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

Friday, August 29, 2008

Code of Silence (Part 2) 

Jurors wept and embraced former Marine Jose Luis Nazario Jr. after acquitting him of voluntary manslaughter in the killings of unarmed Iraqi detainees during a fierce 2004 battle.

Tears rolled down Nazario's cheeks and courtroom spectators openly sobbed and cheered Thursday. He is the first U.S. veteran tried by a civilian court for alleged actions in combat.

It's been a long, hard year for my family," Nazario said outside the courtroom. "I need a moment to catch my breath and try to get my life back together."

Jurors took less than six hours over two days to find the former sergeant not guilty of charges that he killed or caused others to kill four detainees in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 9, 2004. The detainees were shot during a battle — marked by house-to-house fighting — that was considered one of the fiercest of the Iraq war.

NOTE: The two Marines that allegedly saw Nazario kill the detainees refused to testify.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Code of Silence (Part 1) 

A FORMER US Marine was acquitted of manslaughter here today in the shooting deaths of unarmed Iraqi prisoners during 2004 fighting in Fallujah.

Jose Luis Nazario, 28, was found not guilty of all charges after a landmark trial at the US District Court at Riverside in California, southeast of Los Angeles.

It was the first time a former serviceman had been tried in a civilian court for actions taken during combat.

Prosecutors told the jury that Mr Nazario had ignored clear rules about how to treat prisoners and ordered the execution-style killing of four "unarmed, submissive, docile" detainees during a house search.

Mr Nazario is alleged to have shot dead two of the captives himself before ordering two subordinates to kill the others.

However the prosecution's case was weakened after the two subordinates - Marines Jermaine Nelson and Ryan Weemer - refused to testify against Mr Nazario last week and were declared in contempt of court.

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Vote or Die (Part 1) 

Last week, in response to Part 3 of my series of posts about the open letter to Barack Obama on The Nation website, and, more specifically, my assertion that I would probably not be voting for Obama in the fall, Michael said, We should all vote. Vote or Die.

There is no more generally accepted truism in this country that the notion that exercising the right to vote is always a good thing. People and parties may seek to intimidate others from doing it, or make it difficult for them to do it, but the concept of voting itself is considered an act of personal participation and empowerment. Conversely, refusing to do so is a form of civic treason and submission.

But it is really that simple? Consider, for example, that we live in socioeconomically diverse country with over three hundred million people, yet we retain a two party political system that solidified itself in 1800, when the country had a population of just over five million, mostly white, black and rural. Does our political system now provide sufficient means of participation and electoral alternatives so that it can be said to offer an opportunity for most citizens to give expression to their values?

The question really answers itself, doesn't it? Of course, it doesn't. The dirty secret of this republic is that it relies upon millions of alienated, captive voters to participate in elections, and, hence, legitimize them, even though their issues, their concerns and their values are nowhere to be seen in the candidates offered by the Republicans and the Democrats.

So, if you are one of these people, why should you vote? We all know the answer to this question, too. Most of us in this situation vote as a reflexive self-defense mechanism. On the left, we know that the US is capitalist and militaristic, so we try to discern which candidates will pursue less avaracious and violent policies domestically and abroad. This is pretty much the line of reasoning of those who signed the open letter to Obama.

Unfortunately, even if you are smart enough to interpret the opaque and contradictory messages put out by the candidates on these subjects, and make the right choice, such a reformist approach invariably pushes one into a position of active collusion with the actions of the candidate once elected. If you were a fiscal conservative in the 1980s, you found yourself rationalizing the profligacy of the Reagan presidency. If you were a social welfare services supporter of Clinton in the 1990s, you found yourself having to explain welfare reform. Unless, you just said to hell with them, which some do in this sort of situation.

Even if you do that, though, a lot of your friends still hold you responsible. After all, didn't you say that the candidate was a good guy? Why is she doing such terrible things now? Confronted with such hostility, the response is something along these lines: on balance, she's doing a good job. And, yes, republican democracy is one of those on balance activities. No one gets most, not to mention all, of what they want, it's a process of compromise.

And that might be acceptable if the US was more like a parliamentary democracy, with several parties that reflected social perspectives to the right and the left, as well as ones more libertarian and more collective. In that sort of system, we would be voting for candidates that more accurately, though still imperfectly, reflected our views. Once the election were over, the newly elected office holders would compete and compromise to develop policy.

In other words, we would have to accept the ultimate outcomes, because people with our perspective, as a fairly accurate representation of our presence in society, participated in that process. This gets to the heart of the problem, doesn't it? We don't get to vote for people who share our perspective, therefore it is not represented in the process, yet, paradoxically, we are compelled to accept the outcomes. This is a particularly sinister model of electoral politics and governance, because it marginalizes opposition to the operations of government through the illusion of popular participation.

We can find numerous instances of this sort of process at work. Indeed, the excerpt of the column by Werther, posted here yesterday, highlights one of the inevitable consequences: rule by an ignorant oligarchy who perpetually make horrible decisions to the detriment of most people other than themselves. But let's take the time to substantiate this process with a real historical example. In 2004, 2006 and now, 2008, millions of us opposed to the war in Iraq, and militaristically adventuresome policies elsewhere, have no prospect of electing a Congress that will take action in this direction. Much the same can be said for civil liberties and the urgency of government economic intervention to help distressed people instead of the wealthy. Yet our votes legitimize the perpetuation of existing policy.

Campaigns for the presidency increase this problem exponentially, with only two plausible candidates running, the Democratic one and the Republican one, all of us are expected to accept them as the sole vessels for or social hopes and aspirations. It's ludicrous, but it does work to a shocking degree. Woe to anyone who dares suggest voting for an alternative candidate, a McKinney, say, or a Nader, because they more closely reflect your political views. That's about the most heinous thing you can do.

After all, we are supposed to vote, but not for anyone who actually challenges the economic elite that runs the country, and, in fact, much of the world in association with other capitalists. Or, even worse, we are not supposed to use elections to organize ourselves in opposition to them. In the end, most people seem to understand that democracy, as understood in the US, isn't really about empowerment, and play along begrudingly, in the hope that something good might come out of it. Along these lines, Gaius has done marvelous work exposing the inherently autocratic nature of what transpires after a President is elected. They don't call it the imperial presidency for nothing.

So, is it possible that it is actually more empowering to repudiate this process and consciously refuse to participate, to refuse to vote at all? To say that I reject a system that is designed to render me powerless while simultaneously exploiting my involvement to legitimize itself? Is it more empowering to focus your energy upon dealing with political and social issues on a personal and collective basis outside the electoral process? To make demands upon institutions directly, instead of delegating this effort to elected officials who don't speak for us and never will? To consider, horror of horrors, that it might be more effective over time to challenge the fundamental social relations of this country through direct action with others? After enjoying the theatrics of the acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain, you might give it some thought. Because here, unlike in the US political system, you decide.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection 

An excerpt from a straightforward, thoughtful exposition of the failings of the US political system by Werther, a northern Virginia based defense analyst:

To explain why the American political class invades the wrong countries, indemnifies criminals, picks people like Joe Biden for responsible positions, and engages in so many other destructive acts, we modestly propose Werther's Law, or the Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection: in decadent political systems the most damaging policy option tends to be the one chosen.

To explain how Werther's Law works, we need reference to another political rule of thumb, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which states that all organizations tend to develop into hierarchies with oligarchs at the top. We submit that those oligarchies over time tend to become inbred, either literally (think Bush family), or because they select members based on obedience to hierarchy, a groupthink mentality, and ability to self-censor. The rewards for correct behavior are lucrative: not only the thrill of wielding power when in office but a virtual ironclad guarantee of well-remunerated lifetime employment as a lobbyist, a board member of a defense contractor, or a holder of an endowed chair at a foundation.

