Friday, May 26, 2006

Presidential timber?

I say this only half in jest. Andrew Bacevich for president!

This guy is a straight arrow, West Point grad, Vietnam War vet, who left the military to get his Ph.D. from Princeton, and now teaches at B.U.

Until fairly recently a National Review contributor, he (along with James Carroll, who literally grew up in the Pentagon) is one of the few military industrial complex insiders who has been able to see what an abominable war machine America has created. He's especially good on America's "shortsighted infatuation with military power," and the (mostly sinister) ways the military has changed in recent years. And he, like Carroll, has come around to the full horror of our nation's blind acceptance of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons.

This week Bacevich has been speaking to Tom Engelhardt, who has recently featured a terrific series of interviews with the likes of Mike Davis, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Chamlers Johnson. Here are a few excerpts from his chat with Bacevich.

In any case, the Cold War essentially ends in 1989 when the [Berlin] Wall goes down; in '91, the Soviet Union collapses. I get out of the Army in 1992 and I'm waiting with bated breath to see what impact the end of the Cold War is going to have on U.S. policy, particularly military policy. The answer is, essentially, none. We come out even more firmly committed to the notion of U.S. military global supremacy. Not because there was an enemy -- in 1992, ‘93, ‘94, there's no enemy -- but because we've come to see military supremacy and global hegemony as good in and of themselves.

The end of the Cold War sees us using military power more frequently, while our ambitions, our sense of what we're supposed to do in the world, become more grandiose. There's all this bloated talk about "the end of history," and the "right side of history," and the "indispensable nation," politicians and pundits pretending to know the destiny of humankind. So I began to question my understanding of what had determined U.S. behavior during the Cold War. The orthodox narrative said that the U.S. behaved as it did because of them, because of external threats. I came to believe that explanation was not entirely wrong but limited. You get closer to the truth by recognizing that what makes us behave the way we behave comes from inside. I came to buy into the views of historians like Charles Beard and William Appleton Williams who emphasize that foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policy, in particular of the structure of the American political economy.

So I became a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s, a pretty outspoken one.

TD: You wrote a book then with the word "empire" in the title...

Bacevich: Yes, because I became convinced that what we saw in the 90s from both Democrats and Republicans was an effort to expand an informal American empire. Fast forward to 9/11 and its aftermath, and the Bush doctrine of preventive war as implemented in Iraq, and the full dimensions of our imperial ambitions become evident for all to see.

I have to say, I certainly supported the Afghanistan War. I emphatically believed that we had no choice but to take down the Taliban regime in order to demonstrate clearly the consequences of any nation tolerating, housing, supporting terrorists who attack us. But the Iraq War just struck me as so unnecessary, unjustifiable, and reckless that... I don't know how to articulate its impact except that it put me unalterably in the camp of those who had come to see American power as the problem, not the solution. And it brought me close to despair that the response of the internal opposition and of the American people generally proved to be so tepid, so ineffective. It led me to conclude that we are in deep, deep trouble.

An important manifestation of that trouble is this shortsighted infatuation with military power that goes beyond even what I wrote about in my most recent book. Again, it revolves around this question of energy and oil. There's such an unwillingness to confront the dilemmas we face as a people that I find deeply troubling. I know we're a democracy. We have elections. But it's become a procedural democracy. Our politics are not really meaningful. In a meaningful politics, you and I could argue about important differences, and out of that argument might come not resolution or reconciliation, but at least an awareness of the consequences of going your way as opposed to mine. We don't even have that argument. That's what's so dismaying.

TD: You've used the word "crusade" and spoken of this administration as "intoxicated with the mission of salvation." I was wondering what kind of "ism" you think we've been living with in these years?

Bacevich: That's a great question, and it's not enough to say that it's democratic capitalism. Certainly, our "ism" incorporates a religious dimension -- in the sense of believing that God created this nation for a purpose that has to do with universal values.

We have not as a people come to terms with our relationship to military power and to the wars we've engaged in and the ways we've engaged in them. Now, James Carroll in his new book, House of War, is very much preoccupied with strategic bombing in World War II and since, and especially with our use of, and attitude toward, nuclear weapons. His preoccupation is understandable because those are the things we can't digest and we can't cough up. You know, at the end of the day, we, the missionary nation, the crusader state, certain of our righteousness, remain the only people to have used nuclear weapons in anger -- indeed, to have used them as a weapon of terror.

TD: Air power, even though hardly covered in our media in Iraq, has been the American way of war since World War II, hasn't it?

Bacevich: Certainly that "ism" that defines us has a large technological component, doesn't it? I mean, we are the people of technology. We see the future as a technological one and can't imagine a problem that doesn't have technological solutions...

TD: ...except when it comes to oil.

