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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Conversion of Chalmers Johnson 

Chalmers Johnson has surprisingly emerged as one of the foremost establishment critics of US global policy, assuming, of course, that one is still considered establishment once one embarks upon the endeavor of exposing the realities of it. Over the course of a long and prestigious academic career, he chaired the Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley and served as an analyst for the CIA, emphasizing issues associated with the People's Republic of China.

In 2000, it became obvious that Johnson had changed his world view quite dramatically when he published the book Blowback, and popularized an espionage phrase that subsequently became associated with 9/11 and other violent acts directed towards the US, even if, curiously enough, he identified its roots in the US exploitation of East Asia. In Blowback, Johnson presented the troubling notion that the US, through the imposition of its military and economic values upon many nations around the world, was engendering such hostility that unpredictable, violent attacks upon the US and its institutional presence were inevitable.

Much like Tariq Ali's book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, it remains an essential text for trying to understand the world in which we live and how we arrived here. Later, in 2004, he published The Sorrows of Empire, wherein he explained the imperial reach of the US military, its forms of social organization and the tensions inherent within them, and the expansion of its influence, already substantial, in the post-9/11 world as it was increasingly unaccountable to traditional American political constraints. Now, in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, he elaborates upon a theme that he frequently mentioned during public appearances and interviews, namely that the US is being transformed from being a democratic republic into an imperial dictatorship.

But a fascinating question remains. What provoked Johnson into abandoning his idealistic support for American imperialism? During the course of this Democracy Now! interview, we learn the answer, and it emerged from his historic association with Japan, where he served as a naval officer during the Korean War, and subsequently focused much of his scholarship, because, why else would he have decided to visit Okinawa in 1996? Here's what he discovered during the course of that visit:

In the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, site of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, there’s a small island, smaller than Kawaii in the Hawaiian islands, with 1,300,000 Okinawans. There's thirty-seven American military bases there. The revolt against them has been endemic for fifty years. The governor is always saying to the local military commander, “You're living on the side of a volcano that could explode at any time.” It has exploded in the past. What this means is just an endless, nonstop series of sexually violent crimes, drunken brawls, hit-and-run accidents, environmental pollution, noise pollution, helicopters falling out of the air from Futenma Marine Corps Air Base and falling onto the campus of Okinawa International University. One thing after another. Back in 1995, we had one of the most serious incidents, when two Marines and a sailor abducted, beat and raped a twelve-year-old girl. This led to the largest demonstrations against the United States since we signed the security treaty with Japan decades ago. It's this kind of thing.

I first went to Okinawa in 1996. I was invited by then-Governor Ota in the wake of the rape incident. I’ve devoted my life to the study of Japan, but like many Japanese, many Japanese specialists, I had never been in Okinawa. I was shocked by what I saw. It was the British Raj. It was like Soviet troops living in East Germany, more comfortable than they would be back at, say, Oceanside, California, next door to Camp Pendleton. And it was a scandal in every sense. My first reaction -- I’ve not made a secret of it -- that I was, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Cold Warrior. My first explanation was that this is simply off the beaten track, that people don't come down here and report it. As I began to study the network of bases around the world and the incidents that have gone with them and the military coups that have brought about regime change and governments that we approve of, I began to realize that Okinawa was not unusual; it was, unfortunately, typical.

These bases, as I say, are spread everywhere. The most recent manifestation of the American military empire is the decision by the Pentagon now, with presidential approval, of course, to create another regional command in Africa. This may either be at the base that we have in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa. It may well be in the Gulf of Guinea, where we are prospecting for oil, and the Navy would very much like to put ourselves there. It is not at all clear that we should have any form of American military presence in Africa, but we're going to have an enlarged one.

Invariably, remember what this means. Imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent of the governed. It doesn't ask for the consent of the governed. We talk about the spread of democracy, but we're talking about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle. That's a contradiction in terms. It doesn't work. Any self-respecting person being democratized in this manner starts thinking of retaliation.

Johnson additionally commented upon a number of subjects related to his new book, Nemesis, especially his pessimism about the future (or lack thereof) for American democracy, and I recommend reading the transcript of the interview in its entirety.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Afghanistan is Lost 

With Iraq and Iran dominating the news, the defeat in Afghanistan, originally the central front in the war on terror, has received little, if any, attention. But out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind, as Tariq Ali has described the gravity of the situation:

It is Year 6 of the UN-backed NATO occupation of Afghanistan, a joint US/EU mission. On 26 February there was an attempted assassination of Dick Cheney by Taliban suicide bombers while he was visiting the 'secure' US air base at Bagram (once an equally secure Soviet air base during an earlier conflict). Two US soldiers and a mercenary ('contractor') died in the attack, as did twenty other people working at the base. This episode alone should have concentrated the US Vice-President's mind on the scale of the Afghan debacle. In 2006 the casualty rates rose substantially and NATO troops lost forty-six soldiers in clashes with the Islamic resistance or shot-down helicopters.

The insurgents now control at least twenty districts in the Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan provinces where NATO troops have replaced US soldiers. And it is hardly a secret that many officials in these zones are closet supporters of the guerrilla fighters. The situation is out of control. At the beginning of this war Mrs Bush and Mrs Blair appeared on numerous TV and radio shows claiming that the aim of the war was to liberate Afghan women. Try repeating that today and the women will spit in your face.

Who is responsible for this disaster? Why is the country still subjugated? What are Washington's strategic goals in the region? What is the function of NATO? And how long can any country remain occupied against the will of a majority of its people?

Few tears were shed in Afghanistan and elsewhere when the Taliban fell, the hopes aroused by Western demagogy did not last too long. It soon became clear that the new transplanted elite would cream off a bulk of the foreign aid and create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage. The people suffered. A mud cottage with a thatched roof to house a family of homeless refugees costs fewer than five thousand dollars. How many have been built? Hardly any. There are reports each year of hundreds of shelter-less Afghans freezing to death each winter.

Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, this conflict is likely to continue indefinitely. Most Americans know little about what has transpired there, and the lack of the loss of a significant number of American lives means that we are probably willing to prosecute what is, by comparison to nearby Iraq, a small dirty war for quite awhile, even if the objectives become increasingly obscure. Paradoxically, if we finally leave Iraq, it will reinforce our commitment to remain in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the refusal of other NATO countries to increase their forces there is cause for cautious optimism, and, perhaps, the Italian left will eventually compel the government to withdraw its troops.

Tariq Ali's analysis of the situation is not that unique, but the conclusion of his article points towards a possible additional explanation for US military intervention in the region:

Washington's strategic aims in Afghanistan appear to be non-existent unless they need the conflict to discipline European allies who betrayed them on Iraq. True, the al-Qaeda leaders are still at large, but their capture will be the result of effective police work, not war and occupation. What will be the result of a NATO withdrawal? Here Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states will be vital in guaranteeing a confederal constitution that respects ethnic and religious diversity. The NATO occupation has not made this task easy. Its failure has revived the Taliban and increasingly the Pashtuns are uniting behind it.

The lesson here, as in Iraq, is a basic one. It is much better for regime-change to come from below even if this means a long wait as in South Africa, Indonesia or Chile. Occupations disrupt the possibilities of organic change and create a much bigger mess than existed before. Afghanistan is but one example.

The key phrase here is the possibilities of organic change. Is there anything that alarms the US more than organic change within a country or region? After all, the US frequently tends to support social, religious or political minorities so as to make them dependent upon US support for their survival. There are many examples over the decades: Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq (under Hussein), Vietnam (Diem, the Catholic, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country), Taiwan (the Han Chinese of the KMT and previous waves of immigration, not the indigenous Minans, and, of course, not the continental People's Republic, at least until 1972), military dictatorships and moneyed elites in countries around the world, but, especially Central and South America (always sensitive to the need for advanced weaponry and well trained security services to maintain docility), and, of course, the classic, enduring case, Israel.