Making serious mistakes, or even pursuing disastrous policies, are no impediment to one's career moving onward and upward. "Failing upward" (known cynically in Washington as "f*ck up and move up") is an occurrence as frequent in Washington as the common cold. How else to explain Paul Wolfowitz's horrific tenure at the Department of Defense being rewarded with a plum job as president of the World Bank, where he could make further business contacts that would keep him well-paid even after he failed in that job? It is no sin to be incompetent; it is a sin to be competent and diligent in one's job if it involves blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's organization. The fate of whistleblowers in the Bush administration is abundant evidence of this. No one with a mortgage likes to be demoted, fired, or blackballed from future employment.

Of course, there is more, much more in this highly informative, entertaining column, so, again, go here to read it in its entirety. And while you are over at antiwar.com, the place where this piece can be found, don't forget to make a tax deductible donation to show your appreciation.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 5) 

The United Nations confirms that 90 people, including 60 children, were killed as a result of a US/NATO airstrike last Friday in Herat province. I guess that, in a perverse way, you could say that the US and NATO honored the service of those 10 French troops killed a few day earlier.

I have perused the New York Times, the Guardian and the Independent, over the last several days, and encountered few articles about the incident beyond those generated by wire services. Interestingly, the Times took the most interest, although all emphasized the Afghan government response, a demand for a formal treaty authorizing the presence of NATO forces and the firing of two Afghan generals involved in the operation, than they did the incident itself.

Apparently, the media assumes that, for us, the lives of Afghans are relatively insignificant in comparison to larger geopolitical concerns, especially when it appears that one of our surrogates is trying to slip the leash. As I said in May 2007:

One wonders if NATO is subjecting the Afghans to the kinds of indiscriminate, violent brutalities that occupation forces have inflicted upon people so often in the past when it is no longer possible to evade recognition of defeat.

I don't think that we have to wonder about this anymore. As reported by lenin, the number of monthly airstrikes in Afghanistan has increased from about 500 a month last summer to over 2000 a month now. He also astutely observes that, if elected, Obama will receive favorable responses to requests for more troops from other countries. He additionally informs us that progressives, whatever that means, appear to be supportive of such a course.

Sadly, there are few who recognize that we can't get out of Iraq by trading off the lives of Afghans. Seamus Milne is one of them, as he recently confronted the pervasive myth that Afghanistan is the good war in contrast to the bad one in Iraq:

The original aims of the invasion, it will be recalled, were the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and the destruction of al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11. None of those aims has been achieved. Instead, the US and its friends brought back to power an alliance of brutal and corrupt warlords, gave them new identities as democrats with phoney elections, and drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leaderships over the border into Pakistan.

Far from reducing the threat of terrorism, this crucible of the war on terror has simply spread it around the region, bringing forth an increasingly potent campaign of resistance and giving a new lease of life to a revamped Taliban as a champion of Pashtun nationalism. And as mission creep has detached the Afghan war from its original declared target of al-Qaida - let alone the claims made about women's rights, which have been going into grim reverse again in much of the country under Nato tutelage - it has morphed into the kind of war of "civilisation" evoked by Sarkozy and Browne, a certain recipe for conflict without end. No wonder British politicians have talked about digging in for decades.

I concur with his pessimistic assessment of the future:

The only way to end the war is the withdrawal of foreign troops as part of a political settlement negotiated with all the significant players in the country, including the Taliban, and guaranteed by the regional powers and neighbouring states. A large majority of Afghans say they back negotiations with the Taliban, even in western-conducted opinion polls. The Taliban themselves insist they will only talk once foreign troops have withdrawn. If that were the only obstacle, it could surely be choreographed as a parallel process. But given the scale of commitments made by the US and Nato, the fire of the Afghan war seems bound to spread further.

Milne cannot, however, bring himself to say the unmentionable. US policies in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s exploded in Pennsylvania and New York City on 9/11. Is it possible that something similar will happen again? As long as Americans retain an alarming complacency about killing people in other countries, I would have to say that the answer to this question is yes.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama (Part 3) 

Looks like the signatories of this pallid letter, meekly requesting that Obama pursue a mildly progressive agenda, got their answer: a punch in the face resulting in numerous broken teeth.

Alexander Cockburn describes the embarassing reality of Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his vice presidential nominee:

"Change” and “hope” are not words one associates with Senator Joe Biden, a man so ripely symbolic of everything that is unchanging and hopeless about our political system that a computer simulation of the corporate-political paradigm senator in Congress would turn out “Biden” in a nano-second.

The first duty of any senator from Delaware is to do the bidding of the banks and large corporations which use the tiny state as a drop box and legal sanctuary. Biden has never failed his masters in this primary task. Find any bill that sticks it to the ordinary folk on behalf of the Money Power and you’ll likely detect Biden’s hand at work. The bankruptcy act of 2005 was just one sample. In concert with his fellow corporate serf, Senator Tom Carper, Biden blocked all efforts to hinder bankrupt corporations from fleeing from their real locations to the legal sanctuary of Delaware. Since Obama is himself a corporate serf and from day one in the US senate has been attentive to the same masters that employ Biden, the ticket is well balanced, the seesaw with Obama at one end and Biden at the other dead-level on the fulcrum of corporate capital.

Another shining moment in Biden’s progress in the current presidential term was his conduct in the hearings on Judge Alito’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. From the opening moments of the Judiciary Committee's sessions in January, 2006, it became clear that Alito faced no serious opposition. On that first ludicrous morning Senator Pat Leahy sank his head into his hands, shaking it in unbelieving despair as Biden blathered out a self-serving and inane monologue lasting a full twenty minutes before he even asked Alito one question. In his allotted half hour Biden managed to pose only five questions, all of them ineptly phrased. He did pose two questions about Alito’s membership of a racist society at Princeton, but had already undercut them in his monologue by calling Alito "a man of integrity", not once but twice, and further trivialized the interrogation by reaching under the dais to pull out a Princeton cap and put it on.

Biden's role in facilitating Bush foreign policy is fairly well known, with his support for the war in Iraq constituting just one example, as documented by Stephen Zunes, but the shocking aspect of his selection, as recognized by Cockburn, is his lack of any interest in the blue collar base of the party. Obama's recent statements making his policy in regard to Iraq incomprehensible, and his selection of Biden, reveal his intention to move forward in the fall against McCain with the expectation that blue collar voters and antiwar liberals have no choice but to vote for him. We will soon find out whether such arrogance is a smart strategy, so far, it doesn't look too good.

Adolph Reed, in a controversial piece maligning the Obama campaign and its starry eyed progressive supporters, has identified what is really happening here:

I'd been thinking about doing a "See, I told you so" column about Obama; then, especially given the torrent of vituperation and self-righteous contumely I got after arguing that he's not what far too many nominal leftists were trying to make him out to be, I was tempted instead to do a "To hell with you, you deserve what you get" column. But the smug yuppies to whom I'd address that message -- the fan club we encounter in foundation offices, faculty meetings, soccer games and dinner parties and on MSNBC and in the Nation -- are neither the only people who've listened to Obama's siren song nor the ones who'll pay the price for their self-indulgent idiocy. (And Liza Featherstone deserves acknowledgement for having predicted early that the modal lament of the disillusioned would compare him unfavorably to Feingold.) Among other things, as I saw ever more clearly while watching Rachel Maddow talk with another of that Dem ilk about Obama and his family -- how adorable and "well-raised" or some such his kids are, etc, etc -- a few nights ago on Keith Olberman's show, an Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy, and, since even "left" discourse in this country seems capable of conceptualizing the latter as a politically significant matter only in terms of the former (or its gender or similar categorical equivalent), that could just about complete purging entirely out of legitimate political discourse the notion that economic inequality is rooted fundamentally in capitalism's political and economic dynamics.

