Sunday, April 25, 2010

Put on your Pope hat

The Foreign Office has apologised for a "foolish" document which suggested the Pope's visit to the UK could be marked by the launch of "Benedict" condoms.
Called "The ideal visit would see...", it said the Pope could be invited to open an abortion clinic and bless a gay marriage during September's visit.
The Foreign Office stressed the paper, which resulted from a "brainstorm" on the visit, did not reflect its views.
You know, perhaps the Vatican ought to take up the Foreign Office staffer on the idea -- developed in the midst of a "brainstorm" no doubt aided by Pink Floyd's The Wall and a healthy dose of blotter paper -- of Pope-banded prophylactics. After all, what could better convince someone of the merits of abstinence than a condom wrapper with this guy's face beaming back at you?

On the other hand, Pope condoms could have the alternate effect of convincing people to do away with protection all together, in which case, yay! more potential Catholics!

As for the other stuff, well: if you're going to go that far in asking the Vatican to renounce hundreds of years of church dogma, then why not go all out and try and get Benedict to perform an abortion himself -- and to gay marry the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thinking of empire on Earth Day

Today's Earth Day, which means a lot of politicians are giving very nice speeches about all the great things they are doing to protect the environment and save the polar bear. One thing they and the leading environmental groups won't be talking about? The U.S. empire's contribution to global warming, as I noted in this piece detailing how all of the Pentagon's overseas activities – including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – enjoy an exemption under the Kyoto Protocol that is likely to extend to any new future climate treaty:
Climate change has been branded a threat to national security, but a future global treaty addressing the issue is likely to exempt from regulation most of the greenhouse gases associated with overseas military activities and the world’s largest polluter—the U.S. armed forces—a fact some environmentalists are arguing will significantly undercut the effectiveness of such an agreement. The issue is potentially troubling for proponents of a treaty as it suggests that even as the Obama administration and leading Democrats push emission controls based on the perceived security threat posed by global warming, they are unwilling to address a leading contributor to the problem.
The preliminary climate change agreement announced in Copenhagen leaves unresolved many key questions, but there’s a broad consensus overseas military operations will continue to enjoy a major exemption under any eventual comprehensive, legally binding treaty. Indeed, both foreign diplomats and officials with most major environmental groups have been reticent to broach the subject for fear of alienating the U.S. government, which accounts for nearly half of global military spending.
“It can be a bit of a delicate subject,” says a former senior Defense Department official who was deeply involved in the debate over the Kyoto Protocol. “We’re the largest military in the world and we’re going to be the most penalized if military emissions are counted, so that has to be considered.”
Read the rest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'Nuke their ass, take their gas'

I remain wholly unconvinced that John McCain knows what a website is, but -- assuming that he does -- I am pretty sure that this is exactly how he would have designed the one for his 2008 presidential campaign had all those overpaid strategists and consultants not gotten in the way and diluted his message.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is Richard Holbrooke illiterate or does he just not care?

(Holbrooke (left): "I would love to find out who killed your other child, but who has the time?")

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. official helping oversee the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was asked at a State Department briefing Monday to respond to a report in USA Today that the killing of Afghan civilians has "more than doubled this year," despite American assurances that the protection of the Afghan people is a renewed priority.

"I saw the article in USA Today and a few others," Holbrooke told reporters. But "I haven't had a chance to do a personal drill-down on the details of those statistics, how much of that's caused by the Taliban, how much of it is caused by the effects of the military operations."

Given his efforts at obfuscation, perhaps Holbrooke didn't make it to the second paragraph of the story, where he would have learned that "NATO troops accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY."

To be fair, though, the article's headline was rather ambiguous: "NATO strikes killing more Afghan civilians".

While pretending not to know who's to blame for Afghan deaths, Holbrooke did acknowledge that "war is hell" and that "civilian casualties are a part of all recent wars." He also noted that "civilian casualties increase as overall operations increase in intensity, and therefore it's not surprising this would happen." And he's right: soldiers are professional killers, not sociologists, so it makes sense that the more there are in a given area, the more killing -- of civilians and enemy alike -- there is likely to take place there.

