Archive for May, 2009

Who Owns Organic?

Posted in Health, Food, Energy and Ecology on May 31, 2009 by CjH

Who Owns Organics - 2007

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The video Shell doesn’t want you to see…

Posted in Private Plunder on May 30, 2009 by CjH

Obama’s Violin

Posted in Global Order on May 30, 2009 by CjH

Populist Rage and the Uncertain Containment of Change

By Paul Street, Z Magazine

As of this writing in late March, the Barack Obama administration and its allies in the Democratic-run Congress have been attempting to perform system-maintaining acts of co-optation and popular pacification that no Republican presidency or Congress could ever carry out. Lance Selfa reminds us in his recent book The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008) that corporate America would have no reason to embrace a two-party system if there were no significant differencesbetween the two competing “subdivisions” of what Ferdinand Lundberg once aptly called “the Property Party.” The business elite profits from a narrow-spectrum system in which one business party is always waiting in the wings to capture and control popular anger and energy when the other business party falls out of favor.

But the two parties are not simply interchangeable. It is the Democrats’ job to define and embody the constricted left-most parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century, it has been the Democratic Party’s distinctive assignment to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate” by posing as “the party of the people”(Selfa). The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-containing function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s and the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s. They played much the same role in relation to the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s. In every case, the movements that arose to challenge concentrated power and oppression and to reduce inequality were pacified, silenced, and ultimately shut down, their political energies sucked into the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party.

The standard historic pattern of Democratic Party co-optation and progressive surrender is currently trying to repeat itself amidst epic economic crisis and imperial disruption. Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the president-elect’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.”

The Obama administration’s record so far is richly consistent with the violin analogy. Dominant, so-called “mainstream” media routinely portray Obama as a “bold” and even “radical” “departure from the past”—a person of what the leading communications authorities call “the left.” This is offensive to people on the actual left. The supposed “peace candidate” intends to increase the United States’ massive “defense” budget this and next year. Reading the fine print on Obama’s Iraq plan, moreover, it is clear that he plans to sustain the illegal occupation of that country well past 2011 and very likely into the indefinite future.

To make matters dangerously worse, Obama is actively increasing the level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan and—most ominously—in nuclear Pakistan. The New York Times reports, with no hint of disapproval, that he is considering “expanding the American covert war in Pakistan,” where every U.S. missile attack destabilizes the political situation a bit more. Obama and his so-called “national security” team are planning, the Times reports, to “widen the target area” of their already “extensive [CIA] missile strikes” on that country to include Baluchistan, “a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government” (March 20, 2009).

Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people about whose fate he stayed revealingly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on the people of Gaza last December and January. He made no effort to resist the U.S. Israel lobby’s torpedoing of Charles Freeman’s nomination as chair of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a veteran national security operative, was brusquely dismissed because he dared to suggest that the Israeli apartheid and occupation state might bear some responsibility for violence and hatred in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Obama dangerously and revealingly resists pressure to investigate and prosecute the monumental war and human rights crimes of the Bush administration. He quietly commits to the officially concealed trillion dollar annual Pentagon budget, a giant subsidy to high-tech industry that pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth—all in the name of “defense.” The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported the day after Obama’s election victory that Obama “has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”

To Restore the Old Order That Failed

Turning to the home front, Obama refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health-care solution: single-payer national health insurance (improved Medicare for all). Consistent with his recent description of himself as a New Democrat, Obama’s Treasury Department and the secretive, unaccountable Federal Reserve Bank (to whom the new Administration increasingly wishes to pass the buck of the current financial crisis) will dispense untold trillions of dollars in further taxpayer handouts to the giant Wall Street firms who spent millions on his campaign and who drove the U.S. and world economy over a cliff. According to leading liberal economist James K. Galbraith in the Washington Monthly, Obama’s plan to guarantee the financial, insurance, and real estate industries’ toxic, hyper-inflated assets while keeping existing Wall Street management in place amounts to a massive effort to “keep perpetrators afloat.” By left-liberal writer William Greider’s account, “Obama’s approach so far is devoted to restoring Wall Street’s famous names and his [supposedly non-ideological] advisors tell him this is the ‘responsible’ imperative, no matter that it might offend the unwashed public. Obama evidently agrees” (Washington Post, March 22, 2009). The liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is “filled with a sense of despair” by Obama’s “bank rescue plan,” which “recycles Bush administration policy—specifically the ‘cash for trash’ plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury secretary Henry Paulson” (March 23, 2009).

The Obama plan rewards reckless and selfish investor class behavior by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to bankrupt banks. Under the scheme unveiled on March 23, 2009, the public is put on the hook to the tune of $1 trillion. The program amounts to what Krugman calls a coin flip in which investors win if it’s heads and taxpayers lose if it’s tails. As the Times quickly noted, “the Treasury and the Federal Reserve will be offering at least a tablespoon of financial sugar for every teaspoon of risk that investors agree to swallow,” buying up the toxic mortgage assets that the investor class created in the first place. The government (identical to the people in a functioning democracy) will take more than 90 percent of the risk, but private investors reap at least half the reward.

Meanwhile, the underlying insolvency of the banks continues, a problem the Obama administration hopes we will forget about as we get dazzled by their fancy and obscure plan. Beneath claims of allegiance to “free market” ideals and “private enterprise,” the Administration’s “bank rescue” design—described by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as a continuation of “the most expensive tax-supported fiasco in history” (Salon, March 20, 2009)—boils down to a traditional exercise in Wall Street welfare: socialism for the rich, market discipline and capitalism for the rest of us. It is at heart what Greider calls an effort “to restore the old order that failed,” the dark reality beneath newspaper headlines proclaiming a new age of progressive-style government regulation (“Bill Moyers’ Journal,” PBS, March 27, 2009).

Obama’s tepid and undersized stimulus plan (deceptively described as “massive” in much of the business press) is dysfunctionally overloaded with business-friendly tax cuts and too short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. He says nothing about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). He speaks in support of the anti-union, teacher-bashing, and test-based corporate education agenda, advocating teacher “merit pay” and charter schools. And he makes a public visit (in support of his stimulus bill) to the headquarters of Caterpillar, a provider of bulldozers for illegal Israeli settlements. Caterpillar was also the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs.

Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are “managing expectations,” Obama fails to advance elementary and urgently needed progressive measures like a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels. Even before the inauguration, Obama committed himself to so-called “entitlement reform,” a term that is code language for claiming to cut the federal deficit by chipping away at Medicare and Social Security.

Team and “Vision”

Obama’s cabinet is loaded with elite agents of corporate and imperial power. Leading players include Defense Secretary and Iraq warrior Robert Gates, carried over from the Bush administration. National Security Advisor James Jones is a former NATO commander known for advocating increased U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading Iraq War hawk who approved a Bush plan to attack Iran in late 2007. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a leading pro-war and “pro-Israel,” anti-Palestinian Democrat during his recent congressional career. Obama’s top economic advisor Lawrence Summers is a leading corporate neoliberal economist and was an architect during the 1990s of the financial deregulation that contributed so significantly to the current economic crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a Wall Street-approved expert in bailing out large and parasitic financial institutions.