Underclass ideology -- where left and right come together to embed a common sense around victim-blaming and punitive moralism, racialized of course but at a respectable remove from the familiar phenotypically based racial taxonomy -- will most likely be the vehicle for effecting the purge. Obama's success will embody how far we have come in realizing racial democracy, and the inequality that remains is most immediately a function of cultural -- i.e., attitudinal, and behavioral -- and moral deficits that undercut acquisition of "human (and/or "social," these interchangeable mystifications shift according to rhetorical need) capital," a message his incessant castigation of black behavior legitimizes. In this context, the "activism" appropriate for attacking inequality: 1) rationalizes privatization and demonization of the public sector through accepting the premise that government is inefficient and stifles "creativity;" 2) values individual voluntarism and "entrepreneurship" over collective action (e.g., four of the five winners of the Nation's "Brave Young Activist" award started their own designer NGOs and/or websites; the fifth carries a bullhorn around and organizes solidarity demos); 3) provides enrichment experiences, useful extracurrics, and/or career paths for precocious Swarthmore and Brown students and grads (the Wendy Kopp/Samantha Power model trajectory), and 4) reduces the scope of direct action politics to the "all tactics, no strategy," fundamentally Alinskyite, ACORN-style politics that Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone have described as "activistism" and whose potential for reactionary opportunism Andy Stern of SEIU has amply demonstrated. Obama goes a step further in deviating from Alinskyism to the right, by rejecting its "confrontationalism," which severs its rhetoric of "empowerment" from political action and contestation entirely and merges the notion into the pop-psychological, big box Protestant, Oprah Winfrey, Reaganite discourse of self-improvement/personal responsibility.

What more can one say? Personally, as I said yesterday, I tend to see the choice offered by this election as one between a Democratic candidate that wants to focus upon killing Afghans and a Republican opponent who wants to continue to emphasize the slaughter of Iraqis.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 4) 

In October of 2001, I participated in a protest, along with about 30 other people, against the US invasion of Afghanistan. We marched along Russell Boulevard in Davis, California, passing by people entering the stadium to watch the UC Davis Aggies play football. They either ignored us or looked at us as if we were freaks.

At least, at that time, there was a plausible pretense that the war was about al-Qaeda and getting the people responsible for 9/11. No longer. On Monday, 10 French peacekeepers were killed in an insurgent attack of unknown origin, although there is a report that they were actually killed by NATO air support which NATO denies. Upon hearing of the French deaths, my immediate reaction was, oh, no, NATO and the US are going to launch some airstrikes to kill a bunch of people so as to look like they are doing something about it.

Which is, of course, exactly what happened:

A US-led operation in western Afghanistan has killed 76 civilians, including 50 children and 19 women, according to claims from the Afghan interior ministry.

But the death toll has been challenged by US forces, who said only 30 people, all of them Taliban fighters, lost their lives in today's air strikes.

Another Afghan government department, the defence ministry, said five civilians and 25 insurgents died in the operation in Shindand district in Herat province.

If the figure of 76 civilians is proved correct, it would be one of the largest civilian losses of life since the US-led operation against the Taliban began in 2001.

An Afghan interior ministry spokesman said that the civilians had been killed by "accident", but that it was sending investigators to find out how the tragedy occurred.

This incident follows immediately upon the heels of earlier reports that 20 out of 30 alleged Taliban insurgents killed by US airstrikes in the province of Laghman were actually civilians, again mostly women and children.

For more background on what is happening here, please consider reading my post of August 4th entitled People in White. Taking the indiscriminate killing of Korean peasants and refugees by the US during the Korean War as an example, it explores the question as to why the US has perpetually killed large numbers of civilians during its military interventions since World War II.

Domestically, the political alternatives are dim. Obama wants to take troops out of Iraq, so that he can put more troops in Afghanistan. That's the choice that we have in this election, a choice between a Republican candidate who wants to make killing Iraqis his priority, and a Democratic opponent who wants to emphasize killing Afghans. Will the US ever pull out of the killing fields of the Middle East and Central Asia during my lifetime? Only if forced to do so.

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Hua Guofeng, Dead at 87 

A mysterious historical figure, given that he attained the chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Party. A paradoxical man, selected by Mao to succeed him in 1976, he subsequently authorized the military arrest of the Gang of Four, including Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, shortly after Mao's death, yet continued to advocate in support of the cultural revolution. By 1978, Deng Xiaoping had pushed him into the dustbin of history. Deng later used him to establish the principle of peaceful transfers of power within the party by allowing him to remain on the Central Committee even after he lost his last leadership position in 1981. Apparently, he failed to recognize the political necessity of distancing himself from Mao's touch.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Film Notes: You're an Educated Sort of a Swine 

Over the last several days, with my wife and son away visting relatives, I took the opportunity to watch one of my favorite television mini-series again, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced in the late 1970s. Based upon the novel by John Le Carre, it relates the story of how the protagonist, George Smiley, conducts an investigation of the British Secret Service, the Circus, in the late 1960s that results in the discovery and arrest of a Soviet mole.

For those of you who revere the work of the late Alec Guinness, his performance as Smiley is certainly one of his great ones, perhaps, as some have said, his signature one, one that put an exclamation mark on a brilliant career. If you are only familiar with him because of his role as Obi Wan Kenobi in the initial Star Wars trilogy, please consider watching this six part series to discover what he was truly capable of doing with a more serious, multifaceted character.

Upon watching the series again, I was struck by a number of things. First, the plot is centered around the reflections of older men about their lives, personally and professionally. Needless to say, this is not a common subject for contemporary film and television, given its emphasis upon the travails of young people. Despite, in the words of one Internet Movie Database user comment, a strong, uncompromising narrative drive, there is a contemplative mood of regret, a recognition among the characters that they had, by accepting the ideological boundaries of the Cold War, subjected themselves to a determinism that rendered their lives cold, sterile, and ultimately, irrelevant to the people in the world outside the Circus.

Second, adrift in the pigs and clover society of British consumerism, Smiley and his generation of Circus operatives can only mechanistically do, day by day, what they have always done, practice their tradecraft. It is striking feature of the series that many of the seminal cultural features of the 1960s in Britain, such as rock music, the drug culture, opposition to the Vietnam War and the rebellions of 1968, are not mentioned. Smiley, his field agents and the Circus suspects operate within a containerized world of their own making, as the need for secrecy and circumspection, along with a shared ideological mission, has isolated them. Smiley navigates a journey of self discovery wherein he is exposed as the only one who still believes in it, with the possible exception of his protege, Peter Guillam. The events of the 1960s may go unremarked, but, even at a distance, they have cracked the foundations of the Circus. In this respect, the mole merely anticipated the future when he agreed to spy for the Russians, starting in the late 1940s.

Third, the series highlights this crisis of faith to indict the notion of ideological certainty more generally. One of the most compelling scenes is Smiley's recollection of a conversation between himself and another high level Circus figure, Roy Bland, before Smiley's mentor, the mysterious Control, lost his authority and Smiley left the service. While obstensibly talking about how Smiley can ensure that Bland will support Control in political power struggle, they actually engage in a philosophical discussion of the validity of defining oneself through the prism of the Cold War.

Bland served many years in Eastern Europe and Russia at great personal cost, in places like Poznan, Kiev and Budapest, and explains to an appalled Smiley that as a good socialist, I'm in it for the money, as a good capitalist, I'm for the revolution, because if you can't beat it, spy on it. Bland is now merely a mercenary who expects to be compensated for his years of sacrifice, and doubts that Control can do it. He needs the coin required to pay the price of admission into the pigs and clover society. Provoked, Smiley acknowledges that liberal democracy is compromised by the excesses of the acquisitive instinct, but that it is superior to the deprivation of the East. Bland brings the conversation to an abrupt end: Tell me about it, George. Poznan, Kiev, Budapest. The actor who played Bland so masterfully, Terence Rigby, died about a week and a half ago.

Bland exposes the falsity of the capitalist vision that motivated Smiley and his Circus colleagues to perceive their work as utopian. As another one, Toby Esterhase, told Smiley: I like the Circus. I may be sentimental about it, but I want to stay in it. Unlike Bland, Esterhase wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He craves a promotion, so that he can make more money, even as he clings to the ideals that Smiley used to recruit him. A firm, consistent emphasis upon understatement, professionalism and bureaucratic behaviour throughout prompts the question as to the extent one can maintain one's individuality as one ages. Spontaneity has been drained out of everyone in the story.