If avoiding civilian deaths was as much a priority as General Stanley McChrystal and other American officials are fond of suggesting, the Obama administration would be removing troops from Afghanistan, not sending more. But then even good progressives know that protecting the life of an Afghan is much less important than safeguarding the U.S. "national interest" and the lives of red-blooded Americans (i.e. people that matter). But what would an actual humanitarian say?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

US officials accuse Iran of complying with its treaty obligations

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, acting as someone overseeing history's most expansive empire would, is concerned the Obama administration is not prepared to do what it takes to confront Iran over its nuclear program -- so concerned, he's issued a memo about it, The New York Times reports:
[I]n his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.
The Obama administration's response:
Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.
The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.
The bolded part is important: that Iran could remain a signatory to the NPT while maintaining a "virtual" weapons capability is a concession that developing such a capacity is perfectly legal under the treaty. That being the case, what then would be the justification under international law for taking action -- in the form of economic or aerial warfare -- to stop Iran from possessing the enrichment capacity and knowhow to possibly someday build nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so (which even U.S. intelligence agencies don't believe the Iranians have decided to do)? My money's on a Security Council resolution.

Still, what is clearly illegal is not having a nuclear "breakout" capacity -- as Iran stands accused not of possessing, but seeking to possess -- but "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State," as the non-proliferation treaty itself notes. That's something to be remembered the next time a U.S. official declares "all options are on the table" when dealing with Iran, and contrasted with the Obama administration's recently stated policy in its Nuclear Posture Review of maintaining the right to use nuclear weapons against those it deems in violation of the NPT (e.g. Iran).

Indeed, Harvard's Stephen Walt observes on his blog for Foreign Policy that Obama's official nuclear posture "amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons [of] its own." And beyond the illegality of threatening force against a state in compliance with its treaty obligations -- which also violates the long-standing U.S. pledge to "not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT" -- the administration's policy makes no sense on pure pragmatic grounds, as it only gives Iran "additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option," says Walt. Declaring that "we reserve the right of 'first use' against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all)," however, sure sounds "like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice thing to have."

It's sometimes alleged that Ayatollah Khamenei & Co. are irrational, driven by ideology rather than pragmatism. But what should non-proliferation advocates fear in light of the years of bellicose rhetoric from Washington? That they're not.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The state: the 'negation of humanity'

A few weeks back I criticized Nation contributor Melissa Harris-Lacewell for expounding on the specter of right-wing Tea Partiers undermining the state's "legitimate" monopoly on violence while ignoring the exponentially more destructive and pervasive threat to society: the state and its use of that much-vaunted monopoly. But however wrongheaded the offending article was, Harris-Lacewell did provide a useful description of the state and the inverted view of morality that justifies it, noting that the use of force and coercion, while denied to mere individuals, becomes -- under the prevailing liberal view of government -- morally right and just if undertaken or sanctioned by one of the two corporate-sponsored candidates allowed on the ballot and subsequently voted into office by those who are all of the following: 1) eligible to vote 2) registered to vote and 3) willing to vote.

As Harris-Lacewell approvingly noted, "The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion." Indeed, "If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation."

Rather than challenge this presumed legitimacy, however, establishment liberals have been preoccupied passionately defending it, their apologies for state power tending to appeal to images of immunized children and public libraries rather than overflowing prisons and preemptive wars, distinguishing them from their conservative counterparts.

Never adequately explained in the midst of all the talk of social contracts and the legitimacy conferred by elections, however, is why one human institution is allowed to violate the basic norms of right and wrong, "murder" to you or me becoming mere "collateral damage" if carried out with enough brutality by a government agent. If children are taught early on that consent, not violence and coercion, is to govern human relations, why does that lesson not apply to government? What is the moral and philosophical case for exempting any subset of humanity from the rules by which the rest must live?