Obama’s claim that he will provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters.

Tellingly enough, even mildly progressive U.S. economists like Galbraith, Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz have been blacklisted from the Obama administration. These unradical but left-of-center economists are too much for the corporate types who hold sway in the current Administration. For economic direction, the new White House prefers regressive corporate-neoliberal hacks associated with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs and with the conservative pro-business economic think tank the Hamilton Project. John R. MacArthur, the president of Harper’s magazine, noted in late March that Summers and Geithner “are in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House” (the Providence Journal, March 19, 2009).

Obama’s Challenge: Tamp Down Populist Anger

Despite the occasional populist-sounding outburst required to contain widespread popular anger over grotesque economic disparities and corporate corruption, Obama no longer stands up before giant crowds to proclaim that (in a frequent Obama refrain on the campaign trail) “Change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” After having mobilized citizens to vote out the old Republican regime in the name of progressive and democratic transformation, the in-power Obama team has a different message for the people: calm down and let the political class do its work. This is no time for “anger” and “ideology,” which stand in the way of “getting things done.” The populace is supposed to return quietly and hopefully to remote, divided, and private realms, dutifully executing their paid work assignments (if they still have jobs), buying stuff (largely on credit thanks to the continuing lag of wages behind productivity in the U.S.), and investing their modest savings (if they have any) in the stock market again (as Obama has recently admonished Americans to do). They are to watch their telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators (including supposedly “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” technicians like Summers and Geithner) do the serious and sober work of putting the profit system—described by Obama in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope as “our greatest asset…a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources”—back on its feet. Summers lectures Americans to heed Obama’s call for an “age of responsibility” by agreeing to dutifully “manage [their] own finances” and “do [their] own jobs…. People,” Summers told NBC’s David Gregory, “need to work hard, they need to play by the rules, and those of us with responsibility for economic policy need to do everything we can to make the economy work.” Appearing on the PBS “News Hour” on the day that the latest phase of the bankers’ bailout was announced, Summers said that Obama “recognize[s] and he share[s] the outrage that people feel at what has happened, at some of the bonuses that have been paid, about some of the irresponsibility that brought us to this point. But he also,” Summers added, “urge[s] that we can’t govern out of anger, that we can’t let our rage, our legitimate anger, stop us from the necessary steps.”

A front-page New York Times “news analysis” in March noted that the Obama political and public relations team was “increasingly concerned” about “a populist backlash” that could target the new bailout-friendly White House as well as the investor class. According to Times correspondent Adam Nagourney, “a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.” Nagourney cited unnamed Obama advisors on how the new White House “risks… backlash as Mr. Obama tries to signal that he shares American anger but pushes for more bail-out money for banks and Wall Street” (March 16, 2009).Consistent with that contradictory and manipulative goal, Obama expressed calculated indignation against “excessive” executive bonuses at AIG (originally approved by Geithner) and made carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job loss to hard-hit places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. These were well understood by political and media elites to be public relations (“expectation-managing”) efforts to “get ahead” of “populist rage” over the corporate agenda that continues to hold sway in Washington in the age of Obama.

What Exists of a Popular Left

John Judis (no “far leftist,” as Obama’s radical critics are commonly described by his “progressive” supporters) recently argued in the centrist journal the New Republic (in an essay titled “End the Honeymoon”), that a major reason Obama has gone forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan “is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go” further. “Sure,” Judis writes, “there are left-wing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a trillion dollar-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.” By Judis’s analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like moveon.org are repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politician.” MacArthur observes that many leading U.S. progressives “persist” in “fantas[izing]” that “the president is a Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington character prepared to ‘take on’ the powers that be.” This is “an absurd reading of Obama,” who MacArthur (rightly) describes as “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class” and as “surely the unleft, unradical president.”

Consistent with Judis’s critique, moveon.org’s Executive Director Justin Ruben responded in February to Obama’s highly qualified and deceptive Iraq “withdrawal” plans by telling the New York Times that “activists are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.” Sounding like a docile house pet instead of a serious progressive activist, Ruben said that “people have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war” because “this is what he promised” (New York Times, February 26, 2009). Ruben’s group and the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice and numerous prominent left-liberals bought into the false notion that Obama was “a peace candidate” and have worked to dampen progressive anger over—and mobilization against—Obama’s determination to execute the imperial project. Known for organizing online opposition to the Bush administration’s war policies, moveon.org recently sent its members an e-mail proclaiming the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be effectively over and congratulating members for having helped achieve that wonderful result. Ruben also recently told Nation correspondent Ari Melber that MoveOn has no intention of opposing Obama’s plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. As left writer and activist Anthony Arnove notes, “The message being sent [by MoveOn and other liberal groups and dominant U.S. media] to the antiwar movement is, ‘It’s over. We can move on'” (SocialistWorker.org, March 13, 2009).


Towards a New Populist Moment?

The left Democratic weekly the Nation focuses most of its ire on an easy target—the out-of-power Republicans. It says that “Obama Needs a Protest Movement” (November 13, 2008), not that the people and democracy need one—an excellent expression of so-called liberalism’s deeply ingrained habit of subordinating movement concerns to the needs of the Democrats’ leading politicians. The Nation alsoabsurdly calls Obama’s tepid budget proposal “an audacious plan to transform America” in progressive ways.

Many of the Nation‘s so-called left liberals might want to take another look at Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States along with Frances Fox Piven’s and Richard Cloward’s classic Poor Peoples’ Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail to review some elementary lessons on how serious progressive change occurs. These authors demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class people and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grass-roots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. Today, we can be sure that the in-power Democratic Party and president will not move off the corporate and military “center” unless “the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore” (Zinn, “Election Madness,” the Progressive, March 2008).

For what it’s worth, the Democrats are best exposed as agents of empire, inequality, and “corporate-managed democracy” (Alex Carey’s useful term) when they hold top offices. That’s when their populist and peaceful sounding campaign rhetoric hits the cold pavement of corporate imperial governance.

It’s not too late for genuinely progressive activists and citizens to pursue radical-democratic change in defiance of both the profit system and that system’s Democratic Party guardians. Thankfully, we may be heading for something of a new populist moment in the U.S., despite efforts of leading political, economic, ideological, and communications institutions. As giant financial bailouts expose the crippling chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry, “people everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punchline at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’—a euphemism for whacking Social Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid” (Greider).

This is essential raw material for a radical rebellion, one where citizens and workers move from “watching” to demanding and acting in ways too “dangerous to ignore.” Happily enough, there is left-progressive potential in the confrontation between Obama’s progressive-sounding rhetoric and his corporate and imperial commitments. The popular resentment and hopes he rode to power need more genuinely democratic and effective solutions than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton) presidency could have been realistically expected to provide. Obama and other Democrats have been riding a wave of citizen anger and excitement that goes beyond their conservative worldview and agenda. They have done their best to contain and co-opt that popular and progressive energy, but their lofty political rhetoric seeks to safely channel popular expectations that may well transcend the political class’s capacity for top-down management and control.