Alienation, isn't that what the Marxist sociologists, call it? The Freudians? Through an accumulation of detail and personal experience, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brings this troubling problem to the surface. Are the characters demoralized, going through the motions, because they have aged, or because it is a nearly unavoidable consequence of living in such a society? Such an inquiry may be more relevant to the participants in the current "war on terror" than we might think. Upon its conclusion, everyone appears awaiting the arrival of an alternative that will invest their lives with meaning once again. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can be construed as an allegory about managerial capitalism and its limitations, a foreshadowing of Le Carre's subsequent, more explicit condemnation of neoliberalism.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

The PBS Washing Machine 

Is it just me, or do a lot of thuggish leaders allied with the US get sanitized for an American audience by appearing on The Charlie Rose Show? Consider this convivial interview of Saakashvili by Rose in 2004:

Back in the day, the US government actually paid journalists to disseminate this kind of propaganda. In the postmodern world of the present, the journalists enthusiastically volunteer to do it. Of course, silly me, I forgot that Saakashvili agreed to participate in the invasion of Iraq as one of the coalition of the willing. Someone remind me, the reason that we support PBS is . . . ? I guess it's because my 16 month old son likes Clifford.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama (Part 2) 

Last Thursday, I posted my initial remarks about this open letter posted on The Nation website. I criticized the people who initiated this letter for being naive at best and duplicious at worst, as there has never been any reason to believe that the letter will accomplish its expressed purpose, encouraging Obama to move towards the left. Again, please consider going over to The Nation and reading the text of the letter in full.

I had intended to post more on this subject, but the conflict in Georgia erupted, and I felt that it was urgently necessary to post a series of dispatches and analytical posts about it instead. Now, with the outcome no longer in doubt, I can return to this topic.

The most troubling aspect of the letter is not the the powerlessness or the possible mendacity of the published signatories who originated it. Rather, it is the fact that over 20,000 people have added their virtual signatures to it. Perhaps, you have already figured out what is happening here. If not, let me explain it.

Obama has been moving towards what some call the center in US politics, if he wasn't there already. And that is actually a little deceptive. He hasn't been moving towards the political center, because that is a dubious form of analysis based upon the acceptance of an unsubstantiated linear, horizontal spectrum that classifies the political values of the US electorate. Instead, as I said here about a month ago, he has been signalling his acceptability to the corporate media, the media that frames the presentation of political subjects to the general public, by adopting conventional narratives on an array of issues, ranging from the war in Iraq to faith based initiatives to the purported failure of black men to fulfill their responsibilities to their families.

Cultural leftists might find a peculiar reassurance in all this, because, if one perceives his actions in this way, Obama is revealing a sophisticated sociological recognition of the power of the media to manufacture consent. In other words, like many cultural leftists, he understands that the US is not an actual, functioning republic where an informed populace selects representatives to implement their preferred policies, and must navigate his way through this system of social control. Implicit in this analysis is a subjective belief that, once elected, he will put this insight to use to reform US politics at home and abroad.

Personally, leaving aside the question as to whether I share this perspective in its entirety, I find this implausible. Obama may well possess this insight, but it is one that will imprison him, not liberate him (or anyone else). In any event, as you have probably already recognized, the real, unstated purpose of the letter is to provide a safety valve for people dissatisfied with him. Don't publicly criticize him through protest, angry letters to the editor or, horror of horrors, support for candidates, like Nader or McKinney, who have publicly embraced positions to the left of Obama. No, you don't need to do any of these things. Just log on, go to The Nation website, and add your signature to this letter, put forward by all these wonderful people. Feel a lot better now, don't you?

It is this kind of cynical, manipulative gesture that alienates people, and discourages them from believing that there is any way to bring about political change in this country. It is an offensive, hierarchical form of politics, one in which intellectuals and social activists, in a uniquely American form of vanguardism, permit the candidate to cater to the needs of elites while they keep their more free thinking, socially progressive allies from openly confronting the candidate through innocuous acts of vapid defiance.

Furthermore, it is all the more insidious because the people responsible aren't conspiring through e-mail and Instant Messaging to mainpulate us. They are not a Democratic Party Comintern, well, with the exceptions of Eli Pariser and Jane Hamsher, they're not. They either really believe that the letter is a good way to engage the Obama campaign, or, alternatively, sincerely believe that, even if the letter is a little cheesy, it is absolutely essential than we elect Obama in November. So, what's the harm is putting a letter up on The Nation website to calm down those angry liberals, leftists and progressives?

Well, the harm incrementally manifests itself in two ways. First, it inhibits the prospect of any reform of the US electoral system in a direction where the political process would actually begin to address the urgent needs of the populace, such as, say, getting the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping them out of Iran and preventing people from being foreclosed out of their houses. Neither candidate has said anything meaningful about any of these serious issues, and, with intellectuals and activists putting things forward like this open letter as a serious political act, they aren't going to so in the future, either.

Second, and probably even more important, it discourages activism outside the electoral system by implicitly telling people that the primary way to express unhappiness with your issue of concern is to add your signature to a letter addressed to one of the presidential candidates. If anything, such an approach reminds one of petitions to the Emperor in feudal times: Oh, emperor, you know not what terrible things your administrator has done! If you just knew, you'd do something about it, I'm sure. We beseech you to bring us justice as soon as possible. Another disempowering form of hierarchical political expression.

At the root of the problem is the unwillingness of intellectuals and social activists in the US to recognize their marginal influence in the political system. They still want to believe that they are important, that they possess the ability to influence events the way that figures like Satre did in France, or at least that they perceive that he did. They don't. They are just as powerless as you and me, but, because of their inability to accept it, they end up collaborating, some accidentally, some deliberately, with a corrupt social system that uses them to perpetuate itself.

Bourdieu, the French sociologist, understood this, I think. He quite consciously advocated for the community with which he self-identified, intellectuals, to abandon the notion that they were embued with special powers of insight and wisdom in relation to politics, that they could play an essential role in shaping the outcomes of political struggles, and instead urged them to collectively put themselves at the service of social movements. In his view, intellectuals possesses various kinds of specialized knowledge and analytical skills that the populace did not.

Hence, Bourdieu asserted that it was critical for intellectuals to forge bonds with workers, immigrants and the public at large, not to lead them, but to provide them with the knowledge that they needed to confront a rapacious neoliberal order. And, he successfully did so through a number of international projects over the course of his life. Certainly, a strong thread of elitism runs through this, anchored by his attachment to Enlightenment values of rationality and scientific research. He was no anarchist.

But, with the neoliberal project even more rapacious and militarized now than it was during his lifetime, Bourdieu provides an example of how we might escape our current predicament. If our intellectuals and social activists focused less upon electoral politics, resisted the temptation to trim their statements to fulfill the needs of preferred candidates, and focused upon the more minimal goal of evaluating social and economic conflicts towards the end of breaking the media monopoly on information, leaving it to the rest of us to work with them collaboratively on how to dismantle the American Empire, then we just might break out of this repetitive circle of predetermined outcomes and move forward.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Dirty Adventure (Part 5) 

From yesterday's New York Times:

Mr. Bush, little more than an hour after returning to Washington from the Olympic Games in Beijing, bluntly warned Russia that its military operations were damaging its reputation and were “unacceptable in the 21st century.”

“Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intent in Georgia and the region,” he said. “These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world, and these actions jeopardize relations with the United States and Europe.”

Translation: Putin didn't kill enough people.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

A Note on the Conflict in the Caucasus 

The Russians have won a decisive victory in Georgia, one that will probably lead to the removal of the Georgian president by either the Russians or the Georgian populace. It is a huge defeat for the US, NATO and Israel. They sought to transform Georgia into a sort of Israel of the Caucasus, a country that would enforce the edicts of the US throughout the region.