Bacevich: Quite true. In many respects, the technological artifact that defines the last century is the airplane. With the airplane came a distinctive style of warfare. The Italians dropped the first bomb in North Africa; the Japanese killed their share of civilians from the air as did the Germans, but we and our British cousins outdid them all. I've been thinking more and more that our record of strategic bombing is not simply an issue of historical interest.

We are not who we believe we are and, in some sense, others perceive us more accurately than we do ourselves. The President has described a version of history -- as did Clinton, by the way -- beginning with World War II in which the United States is the liberator, Americans are the bringers of freedom. There is truth to that narrative, but it's not the whole truth; and, quite frankly, it's not the truth that matters a lick, let's say, to the Islamic world today. Muslims don't give a darn that we brought Hitler or the Third Reich to its knees. What they're aware of is all kinds of other behavior, particularly in their neck of the woods, that had nothing to do with spreading democracy and freedom, that had everything to do with power, with trying to establish relations that maximized the benefit to the United States and American society. We don't have to let our hearts bleed about that. That's the way politics works, but let's not delude ourselves either. When President George W. Bush says, "America stands for freedom and liberty, and we're coming to liberate you," it's absurd to expect people in that part of the world to take us seriously. That's not what they've seen and known and experienced in dealing with the United States.

TD: And, of course, within the councils of this administration, they threw out anyone who knew anything about the record of U.S. policy in the Islamic world.

Bacevich: Because those experts would have challenged the ideologically soaked version of history that this administration has attempted to carry over into the 21st century. Only if we begin to see ourselves more clearly, will we be able to understand how others see us. We need to revise the narrative of the American Century and recognize that it has been about a host of other things that are far more problematic than liberation. There can be no understanding the true nature of the American century without acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Hanoi, and Haiphong.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Can't make this shit up

From USA Today, Study guide for U.S. citizenship test omits freedom of press:
WASHINGTON — A set of flashcards designed to help applicants for U.S. citizenship learn basic civics has become one of the most popular items sold by the Government Printing Office.

But the $8.50 flashcards — which contain questions and answers from the actual citizenship exam — won't help immigrants learn much about the role of the press in American democracy.

Question 80 asks, "Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment." The answer lists freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the right to petition the government — but omits freedom of the press.

Fear not: there's a $6 million redesign in the works.

What they mean by 'the people'

George Monbiot sees more than a little hypocrisy in the West's reactions to two recent nationalizations of oil fields—one by Evo Morales ("petulant," "xenophobic," and "capricious," according to the Times) and another by Idriss Deby, "our" friend in Chad (where life expectancy is 43.6 years), in partnership with Exxon and the World Bank.

Morales says he will use the revenues from Bolivia's own natural resources to help the poor of his nation. If, Monbiot writes, Morales "uses the extra revenues from Bolivia's gas fields in the same way as Hugo Chávez has used the money from Venezuela's oil, the result is likely to be a major improvement in his people's welfare." Chad's government, in contrast (which incidentally has an abysmal human rights record) will use its revenues to buy ... weapons!

So, on the one hand, you have a man who has kept his promises by regaining control over the money from the hydrocarbon industry, in order to use it to help the poor. On the other, you have a man who has broken his promises by regaining control over the money from the hydrocarbon industry, in order to buy guns. The first man is vilified as irresponsible, childish and capricious. The second man is left to get on with it. Why? Well, Deby's actions don't hurt the oil companies. Morales's do. When Blair and Rice and the Times and all the other apologists for undemocratic power say "the people," they mean the corporations. The reason they hate Morales is that when he says "the people," he means the people.

Monday, May 15, 2006

"So who is in charge of finding WMD?"

Billmon is excellent here in finding Dubya's ultimate alibi in recent revelations about the (nonexistence of) the Flaming Winnebagos of Death. I'm not sure I'm as ready as he is to let the chimp off the hook but he makes a good case.
I realize that at this point I'm kind of beating a dead horse -- or a dying administration's dead crediblity, as the case may be. But I think it's important to keep wailing away, particularly since Big Media seems perfectly content to let them do it again.

On one count, though -- whether Shrub knew at the time that his babbling lies about the Flaming Winnebagos of Death were, in fact, lies -- I actually tend to believe the White House spin. I don't think he had a single clue one way or the other, as this report in Time (from that time) indicates:

Meeting last month [i.e. June 2003) at a sweltering U.S. base outside Doha, Qatar, with his top Iraq commanders, President Bush skipped quickly past the niceties and went straight to his chief political obsession: Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

Turning to his Baghdad proconsul, Paul Bremer, Bush asked, "Are you in charge of finding WMD?" Bremer said no, he was not.

Bush then put the same question to his military commander, General Tommy Franks. But Franks said it wasn't his job either.