The Impossible Rehab of Colin Powell

Posted in Welcome to The Machine on May 29, 2009 by CjH

When Facts Stand In The Way

By Ray McGovern, CounterPunch

Watching retired Gen. Colin Powell refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan during Sunday’s Memorial Day ceremonies on the Mall in Washington, it struck me that Powell was giving hypocrisy a bad name.
Those familiar with the Good Samaritan story and also with the under-reported behavior of Gen. Powell, comeback kid of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM), know that the two do not mesh.

Powell’s well-documented disregard for those who have borne the brunt of the battle places him in the company of the priest and the Levite – in the Good Samaritan parable – who, seeing the man attacked by robbers on the side of the road, walked right on by.

Sadly, Powell has a long record of placing the wounded and the vulnerable on his list of priorities far below his undying need to get promoted or to promote himself. Powell’s rhetoric, of course, would have us believe otherwise.

At the Memorial Day event, Powell hailed our “wounded warriors” from Iraq and Afghanistan as the cameras cut to several severely damaged veterans. Lauding the “love and care” they receive from their families, Powell noted in passing that some 10,000 parents are now full-time care providers for veterans not able to take care of themselves.

It was a moving ceremony, but only if you were able to keep your eye on the grand old flag and stay in denial about thousands of wasted American lives, not to mention tens and tens of thousands wasted Iraqi lives — as well as many thousands more incapacitated for life — and not ask WHY.

“Noble Cause?”

The wounded warriors’ former commander in chief, President George W. Bush, argued that the deaths were “worth it.” They were casualties suffered in pursuit of a “noble cause.”

Some claim that to suggest that those troops killed and wounded were killed and wounded in vain is to dishonor their memory, belittle their sacrifice, and inflict still more pain on their loved ones.

But Bush never could explain what the “noble cause” was, despite months and months of vigils by those camping outside the Bush house in Crawford asking that question. Our hearts certainly go out to the wounded, and to the families of the killed or wounded.

But I think that the surest way to dishonor them all is to avoid examining the real reasons for their loss, and to use lessons learned so that their own sons and daughters will not be sacrificed so glibly.

I lost many good Army colleagues and other friends in Vietnam. Back then, generals and politicians – the military and civilian leaders who promoted Powell and the careerists like him – helped to obscure the real reasons behind that carnage, too. And that was even before the corporate media became quite so fawning.

As the hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and the casualties continue to mount, I feel an obligation to do what I can to help spread some truth around — however painful that may be. For truth is not only the best disinfectant, it is the best protection against such misadventures happening again…and again.

It is, I suppose, understandable that only the bravest widows and widowers — and parents like Cindy Sheehan whose son Casey Sheehan was killed in Sadr City on April 4, 2004 — have been able to summon enough courage out of their grief to challenge the vacuous explanations of Bush and people like Powell.

You can see it in microcosm in the Sheehan family. Casey’s father, Pat Sheehan, cannot agree that Casey’s death was in vain. Pat told me that Casey met an honorable death, since he was sent to rescue comrades pinned down by hostile forces in Sadr City.

No one can be sure what was going through Casey’s mind. And only later did it become clear that, rather than “volunteering” for an ill-conceived rescue mission, Casey, a truck mechanic, was ordered onto that open truck by superiors unwilling to risk their own hides. (This is what one of Casey’s comrades on the scene later told his mother.)

But let us assume that Casey was nonetheless eager to rescue his comrades. This still begs the question that I asked Pat Sheehan: Why were Casey and his comrades in Iraq in the first place? What was the “noble cause?” Pat’s reaction, or lack thereof, almost made me regret having asked him. Remembering it almost makes me want to stop this essay here. Almost.

With ministers, priests and rabbis officiating at funerals and other memorial services for “the fallen” and spinning their own renditions of “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” – “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” – small wonder that even those who should know better choose this escape from reality. There is so much pain out there…and if denial helps, well…

It does not help when it comes to charlatans like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell — the latter now trying to re-establish his poster-boy status with an eagerly cooperative FCM.

Aside from those whose TVs are stuck at Fox News and radios at Rush Limbaugh, fewer and fewer Americans now believe the lingering lies. Even funeral directors and preachers tread sparingly with the once-familiar rhetoric — used cynically in Washington to facilitate further careless carnage — that these dead “must not have died in vain.”

Isaiah on the Mall

Besides the Good Samaritan parable, Powell quoted from Isaiah about bringing comfort to the people. Surely Isaiah did not mean this to be done with lies on top of lies. Isaiah was no shrinking violet. He got himself killed for speaking out bluntly against lies that in his time justified the oppression of those on the margins.

I imagine this is what Isaiah would say to us now:

“Hear this, Americans. It is time to be not only sad, but also honest. You must summon the courage to handle the truth, which is this: our young warriors and (literally) countless Iraqis died in vain, and there is no excuse for their needless sacrifice. Nothing will bring them back — least of all meretricious rhetoric that is an insult to their memory.
“Their sacrifice was in vain, hear? Our task now is two-fold: (1) Bury the dead with respect and care for the wounded and their families; and (2) ensure that the truth gets out, so that a war built on lies will not soon happen again.”

Isaiah, I think, would add that this is also precisely why we owe it to the “fallen” and their families to hold to account those responsible for sending them into battle “on false pretenses,” to quote then-Senate Intelligence Committee head, Jay Rockefeller last June.

After a five-year investigation and a bipartisan vote approving the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Rockefeller summed it up:
“In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”  As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

There is plenty of blame to go around — to be shared by an adolescent president who liked to dress up and call himself a “war president,” and openly savored presiding over what he called “the first war of the 21st Century.”

Not to mention the power-hungry, sadistic bent of the men he chose to be vice president and secretary of defense and the treachery of CIA seniors George Tenet and John McLaughlin.

The Enabler

But there would have been no war, no dead, no limb-less bodies, no loved ones for whom to recall Isaiah’s words of comfort or mention the Good Samaritan, if Colin Powell had a conscience — if he had not chosen to “walk right on by.”

Let’s face it; neither the Texas Air National Guard’s most famous pilot nor the five-times-draft-deferred former vice president had the credibility to lead the country into war — especially one based on a highly dubious threat.

They needed the credibility of someone who had worn the uniform with some distinction — someone who, though never in command of a major Army combat unit, had been good at briefing the media while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the glorious Gulf War in 1991, which most Americans have been led to believe was virtually casualty-free.

Actually, since we are trying to spread some truth around, this is worth a brief digression.

The Casualty-Lite Gulf War

According to Powell’s memoir, My American Journey, before the attack on Iraq Powell was warned by his British counterpart, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir David Craig, about the risks involved in bombing Iraq’s so-called “weapons of mass destruction” installations. After Powell told him that this was indeed part of the plan, Craig expressed particular worry about release of agents from biological installations: “A bit risky that, eh?”

Powell writes that he told Craig the attendant risk of release was worth it and: “If it heads south, just blame me.”

Powell writes he was “less concerned” about chemical exposures. He should have been more concerned, not less. As the hostilities ended, U.S. Army engineers blew up chemical agents at a large Iraqi storage site near Kamasiyah. About 100,000 U.S. troops were downwind.
Many of those troops are now among the 210,000 veterans suffering from nervous and other diseases — and FINALLY now receiving disability payments for what came to be known as Gulf War Syndrome.

