Thursday, December 31, 2009

On advertising copy and a request for 2010

The ad says: "Try our product and lose 30 pounds, GUARANTEED!" The small print says, as of course it must: "*Your results may vary." Nope, no great political insight or impassioned indictment of American imperialism in this post, just an observation that those two statements don't really work together.

Anyway, happy New Year faithful reader(s?). And humanity, if you're out there: let's say we refrain from the whole war and exploitation thing we've been trying out for the last couple hundred centuries or so and give that do-unto-others nonsense a shot for, I don't know, a year?

UPDATE: Yeah, that request was swiftly denied.

US gov't report casts doubt on US gov't Iranian nuke claims

If you believed the politicians, one could be forgiven for thinking the end is nigh, the day fast approaching that the opposition-suppressing mullahs of Tehran can ignite a nuclear holocaust even their own president couldn’t deny, with Tel Aviv, Manhattan and Peoria, Illinois, tops on the target list. Inexplicably treated as a respected voice on foreign affairs on this past Sunday’s Meet the Press (brought to you by defense contractor Boeing), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took time away from divorcing whoever his latest wife is to proclaim that “the Iranians have been lying consistently” about their nuclear program. “It's very clear the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons, [and] it's pretty clear the Iranians -- this current dictatorship will use them.”

And it’s not just the usual hawks on the right that are dusting off the arguments about a hostile Middle Eastern nation seeking weapons of mass destruction. Playing the role of Objective Foreign Affairs Reporter to Gingrich’s Elder Statesman, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell provided the unbiased analytical voice on why we all should be very afraid. “The Speaker is correct,” said Mitchell, a series of words that would have prompted immediate self-doubt in any grounded, rational thinker. Iran “is the biggest single threat, I think, that we face," she said, which if true speaks more to the relative security of the United States than its vulnerability, I think.

The Obama administration, took, has joined in on the fearmongering fun. "The Iranians have responsibilities to the international community to walk away from their . . . ballistic nuclear weapons program," White House spokesmen Robert Gibbs lectured in September, stressing the need for Iran to hand away its right to enrich uranium on its soil during the very negotiations Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- an accomplished fearmonger in her own right -- has herself declared won’t succeed. (At this point she is only raising the specter of imposing “crippling” sanctions on Iran rather than the possibility of its total obliteration, so perhaps that’s a baby step in the right direction.)

Obama, meanwhile, has at several turns asserted that Iran is "pursuing a nuclear weapon", convening a dramatic press conference in September to unveil the “secret” Qom nuclear facility that Iran itself had revealed days before to the IAEA, which has since inspected it. Fulfilling its traditional role as the printing press for the powerful, major media outlets dutifully ran with the story, informing the public that This Was It, the proof as-if-we-needed-it that Iran was up to no good, with ABC News' Jake Tapper penning helpful articles like this one, “Why Not Just Bomb the Qom Facility?”, which tellingly never ponders the unthinkable in serious Washington circles: the effect bombing radioactive facilities might have on the innocent Iranians you claim to care so much about. Such articles do drum up support for military action among the public, though, insofar as they suggest preemptive war -- and air strikes, boys and girls, are acts of war -- is just another ho-hum policy option for dealing with the supposed threat posed by Iran.

Congress, in typical me-too fashion, has also gotten into the act, with the House overwhelmingly passing a measure to impose sanctions on Iran’s gas imports, progressives and conservatives alike voting in lockstep to increase the hardship for the average Iranian over their government’s exercise of its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the U.S. with its massive nuke stockpiles and plans to develop more is arguably itself in violation of.

There's a funny thing about those claims U.S. politicians and journalists seek to pass off as beyond dispute: the folks that make up the U.S. intelligence community -- the very people whose livelihood depends on their finding a never-ending series of foreign hobgoblins -- say Iran abandoned any nuclear weapons program it may have had nearly 7 years ago, issuing a high-profile National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2007 declaring just that, which both Obama and Clinton at the time praised as a welcome rebuke to the Bush administration. And the IAEA, whose inspectors are the ones actually on the ground in Iran examining its nuclear facilities, continues to verify that no enriched uranium is being diverted to a military program, with agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei declaring there to be "no credible evidence" of a covert weapons effort afoot.