The Russians have mercilessly exposed this lunatic scheme, and no amount of belligerent bleating by Bush and Cheney can revive it. From a tactical standpoint, it is a positive development for the global left. A US military outpost of the "war on terror" has been overrun, an outpost created for the actual purpose of extending the reach of a neoliberal capitalist order with global aspirations.

But how should the left understand this situation within the context of American social and political life? The conflict has highlighted four disturbing trends. First, and most importantly, it has exposed the hyperaggressiveness of US foreign policy, a foreign policy that increasingly relies upon militarism and threats of force to achieve its objectives. Of course, this is nothing new, it has been a primary feature of US policy since 9/11, but the Georgian situation demonstrates that such aggressiveness has become not only entrenched but emboldened.

The US has been directly involved in two wars that it has lost, Afghanistan and Iraq, armed Israel and diplomatically supported it during a 2006 conflict in Lebanon that killed over 1,300 Lebanese civilians, armed the Fatah faction in Gaza and the West Bank in a low intensity conflict with Hamas, and now, armed and trained, along with Israel, the Georgian military for battle with the Russians. This is an extremely serious escalation, as the US either approved the action in advance or failed to deter Georgian preparations by informing the Russians of the planned assault.

Accordingly, the competition between the US and the Russian Federation in the Caucasus and Central Asia crossed the line from being diplomatic and economic in nature to militaristic when Georgian forces leveled Tskhinvali. I therefore believe, as I said on Friday, that there is a much greater likelihood of a major global conflict in the next decade or so.

The second trend is interwoven with the first one: the enthusiastic willingness of US media to promote the jingoism of the government. Most news accounts invariably deemphasized the fact that the Georgians had started the war by using force in South Ossetia to indiscriminately kill civilians in Tskhinvali and, if one believes Putin, other villages as well. Instead, reporters displayed the significantly lesser deaths of Georgians front and center, along with alarm about the disproportionate use of force by the Russians. Quite amazing, especially when one recalls the media tolerance for about three weeks of sustained Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure and South Beirut neighborhoods in 2006 because two soldiers had been kidnapped. And then, there's Iraq, but we don't really need to go there, do we?

The implications are serious here as well. Some people may have mistaken the mea culpas of media sources responsible for the dissemination of propaganda about Iraq's non-existent WMDs as an indication that they will be more objective next time round. Biased coverage of the dispute between the US and Iran over Iran's nuclear research program should have dispelled such a belief, but, if not, the current reflexive anti-Russian response conclusively eliminates any remaining doubt. I predict that, during the next war involving the US, the media will generate stories in support of the government even more credulously than it did in 2003. We may even experience deliberate disruption of the Internet by the government and its transnational allies to prevent the distribution of information that contradicts the official line.

Third, as with Iran, there is no viable electoral alternative for people who are genuinely frightened by this violent foreign policy. Obama echoed McCain's machismo towards the Russians sotto vocce. After a cursory search of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, I was unable to find any congressional Democratic response at all. This is not surprising, as few elected political figures are courageous enough to confront the bellicosity of US policy around the world. Once US bombs start raining on Iran, Pakistan, or even, heaven forbid, Georgia, they will form a line to step to the microphone to fervently embrace the new conflict. As I have said here several times in the year or so, the only remaining institution constraints against US militarism are, paradoxically, officers within the US military itself.

Lastly, there is the question of the American populace. Does it support these dangerous policies? If not, is it possible that public opposition could prompt a change in direction away from the reflexive use of force? While I don't believe that most Americans support these policies, primarily because most know little, if any, about them, I doubt that they possess either the willingness or the capability to force the government to pull back from the brink.

Most Americans now live atomized lives, separated from any meaningful political engagement. If they have any interest at all, they are prone to accepting the media characterization of events, such as the portrayal of the war in Georgia, not necessarily because they are bellicose, racist or xenophobic, but, rather, because adoption of the mainstream media perspective constitutes a safe harbor of conformity, as does the more common pose of ignorant disinterest. To engage these subjects would require them to confront something quite frightening, their political powerlessnes in a society where consumerism has severed the bonds of community involvement.

Everyone knows how to find the best deal at Costco or Target, but very few understand how to make contacts and politically organize in an attempt to influence policy. It is difficult even at the local level, and almost impossible when the issue is national or international in scope. Furthermore, they perceive institutions with people that have such skills as discredited, with labor unions being the most well known example. The exception is when the issue directly involves the family. The most vociferous opponents of the war in Iraq have been veterans, members of their families and families of children, with the parents fearful that their military will somehow persuade their child to volunteer when they aren't around.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

lenin: The "New Cold War" Escalates 

One of his implicit themes is the tragedy of the peoples of Russia and Georgia caught up in a great game beyond their control, a great game of violence and political manipulation worsened by the cynical involvement of the US and Europe. His summary of US involvement in the removal of the previous regime in Georgia, and the subsequent implementation of neoliberal IMF policies of fiscal austerity and deregulation, provides essential background context.

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A Dirty Adventure (Part 4) 

UPDATE: Doesn't look like things are going well on the ground for the Georgians. A day after invading South Ossetia, they now want a cease fire. No doubt the US and the Europeans will fall into line. Or, is just more pretense? Meanwhile, there are some indications that the Russians may be targeting facilities involved in the transport of oil and natural gas, such as the oil export terminal at the port of Pori.

INITIAL POST: The US, France and Britain support Georgia in the United Nations:

But one phrase calling on all parties to “renounce the use of force” met with opposition, particularly from the United States, France and Britain. The three countries argued that the statement was unbalanced, one European diplomat said, because that language would have undermined Georgia’s ability to defend itself. Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, circulated a revised draft calling for an immediate cessation of hostility and for “all parties” to return to the negotiating table. By dropping the specific reference to Georgia and South Ossetia, the compromise statement would also encompass Russia.

Go back and read it carefully. How does a statement to renounce the us of force prevent Georgia from defending itself? I obviously doesn't, but it would put pressure on Georgia to stop offensive military operations in South Ossetia.

We've seen this movie before. It is, as I predicted late last night, a repeat of the situation in the summer of 2006, when Israel conducted a campaign of air strikes in Lebanon, and the US and Britain rejected proposed UN resolutions that called for a cease fire. Expect the US, France and Britain to reject the new Belgium draft as well, as they will oppose any draft that does not place blame on the Russians, and responsibility for making concessions on them, in the hope that the war will go in favor of the Georgians. Again, as with the Israeli assault upon Lebanon, it is probably a forlorn hope, because there will be strong nativist popular Russian support for this conflict, as they perceive it as necessary to defend the people of South Ossetia against not just Georgia, but US and European sponsored aggression.

The situation is really quite shocking. The US and two of the dominant countries in the European Union are facilitating violent policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and, now, Georgia. They are making demands upon Iran that increase the chances of war there as well. Germany is supportive in all instances, except this new Georgian adventure, probably because of its closer ties with the Russian Federation.

Few seem to understand that a red line has been crossed in South Ossetia. The US and the EU, with the assistance of Israel, is now openly using military force is in their political and economic competition with the Russians in the Caucasus and Central Asia. I try to avoid millenialist sensibilities, but, for the first time, I have become fearful that there is a horrifically destructive global conflict looming over the horizon. As US, Europe and Israel methodically go about increasing the number of tinder boxes, we can only hope that these conflicts somehow resolve themselves nonviolently. It is increasingly difficult to imagine that might happen.

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A Dirty Adventure (Part 3) 

A good column on the situation by Mark Ames, posted on The Nation website, if one has the patience to sift through the obligatory The Nation requirement that about half of it serve the purpose of implicitly promoting Obama by attacking McCain on the subject:

Today, Georgian forces from that same Senaki base are part of the invasion force into South Ossetia, an invasion that has left scores--perhaps hundreds--of dead locals, at least ten dead Russian peacekeepers, and 140 million pissed-off Russians calling for blood.