The state, envisioned as that great mechanism for promoting human cooperation and betterment, is -- outside the realm of textbook -- in reality clearly anti-social, its very essence the "flagrant negation of humanity," as Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin once wrote. The government's de facto right to violate universal notions of individual morality is, Bakunin argued, both "its supreme duty and its greatest virtue" in the eyes of those who support it:
It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one's fellow man is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one's own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.
This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries – statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors – if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”
These are truly terrible words, for they have corrupted and dishonored, within official ranks and in society's ruling classes, more men than has even Christianity itself. No sooner are these words uttered than all grows silent, and everything ceases; honesty, honor, justice, right, compassion itself ceases, and with it logic and good sense. Black turns white, and white turns black. The lowest human acts, the basest felonies, the most atrocious crimes become meritorious acts.
Wash that taste of The Nation out of your mouth and read the rest. (And I promise to never mention a certain Princeton professor again, god willing.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The State Dept.'s case against military spending

At a State Department press briefing I attended this afternoon, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela thoroughly debunked the argument for increased military spending in the Americas, pointing out there is little need for more weapons systems at a time when the continent as a whole is at peace.

“[E]very country has the sovereign right to purchase arms for its national defense,” Valenzuela noted, and all countries “have a right to also modernize their equipment.” But possessing the right to purchase arms is not the same as having a need to do so, he argued:
"[T]here's been a trend in the Latin American region for -- to a significant decline in arms expenditures as conflicts between countries have waned as a possibility, with the signing of agreements that have resolved long-standing, in many cases -- like between Argentina and Chile or between Ecuador and Peru -- long-standing border disagreements and that kind of thing.
So the overall need for additional expenditures on weaponry is definitely going down. And what we certainly encourage, and all of the countries encourage, is that governments pay much more attention to social expenditures and to trying to improve the standards of living of their -- of their peoples. And I think there's a consensus in the region that in a continent that is essentially at peace, that there really is no need for these kinds of large expenditures."
If you're passingly familiar with American foreign policy and the average State Department official's capacity for self-awareness, you have probably ascertained by now that those remarks are of course not intended to apply to the United States, which faces the specter of Canadian beer to its North and the existential threat of Spanish-speaking Hispanics to its South. No, rather the assistant secretary for whatever-the-hell's comments were directed at Venezuela, which has been circumventing a U.S. ban on weapons purchases by buying arms from Russia.

My prejudices up front: I'm no fan of the buffoonish Hugo Chavez and his brand of centrally planned state socialism, nor do I think any government should really be spending its citizens' money on guns and ammo when it can't even keep the lights on. But I think it's useful to point out that Venezuela is being criticized for purchasing up to $5 billion in arms from Russia – a sizable number, sure, but less than one-fourth of the amount Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama increased Pentagon spending by this year alone. What Chavez is planning to spend on arms is also roughly equivalent to the value of the weapons the U.S. military simply lost in Iraq. And for context, according to the World Bank Venezuela dedicates just over 1 percent of its gross domestic product to military spending, compared to the U.S.'s more than 4 percent.

The amount the U.S. government spends on its armed forces – and on occupying two foreign nations – also dwarfs the amount it dedicates to social services. Meanwhile, like the rest of the Americas the United States faces no real threat of foreign invasion – sorry Tom Tancredo, immigrants don't count – and yet . . .

John Yoo for Supreme Court Justice

John Yoo (right) delivering a lecture on how Article II, Section I gives the president the right to crush a child's testicles.

If Barack Obama's half as smart as those under the mind-altering influence of the hashish of hope say he is, he won't pick some "wild-eyed liberal" to replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court, to borrow the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, but rather do the only sensible thing someone seeking to patch over lingering tensions from the health care debate and win over conservatives should do: appoint Berkeley professor and former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo. His credentials probably need not be stated, but for my slower readers:

-- He's a graduate of Harvard University, like President Obama and pretty much every Supreme Court justice ever, as well as Yale Law, which means he's likely smarter than you and would feel comfortable dressing up in a silly costume every day, rather than just weekends like the rest of us. Important qualifications.

-- He's demonstrated boundless enthusiasm for rationalizing each and every possible exercise of executive power imaginable, warrantless wiretapping, waterboarding and your run-of-the-mill breach of the Geneva Convention all legally permissable in his view so long as the Attorney General says "national security" three times, clicks his heels and spits in the direction of Mecca. While those legal opinions justifying the president's right to carry out human rights abuses with impunity might make the founding fathers spin in their graves -- had they not all, you know, fucking owned people -- they fit right in with the current administration's embrace of assassinating anyone, including an American, suspected of 1) being Muslim and 2) living abroad, laws and human decency (not always the same thing) be damned.