But don’t take their word on the lack of a scary imminent Iranian thereat: even the Obama administration privately concedes it.

According to a report (pdf) just leaked from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a non-partisan arm of Congress, the White House’s own “talking points made public September 25, 2009, stated that the [intelligence] community still assesses that ‘Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.’’ Indeed, “On several occasions, the U.S. intelligence community has reaffirmed the 2007 NIE’s assessment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program but is keeping its options open,” the report states. “For example, Leon Panetta, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did so in May 2009. More recent press accounts have also reported that the community does not believe that Tehran has restarted its weapons program.”

The CRS' findings, which one should remember were available to every one of the lawmakers who blindly voted to impose yet further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, continues:
Other factors also suggest that Iran may not have an active nuclear weapons program. First, the IAEA has resolved several of the outstanding issues described in the August 2007 Iran-IAEA work plan and has apparently not found additional evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the agency has not discovered significant undeclared Iranian nuclear activities for several years (although, as noted above, the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities has decreased). Second, Tehran, beginning in 2003, has been willing to disclose previously undeclared nuclear activities to the IAEA (though, as previously discussed, Iran has not been fully cooperating with the agency). Third, Iran made significant changes to the administration of its nuclear program in fall 2003—changes that produced greater openness with the IAEA and may have indicated a decision to stop a nuclear weapons program.
Fourth . . . Iranian officials have stated numerous times that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons, partly for religious regions—indeed, Khamenei has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, according to Iranian officials. A change in this stance could damage Iranian religious leaders’ credibility. Moreover, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies argued in May 2008 that “given the pervasive religiosity of the regime, it is unlikely that Iran’s supreme leader would be secretly endorsing military activity in explicit contradiction of his own religious edict.”
Iran also has legitimate reasons for not wanting to rely on outsiders for fueling its nuclear reactors, having been screwed over by foreign suppliers in the past, the report notes. And Iran's claim that past attempts to conceal its nuclear procurement efforts were intended to evade Western efforts to deny it technology it had a legal right to under the NPT, not to develop nukes, is one “that appears to be supported by a 1997 CIA report." In sum, the CRS report is a calm and measured analysis of Iran's nuclear program which finds little justification for the bedwetting and warmongering that passes for serious debate on the Sunday morning talk shows. Don't hold your breath waiting for David Gregory to interview the author, though, as actual expertise in the field on which one wishes to opine is an almost certain disqualification.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

War: a laughing matter

Religion and politics are not recommended topics of discussion at the American dinner table. The aerial bombardment of innocent foreigners to be followed, perhaps, by the invasion and occupation of their land, on the other hand, is a matter of casual debate, water cooler talk, just another policy option to elite opinion makers, the prospect bandied about in newspapers and on TV with a solemnity usually reserved for the latest Yankees trade rumor. Even the arguments for war are trodded out with as much conviction and moral suasion as an ad for Ovaltine or a Medicare-qualifying motorized scooter, with former Democratic staffer, humanitarian interventionist and head of a fancy-sounding university “non-proliferation” center Alan Kuperman offering in The New York Times the marvelously weak case for war with Iran on the basis that, hey, it could work at disabling their supposed nuclear weapons program -- actually citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. military action -- so, uh, why the hell no give it a go? All we have to lose are a few thousand dead Iranians.

The idea of killing innocent foreigners is also always good for a laugh. Even prior to 9/11, The Day Everything Changed, I recall a girl at my high school donning an uproarious “Nuke Iraq: Just Do It” t-shirt parodying the Nike slogan, an hilarious call for the nuclear annihilation of a people thousands of miles away who had never done the U.S. any harm worn as proudly on her chest as a teenager in a non-psychopathic country might wear a shirt displaying an allegiance to some popular band, perhaps. While the genocidal humor may be forgiven as the antics of an unthinking adolescent not considering its implications -- and I for one am willing to absolve one from much of the blame for views expressed under the influence of a Pennsylvania public school -- some children never grow up, peddling their juvenile interpretation of the world and morning shock jock approach to foreign affairs into gigs as highly paid political advisers and commentators.