Lost in all of this is not only the question of why America would risk an apocalypse to help a petty dictator like Saakashvili get control of a region that doesn't want any part of him. But no one's bothering to ask what the Ossetians themselves think about it, or why they're fighting for their independence in the first place. That's because the Georgians--with help from lobbyists like Scheunemann--have been pushing the line that South Ossetia is a fiction, a construct of evil Kremlin neo-Stalinists, rather than a people with a genuine grievance.

A few years ago, I had an Ossetian working as the sales director for my now-defunct newspaper, The eXile. After listening to me rave about how much I always (and still do) like the Georgians, he finally lost it and told me another side to Georgian history, explaining how the Georgians had always mistreated the Ossetians, and how the South Ossetians wanted to reunite with North Ossetia in order to avoid being swallowed up, and how this conflict goes way back, long before the Soviet Union days. It was clear that the Ossetian-Georgian hatred was old and deep, like many ethnic conflicts in this region. Indeed, a number of Caucasian ethnic groups still harbor deep resentment towards Georgia, accusing them of imperialism, chauvinism and arrogance.

One example of this can be found in historian Bruce Lincoln's book, Red Victory, in which he writes about the period of Georgia's brief independence from 1917 to 1921, a time when Georgia was backed by Britain:

the Georgian leaders quickly moved to widen their borders at the expense of their Armenian and Azerbaijani neighbors, and their territorial greed astounded foreign observers. 'The free and independent socialist democratic state of Georgia will always remain in my memory as a classic example of an imperialist small nation," one British journalist wrote.... "Both in territory snatching outside and bureaucratic tyranny inside, its chauvinism was beyond all bounds."

On Thursday, following intense Georgian shelling and katyusha rocketing into Tskhinvali, refugees streamed out of South Ossetia telling reporters that the Georgians had completely leveled entire villages and most of Tskhinvali, leaving "piles of corpses" in the streets, over 1,000 by some counts. Among the dead are at least ten Russian peacekeepers, who fell after their base was attacked by Georgian forces. Reports also say that Georgian forces destroyed a hotel where Russian journalists were staying.

In response, Russian jets bombed Georgian positions both inside South Ossetia and into Georgia proper, attacking one base where American military instructors are quartered (no Americans were reported hurt). By mid-afternoon Moscow time, as local television showed burning homes and Ossetian women and children huddling in bomb shelters, armored Russian columns were crossing into Georgian territory, and Georgia's President called for a total mobilization of military-aged men for war with Russia.

The invasion was backed up by a PR offensive so layered and sophisticated that I even got an hysterical call today from a hedge fund manager in New York, screaming about an "investor call" that Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze made this morning with some fifty leading Western investment bank managers and analysts. I've since seen a J.P. Morgan summary of the conference call, which pretty much reflects the talking points later picked up by the US media.

These kinds of conference calls are generally conducted by the heads of companies in order to give banking analysts guidance. But as the hedge fund manager told me today, "The reason Lado did this is because he knew the enormous PR value that Georgia would gain by going to the money people and analysts, particularly since Georgia is clearly the aggressor this time." As a former investment banker who worked in London and who used to head the Bank of Georgia, Gurgenidze knew what he was doing. "Lado is a former banker himself, so he knew that by framing the conflict for the most influential bankers and analysts in New York, that these power bankers would then write up reports and go on CNBC and argue Lado Gurgenidze's talking points. It was brilliant, and now you're starting to see the American media shift its coverage from calling it Georgia invading Ossetian territory, to the new spin, that it's Russian imperial aggression against tiny little Georgia."

The really scary thing about this investor conference call is that it suggests real planning. As the hedge fund manager told me, "These things aren't set up on an hour's notice."

Are Wall Street fund managers and investors stupid enough to believe that a new Cold War is a good idea? Evidently so. Because that's the objective of the Georgian leadership and their American and Israeli supporters in the defense and intelligence services. As for the rest of us, they could care less. Why should they? We haven't done anything for a quite awhile to compel them to do so. We can, however, be certain that we will hear very little of the fact that the Georgian military has been trained by the US (so far, only in the context of allying fears that some US officers may have been killed or wounded during a Russian air attack), and nothing about the sales of Israeli weapons to Georgia.

One gets the troubling sense that the US, France and Britain, among others, are going to adopt the same response that they did after the Israel conducted a campaign of air strikes upon Lebanon around this same time in the summer of 2006: use the United Nations to pressure the side subject to the attack to make concessions to the aggressor. The Lebanese victims of Israeli airstrikes, over 1,300 people, plus the prospect of subsequent deaths and injuries as a result of cluster bombs, meant nothing to them in the face of more cynical, abstract, geopolitical concerns of the imperialist kind, and the lives of South Ossetians will be equally irrelevant.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

A Dirty Adventure (Part 2) 

Turns out the that Israelis have been supplying the US trained Georgian army with weapons. It was reported that they stopped such sales a few days ago:

Israel has decided to halt all sales of military equipment to Georgia because of objections from Russia, which is locked in a feud with its tiny Caucasus neighbor, defense officials said Tuesday.

The officials said the freeze was partially intended to give Israel leverage with Moscow in its attempts to persuade Russia not to ship arms and equipment to Iran. They spoke on condition of anonymity as Israel does not officially publish details of its arms sales.

Russia has repeatedly refused to comment on reports its is selling S-300 air defense missiles to Iran.

Among the items Israel has been selling to Tbilisi are pilotless drone aircraft. Russian fighters shot one down in May, according to UN observers.

Other types of weaponry include the following:

. . . . Israel has also been supplying Georgia with infantry weapons and electronics for artillery systems, and has helped upgrade Soviet-designed Su-25 ground attack jets assembled in Georgia, according to Koba Liklikadze, an independent military expert based in Tbilisi. Former Israeli generals also serve as advisers to the Georgian military.

Interesting. Israeli arms sales to Georgia are purportedly halted, and the Georgians invade South Ossetia in less than a week. There are also reports today that the Georgians have shot down Russian aircraft, which brings this story from April to the top of the queue:

Russia asked Israel last week whether it had supplied Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Georgia, for it to use in military operations against secessionists from Abkhazia.

An Israeli security source confirmed that the UAVs being used by Georgia are manufactured by Israeli firm Elbit. A diplomatic source in Jerusalem said that the Russians did not have proof of this, however, and that the request for clarifications was based on suspicions. He added that Israel does not sell any attack weapons to countries that border with Russia and only sells them defensive equipment.

Georgia accused Russia of using a MiG-29 to shoot down one of its UAVs over Abkhazia and produced a video to back up its claim. The video was shot by the UAV seconds before it was shot down, and it shows a MiG-29. Georgia's president said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and demanded an end to the "unjustified aggression against Georgia's sovereign territory."

Of course, the subject that keeps intruding into this saga is Iran. Is the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia meant to pressure the Russians into severing economic and military ties with the Iranians? The Israelis supposedly halted arms sales to Georgia in an effort to persuade the Russians to refuse to supply Iran with a new air defense system. Did that effort fail, or was it merely a pretense before the launching of the Georgian invasion?

Perhaps, the invasion has also been prompted by competition between the US, Russia and Europe over access to hydrocarbons in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Along these lines, consider this July 30th article by former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar:

From the details coming out of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan and Moscow over the weekend, it is apparent that the great game over Caspian energy has taken a dramatic turn. In the geopolitics of energy security, nothing like this has happened before. The United States has suffered a huge defeat in the race for Caspian gas. The question now is how much longer Washington could afford to keep Iran out of the energy market.

Gazprom, Russia's energy leviathan, signed two major agreements in Ashgabat on Friday outlining a new scheme for purchase of Turkmen gas. The first one elaborates the price formation principles that will be guiding the Russian gas purchase from Turkmenistan during the next 20-year period. The second agreement is a unique one, making Gazprom the donor for local Turkmen energy projects. In essence, the two agreements ensure that Russia will keep control over Turkmen gas exports.