-- He'd be the first Asian-American Supreme Court Justice. I don't have a joke for that.

-- He'd sail through the Senate nomination process with unanimous Republican support. What's that you say, "What about all those Democrats who spoke out against Yoo's dubious legal opinions? How could they sell out their stated core beliefs for a sheer partisan desire to see the president succeed?" Well, first I'd say,
do you need a drink of water? Some fresh air or something? Maybe you should lie down. But then I'd ask, just how many congressional Democrats have spoken out against this administration's stated belief in the president's unilateral right to kill anyone he chooses should they wander off American territory -- or worse yet, be born and raised in not-America? About as many as can dance on the head of a pin.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shocking news: Henry Kissinger complicit in murder

Inter Press Service's D.C. Bureau Chief Jim Lobe has the story:
Kissinger Rescinded Warning Against Condor Assassinations
WASHINGTON, Apr 10, 2010 (IPS) - Five days before the assassination in downtown Washington of former Chilean Defence Minister Orlando Letelier, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rescinded instructions to U.S. ambassadors in Latin America's Southern Cone to warn the region's military regimes against carrying out "a series of international murders", according to documents released by the National Security Archive (NSA) here.

Kissinger "has instructed that no further action be taken on this matter", reads a declassified Sep. 16, 1976 cable sent by Kissinger's office from Zambia, where he was travelling at the time, to his assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Harry Shlaudeman.

The "matter" in question concerned instructions sent under Kissinger's name to U.S. ambassadors to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay Aug. 23, 1976, to make a formal demarche to the leaders of their host governments regarding Washington's "deep concern" about reports it had received of "plans for the assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad".
Read the rest.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Hypothetical violence: still not as scary as actual violence

I’ll concede one point: I got her first name wrong. My bad. But for having 12 shots of Cuervo*, I think the piece came out fairly well.

Otherwise, though, this blog post purporting to debunk Chris Floyd and me for our criticisms of political science professor and Nation contributor Melissa (!) Harris-Lacewell makes for a perfect example of the mental corruption that accompanies partisanship, a depressing but timely illustration of how once one political faction gains power it almost immediately starts acting like the one it just replaced.

Providing a perfectly smug case-study of the archetypal Humorless Liberal, the blog post in question begins by deferring to the power of authority, noting Harris-Lacewell -- who recently suggested Tea Partiers were seditious opponents of the state's status as the ”legitimate owner of the tools of violence, force, and coercion” -- just “happens to be a tenured professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton,” whereas I am but an "independent journalist” (complete with scare quotes). There's also the unsubtle suggestion that I could be a misogynist, and of course no mainstream liberal attack on Obama's critics is complete without the mandatory musing that, hmm, maybe you're just a racist.

The substance of the piece, if you will, is that I -- by arguing that liberals wary of violence should focus most of their attention on the state and its prisons and wars rather than the largely hypothetical threat posed by Tea Partiers -- fail to take the threat of “domestic terrorism” seriously, too caught up am I in the violence of empire rather than the rhetoric of Glenn Beck. The evidence for why one should quake in fear of an impending spate of domestic terrorism? The arrest of nine yokels in the Hutaree militia who, while probably not the kind of people I'd invite to my weekend barbecue, never actually hurt anyone and were only arrested on trumped up charges of planning to use “weapons of mass destruction."

Facts aside, "The deaths of two dozen people in a remote village might not be as far away as Davis seems to think," the blogger gravely writes. Of course, if George Bush were president and the accused a supposed al-Qaeda cell in, say, Miami, liberals like my critic would probably view the government showboating over their arrests with a good deal of proper skepticism (and might even recognize that when it comes to Christian militias, one should fear those employed by the state the most). A Democrat in office, however -- and the right’s preferred target of poor black people replaced with liberals’ preferred target, religious hicks with guns -- and that skepticism fades away.