Far from his pre-war posture of “just blame me,” Powell joined Pentagon and CIA efforts to cover up this tragedy. When reports of the horrible fiasco at Kamasiyah hit the media, he erupted in macho outrage saying that, were he still on active duty, he would “rape and pillage” throughout the government to find those responsible.  Of course, Kamasiyah happened during his watch. Typically, the FCM reported his macho remark, and then gave him a pass.

Despite numerous veterans’ pleas for support, Powell, in effect, went AWOL on the issue of Gulf War illnesses, never acknowledging that he shared any of the responsibility.

He took no interest and, in effect, made a huge contribution to the unconscionable delay in recognizing Gulf War illnesses for what they are. One out of every four troops deployed to the Gulf in 1991 are now receiving the benefits to which they have long been entitled — no thanks to Gen. Powell.

You didn’t know that? Thank the FCM and its persistent romance with Gen. Powell. Sorry for the digression; just had to get that off my chest.

Useful Uniform

Back to the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld quest for someone to sell the attack on Iraq, someone whom the media loved, someone with military credentials who would do what he was told.

Perhaps they had read Powell’s memoir, in which he brags about his subservience to the “wisdom” of those up the line. They needed someone who was not too bright but could be eloquent — someone who was so used to taking orders that he would squander his own credibility for his boss, if the boss would just ask.

Not too bright? Apparently, during the three years between when Powell and I, as fledgling infantry officers, had been instructed at Fort Benning on counterinsurgency, the Army’s understanding of how to fight it had improved.  Either that, or Powell was not able to master the key learnings of the course.

Here is what Powell writes in his memoir about how he bought into his superiors’ notion about how to win hearts and minds — what Powell calls “counterinsurgency at the cutting edge”:

“However chilling this destruction of homes and crops reads in cold print today, as a young officer I had been conditioned to believe in the wisdom of my superiors, and to obey. I had no qualms about what we were doing. This was counterinsurgency at the cutting edge. Hack down the peasants’ crops, thus denying food to the Viet Cong…It all made sense in those days.”

“Duty, Honor, Country” is what I remember made sense in those days. That was the watchword for young Army officers in the early Sixties — not supreme faith in the wisdom of superiors and blind obedience. But most of the rest of us did not make it beyond colonel.

Easy Prey

Small wonder that the hapless Powell was easy prey for Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld. They needed him to sell the war to the American people and, they hoped, to the rest of the world.

It is hard to fathom what “wisdom” Powell saw in his superiors’ decisions; what is clear is that he lacked the courage to challenge them, whether out of blind faith, a highly exaggerated – and dubiously moral – notion of obedience, a lack of conscience, or simple cowardice.

Tell lies to support the White House decision for war on Iraq?  No problem. As was his wont, Powell saluted sharply, even though four days prior to his Feb. 5, 2003 U.N. speech he and his chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, had decided that some of the “intelligence” the White House had conjured up to “justify” war was pure “bull—t,” according to Wilkerson.  Powell ended up using it anyway.

Powell and his handlers were acutely aware that war would be just weeks away after Powell spoke. One small but significant sign of this was what seemed to me the earliest cover-up related to the soon-to-begin attack on Iraq.

It was a literal cover-up, accomplished even before Powell conducted his post-speech press briefing in the customary spot in front of the Security Council wall adorned with a reproduction of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

Prior to the press conference, that wall hanging had been covered up by another fabric. Some PR person had recognized the impropriety of trying to justify a new war of aggression with Guernica as backdrop. As usual with Powell, the speech and press conference went swimmingly, and the gullible or shameless (your choice) FCM was embarrassingly generous with their accolades.

Blame-Shifting

Once it became clear — by mid-2003 — that there were no WMD stockpiles or mobile bio-weapons labs or anything else that had been conjured up in the U.N. speech, Powell smoothly shifted the blame to the CIA, and his fans in the FCM transformed Powell into a noble victim, now tragically suffering from a “blot on my record” for no real fault of his own.

Though it is abundantly clear that then-CIA Director George Tenet and his accomplice/deputy John McLaughlin did play a treacherous role, no CIA director has ever made a secretary of state worth his salt do anything — and certainly not help start an unnecessary war.

Besides, it is a safe bet that what was already clear to us Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) was at least equally clear to Powell. On the afternoon of Powell’s U.N. speech, we formally warned President Bush that the evidence adduced by Powell fell far short of justifying an attack on Iraq and that such an attack would be a huge fillip to terrorism around the world.

And since it was obvious that Powell had thrown in his lot with those rolling the juggernaut to war, we urged the president to “widen the circle of your advisers beyond those clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason, and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”

Suave Martinet

Why Powell simply saluted, in full knowledge that his imprimatur would grease the skids to a highly dubious war can be debated. It may be as simple as the clues he provided in his memoir about honoring the “wisdom of superiors” and his penchant to obey, even when it made little sense and even when lots of folks would lose their homes and their lives.

Who was the colonel in Vietnam who insisted he was duty bound to destroy a village in order to save it from the communists? Powell was cut from similar cloth, albeit with a greater sense of subtlety and a much better knack for PR.

In April 2006, Powell admitted to journalist Robert Scheer that top State Department experts never believed that Iraq posed an imminent nuclear threat, but that the president followed the misleading advice of Vice President Dick Cheney and the CIA in making the claim.

It may simply be that by the time other generals promote you to general (the current system) you have distinguished yourself first and foremost by saluting smartly — by obeying and not asking too many questions.

But why Powell acquiesced is less important than THAT he went along. Though perhaps not the brightest star in the galaxy, he certainly was aware he was being co-opted, and that he needed not only to bless the war but also to wax enthusiastic about it, in order to remain welcome in the White House.

Surely he had learned something since his days in Vietnam — something about the “wisdom” of superiors, and of blind obedience. He could have said no, but he just did not have it in him to do so.

Powell’s stature (especially with the FCM) made his blessing of the Iraq War especially valuable to Cheney/Rumsfeld and the war-hungry neocons.

“The Only Guy Who Could Perhaps Have Stopped It”

Don’t take my word for it. Take it from the quintessential Republican elder statesman, former Secretary of State James Baker — hero of the Florida escapade that stopped the recount in Florida and, with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court, gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
In his book The War Within, Bob Woodward wrote: “Powell…didn’t think [Iraq] was a necessary war, and yet he had gone along in a hundred ways, large and small…He had succumbed to the momentum and his own sense of deference — even obedience — to the president…Perhaps more than anyone else in the administration, Powell had become the ‘closer’ for the president’s case on war.”

On Oct. 19, 2008, Tom Brokaw asked Powell about this on “Meet the Press;” Brokaw alluded to Woodward’s revelations and how Baker had grilled Powell when he appeared before the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Here’s Brokaw quoting Woodard’s book:

“‘Why did we go into Iraq with so few people?’ Baker asked. … ‘Colin just exploded at that point,’ [former Secretary of Defense William] Perry recalled later. ‘He unloaded,’ [former White House Chief of Staff and now CIA Director Leon] Panetta added, ‘He was angry. He was mad as hell.’… Powell left [the Iraq Study Group meeting].