Most recently, in the 1990s, we lived through the embrace of the ex-Soviet apparatchiks of Central Asia. Organic change can be roughly translated as indigenous change, even as we admit that there is no pure form of it. Such change presents the prospect of people governing themselves according to social and economic systems independent of ones imposed by the US, and, potentially, even resistant to the US, as we now observe in Venezuela. Few people respond enthusiastically to being subjected to the ruthlessness of neoliberal primitive accumulation, the remorseless exploitation of their labor and resources, for the benefit of transnationals and the far away elites that control them.

Is it possible that the urgency for the invasion of Iraq was the fear that the Iraqis themselves would soon depose Saddam and the Baathists without US assistance? Was it necessary to invade Iraq to depose Saddam and destroy the country's infrastructure so that Iraqis could not chart their own course? Is there an even greater fear that the Iranians may likewise liberate themselves from the stifling constraints of the Islamic Revolution, opening the door to a powerful non-aligned relationship with the Russians and Chinese, among others, two countries, we should recall, that are now both considered lost, China, in 1949, and Russia, in 1917 and, again, now, in the early years of the 21st Century, because they are among the rare countries self-sufficient enough to periodically refuse to accept US dictation?

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Compare and Contrast 

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen.

A McClatchy Newspapers analysis of 2005 census figures, the latest available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty. A family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903 - half the federal poverty line - was considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less than $5,080 a year.

The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That's 56 percent faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period. McClatchy's review also found statistically significant increases in the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large U.S. counties, and similar increases in 28 states. The review also suggested that the rise in severely poor residents isn't confined to large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas.

The plight of the severely poor is a distressing sidebar to an unusual economic expansion. Worker productivity has increased dramatically since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have lagged behind. At the same time, the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries. That helps explain why the median household income of working-age families, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for five straight years.

These and other factors have helped push 43 percent of the nation's 37 million poor people into deep poverty - the highest rate since at least 1975.

Meanwhile, from Oilwars, in early September 2006 (apologies for the lack of the chart referenced here, but I think it is fully explained in the text, and, if you are still curious, please click on the link):

Readers will recall from previous discussions that Venezuelan social classes are indicated by the letters A through E with those in class A having the highest incomes but being a very small percentage of the population while those in social class E have the lowest incomes but constitute more than half the Venezuelan population.

Now this chart is interesting in several ways. Like the chart from Datos that we recently examined we see monthly average household incomes. Some of the numbers are virtually identical; for example, the average monthly income in 2006 for social class D is given 890,990 Bolivares (about $356) by Datos while Datanalysis pegs it at 892,000 Bolivares. You can’t get much closer than that. Yet there are also some differences. For social class E Datos says their income is 680,419 Bolivares ($272) while Datanalysis puts it significantly lower at 515,000 ($206).

What all of that means is that these numbers need to be taken as approximations, maybe even crude approximations, rather than as something that is exact. I’m not sure how the numbers are compiled. But given that they are put together by polling firms I suspect they simply ask people how much they earn and so these numbers could suffer from all the same types of problems one runs across when doing polling on something like people’s sex lives.

Nevertheless, even recognizing these numbers may not be precise there is still valuable information to be gleaned from them. First, we see even the lower Datanalysis numbers show that income is rising for Venezuela’s poor majority. With a rise in income of 445% versus accumulated inflation of 376% social class E has seen its standard of living rise in real terms 45%. And keep in mind, this is just hard cash. It doesn’t include the numerous in-kind benefits given via discounted food being sold at Mercal or expanded health care benefits through Barrio Adentro. Not to mention, if one uses the Datos income number of 680,419 then the accumulated income rise would be 620% which represents a whopping increase of 92% in real terms.

This means that since Chavez came to power in 1999 the income of Venezuela’s poorest has increased between 45% and 92% depending on whose numbers you believe. Either of those numbers represents a stunning increase and go a long ways towards explaining Chavez’s overwhelming popularity.

Secondly, there is another trend that can’t be missed looking at that chart. In the column on the far right side it gives the percent increase in income for each social class between 1998 and 2006 (in nominal terms). It clearly shows that the poorest people, those in social classes E and D have seen much larger increases than those in the better off classes of A, B, C. In fact straight down the column one sees that the poorer people are the more their income has increased under Chavez. Chavez was elected precisely to help those who had the least and he has done exactly that.

Two different countries, two different directions.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Military Disobedience? 

From the Sunday Times:

SOME of America’s most senior military commanders are prepared to resign if the White House orders a military strike against Iran, according to highly placed defence and intelligence sources.

Tension in the Gulf region has raised fears that an attack on Iran is becoming increasingly likely before President George Bush leaves office. The Sunday Times has learnt that up to five generals and admirals are willing to resign rather than approve what they consider would be a reckless attack.

“There are four or five generals and admirals we know of who would resign if Bush ordered an attack on Iran,” a source with close ties to British intelligence said. “There is simply no stomach for it in the Pentagon, and a lot of people question whether such an attack would be effective or even possible.”

A British defence source confirmed that there were deep misgivings inside the Pentagon about a military strike. “All the generals are perfectly clear that they don’t have the military capacity to take Iran on in any meaningful fashion. Nobody wants to do it and it would be a matter of conscience for them.

“There are enough people who feel this would be an error of judgment too far for there to be resignations.”

A generals’ revolt on such a scale would be unprecedented. “American generals usually stay and fight until they get fired,” said a Pentagon source. Robert Gates, the defence secretary, has repeatedly warned against striking Iran and is believed to represent the view of his senior commanders.

Such a story is striking, because, if true, it is another indication of the profound dysfunctionality of American social life. The generals have come to the conclusion that others have already reached: there is no one or no institution outside the military capable of derailing the jingoistic plans of a rogue President.

Congress is entangled within procedural snares as it engages in mock debates about objecting to Bush's policy of escalation in Iraq. To the extent that anyone in Congress talks about Iran, they either enthusiastically support the use of military force, or, more politely, insist upon the necessity of keeping all options open, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. A purported silent majority of members is alarmed about the prospect of war with Iran, but few express it publicly.

As for the media . . . well, let's go there, if we must. Michael Gordon of the New York Times, you know, Judith Miller's partner in crime in regard to promoting the presence of WMDs as a justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, promptly volunteered for duty with the administration's current propaganda operation. Gordon obligingly published an article indicating that the Iranians were responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers through the manufacture and supply of more sophisticated improvised explosive devices.

Other newspapers are more skeptical, especially, curiously enough, the Los Angeles Times, which has published a couple of articles which has found such claims unpersuasive, most recently on February 15th, when, unlike Gordon, it found some people in the military willing to go on the record, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. But if is rare to find any voice in the media, whether in print, on radio or on television, willing to confront the notion that an attack upon Iran would be an unprovoked one against a country that has suffered from the predations of the US for over 50 years.

As Noam Chomsky recently observed, Iran is independent and independence is not tolerated. This is clearly the line presented in much of the media, where the government of Iran is perpetually described as a threat to the US in amorphous terms related to its role in Lebanon, Iraq, and, of course, within its own boundaries. Negotiation is out of the question, because it would require the US to publicly acknowledge Iran's right to conduct its own foreign and domestic policies without receiving the approval of the US. Hence, there is no debate over whether the US has the right to attack Iran, rather the discussion is whether the US can launch such an attack without imperiling its control over the region.

So, that leaves the people, people like you and me. In addition to the obvious, we feel disempowered, worn down by a system that never seems to listen, as we try to cope with the pressures of day to day life, there is also disbelief. People really don't believe that an attack upon Iran is imminent. And, it does admittedly strike most rational people as absurd. Prior to the launching of the war with Iraq, there was a lot of discussion, you'd encounter people who would bring it up unsolicited in conversation, and there were large protests. Now, there are few protests, sparsely attended, and hardly anyone ever mentions the subject.