So, seemingly, does opposition to war:
Floyd and Davis are not so much scornful of her use of the word “seditious” as they are at her failure to hop on their hobby horse, the evil American empire. Well, it is an empire, and it does quite a bit of evil. I spent more of my life than I care to think about on one small example, the crushing of elected government in Honduras. But all empires do evil. If the Chinese rise to power, one can predict that they, too, will do evil.
In other words: if it’s not Barack Obama and the USA killing and invading, it’ll be somebody else, so why all the fuss? Such a weird little hobby horse too (good thing no one's found my blog on crystal skulls).

Then there is this:
And, it turns out, Melissa Harris-Lacewell is not the defender of empire that they paint her as. True, her writings are about her professional interests. She has not written about peace and justice issues, though she is affiliated with the Princeton Peace and Justice Center [ed. note: that's meaningful]. Like most college professors, she shies away from advocacy in her writings.
It is also suggested that Harris-Lacewell has never "applauded" government force, and that her silence on issues of war, peace and justice can perhaps be explained by the fact she is "aware that only a small fraction of government revenues go to 'state violence'", a laughable claim easily proved false with a simple Google search.

Having written an entire essay -- and apparently beginning every poli-sci class -- with a vigorous defense of the state’s “legitimate” monopoly on the use of violence, which she by all accounts views approvingly, Harris-Lacewell’s greatest problem is not that she applauds state violence per se, but, like this critic, she assumes it, takes it for granted. Her greatest sin is one of omission: if she is deeply upset about the victims of the wars Barack Obama is expanding, she doesn't show it -- instead appearing curiously friendly toward the man directly responsible for their deaths, not deigning to mention the thousands killed under the man she once absurdly wrote is "stunningly similar to Martin Luther King, Jr.," a statement that surprisingly has not resulted in a lawsuit from the King estate.

In that earlier piece, Harris-Lacewell argued that King, like Obama, was a “pragmatic political strategist,” noting that he worked to help President Lyndon Johnson politically despite having major differences with him. Why? Because he recognized that he “needed Johnson to pass civil rights legislation"; he recognized the need to be pragmatic, sensible, willing to compromise his beliefs when it served the greater good.

That might be all good and true, but what Harris-Lacewll left out -- and what my critic and other liberals might wish to consider -- is that King later rejected that strategy of compromise when he began speaking publicly and without reservation in opposition to the mass murder the American state was carrying out against the people of Vietnam; a war, one should remember, that was fully embraced by the liberal establishment of that time and tacitly accepted by many others in exchange for the promises of a Great Society at home. But as King said then, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.”

King recognized that, if one was serious about opposing violence, then it was the state one most oppose, and that it was the duty of the person of conscience to call out those perpetrating the violence -- even when the perpetrators were liberal Democrats. In the same remarks he also quoted a statement approved by churgoers from the Riverside Church in New York City: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

The silence of Harris-Lacewell and other cheerleaders for the Obama administration is deafening.

* Joking. I would never drink Jose Cuervo.

[I initially wrote that Chris Floyd was described by the blogger as a “guy,” when in fact it was Michael J. Smith.]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Where's the 'dignity' in a drone strike?

I was going to write an extremely long, incendiary piece about how, when it comes to foreign policy in particular, most of Washington's professional progressives tend to elevate rhetoric and style over reality and substance. Frankly, though, it's too damn nice outside to be hovered over a 13" computer screen trying to save the world through a strongly worded blog post. Also, thankfully, liberal reporter Spencer Ackerman has done my work for me with this piece in The American Prospect, wherein he . . . well, I'll let the article speak for itself:
In early 2008, I interviewed the foreign-policy and national-security brain trust of the Obama campaign for this magazine to gain a sense of what a world led by President Obama would look like. There were two big takeaways. The first was something I called "dignity promotion," an inchoate idea that the architecture of international alliances and institutions ought to prioritize human dignity, material as well as aspirational, in order to achieve global stability and prosperity. Implicit in the idea was that Obama would return the U.S. to its pre-Bush role as leader and champion of international cooperation to build a world in which American power and global prosperity were seen as mutually supporting objectives. The second was a meta-point about a path to get there: by confronting what Obama's advisers called the "politics of fear" that restricted what was possible for America to achieve on the world stage.