The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb, a former campaign spokesman for John McCain, is one such particularly bloodthirsty and brutishly dumb example of the perpetual adolescent approach to foreign affairs, suggesting in a blog post today -- in a line he later thought better off -- that President Obama maybe ought to declare war on Japan if newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama remains in office, or something. You see, “Hatoyama is proving to be a major problem,” Goldfarb writes, pointing to bipartisan agreement on that score (hardly a selling point, I'd think). The source of the friction? Hatoyama’s desire to reassert Japan’s independence from the U.S. and transition it away from its current client-state status, manifested in the new prime minister’s interest in possibly removing American forces from their base in Okinawa rather than relocating them on the island, and his rather well-supported assertion that the U.S.-led war in Iraq has been a failure, a statement apparently beyond the pale ever since Obama himself embraced the surge.

Though the whole problem might be resolved should scandal bring down his government, “if Hatoyama does stay in place and continue on this course, well, perhaps Obama can look to FDR for inspiration in how to deal with troublesome Japanese leaders,” Goldfarb wrote, a line since disappeared from The Weekly Standard blog but still viewable on Google News and other sites. FDR, of course, faced with a very different and expansionist Japan, imposed an oil embargo against the import-dependent country in the months preceding Pearl Harbor. After the attack, he declared war on Japan -- all measures Goldfarb implies the U.S. government should apply to modern Japan because its new leader appears unwilling to act as the editors of The Weekly Standard and The Washington Post would like: as the governor of a de facto overseas American protectorate, a Guam with cooler gadgets. Question that setup and Goldfarb's first instinct is to call in the 101st Airborne.

The scary thing? Goldfarb's rants are merely less refined variations on the concerns of much of the foreign policy establishment, as evidenced by this Post article detailing anonymous "concerns" regarding Japan's new leader on the part of U.S. officials and allies -- the official leaks offering cataclysmic predictions for the security of Asia as a result of the new Japanese government's rather overdue steps towards asserting greater sovereignty over its affairs. Be comforted in the knowledge that no one in the U.S. government is seriously contemplating war with Japan, though: as FDR demonstrated, it doesn't have any oil. Now Yemen, on the other hand . . .*

[*Yemen is actually rapidly running out of oil. Neighboring U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia, which has been bombing parts of Yemen in recent months, still has a rather lot.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our police state and theirs

Torture. Extrajudicial killings. Arbitrary detention. The United States and Iran have a lot in common, really. But there’s a key difference: while the Iranian regime tends to undertake its crimes against humanity within Iran, the U.S. does it _all over the world_, from Lithuania to Egypt, and condones and/or enables countless more abuses on the part of its allies. Predictably, though, rather than discuss that uncomfortable truth politicians and major news outlets in America take a keen interest in Iran’s human rights abuses while only mentioning, say, “Gaza” if they mispronounce the name of their kids’ favorite musician -- it helps focus attention on the next Hitler du jour instead of America’s own shaky relationship with the rule of law, providing an easy opening for some shameless moral exhibitionism on the part of the ruling class and its media parrots.

Take State Department spokesman Philip Crowley’s statement at a press briefing on Wednesday that "Iran is increasingly showing itself to be a police state.” Now, there is no question the Iranian government has a horrendous record on human rights. And we are right to laugh when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad's attempts to equate the two, as it would be ridiculous to at all suggest that Iran’s record is in any way comparable to that of the United States. Indeed, their records are as far apart as could be -- after all, here in the U.S. we imprison people at a per capita rate three times that of Iran (pdf), with more than one in 100 American adults behind bars.