“Baker turned to Panetta and said solemnly. ‘He’s the only guy who could have perhaps prevented this from happening.’”

I added the bold, so you wouldn’t miss it.

Powell responded to Brokaw’s question by again pointing his finger at the CIA – “a lot of the information that the intelligence community provided us was wrong” – and then insisting that his war role wasn’t that consequential.

Stung by Baker’s observation, Powell said, “I also assure you that it was not a correct assessment by anybody that my statements or my leaving the administration would have stopped” going to war.

Unlike the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help a stranger in trouble, Powell simply looked to his own convenience, carefully protecting his status within the Bush administration and keeping his place at fashionable Washington dinner parties.

Whether he could have stopped the war or not, the truth is that Colin Powell didn’t even try. He would not risk his reputation for all those victims – Iraqi and American – who have died or suffered horribly from an unnecessary war. The blot on his record was self-inflicted; the FCM is likely to run out of Clorox trying to remove the stain.

Why We Can’t See the Trees or the Forest

Posted in Global Order on May 22, 2009 by CjH

The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia

By Noam Chomsky; The American Empire Project

The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation, and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.

For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantanamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law — a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration’s “black sites,” or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.

More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire” — as George Washington called the new republic — extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion, and economic strangulation that have darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of other great powers.

Accordingly, what’s surprising is to see the reactions to the release of those Justice Department memos, even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.” To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.

Occasionally the conflict between “what we stand for” and “what we do” has been forthrightly addressed. One distinguished scholar who undertook the task at hand was Hans Morgenthau, a founder of realist international relations theory. In a classic study published in 1964 in the glow of Camelot, Morgenthau developed the standard view that the U.S. has a “transcendent purpose”: establishing peace and freedom at home and indeed everywhere, since “the arena within which the United States must defend and promote its purpose has become world-wide.” But as a scrupulous scholar, he also recognized that the historical record was radically inconsistent with that “transcendent purpose.”

We should not be misled by that discrepancy, advised Morgenthau; we should not “confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it.” What actually happened was merely the “abuse of reality.”

The release of the torture memos led others to recognize the problem. In the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen reviewed a new book, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, by British journalist Geoffrey Hodgson, who concludes that the U.S. is “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” Cohen agrees that the evidence supports Hodgson’s judgment, but nonetheless regards as fundamentally mistaken Hodgson’s failure to understand that “America was born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea forward.” The American idea is revealed in the country’s birth as a “city on a hill,” an “inspirational notion” that resides “deep in the American psyche,” and by “the distinctive spirit of American individualism and enterprise” demonstrated in the Western expansion. Hodgson’s error, it seems, is that he is keeping to “the distortions of the American idea,” “the abuse of reality.”

Let us then turn to “reality itself”: the “idea” of America from its earliest days.

“Come Over and Help Us”

The inspirational phrase “city on a hill” was coined by John Winthrop in 1630, borrowing from the Gospels, and outlining the glorious future of a new nation “ordained by God.” One year earlier his Massachusetts Bay Colony created its Great Seal. It depicted an Indian with a scroll coming out of his mouth. On that scroll are the words “Come over and help us.” The British colonists were thus pictured as benevolent humanists, responding to the pleas of the miserable natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.

The Great Seal is, in fact, a graphic representation of “the idea of America,” from its birth. It should be exhumed from the depths of the psyche and displayed on the walls of every classroom. It should certainly appear in the background of all of the Kim Il-Sung-style worship of that savage murderer and torturer Ronald Reagan, who blissfully described himself as the leader of a “shining city on the hill,” while orchestrating some of the more ghastly crimes of his years in office, notoriously in Central America but elsewhere as well.

The Great Seal was an early proclamation of “humanitarian intervention,” to use the currently fashionable phrase. As has commonly been the case since, the “humanitarian intervention” led to a catastrophe for the alleged beneficiaries. The first Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”

Long after his own significant contributions to the process were past, John Quincy Adams deplored the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty… among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.” The “merciless and perfidious cruelty” continued until “the West was won.” Instead of God’s judgment, the heinous sins today bring only praise for the fulfillment of the American “idea.”

The conquest and settling of the West indeed showed that “individualism and enterprise,” so praised by Roger Cohen. Settler-colonialist enterprises, the cruelest form of imperialism, commonly do. The results were hailed by the respected and influential Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898. Calling for intervention in Cuba, Lodge lauded our record “of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century,” and urged that it is “not to be curbed now,” as the Cubans too were pleading, in the Great Seal’s words, “come over and help us.”

Their plea was answered. The U.S. sent troops, thereby preventing Cuba’s liberation from Spain and turning it into a virtual colony, as it remained until 1959.

The “American idea” was illustrated further by the remarkable campaign, initiated by the Eisenhower administration virtually at once to restore Cuba to its proper place, after Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959, finally liberating the island from foreign domination, with enormous popular support, as Washington ruefully conceded. What followed was economic warfare with the clearly articulated aim of punishing the Cuban population so that they would overthrow the disobedient Castro government, invasion, the dedication of the Kennedy brothers to bringing “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba (the phrase of historian Arthur Schlesinger in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who considered that task one of his highest priorities), and other crimes continuing to the present, in defiance of virtually unanimous world opinion.

American imperialism is often traced to the takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 1898. But that is to succumb to what historian of imperialism Bernard Porter calls “the saltwater fallacy,” the idea that conquest only becomes imperialism when it crosses saltwater. Thus, if the Mississippi had resembled the Irish Sea, Western expansion would have been imperialism. From George Washington to Henry Cabot Lodge, those engaged in the enterprise had a clearer grasp of just what they were doing.

After the success of humanitarian intervention in Cuba in 1898, the next step in the mission assigned by Providence was to confer “the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples” of the Philippines (in the words of the platform of Lodge’s Republican party) — at least those who survived the murderous onslaught and widespread use of torture and other atrocities that accompanied it. These fortunate souls were left to the mercies of the U.S.-established Philippine constabulary within a newly devised model of colonial domination, relying on security forces trained and equipped for sophisticated modes of surveillance, intimidation, and violence. Similar models would be adopted in many other areas where the U.S. imposed brutal National Guards and other client forces.

The Torture Paradigm

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “[H]is is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

Sometimes the American engagement in torture was even more indirect. In a 1980 study, Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz found that U.S. aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens,… to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” Broader studies by Edward Herman found the same correlation, and also suggested an explanation. Not surprisingly, U.S. aid tends to correlate with a favorable climate for business operations, commonly improved by the murder of labor and peasant organizers and human rights activists and other such actions, yielding a secondary correlation between aid and egregious violation of human rights.

These studies took place before the Reagan years, when the topic was not worth studying because the correlations were so clear.

Small wonder that President Obama advises us to look forward, not backward — a convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs. Those who are beaten by them tend to see the world differently, much to our annoyance.

