, the People’s Budget would end emergency war funding beginning in FY 2013:

 

End emergency war funding beginning in FY 2013 The CBO baseline assumes that all discretionary funding–including emergency war funding–grows with inflation (from a starting point of $159 billion in 2011) when projecting future discretionary spending. Eliminating all emergency defense funding starting in 2012 would save $674 billion over 2012-16 and $1.6 trillion over 2012-21 relative to this baseline.

Furthermore, the People’s Budget would cut the "base" military budget (that is, the "not for the current wars" or "future wars" military budget.) It would:

 

read more

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Posted by Peace Action West on April 14th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

Our friend Dr. Zaher Wahab, a professor at Lewis and Clark College who grew up in Afghanistan, is on his 14th trip to the country since early 2002. He travels back frequently to train teachers in the only graduate level education program in Afghanistan. He is a passionate and powerful advocate for ending the war in Afghanistan and investing in the people, and attended our district meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon last year.

Zaher has been sending updates from his trip and I asked his permission to share an excerpt, which paints a dire picture of the Afghan education system:

Monday March 22, marked the nouroze (new day) of the Afghan New Year–1390.  Usually, this is a day of picnics, celebrations, festivities, visiting relatives, kite flying, and farmers showing/doing their stuff.  Big festivals occur at the tomb and shrines of Imam Ali, Islam’s fourth caliphate, cousin and son-and-law of the prophet Mohammad, in Mazari-Sharif and Kabul.  This year, fear of violence, bombings, explosions and trouble kept most people away from public gatherings, though due to exceptional security measures, the day passed without any major incident.

As usual, there were many messages on the radio stations for the missing loved ones.  To “celebrate education,” schools did not start on the day after New Year, instead they started on Wednesday, March 23.  President Hamid Karzai rang the starting bell and gave a speech at the Amani School (first-twelfth grade) very near the urg, the presidential palace.  Since he hardly ever ventures out, people call him a prisoner, the mayor of Kabul and/or the clown, and out of touch with the country.  Needless to say all the talk on Thursday March 23 was about education.  Officially eight million children, 38% of them girls, will attend 14,000 schools taught by 190,000 teachers.  Since 65% of the country’s population is under 20, about 7 million school-age children will not be in school.  Half of the schools have buildings.  There are no girl’s schools in half of the country and there are very few, if any, women teachers outside the cities, where 75% of the people live.  Urban schools operate 2, 3, or even four shifts per day, reducing the school day to about 4 hours and the school year to about five months at best.  Only a fourth of the teachers are considered qualified.  Many children lack textbooks.  There are no labs, libraries, cafeterias, athletic facilities, technology, indoor plumbing, or even electricity.  School curriculum is old, bloated, and largely irrelevant to the needs or realities of Afghan life.  Teaching consists of dictation, memorization, regurgitation and examination.  There is little or no homework.  Class size can range from 30-100.  There is an explosion of private schools, 450 schools and 36 tertiary institutions nationwide, without effective government oversight or quality control.  As for “higher” education, there are 22 public postsecondary institutions enrolling some 90.000 students, 20% of them women.  There is an explosion of private tertiary institutions too, again without any quality control by the ministry of higher education.  Karzai chastised the substandard private sector.  An estimated 1% of the population is enrolled in higher education.

The school year has begun, but the government has yet to announce the results of last year’s university entrance exam (the concore), or the allocation of entrants to various institutions.  120,000 took the entrance exam, but only 60,000 will enter.  Higher education too is beset with large classes, under-qualified faculty, lack of facilities and resources, old, incoherent, bloated and irrelevant curriculum, lack of funds, centralization, poor quality, lack of academic freedom, ethical issues, corruption and nepotism, and unequal access.  Again, the occupation forces have been here for about ten years, spending $370 billion so far and $3 billion per week.  The education system, the country’s only sure hope, is itself a disaster zone, and the millions of young Afghans with no education, employment or hope, a time bomb.

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Posted by Peace Action West on April 12th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

I’m glad to announce the release of Peace Action West’s 2010 Congressional Voting Record.

Last year was a big one. It had its triumphs, like when determined senators pushed through the first major arms control treaty in decades. And it had its disgraces, with a group of Republicans blocking a bipartisan bill to help stop forced child marriage. How did your representatives measure up? Find out with our 2010 Congressional Voting Record.

Was your senator one of the nuclear hawks who tried desperately to kill New START? Did your representative call for getting all the troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year? Our 2010 voting record highlights key votes in the House and Senate on everything from Afghanistan to nuclear weapons, from wasteful military spending to sanctions on Iran. You can also check out our picks for the “best and worst” things Congress did for peace in 2010.

Click here to get your copy, then click here to tell your representative and senators what you think about their votes.

One of the best tools we have to hold Congress accountable is information. Every congressional office has received a copy of this record. Your representatives in Washington know that as a supporter of Peace Action West, you are vigilantly monitoring their votes on peace, and more importantly, that you will take action to make sure they are on the right side of history.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA-13), one of the few members of Congress who had a 100% voting record in 2010, had this to say about the voting record: “I am proud of my record and honored to be recognized by Peace Action West. With our nation involved in three ongoing wars, the work of Peace Action West has never been more critical. We need your grassroots advocacy for less military and more diplomacy.”

Click here to download your free copy of the 2010 Congressional Voting Record today.

Thank you for being a watchdog for peace.

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