And while using illegal drugs is liable to get one thrown in prison in these United States, something called PBS (an acronym for a terrorist organization, most likely) reports the Iranian government has been “remarkably pragmatic” with regard to its drug policy, funding needle exchanges and methadone clinics rather than private prisons for a steady supply of non-violent drug offenders like some other countries. Further, though the U.S. government admits to having had more than 100 of its prisoners die in its custody -- many murdered during the course of one of those infamous we-were-just-defending-freedom “harsh interrogation techniques” -- the Obama administration has generally decided to "look forward, not backward" on such crimes, whereas Iran is set to prosecute a dozen officials in the deaths of several opposition protesters (though let's be honest, both countries would never go after the big guns -- something in common!). And, of course, the U.S. committed the ultimate human rights violation and war crime with the invasion of Iraq, killing at a least a quarter million people and driving millions more from their homes in the name of WMDs, or democracy, or . . . something (in the last two centuries Iran has invaded no one). So again, really, it would be terribly unfair to conflate Iran’s human rights record with that of the United States, with its almost 2.5 million people held as cattle behind bars.

(It should be said, though, that U.S. officials, unlike their swarthy counterparts, are careful not to violate any statutes when they torture or kill someone, a task made a bit easier when the state’s finest legal minds all agree that arbitrarily defined “enemy combatants” are not “persons” under the law.)

But! You know, those Iranians! Don't they know all civilized nations turn to private security firms to do their dirty business?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Off the record, I didn't talk to you

The words "off the record" are thrown about so often in Washington that it's sometimes evident the employer of the phrase is unfamiliar with its actual meaning, instead just habitually repeating savvy-sounding jargon they heard their colleagues or the serious-looking people on TV say. Other times it seems its sheer arrogance -- or perhaps a genuine lack of awareness -- at play, like when an aide to Senator Barbara Boxer declared his comments during a panel discussion before hundreds of policy wonks and energy industry officials were not to be reported by any member of the press.

The latest case clearly falls in the former category: Seeking a comment from an industry trade group for a story, I emailed the group's spokeswoman asking her if she'd like to weigh in. Moments later, I got a response declaring that -- "OFF THE RECORD" -- her organization was declining to comment. Try conveying that in a story.

"A request for comment from the group was received."
"Asked to comment on the controversy, the group's spokesperson responded."
"A spokeswoman for the group replied to a request for comment. Or didn't."

Tempted to go with, "A spokeswoman for the group, responding to a request for comment, became incoherent", I settled with, "A spokesperson for the group declined to comment." I'm confident the journalism gods (gods . . . ha!) won't be sending a lightning bolt my way.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

History, as told by the U.S. government

"We think we have a strategy that will create the space and time for the Afghans to stand up their own security forces and take responsibility.  But we're not going to be, you know, walking away from Afghanistan again.  We, we did that before, it didn't turn out very well.  So we will stay involved, we will stay supportive, and I think that's exactly the right approach."
-- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Meet the Press, December 6, 2009
Advocates for a “strong” foreign policy of U.S. empire, beyond suffering the ills of projection and overcompensation, possess a remarkable capacity for ignoring inconvenient aspects of history. That is, while those of the bomb-them-‘till-their-free school of thought can point to a long list of countries and conflicts where they argue an American intervention could have prevented massive loss of life -- Rwanda, Darfur, etc. -- they are remarkably unconcerned with any of the negative consequences befalling a policy of constant war (such as the establishment of permanent and sizable constituency directly benefitting from empire and armed conflict that might agitate for wars not always on the basis of Samantha Power’s superior moral sensibilities) or the demonstrated failings of past U.S. interventions (Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Iran, Iraq...). Conveniently, these are often the same people ordering the bombs to be dropped in the first place.

So when Hillary Clinton, alluding to the presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11, suggests that was a result of the U.S. “walking away” from the region, she’s conveniently gliding over more than a decade of American arms and funding that went to groups we now collectively label “the Taliban” -- and a few folks, like Osama bin Laden, that would later on make a name for themselves turning their fire against their former patrons -- as one would expect from a person in her position. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who as a high-ranking CIA official helped direct funding to the Afghan mujahideen beginning in 1979, has made the same self-serving claim, arguing the the hypothetical actions the U.S. did not take in Afghanistan are more responsible for its present state that the demonstrable, having-actually-occurred actions successive American administrations did take. For those who gain power and prestige from the maintenance of a global American empire -- people like Gates and Clinton, and the countless hangers-on at Washington think tanks and within the State and Defense bureaucracies -- it serves one’s interests well to contrast make-believe accounts of interventions that could be with the less than holy interventions of the real world.