If this war is launched, the consequences could be catastrophic. It could spread throughout the region; it could escalate to the point that the US uses tactical nuclear weapons; it could be, despite the best efforts of US military planners, open-ended. Who is to say that the Iranians cannot fight an asymmetrical conflict against us indefinitely after absorbing the destruction of a brutal air campaign? Apparently, if the Sunday Times article is credible, the US military is equally frightened about these possibilities, if not more so, and, in the absence of any meaningful public domestic opposition, some of its most prominent officers are considering their own form of civil disobedience to prevent it from happening.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Andy Liked to Stir Up Trouble, He Was Funny that Way 

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chris Hedges: The Christian Right and the War on America 

Earlier today, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! conducted a compelling interview of journalist and author Chris Hedges. Hedges discussed his new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Here is an excerpt for an interview that should be experienced in its entirety:

AMY GOODMAN: The quote of Jerry Falwell right after September 11th that became quite famous: “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’” He was speaking on September 13, 2001, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club program.

CHRIS HEDGES: That’s right. And, you know, this is -- I mean, essentially, when you follow the logical conclusion of the ideology they preach, there really are only two options for people who do not submit to their authority. And it’s about submission, because these people claim to speak for God and not only understand the will of God, but be able to carry it out. Either you convert, or you’re exterminated. That’s what the obsession with the End Times with the Rapture, which, by the way, is not in the Bible, is about. It is about instilling -- it’s, of course, a fear-based movement, and it’s about saying, ultimately, if you do not give up control to us, you will be physically eradicated by a vengeful God. And that lust for violence, I think that sort of -- you know, the notion, that final aesthetic being violence is very common to totalitarian movements, the belief that massive catastrophic violence can be used as a cleansing agent to purge the world. And that’s, you know, something that this movement bears in common with other despotic and frightening radical movements that we’ve seen over the past -- throughout the past century.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about some of the meetings you attended, from the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation to the Evangelism Explosion that was a seminar taught by Dr. D. James Kennedy?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, the Evangelism Explosion was a one-week seminar taught by Kennedy, was about certifying people to be able to go out and teach this conversion technique. And what was fascinating about it is how manipulative and dishonest it was. You know, what they do is essentially they cook the testimonies. They promise people that if they commit themselves to Christ, they can get rid of the deepest existential dreads of human existence: the fear of mortality, you know, grief, one of the -- we were supposed to read testimonies. We would turn them into the teachers, and they would send them back. And it was always about, you know, I have 100% certainty that I know that if I die tomorrow, I will go to heaven. Or, I lost my son -- one of the examples was -- in the war in Vietnam, but I don’t grieve, because I know I’m going to meet him in heaven.

And they talked about targeting people who are vulnerable. They used a technique very common to cults. It’s called love-bombing -- it’s a term taken from Margaret Singer -- where you -- three or four people go and you sort of focus intently on the person and are fascinated by everything that they say. You build false friendships. And eventually, of course, the goal is to draw them into these megachurches.

This movement talks about family, but it is the great destroyer of family. And I would stand up in these -- or I would be in these meetings and see people stand up weeping, and they would be weeping for unsaved spouses or children, because once you get sucked into these organizations, your leisure time, your religious worship time, you end up becoming involved in groups, you’re essentially removed from your old community and placed into this authoritarian community, where there is no questioning of those above you. You’re often assigned -- you’re called a baby Christian when you first come, and you’re assigned spiritual guides to teach you to think and act in the appropriate manner.

When I went to the National Religious Broadcasters Association in California, the most interesting thing about it was how these radical dominionists, these people who have built an alliance around the drive to create a Christian state, have taken over virtually all Christian radio and television stations. And there are traditional evangelicals who would like to step back from this political agenda, and they have been very ruthlessly brushed aside.

You saw it in the purging of the Southern Baptist Convention, when essentially dominionists like Richard Land took it over in 1980. There were many ministers who were very conservative and thought abortion was murder, were no friends to sort of gays and lesbians, but they didn’t buy into that political agenda, which of course has been fused with rapacious capitalism.

I mean, this movement talks about acculturating the society with a Christian religion. In fact, it’s the inverse. What they’ve done is acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of American imperialism and American capitalism. And there’s that kind of uneasy alliance with many of these corporate interests. But it serves their turn. I mean, when you’re creating the corporate state, it’s very convenient to have an ideology that says, “Don’t worry. You don’t need health insurance, because if you have enough faith, Jesus will cure you. It doesn’t matter if all of your jobs are outsourced and there are no labor unions, because, you know, God takes care of his own. And not only that, but God will make you materially wealthy.” This is, you know, the gospel of prosperity. So, essentially, what we’ve seen is that fusion between those who want to build a corporate state and this ideological movement that thrusts believers who come out of deep despair into a world of magic and miracles and angels.

There is more, much more, and, for those of you who are interested, here again is the link for the the audio, the video and the transcript.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Film Notes: Volver 

It's a belated Film Notes this week, but I did have the opportunity to see Volver on Thursday night. Typical of Almodovar, the specifics of the plot defy a linear description, but, once again, his common preoccupations are to the fore: the hidden, perverse secrets of families, the pragmatism and survival skills of women in a male dominated society and the inability of people to communicate with the ones they love.

Almodovar has described the film as being precisely about death . . . More than about death itself, the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born. It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.

Some reviews of the movie have described Volver as a lesser effort than recent successes like All About My Mother and Talk to Her, and, perhaps, this is true, but only because these earlier films were so compelling. In this one, the plot is centered around two sisters, Penelope Cruz as Raimunda and Lola Duenas as Sole. At the beginning, we observe them cleaning the gravestones of their parents, a local custom, and, shortly thereafter, at the home of their elderly aunt. Suspicions arise that their mother (Almodovar veteran Carmen Maura) has spiritually returned to care for her.

To say more would spoil the gentle delights of this movie. But there is an old cinema term, mise en scene. No one agrees precisely about what it means, but this will have to do: The representation of space affects the reading of a film. Depth, proximity, size and proportions of the places and objects in a film can be manipulated through camera placement and lenses, lighting, decor, effectively determining mood or relationships between elements in the diegetic world.

As I watched the first 45 minutes of Volver, I thought that there are few directors and film crews that have developed the mastery that Almodovar and his team display here. It is a consistent thread that runs through all of his recent films. They create a space, a mood whereby the actors can present naturalistic, subtle performances. There is the appearance of an effortlessness, an ease to the unfolding of the narrative, which is usually the result of hard work and experience. Even the most mundane scene in an Almodovar film (or is it, especially the most mundane scene?) is the closest thing to a convincing representation of the emotional and physical sense of our times.

Here, as in All About My Mother, one of the beneficiaries is Penelope Cruz, and the comparison of her roles in these two movies reveals that she can, in fact, act and act well. In All About My Mother, Cruz successfully conveyed the naivete of a nun that fell in love with a transsexual, and subsequently matured, while, here, she is convincing as a tough as nails woman who saves herself and her daughter, while salvaging her relationships with her sister and mother. Hollywood, it seems, never figured out what to do with her.

There is also an interesting social dimension to this film. In the past, Almodovar has attributed the presence of dysfunctional families, sexual perversity and the inability of people to honestly communicate as manifestations of the personal repression of the Franco era. Here, the family secrets, the personal tragedies, transpired after Franco's death. In other words, he has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, associated them with the Republic. The political structure may have changed, but the emotional rhythms, disruptions and deceptions of everyday life, deeply ingrained in Spanish life (or is it all of our lives?) are not transformed so readily.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal? 

I'd like to send warm regards to Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister for their handling of this campaign season's first pseudo-scandal -- to Marcotte, for not backing down, offhandedly mentioning Christian patriarchy in her Children of Men review well after the scandal had broken, and then resigning presumably after the Edwards people balked, and to McEwan for resigning in solidarity with Marcotte even though she probably didn't have to.

My reaction to this story is at odds with much of the blogosphere. The standard rallying cry in the comments of the big liberal blogs has been, "Damn it, why won't John Edwards stand up for his bloggers?" -- whereas mine has been, "Why don't they resign?"