The consequences for the US are reportedly significant:

Until fairly recently Moscow was sensitive about the European Union's opposition to the idea of a gas cartel. (Washington has openly warned that it would legislate against countries that lined up behind a gas cartel). But high gas prices have weakened the European Union's negotiating position.

The agreements with Turkmenistan further consolidate Russia's control of Central Asia's gas exports. Gazprom recently offered to buy all of Azerbaijan's gas at European prices. (Medvedev visited Baku on July 3-4.) Baku will study with keen interest the agreements signed in Ashgabat on Friday. The overall implications of these Russian moves are very serious for the US and EU campaign to get the Nabucco gas pipeline project going.

Nabucco, which would run from Turkey to Austria via Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary, was hoping to tap Turkmen gas by linking Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would be connected to the pipeline networks through the Caucasus to Turkey already existing, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

But with access denied to Turkmen gas, Nabucco's viability becomes doubtful. And, without Nabucco, the entire US strategy of reducing Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies makes no sense. Therefore, Washington is faced with Hobson's choice. Friday's agreements in Ashgabat mean that Nabucco's realization will now critically depend on gas supplies from the Middle East - Iran, in particular. Turkey is pursuing the idea of Iran supplying gas to Europe and has offered to mediate in the US-Iran standoff.

The geopolitics of energy makes strange bedfellows. Russia will be watching with anxiety the Turkish-Iranian-US tango. An understanding with Iran on gas pricing, production and market-sharing is vital for the success of Russia's overall gas export strategy. But Tehran visualizes the Nabucco as its passport for integration with Europe. Again, Russia's control of Turkmen gas cannot be to Tehran's liking. Tehran had keenly pursed with Ashgabat the idea of evacuation of Turkmen gas to the world market via Iranian territory.

Bhadrakumar skillfully exposes the Russians and the Iranians as commercial competitors even as they remain involuntary geopolitical allies. For our purposes, however, the essential thread that emerges from his analysis is the urgency for the US (and the Israelis) to act quickly to disrupt Russia's ability to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan to the European market. Otherwise, the US will be forced, to the great dismay of Israel, to broker a deal with Iran so as obtain access to Iranian natural gas to break the Russian monopoly.

Hence, we now see a Georgian invasion of South Ossetia about a week after the Russian announcement of its natural gas agreements with Turkmenistan. If one accepts this reasoning, the invasion of South Ossetia is a strong signal that the US prefers confrontation with the Russians over negotiating a new commercial relationship with the Iranians. In other words, it suggests that the US still sees war as the ultimate solution of its disagreements with them.

The invasion also suggests that the US is incapable of choosing an ally in the region, and persists in the hope that it can economically and militarily dominate both the Russians and the Iranians, and through them, just about every country in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Such arrogance is likely to be ruinous for all involved. A dirty adventure, indeed.

(Hat tip to Big Bopper for pointing out the Israeli connection.)

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A Dirty Adventure (Part 1) 

Georgia invades South Ossetia:

Georgia launched a major military offensive Friday to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia, prompting Moscow to send tanks into the region in a furious response that threatens to engulf Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, and Russia in all-out war.

Hundreds were reported dead in the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won defacto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Witnesses said the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was devastated.

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia. "It's impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged."

And the Russians respond:

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday afternoon that it would protect Russian citizens in the territory and Russian peacekeepers who came under fire in Tskhinvali.

“The Georgian leadership has unleashed a dirty adventure,” the ministry said in a statement, posted on its Web site. “The blood shed in South Ossetia will remain on the conscience of these people and their entourage. We will not allow anyone to do harm to our peacekeepers and citizens of the Russian Federation.”

But are Georgians solely responsible for this dirty adventure? One wonders, especially in light of this passage from the Associated Press article, a fact conveniently omitted from New York Times coverage:

More than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were at the base last month to teach combat skills to Georgian troops. Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq, making it the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain.

The White House on Friday urged Russia and Georgia to peacefully resolve their dispute over South Ossetia.

"We urge restraint on all sides — that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

Curiously, the US is not capable of condemning a Georgian invasion and Guernica like air attack upon Tskhinvali, but then, that would be expecting a lot after US Marines just got done training Georgian forces. Instead, the White House just urges restraint, which is what it usually does when an ally has launched an attack and the other side moves to defend itself.

The Russians have been angry for quite awhile about proposals to admit Georgia into NATO. Now, Georgian troops have attacked South Ossetia after having been trained by the US. The Russians no doubt believe, with good reason, that the US greenlighted the invasion. If I were Georgian, I'd be very concerned, because it is probable that the Russians are about to teach them a terrible lesson about the consequences of hubris.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama (Part 1) 

Go over and read this letter posted on The Nation website, giving careful attention to the list of signatories. It makes for pretty depressing reading, a bunch of highly regarded liberals and leftists exposing their own powerlessness. Despite having watered down their political aspirations for mainstream consumption over the course of an electoral campaign, there is no chance, no chance at all, that Obama is going to embrace any of their proposals.

In such circumstances, it is an act of public humiliation to place one's name on this letter. One gets the impression that it serves the purpose of providing political cover for the signatories as much as it does the goal of attempting to persuade Obama to alter his political program. By signing the letter, they are able to continue to say, Vote Obama, while simultaneously distancing themselves from anything that he does.

Such behaviour reminds me of how congressional representatives Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters and Diane Watson did something similar when they expressed their personal opposition to the war in Iraq while rounding up votes for House passage of continued funding of it. It is bad enough when we must deal with politicians who relate to us cynically, but it is even worse when some of our most prominent and highly respected social figures emulate and empower them.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Joke of the Day 

From the Angry Arab News Service:

"Bush allegedly ordered the CIA to forge a handwritten letter from the head of Iraq's intelligence service to Saddam Hussein that purported to link the Iraqi dictator to the ringleader of the hijackers who toppled the Twin Towers on 9/11, according to news accounts of Suskind's new book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism. Such use of an intelligence service to influence domestic political debate could be an impeachable offense, Suskind writes."

The Bush team probably forged the letter in English before experts and clones of Israeli Orientalists realized that they speak Arabic in that part of the world.

Posted by As'ad at 12:52 PM

My guess is that Richard Perle was the one who first noticed the mistake. If not him, Bernard Lewis.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

People in White 

A suppressed past of indiscriminate killings of South Korea civilians by US forces is now slowly being exposed:

South Korean investigators, matching once-secret documents to eyewitness accounts, are concluding that the U.S. military indiscriminately killed large groups of refugees and other civilians early in the Korean War.

A half-century later, the Seoul government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has more than 200 such alleged wartime cases on its docket, based on hundreds of citizens' petitions recounting bombing and strafing runs on South Korean refugee gatherings and unsuspecting villages in 1950-51.

Large numbers of people died during these attacks:

News reports at the time hinted at such killings after North Korea invaded the south in June 1950. But the extent wasn't known. Commission member Kim Dong-choon, in charge of investigating civilian mass killings, says there were large numbers of dead — between 50 and 400 — in many incidents.

As at No Gun Ri, some involved U.S. ground troops, such as the reported killing of 82 civilians huddled in a village shrine outside the southern city of Masan in August 1950. But most were air attacks.

In one of three initial findings, the commission held that a surprise U.S. air attack on east Wolmi island on Sept. 10, 1950, five days before the U.S. amphibious landing at nearby Incheon, was unjustified. Survivors estimate 100 or more South Korean civilians were killed.

In clear weather from low altitude, "U.S. forces napalmed numerous small buildings, (and) strafed children, women and old people in the open area," the commission said.

Investigator Kang Eun-ji said high priority is being given to reviewing attacks earlier in 1950 on refugees gathered in fields west of the Naktong River, in North Korean-occupied areas of the far south, while U.S. forces were dug in east of the river. One U.S. air attack on 2,000 refugees assembled Aug. 20, 1950, at Haman, near Masan, killed almost 200, survivors reported.