Preferring a fairy tale straight out of Hollywood, Gates and Clinton neglect to mention the very real blowback that came about as result, not of some policy of backwards isolationism, but imperial Cold War proxy fighting aimed at undermining the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by arming and funding -- via the always reliable Pakistani intelligence service, financial backing courtesy of our theocratic friends in Saudi Arabia -- many of those we now call the Taliban and al Qaeda (who, mind you, are not the same thing). Rather than a failure to build more schools and playgrounds following the Soviet exit, it was a proactive U.S. policy aimed at strengthening the mujahideen with money and arms that ultimately led to their being strengthened. One needn't possess a PhD in international affairs to grasp that cause and effect. The staggering number of Muslims the U.S. government has killed since the late 1980s has only further strengthened those groups by fueling opposition to the United States, often labeled "anti-Americanism" by the media as if it were some sort of irrational religious phenomenon and not a perfectly understandable reaction to American policy in the Middle East.

As becomes more obvious the more you observe those in power, it simply pays to be blissfully unaware -- or to appear that way -- if one wishes to rise to the top of the hierarchy. Consider Gates’ comments rejecting there being any historical comparison between the Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan:
"First of all, the Soviets were trying to impose an alien culture and, and political system on, on Afghanistan.  But more importantly, they were there terrorizing the Afghans. They killed a million Afghans.  They made refugees out of five million Afghans.  They were isolated internationally.  All of those factors are different for, for us, completely different.  We have the sanction of the U.N. We have the sanction of NATO.  We have the invitation of the Afghan government itself.  We have 42 military partners in Afghanistan."
Boiled down, Gates' defense of the U.S.-led war is this: we’ve got more friends, which I doubt would pass good old St. Augustine’s litmus test. And spoken by a man who oversees another U.S. war that has created five million refugees and, by some accounts, led to the deaths of more than one million people -- to say nothing of the very real death and destruction U.S. policy has wrought on Afghanistan in the last decade alone that Gates so blithely elides -- the remarks are offensively asinine. Again, though, that’s just par for the course, to be expected.

And given the historical illiteracy of much of the major media's celebrity journalists, why should Gates be bothered with repeating uncomfortable truths that don't help the preferred U.S. narrative? It's not like he will ever be challenged on his history, certainly not by the likes of NBC's David Gregory, whose idea of a tough question is asking Gates -- no joke -- "Is failure an option in Afghanistan?" Well, David, no it isn't, I suppose. Practicing real journalism isn't one either, from the looks of it.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A tax for the military-industrial complex

British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou is famous for arguing that governments should correct perceived "externalities" imposed upon society by the production some good -- think pollution from a coal plant -- by imposing taxes on the producer of said good that, ideally, should be commensurate to the damages caused by the product. Keeping with that logic, it follows that if one thinks wars are something inflicted on society by people like defense contractors, generals and the living dead elder statesmen, then it ought to be they who pays for said wars. So when politicians propose imposing a new war tax on wealthy Americans to pay for the war in Afghanistan, I can't help but think they're a bit off the mark.

First: imposing a new progressive tax on the rich does not a "just war" make. Taxing the rich might please one's liberal sensibilities, but given that money will be used to inflict death and destruction upon innocent Afghans, sacrificing their lives just so some executive at Goldman Sach's pays a few more cents to the IRS would make one kind of a dick. Second: while I grant there's probably a good deal of overlap, a true Pigouvian tax would be one imposed on Lockheed Martin, those who voted for the Iraq war resolution (and those who approve funds for a military escalation in Afghanistan) and the staff of The Weekly Standard, not just the rich in general. Since I'm assuming such a tax would have to be awfully high -- too high for senior fellows at AEI and Brookings -- it would of course also necessitate the return of debtors' prisons, an unfortunate but necessary stick to go along with the carrot of endless war and appearances on Meet the Press, I think.