On dignity promotion, the administration has racked up real successes and set the stage for several more. Obama has proved that the world is prepared for positive-sum American leadership -- whether it's by restructuring U.S. global economic partnerships through the G-20 instead of the more restricted G-8 set of powerful nations; whether it's resetting relationships with great and rising powers like Russia and China over contentious issues like Iran and climate change; whether it's explaining to the Muslim world that America's commitment to its well-being reaches far beyond securing its cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Dignity promotion, a new twist on the very old idea of liberal internationalism, is still taking shape. But the early evidence is that it's working -- for America and for the world.
Er, unless you happen to live in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen, in which case, well, sucks to be you I guess.

Let me preface my next comment by stating that I'm not trying to be obtuse, but I honestly don't understand how otherwise seemingly intelligent people can be so captivated by a bunch of do-gooder balderdash (yeah, I'm bringing that word back) uttered by Obama advisers at confabs of the international elite to the point that one would praise to high heaven the supposed dignity-promoting agenda of an administration that is not only engaged in two full-scale military occupations, but claims the right to carry out extrajudicial killings of Americans and foreigners alike. I also don't understand how one could claim that prior to George W. Bush the U.S.'s role was that of a "leader and champion of international cooperation," unless one's definition of the international community consists of Western Europe/NATO and the Marshall Islands, given the widely condemned embargo against Cuba and Clinton's cruise missile-ing of Sudanese aspirin factories; more to the point, when the "international consensus" (read: France, Germany, Britain) permits sanctions to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children by barring basic but "dual-use" medicinal supplies and dangerous luxuries like clean water from importation, I'm not sure that consensus much matters -- nor that it's "progressive."

But probably the worst thing I could ever say at all about Ackerman's or anyone else's piece: I think Tom Friedman could have wrote it.

(The whole "dignity" thing and non-sarcastic use of "meta-point" -- I mean, seriously dude?)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

That anti-patriotic feeling

Many opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have over the years declared that, while they may have objected to the invasions and continue to abhor the ongoing occupations, they nevertheless support the troops fighting on the ground, an assertion considered necessary to insulate antiwar folks from claims of insufficient patriotism. But while I understand why people utter the cliche, and sympathize with what it is I think most are trying to say -- that the politicians who start the wars are more to blame for the ensuing catastrophes than the 18 year old grunts sent to fight them -- I also think assertions about supporting those who physically carry out the war crimes reflect a very confused, fatally flawed conception of morality, whereby those who order murder are rightly and unsparingly condemned but those who actually do the killing are absolved of all responsibility, as if by joining the military one also abandons all capacity for judging right from wrong.

Granted, military training does consist of dehumanizing brainwashing, with soldiers taught to have no mercy for The Enemy and that, if the life of an American is perceived to be in danger, to shoot first and cover up later. But then those who join the military know this. It's no great mystery what joining the armed forces what it entails: it means killing people whenever one's commanding officer says so. Sure, ads might depict military life as little more than one big American Gladiator episode, but I think most who join are aware they may be asked to murder on behalf of their government in a war, even if they're blinded by a naive, superficial notion of patriotism. And since no conflict the U.S. has fought over the last half a century could reasonably be construed as one of last resort in strict self-defense, the overwhelming odds are those who sign up for the military will be killing people in unjust, illegal wars -- wars that, as John Caruso ably demonstrates, entail daily atrocities like those depicted in the WikiLeaks video making the rounds.

So yes, let us condemn the emperors first, but let us not forget that the we-were-just-following-orders defense has a rather sullied history and was rejected at Nuremberg for good reason. While most soldiers are probably good people who love their children -- not unlike their commander-in-chief -- they are willing participants in an immoral, vicious endeavor; let's not pretend otherwise. As Herbert Spencer once remarked while detailing his own "anti-patriotic" feeling amid a previous Western conquest of Afghanistan, “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves."