Adopting Bush’s Positions

An argument can be made that implementation of the CIA’s “torture paradigm” never violated the 1984 Torture Convention, at least as Washington interpreted it. McCoy points out that the highly sophisticated CIA paradigm developed at enormous cost in the 1950s and 1960s, based on the “KGB’s most devastating torture technique,” kept primarily to mental torture, not crude physical torture, which was considered less effective in turning people into pliant vegetables.

McCoy writes that the Reagan administration then carefully revised the International Torture Convention “with four detailed diplomatic ‘reservations’ focused on just one word in the convention’s 26-printed pages,” the word “mental.” He continues: “These intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain — the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost.”

When Clinton sent the UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included the Reagan reservations. The president and Congress therefore exempted the core of the CIA torture paradigm from the U.S. interpretation of the Torture Convention; and those reservations, McCoy observes, were “reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention.” That is the “political land mine” that “detonated with such phenomenal force” in the Abu Ghraib scandal and in the shameful Military Commissions Act that was passed with bipartisan support in 2006.

Bush, of course, went beyond his predecessors in authorizing prima facie violations of international law, and several of his extremist innovations were struck down by the Courts. While Obama, like Bush, eloquently affirms our unwavering commitment to international law, he seems intent on substantially reinstating the extremist Bush measures. In the important case of Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008, the Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional the Bush administration claim that prisoners in Guantanamo are not entitled to the right of habeas corpus.

Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald reviews the aftermath. Seeking to “preserve the power to abduct people from around the world” and imprison them without due process, the Bush administration decided to ship them to the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, treating “the Boumediene ruling, grounded in our most basic constitutional guarantees, as though it was some sort of a silly game — fly your abducted prisoners to Guantanamo and they have constitutional rights, but fly them instead to Bagram and you can disappear them forever with no judicial process.”

Obama adopted the Bush position, “filing a brief in federal court that, in two sentences, declared that it embraced the most extremist Bush theory on this issue,” arguing that prisoners flown to Bagram from anywhere in the world (in the case in question, Yemenis and Tunisians captured in Thailand and the United Arab Emirates) “can be imprisoned indefinitely with no rights of any kind — as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantanamo.”

In March, however, a Bush-appointed federal judge “rejected the Bush/Obama position and held that the rationale of Boumediene applies every bit as much to Bagram as it does to Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced that it would appeal the ruling, thus placing Obama’s Department of Justice, Greenwald concludes, “squarely to the Right of an extremely conservative, pro-executive-power, Bush 43-appointed judge on issues of executive power and due-process-less detentions,” in radical violation of Obama’s campaign promises and earlier stands.

The case of Rasul v. Rumsfeld appears to be following a similar trajectory. The plaintiffs charged that Rumsfeld and other high officials were responsible for their torture in Guantanamo, where they were sent after being captured by Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum. The plaintiffs claimed that they had traveled to Afghanistan to offer humanitarian relief. Dostum, a notorious thug, was then a leader of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan faction supported by Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian states, and the U.S. as it attacked Afghanistan in October 2001.

Dostum turned them over to U.S. custody, allegedly for bounty money. The Bush administration sought to have the case dismissed. Recently, Obama’s Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the Bush position that government officials are not liable for torture and other violations of due process, on the grounds that the Courts had not yet clearly established the rights that prisoners enjoy.

It is also reported that the Obama administration intends to revive military commissions, one of the more severe violations of the rule of law during the Bush years. There is a reason, according to William Glaberson of the New York Times: “Officials who work on the Guantanamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies.” A serious flaw in the criminal justice system, it appears.

Creating Terrorists

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information — the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first Director of National Intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further “ticking bomb” attacks.

Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion.

There is, to be sure, a response: our terrorism, even if surely terrorism, is benign, deriving as it does from the city on the hill.

Perhaps culpability would be greater, by prevailing moral standards, if it were discovered that Bush administration torture had cost American lives. That is, in fact, the conclusion drawn by Major Matthew Alexander [a pseudonym], one of the most seasoned U.S. interrogators in Iraq, who elicited “the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports.

Alexander expresses only contempt for the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation methods: “The use of torture by the U.S.,” he believes, not only elicits no useful information but “has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many U.S. soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11.” From hundreds of interrogations, Alexander discovered that foreign fighters came to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and that they and their domestic allies turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist acts for the same reasons.

There is also mounting evidence that the torture methods Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld encouraged created terrorists. One carefully studied case is that of Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was locked up in Guantanamo on the charge of “engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance.” He ended up in Afghanistan after having failed to reach Chechnya to fight against the Russians.

After four years of brutal treatment in Guantanamo, he was returned to Kuwait. He later found his way to Iraq and, in March 2008, drove a bomb-laden truck into an Iraqi military compound, killing himself and 13 soldiers — “the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee,” according to the Washington Post, and according to his lawyer, the direct result of his abusive imprisonment.

All much as a reasonable person would expect.

Unexceptional Americans

Another standard pretext for torture is the context: the “war on terror” that Bush declared after 9/11. A crime that rendered traditional international law “quaint” and “obsolete” — so George W. Bush was advised by his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, later appointed Attorney General. The doctrine has been widely reiterated in one form or another in commentary and analysis.

The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction. In fact, it was the first attack of any consequence on the national territory of the United States since the British burned down Washington in 1814.

Another unique feature was the scale of terror perpetrated by a non-state actor.

Horrifying as it was, however, it could have been worse. Suppose that the perpetrators had bombed the White House, killed the president, and established a vicious military dictatorship that killed 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured 700,000, set up a huge international terror center that carried out assassinations and helped impose comparable military dictatorships elsewhere, and implemented economic doctrines that so radically dismantled the economy that the state had to virtually take it over a few years later.

That would indeed have been far worse than September 11, 2001. And it happened in Salvador Allende’s Chile in what Latin Americans often call “the first 9/11” in 1973. (The numbers above were changed to per-capita U.S. equivalents, a realistic way of measuring crimes.) Responsibility for the military coup against Allende can be traced straight back to Washington. Accordingly, the otherwise quite appropriate analogy is out of consciousness here in the U.S., while the facts are consigned to the “abuse of reality” that the naïve call “history.”

It should also be recalled that Bush did not declare the “war on terror,” he re-declared it. Twenty years earlier, President Reagan’s administration came into office declaring that a centerpiece of its foreign policy would be a war on terror, “the plague of the modern age” and “a return to barbarism in our time” — to sample the fevered rhetoric of the day.

That first U.S. war on terror has also been deleted from historical consciousness, because the outcome cannot readily be incorporated into the canon: hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the ruined countries of Central America and many more elsewhere, among them an estimated 1.5 million dead in the terrorist wars sponsored in neighboring countries by Reagan’s favored ally, apartheid South Africa, which had to defend itself from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups,” as Washington determined in 1988. In fairness, it should be added that, 20 years later, Congress voted to remove the ANC from the list of terrorist organizations, so that Mandela is now, at last, able to enter the U.S. without obtaining a waiver from the government.

The reigning doctrine of the country is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to a universal habit among imperial powers. France was hailing its “civilizing mission” in its colonies, while the French Minister of War called for “exterminating the indigenous population” of Algeria. Britain’s nobility was a “novelty in the world,” John Stuart Mill declared, while urging that this angelic power delay no longer in completing its liberation of India.

Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Japanese militarists in the 1930s, who were bringing an “earthly paradise” to China under benign Japanese tutelage, as they carried out the rape of Nanking and their “burn all, loot all, kill all” campaigns in rural North China. History is replete with similar glorious episodes.

As long as such “exceptionalist” theses remain firmly implanted, however, the occasional revelations of the “abuse of history” often backfire, serving only to efface terrible crimes. The My Lai massacre was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation in this country was largely focused on this single crime.

Watergate was doubtless criminal, but the furor over it displaced incomparably worse crimes at home and abroad, including the FBI-organized assassination of black organizer Fred Hampton as part of the infamous COINTELPRO repression, or the bombing of Cambodia, to mention just two egregious examples. Torture is hideous enough; the invasion of Iraq was a far worse crime. Quite commonly, selective atrocities have this function.

Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.

The Toll Booth Economy

Posted in Political Economy on May 21, 2009 by CjH

The Latest in Junk Economics

By Michael Hudson, Counterpunch

It looks like bookstores are about to be swamped this summer and fall by advisories which publishers commissioned a year ago, as the economy was going off the rails. The preferred marketing strategy is to offer advice by celebrity insiders on how to restore the happy 1981-2007 era of debt-leveraged price gains for real estate, stocks and bonds. But the Bubble Economy was so debt-leveraged that it cannot reasonably be restored.

For the time being we are being fed Wall Street defenses of the Bush-Obama (that is, Paulson-Geithner) attempt to re-inflate the bubble by a bailout giveaway that has tripled America’s national debt in the hope of getting bank credit (that is, more debt) growing again. The problem is that debt leveraging is what caused our economic collapse. A third of U.S. real estate is now estimated to be in negative equity, with foreclosure rates still rising.

In the face of this stultifying financial trend, the book-buying public is being fed appetizers pretending that economic recovery simply requires more “incentives” (special tax breaks for the rich) to encourage more “saving,” as if savings automatically finance new capital investment and hiring rather than what really happens: money lent out to create yet more debt owed by the bottom 90 percent to the economy’s top 10 percent.

After blaming Alan Greenspan for playing the role of “useful idiot” by promoting deregulation and blocking prosecution of financial fraud, most writers trot out the approved panaceas: federal regulation of derivatives (or even banning them altogether), a Tobin tax on securities transactions, closure of offshore banking centers and ending their tax-avoidance stratagems. No one presumes to go to the root of the financial problem by removing the general tax deductibility of interest that has subsidized debt leveraging, by taxing “capital” gains at the same rate as wages and profits, or by closing the notorious tax loopholes for the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors.

Right-wing publishers recycycle the usual panaceas such as giving more tax incentives to “savers” (another euphemism for more giveaways to high finance) and a re-balanced federal budget to avoid “crowding out” private finance. Wall Street’s dream is to privatize Social Security to create yet a new bubble. Fortunately, such proposals failed during the Republican-controlled Bush administration as a result of a reality check in the form of taxpayer outrage after the dot.com bubble burst in 2000.

There’s no call to finance Social Security and Medicare out of the general budget instead of keeping their funding as a special regressive tax on labor and its employers, available for plunder by Congress to finance tax cuts for the upper wealth brackets. Yet how can America achieve industrial competitiveness in global markets with this pre-saving retirement tax and privatized health insurance, debt-leveraged housing costs and related personal and corporate debt overhead? The rest of the world provides much lower-cost housing, health care and related costs of employee budgets – or simply keeps labor near subsistence levels. This is a major problem with today’s dreams of a renewed Bubble Economy. They leave out the international dimension.

And of course there are the familiar calls to rebuild America’s depleted infrastructure. Alas, Wall Street plans to do this Tony Blair-style, by public-private partnerships that incorporate enormous flows of interest payments into the price structure while providing underwriting and management fees to Wall Street. Falling employment and property prices have squeezed public finances so that new infrastructure investment will take the form of installing privatized tollbooths over the economy’s most critical access points such as roads and other hitherto public transportation, communications and clean water.

There are no  calls to restore state and local property taxes to their Progressive Era levels so as to collect the “free lunch” of land rent and use its gains over time as the main fiscal base. This would hold down land prices (and hence, mortgage debt) by preventing rising location values from being capitalized and paid out as interest to the banks. It would have the additional advantage of shifting the fiscal burden off income and sales (a policy that raises the price of labor, goods and services). Instead, most reforms today call for further cutting property taxes to promote more “wealth creation” in the form of higher debt-leveraged property price inflation. The idea is to leave more rental income to be capitalized into yet larger mortgages and paid out as interest to the financial sector. Instead of housing prices falling and income and sales taxes being reduced, rising site values merely will be paid to the banks, not to the local tax authorities. The latter are forced to shift the fiscal burden onto consumers and business.

There are, in this current crop of books,  the usual pro forma calls to re-industrialize America, but not to address the financial debt dynamic that has undercut industrial capitalism in this country and abroad. How will these timid “reforms” look in retrospect a decade from now? The Bush-Obama bailout pretends that banks “too-big-to-fail” only face a liquidity problem, not a bad debt problem in the face of the economy’s widening inability to pay. The reason why past bubbles cannot be restored is that they have reached their debt limit, not only domestically, but also the international political limit of global Dollar Hegemony.

What don’t these books address? Everything economics really is all about: the debt overhead; financial fraud and crime in general (one of the economy’s highest-paying sectors); military spending (a key to the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit and hence to the buildup of central bank dollar reserves throughout the world); the proliferation of unearned income and insider political dealing. These are the core phenomena that “free market” choristers have relegated to the “institutionalist” basement of the academic economics curriculum.

For example, the press keeps on parroting the Washington line that Asians “save” too much, causing them to lend their money to America. But the “Asians” saving these dollars are the central banks. Individuals and companies save in yuan and yen, not dollars. It is not these domestic savings that China and Japan have placed in U.S. Treasury securities to the tune of $3 trillion. It is America’s own spending – the trillions of dollars its payments deficit is pumping abroad, in excess of foreign demand for U.S. exports and purchases of U.S. companies, stocks and real estate. This payments deficit is not the result of U.S. consumers maxing out on their credit cards. What is being downplayed is the military spending that has underlain the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit ever since the Korean War. It is a trend that cannot continue much longer, now that foreign countries are starting to push back.

Inasmuch as China’s central bank is now the largest holder of U.S. government and other dollar securities, it has become the main subsidizer of the U.S. payments deficit – and also the domestic U.S. federal budget deficit. Half of the federal budget’s discretionary spending is military in character. This places China in the uncomfortable position of being the largest financier of U.S. military adventurism, including U.S. attempts to encircle China and Russia militarily to block their development as rivals over the past fifty years. That is not what China intended, but it is the effect of global dollar hegemony.