A little exasperated, Bush asked, So who is in charge of finding WMD? After aides conferred for a moment, someone volunteered the name of Stephen Cambone, a little-known deputy to Donald Rumsfeld, back in Washington. Pause.

"Who?" Bush asked.

Pretty pathetic, no?

That "little known" deputy, by the way, was the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence -- a post dreamed up by Rumsfeld and his congressional enablers, and designed to be one of the most powerful jobs, if not the most powerful job, in the U.S. intelligence community. At this point, Cambone -- who is so hated inside the Pentagon a general once told Army Times that "if I had one bullet left in my revolver, I'd take out Cambone" -- is a considerably bigger cog in the secret government than Bush will ever be.

Maybe that's why the president of the United States had never heard the name: Like the classified report on the non-existent bioweapons labs, Cambone's role in the WMD snipe hunt was on a need-to-know basis -- and Shrub didn't need to know.

But while Commander Codpiece may have been as clueless as ever, and nobody seems to have told Powell anything, except what time to show up for his next photo op, is anybody seriously going to argue that Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney didn't know they were spreading deliberate falsehoods? Cheney? The guy so obsessed with the details of the WMD fraud that he found time to scribble little notes to self ("Remember to ratfuck Joe Wilson") in the margins of New York Times clippings?

If the House Dems are serious about fishing for impeachable offenses (assuming they get control of the fishing rod this November) they could pick a worse place to start -- for Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld, I mean. For Shrub, though, I think they're going to have look elsewhere. The problem is that in the end, no matter where they look, they're probably going to run up against the Nuremberg defense -- he was only following orders.

Read the whole piece...

Friday, May 12, 2006

Dumping the dollar

This was coming for some time, I guess:
In July Iran will ditch the dollar in favour of the euro as the currency in which it will accept payments for its oil and natural gas exports, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Friday.
There's been a lot of talk about this move, and some feel it's no small factor in Bush's current appalling campaign of saber-rattling against Iran.
(Saddam made noises to this effect as well.)

Anyway, the thought that this would weaken the dollar—preposterous! The buck's in GREAAAATTT shape.

WWED: What would Evo do?

Bolvian president Evo Morales is sick of taking shit from predatory mutlinational energy companies, and is doing something about it–by nationalizing Bolivian resources and vowing not to stop with that (land, he promises, is next). I wish him the best and hope he doesn't fall victim to an "accident" like so many populists before him.

This makes me wonder when will Americans start looking at things that way, and wake up to the fact that their own "resources" are being plundered?

As I type, the mountaintops of Appalachia—not just Kentucky, but West Virginia and Tennessee as well—are being blown away, several ridges a week (!). Three million pounds of explosives a day! Read that number again.

Precious topsoil, a thousand years in the making, is dumped into the valleys below, all for thin veins of coal. The process is only economically feasible for predators like Massey Energy because it basically involves very few human beings. Those unpleasant labor disputes of years past no longer get in the way of pure mining profits—which of course shoot straight out of the area. Coal-area communities are left with less than nothing—blighted landscape, dangerous impoundments, polluted rivers. Maybe Evo is onto something. But when it's your own government that's raping you, to whom can you turn...?

I really have no idea. But everyone should read The Rape of Appalachia, the Michael Snayerson essay in Vanity Fair. You might think the title is over the top, but after reading the essay I guarantee you won't. For some perspective, it never hurts to turn to the words of Wendell Berry, who wrote the great essay Compromise Hell! a few years back.
Nearly forty years ago my state of Kentucky, like other coal-producing states, began an effort to regulate strip mining. While that effort has continued, and has imposed certain requirements of "reclamation," strip mining has become steadily more destructive of the land and the land's future. We are now permitting the destruction of entire mountains and entire watersheds. No war, so far, has done such extensive or such permanent damage. If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it? If we believe, as so many of us profess to do, that the Earth is God's property and is full of His glory, how can we do harm to any part of it?
In Kentucky, as in other unfortunate states, and again at great public cost, we have allowed -- in fact we have officially encouraged -- the establishment of the confined animal-feeding industry, which exploits and abuses everything involved: the land, the people, the animals, and the consumers. If we love our country, as so many of us profess to do, how can we so desecrate it?

But the economic damage is not confined just to our farms and forests. For the sake of "job creation," in Kentucky, and in other backward states, we have lavished public money on corporations that come in and stay only so long as they can exploit people here more cheaply than elsewhere. The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.

Look carefully, if you doubt me, at the centers of the larger towns in virtually every part of our country. You will find that they are economically dead or dying. Good buildings that used to house needful, useful, locally owned small businesses of all kinds are now empty or have evolved into junk stores or antique shops. But look at the houses, the churches, the commercial buildings, the courthouse, and you will see that more often than not they are comely and well made. And then go look at the corporate outskirts: the chain stores, the fast-food joints, the food-and-fuel stores that no longer can be called service stations, the motels. Try to find something comely or well made there.