I think this difference stems from how many readers of blogs view the notion of "liberalism" and "leftism". To put my thoughts bluntly, many self-professed liberals simply don't know what leftism is, call themselves liberals, are liberals to a degree, but are liberals with strong leftist tendencies -- and, further, I think this sort of liberalism is over-represented in the blogosphere and that these sorts of liberals project their worldview on to the Democratic party. The left side of the blogosphere is slightly but meaningfully to the left of the mainstream Democratic party and many blog readers and commenters don't seem to understand this. Regarding the Edwards campaign's netroots efforts, I am not too familiar with McEwan but I used to read Pandagon occasionally, and generally have enough of a sense of Marcotte's political position to have been a bit surprised that Edwards hired her.

When John Edwards said that he was "personally offended" by the contested Pandagon posts, the reaction of most commenters implied that they had been let down by Edwards' pandering, that he was pretending to care to placate the Christian right. Look, maybe Edwards really was offended. There is an unwarranted assumption in much of the commentary and analysis coming from Left Blogistan that I see over and over again -- that mainstream Democratic politicians are much more leftwing than they appear from their public statements but they must pretend to be moderates due to the demands of their jobs. The trouble with this assumption, of course, is that the true political position of these politicians -- the non-secretly non-leftwing one -- carries over from their statements to their actions.

Where does this wishful thinking come from? Perhaps the media has something to do with it: in a universe in which Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristoff, and Joe Klein are all considered liberals it isn't hard to see how people start confusing John Edwards with Noam Chomsky. Anyway, a lesson to be learned from the Marcotte scandal is that those of us on the hard left should probably do a better job as commentators at pointing out the assumption of secret-Democratic-leftism when it is relevant to political discourse.

The other factor here is the triumph of the old Republican political strategy that in the recent Nader documentary Pat Buchanan informs us was officially titled "The Northern Catholic / Southern Baptist Strategy": chipping away at the traditional Democratic base by hyping social issues and simply not mentioning economic or labor issues. This strategy has been so effective that in 2007 the label that the media applies to a commentator or politician is strictly a function of his or her positions on social issues, i.e. Thomas Friedman is a liberal because he supports abortion and gay rights.

Ironically at this point, it would be easier for me -- a socialist, a hard leftist, whatever you want to call me -- to be the campaign blogger for the John Edwards campaign than for Amanda Marcotte, a liberal, simply because I seldom write about social issues and social issues are effectively all that matter these days in the domain of political witch hunts. If you think about it, such a turn of events is quite a twist on what has been true historically, and may suggest new avenues for activism.

War with Iran? Still a Frightening Prospect 

Last year, in March of 2006, I posted a lengthy statement about why a war with Iran would be catastrophic. Both Seymour Hersh, the journalist, and Jorge Hirsch, the nuclear physicist, had just written extensively on the subject. Perhaps, as the administration is again launching a propaganda effort to generate public support, it is appropriate to revisit what they said.

"It's a Tough Decision, But We Made It in Japan"

Jorge Hirsch, a University of California, San Diego physics professor, has been sounding the alarm for over a year about the prospect that the United States will use nuclear weapons against Iran, with this article being a representative example of his work. His articles on the subject display an obssesive attention to detail that one associates with a serious academic.

Now, Seymour Hersh has published an article in the New Yorker, stating that Bush has accelerated planning for a war against Iran:

The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.

More specifically:

Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions—rapid ascending maneuvers known as “over the shoulder” bombing—since last summer, the former official said, within range of Iranian coastal radars.

Yes, you read that right. Some operations, apparently aimed in part at intimidating Iran, are already under way. American Naval tactical aircraft, operating from carriers in the Arabian Sea, have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions . . The first use of nuclear weapons, with potentially catastrophic consequences is being considered as a centerpiece of a massive bombing campaign against Iran:

One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet beneath the surface. That number of centrifuges could provide enough enriched uranium for about twenty nuclear warheads a year. (Iran has acknowledged that it initially kept the existence of its enrichment program hidden from I.A.E.A. inspectors, but claims that none of its current activity is barred by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.) The elimination of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could not insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete.

Debate within the administration over this prospect is intense:

The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,” the former senior intelligence official said. “ ‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning. It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.”

He went on, “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he added, and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran—without success, the former intelligence official said. “The White House said, ‘Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.’ ”

The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it “a juggernaut that has to be stopped.” He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. “There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,” the adviser told me. “This goes to high levels.” The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. “The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks,” the adviser said. “And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen.”

The adviser added, however, that the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “They’re telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation,” he said.

Jorge Hirsch has already exhaustively described the potentially catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons against Iran:

It is arguably possible that the nuclear hitmen's most optimistic expectations will be realized: the U.S. will succeed in crossing the nuclear threshold by using a few low-yield nuclear bombs against Iranian installations, without resulting in significant escalation, and achieve its goals of destroying Iran's military capabilities and establishing the value of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. It is also certainly possible, and in my view much more likely, that the results will be disastrous, as follows:

(1) A very large number of people will die.

For most of the world, the use of nuclear weapons is a major qualitative step, even if the yield and destruction of the nuclear weapons used is the same or less than that of conventional weapons. As a consequence, this action is likely to bring about an "irrational" reaction from Iran. No U.S. threat will deter Iran from retaliating any way it can – by firing all its missiles and launching a massive invasion of Iraq with millions of poorly armed but determined Basij militia. The U.S. will "have to" respond with large-scale bombing, including with nuclear bombs, causing potentially hundreds of thousands of Iranian casualties. This is likely to cause an immediate, large upheaval in the Middle East, with unforeseeable consequences. These events are not likely to be forgotten by the 1 billion-large worldwide Muslim community.

(2) America will be a pariah state.

The administration hopes that the use of nuclear bombs in this conflict will be viewed as "unavoidable" to save lives, ours and theirs. The world will not buy that interpretation. A cursory search on the Internet today makes it clear that it is already widely believed that the upcoming nuking of Iran is an event planned by the Bush administration (e.g., the Philip Giraldi story). Disclosures that will surely come after the fact will make this premeditation even more evident (like the Downing Street memos in the case of Iraq). The planned use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state in the name of nuclear nonproliferation, based on false accusations and concocted scenarios, will not be condoned by the world.

In the case of Iraq, the realization that the invasion had been planned in advance and Americans had been lied to has led to public disenchantment with the Bush administration, yet it has not led to universal condemnation. Attacking Iran will be different, because the use of nukes will affect every man, woman, and child in the world. The world will regard the Bush administration as criminal. Because Americans elected Bush for a second term and did nothing to impede his actions, all Americans will share responsibility in the eyes of the world. Each of us could have done more to prevent this from happening.

This is likely to result in a worldwide shunning of everything American. A tidal wave of boycott America fervor is likely to result, and no matter how powerful America is today, the rest of the world acting together can bring America to its knees and spell the end of all dreams of a "New American Century."

(3) Anti-Semitism will surge worldwide.

Israel will be regarded as having played a key role in these events, whether or not it participates in the military action. Israeli politicians have made it abundantly clear that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent an "existential threat" to Israel, so Israel will be regarded as instigator, given the strength of the Israeli lobby in America. Jewish organizations around the world have been supportive of the Israeli stance and will be regarded as complicit.

As a consequence, a resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism will occur, even in America. The old charges that Jews have a divided allegiance to their home country and to Israel will resurface, and Jewish communities in every country will face hostility and aggression.

Just like Bush's invasion of Iraq erased the world's feelings of sympathy to America after the 9/11 attacks, so will the nuking of Iran erase any remaining feelings of sympathy for the state of Israel.

(4) Nuclear terrorism against America will become more likely.

The incentive for terrorist groups to use a nuclear weapon against America will be enormous after America uses nuclear weapons, even if only "small" ones, against Iran. No matter how much "counterproliferation" America undertakes, eventually a terrorist group will obtain or manufacture a nuclear bomb. And no matter how large a "deterrent" the American nuclear arsenal is, a single nuclear bombing in an American city will have devastating consequences.