"There were many similar incidents — refugees gathered in certain places, and there were air strikes," she said.

The declassified record shows the Americans' fear that enemy troops were disguising themselves as civilians led to indiscriminate attacks on "people in white," the color worn by most Koreans, commission and AP research found.

In the first case the commission confirmed, last November, its investigators found that an airborne Air Force observer had noted in the "Enemy" box of an after-mission report, "Many people in white in area."

The area was the village of Sanseong-dong, in an upland valley 100 miles southeast of Seoul, attacked on Jan. 19, 1951, by three waves of Navy and Air Force planes. Declassified documents show the U.S. X Corps had issued an order to destroy South Korean villages within 5 miles of a mountain position held by North Korean troops.

"Everybody came out of their houses to see these low-flying planes, and everyone was hit," farmer Ahn Shik-mo, 77, told AP reporters visiting the apple-growing village. "It appeared they were aiming at people."

At least 51 were killed, the commission found, including Ahn's mother. Sixty-nine of 115 houses were destroyed in what the panel called "indiscriminate" bombing. "The U.S. Air Force regarded all people in white as possible enemy," it concluded.

"There never were any North Koreans in the village," said villager Ahn Hee-duk, a 12-year-old boy at the time.

One episode is especially disturbing:

The Gokgyegul attack occurred in January 1951, as retreating U.S. and South Korean forces struggled to stop the North Koreans, massively reinforced by Chinese troops, from penetrating deeper into South Korea.

Declassified U.S. military records show that the Americans, on guard against possible enemy disguised as refugees, were blocking South Korean civilians fleeing the fighting. Air Force pilots were told to view "people in white" — the color most civilians wore — as potential enemy.

Ordered to evacuate south by local officials, the villagers one early January day left this secluded hamlet, among snowy, humpbacked hills 120 miles southeast of Seoul, but were stopped just 3 miles away at Hyangsan by U.S. 7th Infantry Division troops.

"Across a stream there were U.S. soldiers with a tank. They blocked us," said Cho Tae-won, 85, another resident of this village, which is dominated by a Cho clan. A declassified U.S. regimental document confirms a roadblock was established there.

Cho and his younger brother, Cho Kook-won, were finally allowed to pass, after pleading that as government employees they would be targeted by the North Koreans. But the rest of his family and other refugees had to turn back.

"My feelings were indescribable because not all of us could go," said the white-haired, frail Cho Tae-won.

In the following days, fearing bombings, the Yeongchun villagers left their homes again and moved into the nearby 85-yard-long cave, named for the "crying" sound of its intermittent stream. Outside, they tethered cows and stacked household goods.

"People thought they'd be safe inside," said Cho Tae-won. But on Jan. 20, at 9:50 a.m., two or three Air Force F-51 Mustangs struck, the U.S. record shows.

"They dropped oil drums" — gasoline-gel napalm bombs — "and then the fire incinerated everything and spread into the cave," Cho Byung-woo, 66, told Associated Press reporters visiting the site, today a quiet place of chirping birds and fluttering Confucian prayer flags.

His father saved the 9-year-old boy, but from a ditch outside, young Cho witnessed more carnage as U.S. jets strafed fleeing villagers with .50-caliber machine guns. He saw a bullet slit open a young friend's belly.

"His bowels spilled out. His mother fell down and cried over his body in the shower of bullets."

The absent Cho brothers lost their father, a teenage sister and brother, and Cho Tae-won's 2-year-old son in the attack, they said. Survivors say there were no North Koreans near the cave and surveillance pilots who flew overhead for days should have known that. American pilots claimed in after-mission reports to have killed "troops" and "pack animals." But six days later a U.S. ground patrol reported finding 75 refugee bodies instead.

The truth commission concluded "well over 200" civilians were killed.

Gokgyegul remains a hallowed site. "For years, when it rained, water flooding out of the cave carried the bones away," said Cho Byung-woo.

If there is one consistent theme associated with US military involvement since World War II, it is the willingness of US forces to exploit the reasons for the intervention as a justification to kill large number of civilians, usually non-white ones. George Carlin addressed this subject with characteristic ruthlessness in a monologue about the First Persian Gulf War.

As the oft-paraphrased lyric of Moloko states, the faces change, but the game remains the same. And the game is tragically quite simple: substitute Rumsfeld for McNamara and McArthur, Iraqis and Afghans for Vietnamese and Koreans, Bush for Johnson and Truman, Fallujah for My Lai and Gokgyegul. Over 58 years have elapsed since the beginning of the Korean War, a war that, incidentally, that has never formally ended, and the US military continues to conduct operations that treat the lives of civilians as acceptable collateral damage.

What are the reasons for the persistence of it? Of course, there are no doubt many, but recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan highlight an important one, and that is the unquestioning acceptance of perceived danger by US troops as a defense against the killings of civilians. A subjective sense of peril, no matter how implausible, irrational or excessive, is sufficient to relieve troops of any responsibility for their actions.

For example, as I recently observed in regard to Iraq, if a convoy erroneously travels down a civilian roadway near Baghdad airport, experiences a vehicle breakdown and encounters some Iraqi bank employees traveling to work as they had always done after passing through a high security checkpoint, then, they can kill them because they perceive themselves to be in danger, rendering it just an extremely unfortunate and tragic accident.

Consistent with a policy apparently similar to the one adopted in Korea in 1951, US forces are killling large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan through air strikes as well. One need only click upon the Afghanistan label at the bottom of this post to find several examples. The concept of people in white constituting an amorphous enemy that must be subjected to immediate attack appears to be a quite flexible and enduring one, capable of being adopted for use in subsequent conflicts with predictable results.

Will there be Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Iraq and Afghanistan some day? And, if so, how much more will we discover about the operations of US forces in these conflicts? Given what we already know, one shudders involuntarily. And, if Barack Obama becomes President, how many more horrors will be perpetuated in Afghanistan in a misguided, amoral effort to produce something that can marketed as a victory in the War on Terror?

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Friday, August 01, 2008

The Uncontrollable Violence of War 

The horrific sexual abuse of US soldiers in Iraq has gotten quite a bit of attention recently, such as this CNN article yesterday:

A congresswoman said Thursday that her "jaw dropped" when military doctors told her that four in 10 women at a veterans hospital reported being sexually assaulted while in the military.report indicates that the numbers could be even higher.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, spoke before a House panel investigating the way the military handles reports of sexual assault.

She said she recently visited a Veterans Affairs hospital in the Los Angeles area, where women told her horror stories of being raped in the military.

"My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41 percent of the female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military," said Harman, who has long sought better protection of women in the military.

"Twenty-nine percent say they were raped during their military service. They spoke of their continued terror, feelings of helplessness and downward spirals many of their lives have taken since.

"We have an epidemic here," she said. "Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."

But no one draws the obvious conclusion. War, such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, unleashes an uncontrollable, repetitive cycle of violence, and the participants abuse anyone more vulnerable than them. Within the context of US occupation forces, the victims are frequently Iraqi, as US forces kill, injure, sexually abuse and detain them in ways that gratify their need to display their ability to brutally dominate others.

For some reason, we assume that such sadomasochistic behaviour is confined to the indigenous populace subjected to the occupation. Of course, after the most cursory thought, it becomes rather obvious that it is impossible to construct such arbitrary boundaries. Soldiers intoxicated by the power to kill and sexually assault others are going to eventually target anyone that provides an opportunity for gratification. And, as this CNN article sadly indicates, male soldiers have increasingly targeted female soldiers as well.

No wonder the Pentagon refused to send a subpoenaed witness to the congressional hearing on the subject. The witness would have had to explain how to continue to successfully enforce an occupation predicated upon the use of violence against the Iraqi populace while protecting women within the US military. Perhaps, not impossible, but certainly very difficult. In any event, women should think carefully as to whether they want to enlist in the US military, as there is no reason to think that the leadership can protect them against sexual assault.

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