Another trend that cannot continue is “the miracle of compound interest.” It is called a “miracle” because it seems too good to be true, and it is – it cannot really go on for long. Heavily leveraged debts go bad in the end, because they accrue interest charges faster than the economy’s ability to pay. Basing national policy on dreams of paying the interest by borrowing money against steadily inflated asset prices has been a nightmare for homebuyers and consumers, as well as for companies targeted by financial raiders who use debt leverage to strip assets for themselves. This policy is now being applied to public infrastructure into the hands of absentee owners, who will build interest charges into the new service prices they charge, and be allowed to treat these charges as a tax-deductible expense. Banking lobbyists have shaped the tax system in a way that steers new absentee investment into debt rather than equity financing.

The cheerleaders applauding a bubble economy as “wealth creation” (to use one of Alan Greenspan’s favorite phrases) would like us, their audience, to believe that they knew that there was a problem all along, but simply could not restrain the economy’s “irrational exuberance” and “animal spirits.” The idea is to blame the victims – homeowners forced into debt to afford access to housing, pension-fund savers forced to consign their wage set-asides to money managers for the large Wall Street firms, and companies seeking to stave off corporate raiders by taking “poison pills” in the form of debts large enough to block their being taken over. One looks in vain for an honest acknowledgement of how the financial sector turned into a Mafia-style gang more akin to post-Soviet kleptocrat insiders than to Schumpeterian innovators.

The post-bubble tomes assumes that we have reached “the end of history” as far as big problems are concerned. What is missing is a critique of the big picture – how Wall Street has financialized the public domain to inaugurate a neo-feudal tollbooth economy while privatizing the government itself, headed by the Treasury and Federal Reserve. Left untouched is the story how industrial capitalism has succumbed to an insatiable and unsustainable finance capitalism, whose newest “final stage” seems to be a zero-sum game of casino capitalism based on derivative swaps and kindred hedge fund gambling innovations.

What have been lost are the Progressive Era’s two great reforms. First, minimizing the economy’s free lunch of unearned income (e.g., monopolistic privilege and privatization of the public domain in contrast to one’s own labor and enterprise) by taxing absentee property rent and asset-price (“capital”) gains, by keeping natural monopolies in the public domain, and by anti-trust regulation. The aim of progressive economic justice was to prevent exploitation – e.g., charging more than the technologically necessary costs of production and reasonable profits warranted. This aim had a fortuitous byproduct that made the Progressive Era reforms seem likely to conquer the world in a Darwinian evolutionary manner: Minimization of the free lunch of unearned income enabled economies such as the United States to out-compete others that didn’t enact progressive fiscal and financial policy.

A second Progressive Era aim was to steer the financial sector so as to fund capital formation. Industrial credit was best achieved in Germany and Central Europe in the decades prior to World War I. But the Allied victory led to the dominance of Anglo-American banking practice, based on loans against property or income streams already in place. Today’s bank credit has become decoupled from capital formation, taking the form mainly of mortgage credit (80 per cent), and loans secured by corporate stock (for mergers, acquisitions and corporate raids) as well as for speculation. The effect is to spur asset-price inflation on credit, in ways that benefit the few at the expense of the economy at large.

The problem of debt-leveraged asset-price inflation is clearest in the post-Soviet “Baltic syndrome,” to which Britain’s economy is now succumbing. Debts are run up in foreign currency (real estate mortgages in the Baltics, tax-avoidance funds and flight capital in Britain), without exports having any prospect of covering their carrying charges, as far as the eye can see. The result is a debt trap – chronic austerity for the domestic market, causing lower capital investment and living standards, without hope of recovery.

These problems illustrate the extent to which the world economy as a whole has pursued the wrong course since World War I. This long detour has been facilitated by the failure of socialism to provide a viable alternative. Although Russia’s bureaucratic Stalinism got rid of the post-feudal free lunch of land rent, monopoly rent, interest and financial or property-price gains, its bureaucratic overhead overpowered the economy in the end. Russia fell. The question is whether the Anglo-American brand of finance capitalism will follow suit from its own internal contradictions.

The flaws in the U.S. economy so intractable, embedded as they are in the very core of post-feudal Western economies. This is what Greek tragedy is about: a tragic flaw that dooms the hero. The main flaw embedded in our own economy is rising debt in excess of the ability to pay is part of a larger flaw: the financial free lunch that property and financial claims extract in excess of a corresponding cost as measured in labor effort or an equitably shared tax burden (the classical theory of economic rent). Like land seizure and insider privatization deals, such wealth increasingly can be inherited, stolen or obtained by political corruption. Wealth and revenue extracted via today’s finance capitalism avoids taxation, thereby receiving an actual fiscal subsidy as compared to tangible industrial investment and operating profit. Yet academics and the popular media treat these core flaws as “exogenous,” that is, outside the realm of economics analysis.

Unfortunately for us – and for reformers trying to rescue our post-bubble economy – the history of economic thought has been rewritten in infantile caricature,  to give an impression that today’s stripped-down, largely trivialized junk economics is the apex of Western social history. One would not realize from the present discussion that for the past few centuries a different canon of logic existed. Classical economists distinguished between earned income (wages and profits) and unearned income (land rent, monopoly rent and interest). The effect was to distinguish between wealth earned through capital and enterprise that reflects labor effort, and unearned wealth stemming from  appropriation of land and other natural resources, monopoly privileges (including banking and money management) and inflationary asset-price “capital” gains. But even the Progressive Era did not go much beyond seeking to purify industrial capitalism from the carry-overs of feudalism: land rent and monopoly rent stemming from military conquest, and financial exploitation by banks and (in America) Wall Street as the “mother of trusts.”

What makes the latest bubble different from previous ones is that instead of being organized by governments as a stratagem to dispose of their public debt by creating or privatizing monopolies to sell off for payment in government bonds, the United States and other nations today are going deeply into debt simply to pay bankers for bad loans. The economy is being sacrificed to reward finance, instead of finance subordinating and channeling finance to promote economic growth and lower the economy-wide cost structure to remain viable. Interest-bearing debt is weighing down the economy and causing debt deflation by diverting saving into debt payments instead of capital investment. Under this condition “saving” is not the solution to today’s economic shrinkage; it is part of the problem. In contrast to the personal hoarding of Keynes’s day, the problem is the financial sector’s extractive power as creditor instead of clearing the slate by wiping out the economy’s bad-debt overhang in the historically normal way, by a wave of bankruptcy.

Today, the financial sector is translating its affluence (at taxpayer expense), into the political power to pry yet more public infrastructure away from state and local communities and from the public domain at the national level, Thatcher- and Blair-style as it is sold off to absentee buyers-on-credit to pay off public debt (while cutting taxes on wealth yet further). No one remembers the cry for what Keynes called “euthanasia of the rentier.” We have entered the most oppressive rentier epoch since feudal European times. Instead of providing basic infrastructure services at cost or subsidized rates to lower the national cost structure and thus make it more affordable – and internationally competitive – the economy is being turned into a collection of tollbooths Small wonder that  this year’s transitory wave of post-bubble books fail to place the financialization of the U.S. and global economies in this long-term context.

Our Bombs

Posted in Welcome to The Machine on May 17, 2009 by CjH

A website, blog, and new documentary exposing both the human costs and strategic implications of American bombing around the world can be found at OurBombs.com