Those who argue that nuclear terrorism will happen regardless of whether the U.S. nukes Iran or not should consider the fact that there has never been a chemical terrorist attack against America, despite the fact that chemical weapons have existed for a long time and shouldn't be too hard for terrorist groups to obtain. Could it be related to the fact that America does not use chemical weapons against others?

(5) Nuclear proliferation and global nuclear war may ensue.

The main reason why nuking Iran will affect every human being is that it will spell the end of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and lead to widespread nuclear proliferation. It will not matter how many eloquent speeches Bush gives afterwards explaining why it was "necessary." It will not matter if the next American president is a pacifist who vows never to do it again. It will not matter if think tanks and scientists and politicians and arms-control organizations and NGOs deplore it as a unique aberration of the Bush administration. The fact is, the entire American system will be seen as having conspired to let this happen.

After America has used a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear country, all the speeches and studies and documents and excuses and promises will not change the facts. All countries will strive to acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. America will prevent some from doing so by military force, but many others will succeed. With no remaining nuclear taboo, and many more countries with nuclear weapons (with a total power of 1 million Hiroshima bombs, hence the potential to destroy humanity many times over), does anybody doubt the outcome?

Hirsch has also eloquently explained "the military's moral dilemma":

Men and women in the military forces, including civilian employees, may be facing a difficult moral choice at this very moment and in the coming weeks, akin to the moral choices faced by Colin Powell and Dan Ellsberg. The paths these two men followed were radically different.

Colin Powell was an American hero, widely respected and admired at the time he was appointed secretary of state in 2001. In February 2003, he chose to follow orders despite his own serious misgivings, and delivered the pivotal UN address that paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following month. Today, most Americans believe the Iraq invasion was wrong, and Colin Powell is disgraced, his future destroyed, and his great past achievements forgotten.

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, played a significant role in ending the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers. He knew that he would face prosecution for breaking the law, but was convinced it was the correct moral choice. His courageous and principled action earned him respect and gratitude.

The Navy has just reminded its members and civilian employees what the consequences are of violating provisions concerning the release of information about the nuclear capabilities of U.S. forces. Why right now, for the first time in 12 years? Because it is well aware of moral choices that its members may face, and it hopes to deter certain actions. But courageous men and women are not easily deterred.

To disobey orders and laws and to leak information are difficult actions that entail risks. Still, many principled individuals have done it in the past and will continue to do it in the future. Conscientious objection to the threat and use of nuclear weapons is a moral choice.

Once the American public becomes fully aware that military action against Iran will include the planned use of nuclear weapons, public support for military action will quickly disappear. Anything could get the ball rolling. A great catastrophe will have been averted.

Even U.S. military law recognizes that there is no requirement to obey orders that are unlawful. The use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country can be argued to be in violation of international law, the principle of just war, the principle of proportionality, common standards of morality and customs that make up the law of armed conflict. Even if the nuclear weapons used are small, because they are likely to cause escalation of the conflict they violate the principle of proportionality and will cause unnecessary suffering.

The Nuremberg Tribunal, which the United States helped to create, established that "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

To follow orders or to disobey orders, to keep information secret or to leak it, are choices for each individual to make – extremely difficult choices that have consequences. But not choosing is not an option.

We can only pray that people in positions of power within the Defense Department, those people who are already expressing vehement objections to the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, intensify their efforts if they fail to internally persuade the Bush Administration to change course. We must honestly acknowlege that it is unlikely to do so, given the Iraqi experience. Such actions of resistance will necessarily include the measures described by Hirsch, and, perhaps, even more confrontational ones.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Putin Challenges the American Empire in Munich 

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin condemned the unilateral global policies of the US and its European allies in a speech reminscent of Hugo Chavez's at the United Nations last September ("We are Men and Women of the South"). Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the most aggressive militarists in recent American history, had a front row seat. With the Pentagon preparing for air strikes against nuclear research facilities in Iran, the speech, like Chavez's, is a significant one:

Speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy

February 11, 2007

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Thank you very much dear Madam Federal Chancellor, Mr Teltschik, ladies and gentlemen!

I am truly grateful to be invited to such a representative conference that has assembled politicians, military officials, entrepreneurs and experts from more than 40 nations.

This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference. And I hope that after the first two or three minutes of my speech Mr Teltschik will not turn on the red light over there.

Therefore. It is well known that international security comprises much more than issues relating to military and political stability. It involves the stability of the global economy, overcoming poverty, economic security and developing a dialogue between civilisations.

This universal, indivisible character of security is expressed as the basic principle that “security for one is security for all”. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the first few days that the Second World War was breaking out: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”

These words remain topical today. Incidentally, the theme of our conference – global crises, global responsibility – exemplifies this.

Only two decades ago the world was ideologically and economically divided and it was the huge strategic potential of two superpowers that ensured global security.

This global stand-off pushed the sharpest economic and social problems to the margins of the international community’s and the world’s agenda. And, just like any war, the Cold War left us with live ammunition, figuratively speaking. I am referring to ideological stereotypes, double standards and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking.

The unipolar world that had been proposed after the Cold War did not take place either.

The history of humanity certainly has gone through unipolar periods and seen aspirations to world supremacy. And what hasn’t happened in world history?

However, what is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making.

It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilisation.

Along with this, what is happening in today’s world – and we just started to discuss this – is a tentative to introduce precisely this concept into international affairs, the concept of a unipolar world.

And with which results?

Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. Mr Teltschik mentioned this very gently. And no less people perish in these conflicts – even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!

Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

In international relations we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to so-called issues of political expediency, based on the current political climate.

And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasise this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. Of course such a policy stimulates an arms race.

The force’s dominance inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, significantly new threats – though they were also well-known before – have appeared, and today threats such as terrorism have taken on a global character.

I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security
.

And we must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue. Especially since the international landscape is so varied and changes so quickly – changes in light of the dynamic development in a whole number of countries and regions.

Madam Federal Chancellor already mentioned this. The combined GDP measured in purchasing power parity of countries such as India and China is already greater than that of the United States. And a similar calculation with the GDP of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – surpasses the cumulative GDP of the EU. And according to experts this gap will only increase in the future.

There is no reason to doubt that the economic potential of the new centres of global economic growth will inevitably be converted into political influence and will strengthen multipolarity.

In connection with this the role of multilateral diplomacy is significantly increasing. The need for principles such as openness, transparency and predictability in politics is uncontested and the use of force should be a really exceptional measure, comparable to using the death penalty in the judicial systems of certain states.

However, today we are witnessing the opposite tendency, namely a situation in which countries that forbid the death penalty even for murderers and other, dangerous criminals are airily participating in military operations that are difficult to consider legitimate. And as a matter of fact, these conflicts are killing people – hundreds and thousands of civilians!

But at the same time the question arises of whether we should be indifferent and aloof to various internal conflicts inside countries, to authoritarian regimes, to tyrants, and to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? As a matter of fact, this was also at the centre of the question that our dear colleague Mr Lieberman asked the Federal Chancellor. If I correctly understood your question (addressing Mr Lieberman), then of course it is a serious one! Can we be indifferent observers in view of what is happening? I will try to answer your question as well: of course not.

But do we have the means to counter these threats? Certainly we do. It is sufficient to look at recent history. Did not our country have a peaceful transition to democracy? Indeed, we witnessed a peaceful transformation of the Soviet regime – a peaceful transformation! And what a regime! With what a number of weapons, including nuclear weapons! Why should we start bombing and shooting now at every available opportunity? Is it the case when without the threat of mutual destruction we do not have enough political culture, respect for democratic values and for the law?

I am convinced that the only mechanism that can make decisions about using military force as a last resort is the Charter of the United Nations.
And in connection with this, either I did not understand what our colleague, the Italian Defence Minister, just said or what he said was inexact. In any case, I understood that the use of force can only be legitimate when the decision is taken by NATO, the EU, or the UN. If he really does think so, then we have different points of view. Or I didn’t hear correctly. The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN. And we do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN. When the UN will truly unite the forces of the international community and can really react to events in various countries, when we will leave behind this disdain for international law, then the situation will be able to change. Otherwise the situation will simply result in a dead end, and the number of serious mistakes will be multiplied. Along with this, it is necessary to make sure that international law have a universal character both in the conception and application of its norms.