What is the difference? The difference is that the old town centers were built by people who were proud of their place and who realized a particular value in living there. The old buildings look good because they were built by people who respected themselves and wanted the respect of their neighbors. The corporate outskirts, on the contrary, were built by people who manifestly take no pride in the place, see no value in lives lived there, and recognize no neighbors. The only value they see in the place is the money that can be siphoned out of it to more fortunate places -- that is, to the wealthier suburbs of the larger cities.

Can we actually suppose that we are wasting, polluting, and making ugly this beautiful land for the sake of patriotism and the love of God? Perhaps some of us would like to think so, but in fact this destruction is taking place because we have allowed ourselves to believe, and to live, a mated pair of economic lies: that nothing has a value that is not assigned to it by the market; and that the economic life of our communities can safely be handed over to the great corporations.

Read the whole essay...

Also, here's a good look at the ABCs of mountaintop removal.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Surprising, definitely surprising

From A Tiny Revolution comes the revelation that Douglas Feith, now pulling down a fat stipend for sharing his lunatic ideas with Georgetown students (the press release calls him a "Distinguished Practitioner in National Security Policy"—wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes), had a novel idea for "our" post-911 "response":

Until today I'd never heard of this special Douglas Feith plan after September 11th:

Days after 9/11, a senior Pentagon official lamented the lack of good targets in Afghanistan and proposed instead U.S. military attacks in South America or Southeast Asia as "a surprise to the terrorists," according to a footnote in the recent 9/11 Commission Report. The unsigned top-secret memo, which the panel's report said appears to have been written by Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith, is one of several Pentagon documents uncovered by the commission which advance unorthodox ideas for the war on terror. The memo suggested "hitting targets outside the Middle East in the initial offensive"...

Specifically, Feith wanted to bomb the “triple border region” where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. I think one thing's for sure: that would have been "a surprise." And, not just for Osama bin Laden.

Moreover, if the criteria was just that our response be violent and "a surprise to the terrorists," attacking South America is thinking kind of small. Here's what I would have suggested:

• assassinate the Dalai Lama
• blow up the moon
• have the entire Bush cabinet dress up as Carmen Miranda and then, on national television, commit hara-kari

I hope you might have some ideas of your own.

Check the "comments" section. There are some good ones....

Honestly, bombing Afghanistan to smithereens made only marginally more sense but mainstream opinion hardly blinked at the idea. I think of Jon Stewart sucking up to Colin Powell on his show—"Because right after 9/11, the Afghanistan war — man did I dig that. I’d like to go again....."

Monday, May 08, 2006

Another sad obit

This one totally out of the blue. The great Australian singer-songwriter Grant McLennan died Saturday in his sleep in Brisbane. He was 48.

I first came upon the Go-Betweens on a lengthy visit to Australia in I think 1985 or 1986. I first listened to "Cattle and Cane," perhaps his greatest song, on a cassette tape in a little Toyota driving across the very Queensland landscapes the song described. Which I thought was cool.

I saw the Go-Betweens play at the Tivoli Ballroom in Sydney that year, and they were rock stars. The show was rowdy, and the crowd absolutely adored them.

A couple years later I caught the band in New York, at one of those clubs uptown in the west 50s that hasn't had gigs for years. That show had a completely different vibe. Quiet, respectful, still adoring.

The two of them, McLennan and Robert Forster, had what seemed to me this just-successful-enough musical career. They maintained this perfect bohemian thing. Never celebrities, but always artists. Sweet spot. I may be wrong about that. They may have had serious money worries, or their families maybe kept pestering them for years to grow up and take on a profession. Or not. I have no idea. I just know that to me they were always a sort of role model for bohemians when they grow up.

I remember the summer of 1989. For whatever reasons my buddy Dave and I, both of us somewhat drifting transplants from the Midwest in those days, biked up from Brooklyn to Central Park pretty much every weekday, and I always packed my roommate's little yellow cassette player in my messenger bag. Every afternoon one of us would bike to the edge of the park to call our temp agency, Laury Girls, to see if there was any work coming up. There never was, pretty much for that entire summer. So we would buy Bud tall boys from the itinerant beer salesmen in the Sheep's Meadow, throw a frisbee around, and listen to Sixteen Lovers Lane. I can't remember even bringing another tape along. It was the soundtrack of that summer for me, and of virtually every summer after that. My wife and I have never stoppped listening to McLennan's and Forster's solo work and all the Go-Betweens albums.

Yesterday, before we got word of McLennan's death, we were impressed that our five-year-old son kept requesting the Go-Betweens in the car. That kid knows his music.