Henry David Thoreau, however, put it best and thus gets the last word:
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts -- a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, 
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero was buried."
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What 'legitimate' violence looks like

The video posted below by the invaluable website WikiLeaks might depict a grotesque atrocity being carried out by U.S. forces in Iraq, but it is useful to note that, while certainly abhorrent and something to avoided when possible, that war crime was legitimately sanctioned by our duly-elected representatives in Washington, who as embodiments of the state are deserving of our utmost respect, as we know from reading The Nation. What would be called "murder" with little hesitation if you or I carried out is -- through the miracle of the electoral process -- transmogrified into the mere bureaucratic exercise of the state's legitimate monopoly on the use of violence, meaning that while one may question the wisdom of a murderous policy that has killed thousands upon thousands of innocent Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali civilians, one dare not question the legitimacy of the murderers, lest you end up like one of those wild-eyed, seditious Tea Party-types.

On to more important things: you hear that crazy shit Glenn Beck said the other day?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Same speech, different day

In a stunning betrayal of his base that comes as a surprise to all, Barack Obama this week chose to side with wealthy oil and gas interests over the environmentalists that helped get him elected and who -- despite the president's call for the same environmentally destructive offshore drilling they denounced in apocalyptic terms under the Bush administration -- will undoubtedly help elect him again when confronted with the specter of a Palin-Beck ticket in 2012. Truly, no one could see this coming.

In justifying his decision to open much of the East Coast and Alaska's shoreline to new oil and gas drilling on the basis of U.S. "energy security" -- one that, naturally, was announced in front of the militaristic backdrop of an Air Force base, as all important national decisions must -- Obama cast himself as the sensible moderate, the non-ideological centrist whose only real concern is what works best for America. It's a familiar approach for the president, and one that grows no less irksome over time.

"There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling," Obama said, while acknowledging "there are going to be some who argue that we don’t go nearly far enough." Ultimately, though, "we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place," he continued. Energy issue are "too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again."

If you think you may have heard that speech sounds familiar, there's a reason: you have.

"Now, there will be those that welcome this announcement, those who think it's been long overdue," Obama said in February when announcing the awarding of $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for a nuclear reactor in Georgia. "But there are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this announcement," he said. However, "On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs."

Obama embraced the same formulation last December when speaking about his plan to further expand the war in Afghanistan, another major policy announcement delivered on a military base. "First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam," Obama said, noting that at the other end of the spectrum there are "those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility." Ever committed to the middle ground, Obama in that same speech -- in the span of two consecutive sentences -- announced both that he was sending "an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan" and that in a year and half's time "our troops will begin to come home" -- his devotion to a policy that results in almost-daily atrocities, but purportedly not one that requires an indefinite military occupation as some on the right would like, demonstrating his carefully concocted image of cool reasonableness and showing why those crazy Norwegians handed him a Nobel Peace Prize.

As I've written before, though, one should beware of powerful people whose decisions have a major bearing on your life claiming to have been freed of all ideological shackles, guided only by goodness and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, because what constitutes pragmatic, non-ideological commonsense in Washington is shaped by the kind of people who would voluntarily live in a place like Washington: corporate lobbyists and the once-and-future corporate lobbyists we call lawmakers and congressional staffers. The guiding principles of corporatism and imperialism are so widely accepted inside the Beltway, so beyond the realm of serious debate, that after spending enough time here one could be forgiven for viewing bailouts and empire as the result not of a long-standing ideological commitment to the interests of capital and the arms industry, but the inscrutable product of the passage of Time and the flow of History. But it is supremely silly to act as if decisions to hand taxpayer largesse to private interests or to allow multinational corporations carte blanche to profit from drilling in public waters -- or to occupy and drop bombs on poor countries on the other side of the globe -- do not reflect certain ideological assumptions and core beliefs that directly pertain to one's view of relationship of the state to society.

There's another problem with Obama's claimed rejection of ideology: the fallacy, oft-embraced by the Chuck Todds of the world, that being equally despised by whatever it is we're calling the "left" and the "right" these days is a sign of one's essential moderateness, of a job well done, of an intelligence that transcends partisan bickering in favor of pure rationality. Sometimes, though, Occam's Razor applies: it could just be a sign you're an asshole. A federal policy of dropping newborn babies in blenders might anger socialists and Tea Partiers alike, for instance, but only an amoral cretin -- a politician, perhaps -- would claim that outrage as a sign they are doing The Right Thing.