And one must not forget that democratic political actions necessarily go along with discussion and a laborious decision-making process.

Dear ladies and gentlemen!

The potential danger of the destabilisation of international relations is connected with obvious stagnation in the disarmament issue.

Russia supports the renewal of dialogue on this important question.

It is important to conserve the international legal framework relating to weapons destruction and therefore ensure continuity in the process of reducing nuclear weapons.

Together with the United States of America we agreed to reduce our nuclear strategic missile capabilities to up to 1700-2000 nuclear warheads by 31 December 2012. Russia intends to strictly fulfil the obligations it has taken on. We hope that our partners will also act in a transparent way and will refrain from laying aside a couple of hundred superfluous nuclear warheads for a rainy day. And if today the new American Defence Minister declares that the United States will not hide these superfluous weapons in warehouse or, as one might say, under a pillow or under the blanket, then I suggest that we all rise and greet this declaration standing. It would be a very important declaration.

Russia strictly adheres to and intends to further adhere to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as well as the multilateral supervision regime for missile technologies. The principles incorporated in these documents are universal ones.

In connection with this I would like to recall that in the 1980s the USSR and the United States signed an agreement on destroying a whole range of small- and medium-range missiles but these documents do not have a universal character.

Today many other countries have these missiles, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, India, Iran, Pakistan and Israel. Many countries are working on these systems and plan to incorporate them as part of their weapons arsenals. And only the United States and Russia bear the responsibility to not create such weapons systems.

It is obvious that in these conditions we must think about ensuring our own security.

At the same time, it is impossible to sanction the appearance of new, destabilising high-tech weapons. Needless to say it refers to measures to prevent a new area of confrontation, especially in outer space. Star wars is no longer a fantasy – it is a reality. In the middle of the 1980s our American partners were already able to intercept their own satellite.

In Russia’s opinion, the militarisation of outer space could have unpredictable consequences for the international community, and provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era. And we have come forward more than once with initiatives designed to prevent the use of weapons in outer space.

Today I would like to tell you that we have prepared a project for an agreement on the prevention of deploying weapons in outer space. And in the near future it will be sent to our partners as an official proposal. Let’s work on this together.

Plans to expand certain elements of the anti-missile defence system to Europe cannot help but disturb us. Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race? I deeply doubt that Europeans themselves do.

Missile weapons with a range of about five to eight thousand kilometres that really pose a threat to Europe do not exist in any of the so-called problem countries. And in the near future and prospects, this will not happen and is not even foreseeable. And any hypothetical launch of, for example, a North Korean rocket to American territory through western Europe obviously contradicts the laws of ballistics. As we say in Russia, it would be like using the right hand to reach the left ear
.

And here in Germany I cannot help but mention the pitiable condition of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

The Adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe was signed in 1999. It took into account a new geopolitical reality, namely the elimination of the Warsaw bloc. Seven years have passed and only four states have ratified this document, including the Russian Federation.

NATO countries openly declared that they will not ratify this treaty, including the provisions on flank restrictions (on deploying a certain number of armed forces in the flank zones), until Russia removed its military bases from Georgia and Moldova. Our army is leaving Georgia, even according to an accelerated schedule. We resolved the problems we had with our Georgian colleagues, as everybody knows. There are still 1,500 servicemen in Moldova that are carrying out peacekeeping operations and protecting warehouses with ammunition left over from Soviet times. We constantly discuss this issue with Mr Solana and he knows our position. We are ready to further work in this direction.

But what is happening at the same time? Simultaneously the so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each. It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders, and we continue to strictly fulfil the treaty obligations and do not react to these actions at all.

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”. Where are these guarantees?

The stones and concrete blocks of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs. But we should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic choice – one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia – a choice in favour of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family
.

And now they are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us – these walls may be virtual but they are nevertheless dividing, ones that cut through our continent. And is it possible that we will once again require many years and decades, as well as several generations of politicians, to dissemble and dismantle these new walls?

Dear ladies and gentlemen!

We are unequivocally in favour of strengthening the regime of non-proliferation. The present international legal principles allow us to develop technologies to manufacture nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. And many countries with all good reasons want to create their own nuclear energy as a basis for their energy independence. But we also understand that these technologies can be quickly transformed into nuclear weapons.

This creates serious international tensions. The situation surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme acts as a clear example. And if the international community does not find a reasonable solution for resolving this conflict of interests, the world will continue to suffer similar, destabilising crises because there are more threshold countries than simply Iran. We both know this. We are going to constantly fight against the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Last year Russia put forward the initiative to establish international centres for the enrichment of uranium. We are open to the possibility that such centres not only be created in Russia, but also in other countries where there is a legitimate basis for using civil nuclear energy. Countries that want to develop their nuclear energy could guarantee that they will receive fuel through direct participation in these centres. And the centres would, of course, operate under strict IAEA supervision.

The latest initiatives put forward by American President George W. Bush are in conformity with the Russian proposals. I consider that Russia and the USA are objectively and equally interested in strengthening the regime of the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their deployment. It is precisely our countries, with leading nuclear and missile capabilities, that must act as leaders in developing new, stricter non-proliferation measures. Russia is ready for such work. We are engaged in consultations with our American friends.

In general, we should talk about establishing a whole system of political incentives and economic stimuli whereby it would not be in states’ interests to establish their own capabilities in the nuclear fuel cycle but they would still have the opportunity to develop nuclear energy and strengthen their energy capabilities.

In connection with this I shall talk about international energy cooperation in more detail. Madam Federal Chancellor also spoke about this briefly – she mentioned, touched on this theme. In the energy sector Russia intends to create uniform market principles and transparent conditions for all. It is obvious that energy prices must be determined by the market instead of being the subject of political speculation, economic pressure or blackmail.

We are open to cooperation. Foreign companies participate in all our major energy projects. According to different estimates, up to 26 percent of the oil extraction in Russia – and please think about this figure – up to 26 percent of the oil extraction in Russia is done by foreign capital. Try, try to find me a similar example where Russian business participates extensively in key economic sectors in western countries. Such examples do not exist! There are no such examples.

I would also recall the parity of foreign investments in Russia and those Russia makes abroad. The parity is about fifteen to one. And here you have an obvious example of the openness and stability of the Russian economy.

Economic security is the sector in which all must adhere to uniform principles. We are ready to compete fairly.

For that reason more and more opportunities are appearing in the Russian economy. Experts and our western partners are objectively evaluating these changes. As such, Russia’s OECD sovereign credit rating improved and Russia passed from the fourth to the third group. And today in Munich I would like to use this occasion to thank our German colleagues for their help in the above decision.

Furthermore. As you know, the process of Russia joining the WTO has reached its final stages. I would point out that during long, difficult talks we heard words about freedom of speech, free trade, and equal possibilities more than once but, for some reason, exclusively in reference to the Russian market.

And there is still one more important theme that directly affects global security. Today many talk about the struggle against poverty. What is actually happening in this sphere? On the one hand, financial resources are allocated for programmes to help the world’s poorest countries – and at times substantial financial resources. But to be honest -- and many here also know this – linked with the development of that same donor country’s companies. And on the other hand, developed countries simultaneously keep their agricultural subsidies and limit some countries’ access to high-tech products.

And let’s say things as they are – one hand distributes charitable help and the other hand not only preserves economic backwardness but also reaps the profits thereof. The increasing social tension in depressed regions inevitably results in the growth of radicalism, extremism, feeds terrorism and local conflicts. And if all this happens in, shall we say, a region such as the Middle East where there is increasingly the sense that the world at large is unfair, then there is the risk of global destabilisation.

It is obvious that the world’s leading countries should see this threat. And that they should therefore build a more democratic, fairer system of global economic relations, a system that would give everyone the chance and the possibility to develop.

Dear ladies and gentlemen, speaking at the Conference on Security Policy, it is impossible not to mention the activities of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As is well-known, this organisation was created to examine all – I shall emphasise this – all aspects of security: military, political, economic, humanitarian and, especially, the relations between these spheres.

What do we see happening today? We see that this balance is clearly destroyed. People are trying to transform the OSCE into a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries. And this task is also being accomplished by the OSCE’s bureaucratic apparatus which is absolutely not connected with the state founders in any way. Decision-making procedures and the involvement of so-called non-governmental organisations are tailored for this task. These organisations are formally independent but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control.

According to the founding documents, in the humanitarian sphere the OSCE is designed to assist country members in observing international human rights norms at their request. This is an important task. We support this. But this does not mean interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, and especially not imposing a regime that determines how these states should live and develop.

It is obvious that such interference does not promote the development of democratic states at all. On the contrary, it makes them dependent and, as a consequence, politically and economically unstable.

We expect that the OSCE be guided by its primary tasks and build relations with sovereign states based on respect, trust and transparency.

Dear ladies and gentlemen!

In conclusion I would like to note the following. We very often – and personally, I very often – hear appeals by our partners, including our European partners, to the effect that Russia should play an increasingly active role in world affairs.

In connection with this I would allow myself to make one small remark. It is hardly necessary to incite us to do so. Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.

We are not going to change this tradition today. At the same time, we are well aware of how the world has changed and we have a realistic sense of our own opportunities and potential. And of course we would like to interact with responsible and independent partners with whom we could work together in constructing a fair and democratic world order that would ensure security and prosperity not only for a select few, but for all.

Thank you for your attention.

Of course, Putin had his self-serving moments (for example, his criticism of the OSCE, which has played a prominent role in highlighting atrocious human rights violations by the Russians in Chechnya, and discerning readers can spot others), as will any national leader when speaking in public, but he clearly confronted the Bush Administration, and also challenged the Europeans: continue to facilitate unilateral US policies at your peril. Like Chavez, he deliberately made his remarks in a high profile appearance, in front of an institution influenced, if not dominated, by the US. For this reason, like Chavez's earlier speech in front of the United Nations, it will resonate globally. For Putin, as well as millions around the world, Iran is a red line that the US dare not cross.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Film Notes: Fear Eats the Soul 

Here at American Leftist, it is not necessary to restrict film comment to current releases. There is, as we all know, the world of DVD, and almost everything, unless it is too avant garde, obscure or enmeshed in copyright disputes, is readily available, even the works of foreign directors that received limited to non-existent distribution in the US when their films were first released.

So, today, let's examine a great, representative film of one my favorite directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In 1971, he, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, personally met Douglas Sirk. Sirk was the master of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s, but his mastery was only then being belatedly recognized, years after he had retired to Switzerland.

Some say that Fassbinder discovered the films of Sirk as a result of this meeting, but that is probably an exaggeration. After all, he spent much of his childhood in the movie theatre while his mother worked at home, and he must have seen dubbed versions of Sirk's films. Accordingly, it is probably more accurate to say that Fassbinder remembered movies that he had forgotten, movies that made little impression upon him in his youth, but now reemerged as revelations.

In any event, it was a fortuitous encounter. Sirk's films, as acknowledged by Fassbinder in many public writings and statements, provided him with a cinematic language to address themes about the way people relate to one another while being subjected to societal pressures to conform. Fassbinder remade one of these films, All That Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul.

All That Heaven Allows has been described as a women's weepie in the argot of time, a May-September romance, starring Rock Hudson as a bohemian young landscaper who falls in love with a widowed socialite played by Jane Wyatt. Sirk took a story that he found implausible and transformed it into a withering condemnation of provincial, small town American life. No wonder it took film critics 15 years to appreciate it.

Fassbinder explosively transformed All That Heaven Allows into an intimate, emotional story about a romance between Ali, a young Morrocan guest worker, a Gastarbaiter, and Emmi, a widowed 60 year old German cleaning woman. Both Ali and Emmi are lonely, Ali because he is isolated and ostracized, even from other guest workers, and Emmi because she is no longer considered relevant or important in the economically successful Germany of the 1970s. Her adult children make periodic, perfunctory visits.

Such a simple story opens the door for Fassbinder to interweave many of his enduring themes into a melodramatic story that draws the audience into it. His affection for marginalized and abandoned people in society, the extent to which pressure to conform separates people from happiness, his belief, bordering on anarchism, that people, in the goodness of their hearts, know what is best for themselves and others, but lack the confidence to act upon it, and conversely, the extent to which people are capable of inflicting the most terrible cruelties upon one another in the most subtle ways.

In a Fassbinder film, scenes of violence, infrequent as they are (and, I can't recall any in Fear Eats the Soul, unless you count the smashing of a TV), are moments of rest between these frightening instances of what he called everyday fascism. One heartrending example of such behaviour takes place after Emmi has been replaced as a cleaning woman by a young immigrant gypsy, or, possibly, a Polish woman, and we see this young woman timidly sitting alone to eat her lunch on the steps of a winding staircase, while the older German cleaning women gossip amongst one another farther down. The film's ending is a statement of profound sadness about the ephemerality of love, and how, upon attainment, it can be destroyed by forces beyond our control.

Fassbinder used this film, as he did others, to display his respect for what his contemporaries disparagingly called My Father's Kino, the German film and television productions of the 1950s and early 1960s, an endeavor that struggled in the shadows of the glamour of Hollywood and the excitement of the French New Wave, by casting the popular Brigitte Mira as Emmi. He engaged pop culture; he did not abandon it. Ali is performed with admirable understatement by El Hedi ben Salem, who was his partner at the time.

Fassbinder also updated Sirk's visual approach for contemporary audiences. Despite being very low budget, there is an opulence, a skilled use of color and location set design that frames the emotional states of the characters. He integrated the Sirkean studio visual style into the world outside, as demonstrated by the brief clip from Fear Eats the Soul at the beginning of this entry. Note the staged seating of Ali and Emmi within a sea of empty yellow chairs at the outdoor restaurant, which, along with the reaction of the restaurant staff, underscores themes of ostracism and conformity.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

You Cannot Change the Past, But You Can Make the Future 

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Iran: An Archeological Exercise 

Yet again, rumors are rife that Bush is about to order military action against Iran. Carrier groups are sent to the Gulf, along with an escalation of rhetoric and a seemingly unending series of unsubstantiated claims that the Iranians are responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq. Apparently, the administration has seized upon this new approach as a means of persuading Americans to support an attack.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates insist, in near unison, that "all options remain on the table", including, presumably even the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the perceived facilities of the Iranian nuclear program. Blatant appeals to the worst instincts of the Israeli lobby have made it nearly impossible for anyone to deny its role in shaping American attitudes about the Middle East, but paradoxically, as noted by As'ad Abukhalil, an overemphasis upon the importance of the lobby only serves to obscure underlying American motivations for dominating the region. American foreign policy, it seems, can now only be discussed in conditions of hysteria.

If one accepts the philosophical premise that we live in postmodernist times, a period in which grand narratives are no longer plausible, then Iran suggests that a revision is required. Iran, as described by the American government and media, stands for the proposition that grand narratives, at least when it comes to the American Empire, can be worn and discarded seasonally like old clothes. In the fall, Iran is a threat because of its nuclear research program; in the winter, Iran is dangerous because it is arming and training the Iraqi resistance; in the spring, Iran is cause for alarm because it is instigating sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni.

There is a thread that ties all of themes together, and that is the necessity to conceal the fact that a US attack upon Iran will be unprovoked and unjustified. A frightening corollary is the recognition that Iran may therefore legitimately target any country, any institution and any people around the world that facilitate this attack. Concealment of these extremely unpleasant insights requires something more, however, the burial of the history of the US, and the West generally, in regard to Iran for the last 100 years.

Let's summarize the salient aspects of it. Starting just after the beginning of the 20th Century, the British ruled Iran for nearly 50 years as a corporate asset of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the Anglo-British Oil Company, and then, more simply, British Petroleum, with the government of Iran, much like the Iraqi government today, only allowed to exercise a limited, illusory sovereignty. Oil profits were directed, quite predictably, overwhelmingly into the hands of the investors in the oil company.

In 1951, the British were still taking 85% of Iranian oil profits, and the Iranians moved to nationalize BP. Of course, we know what happened next. The British persuaded the CIA, after some hesitancy on the part of President Truman, to bring down the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh.

The Shah, placed on throne by the US, governed Iran over the next quarter century or so for the benefit of Western bankers, contractors and weapons manufacturers, while attempting half-hearted reforms that merely served to antagonize religious fundamentalists. His security services were known for their brutality and international reach. His government fell, and he was forced to flee, in 1979 after the Iranian revolution.

The hostage crisis of 1979-1980 soured US/Iranian relations to such an extent that they have never been repaired, but the underlying source of enmity has been the unwillingness of Iran to return to a subordinate position in relationship to the dominant imperial power of the region (first, Britain, now, the US) that it occupied from about 1909 through 1979.

In response, the US, along with Saudi Arabia, encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1980. During the course of this war, the US was largely mute about the use of poison gas by Iraq to avoid an embarrassing defeat. Iraqi attacks upon US and international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz were, rather bizarrely, cause for blaming the Iranians. In 1988, the US Navy shot down an Iranian airliner, killing nearly all 300 passengers. During the course of the 1990s, the US expanded the application of economic sanctions against Iran, sanctions that were first imposed in response to the hostage crisis.

Hence, we are now living through the endgame by which the US, with its faithful ally, the British, seeks to reestablish Western control over Iran and its resources. It is a sign of receding US power that direct airstrikes, potentially ones involving tactical nuclear weapons, may be required, and even then, success is not assured. A coup is out of the question, Iranians are much too wise for that, and, with neighboring Iraq ruled by Shia, an Iraqi invasion is an absurdity, even if one blissfully forgets Saddam's failure.

The erasure of this history by the mainstream media here in the US, the lack of any rational discussion of it in the context of current events, and the expedient manufacture of new, alternative fictional histories for the benefit of finance capital and credulous consumers, is yet another postmodern manifestation. If the attack goes forward, however, we may find ourselves face to face with a newly emergent grand narrative that cannot be evaded: the collapse of the empire itself.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

PNAC as Seen Through the Eyes of Constructivists 

Extra credit for those who can enjoy the animated graphic originality and still spot the analytical mistakes.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Film Notes: Children of Men 

Fridays strike me as a good day for Film Notes, so this may become a weekly or biweekly feature. After all, how many times can anyone post comments about the latest jingoistic pronouncements of people like presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards?

So, let's proceed: Children of Men is a adaption of a P. D. James novel published in the early 1990s, and, as with the visually and narratively very different film, V for Vendetta, it exploits a dystopian vision of the future as a means of forcing us to confront the present. The plot is straightforward: Theodore Faron, the protagonist, convincingly portrayed by Clive Owen, is going about his business in London in 2027.

In a world that has become increasingly violent and autocratic, the middle-aged Faron sleepwalks his way through work, drinks and visits with his apparently only close friend, Jasper Palmer. a friendly, charming eccentric. Engagingly played by Michael Caine, Palmer reminds us of the recent, more compassionate past. It is yet another of Caine's fine character performances in which he deepens the emotional content of the film, without overwhelming the leads.

At the beginning, we learn why the world is in such disarray. Humans are incapable of reproducing, and the plot is set in motion after Faron discovers, through his terrorist? armed resistance? ex-wife (Juliette Moore, very good as well), that a young, West African woman named Kee has become pregnant. Over the course of the rest of the movie, Faron is drawn into the necessity of secreting Kee away from the horrors of 2027 Britain to a utopian science endeavor in the Azores known as "The Human Project".

There has been much comment on the technical proficiency of the film, and the critics are right, as a political suspense thriller, it is riveting from beginning to end. The director, Alfonso Cuaron, his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the camera crew, are equally proficient in presenting scenes of emotional intimacy as well as extended takes of violent action. They consistently, and deliberately, avoids closeups and fix the characters within the foreground of wide-angled shots of the world around them. They do not manufacture false sentiment, instead an authentic feel emerges from our observations of the characters interacting with one another, others and the physical environment. The camera moves, either slowly or rapidly, as the plot requires, most impressively during an ambush in the early part of film, and, then, later, near the end, in a large refugee camp for deporting undocumented people.

For these reasons, Children of Men found itself listed on quite a number of "Top Ten" lists. All the more unfortunate that, despite all this, and a great deal of contemporary political quotation, it remains lifeless, as soulless as Faron in the opening scenes. After one strips away the strong performances, the good script and the masterful visual storytelling, we are left with, at the end of the day, an old, shopworn Hollywood genre film, the jaded white male protagonist, adrift in world that he seeks to evade and ignore at every opporunity (and, can, of course, easily do so, precisely because he remains, despite his bohemian rejection of society, part of the privileged class), a world in which he has severed almost all emotional attachments, until someone comes into his life again to prompt his stopped heart to start beating again and try to save someone he cares about, and, in the process, change the world as well.

Yes, you've got it. As strange as it sounds, Children of Men is really just a more violent, contemporary version of Casablanca. Even more pernicious, the movie is classic neoliberal fare, and this is no doubt one of the primary additional reasons that it finds itself on so many "Top Ten" lists. Any attempt to understand the world in terms of political ideology and collective social action is unrelentingly described as either impossible (the terrorist cell? the resistance movement? is riven by mistrust and personal ambition, the undocumented refugees splintered into numerous groups of armed combatants), or, worse, the actual source of autocracy and impersonal violence.

Of course, there is the rejoinder: it's all true! Leaving aside such a subjective contention (haven't there been, in fact, successful social movements in the last 30 years, despite the march of neoliberalism?), I wouldn't find it so objectionable if the intention was, reminiscent of Fassbinder, to show us the world as it is in order to compel us to recognize and aspire to better alternatives, but the movie lacks this sophistication. Instead, the future of humans of earth hangs by the thread of its individualistic, Stakhanovite hero, updated as a nihilistic loner for contemporary audiences.

By contrast, V for Vendetta treats these subjects in disquieting ways that ensured that it made few, if any, "Top Ten" lists. V, the protagonist, is an ambiguous figure, seemingly well-meaning, but emotionally scarred by past abuse, and recalls some of the great tragic creations of the silent and early sound cinema, which, in turn, were derived from 19th Century literature. V for Vendetta references an alternative film history that is more challenging for critics than Rick, on the runway, watching Ilsa fly away with Victor Laszlo.

Most troubling of all, V insists upon the right to the individual to confront the violence of the state with violence, if necessary, and the film suggests that existing systems of oppression generate the violence that bring about their demise. Audiences find it easy to identify with Faron, who only shoots after being fired upon, but V is much harder for them, he's scary, he compels the audience to think about things it would rather not.

V, also unlike Faron, implicity recognizes that there is a power elite that controls the social order, instigating fear and social unrest among the populace to perpetuate themselves, and seeks to destroy them, while Faron gives the question only passing interest, or, perhaps, more accurately, treats it, consistent with neoliberal thought, as an immutable condition. V inspires the populace to rise up against the British government and blows up Parliament, the symbol of its fascist turn; Faron tries to spirit Kee out of Britain.

Finally, as an aside, it is important to note that V for Vendetta is also more subtle in its understanding of the instruments of social control and how they are carefully utilized. In Children of Men, undocumented people are seized at underground and train stations, and whisked away to nearby cages in public view. This is simplistic to the extreme, as if the authorities have learned nothing since Hitler and Stalin. Conversely, the Wachowski brothers, well aware of how neoliberal governments rely upon stealth to intimidate, present a world of outward normality in V for Vendetta. The police, the Fingermen, much like the current practice of rendition, grab people when they are alone, either at home or in the street, hood them, and take them away to torture and kill them, understanding that the rumors associated with such disappearances are a far more effective way to frighten the public and instill compliance than performing their duties out in the open.

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