Saturday, January 29, 2011

US Foreign Policy: "Making Violent Revolution Inevitable"

Fear Extreme Islamists in the Arab World? Blame Washington
By Jeff Cohen / January 29, 2011

In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. questioned U.S. military interventions against progressive movements in the Third World by invoking a JFK quote: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Were he alive to witness the last three decades of U.S. foreign policy, King might update that quote by noting: "Those who make secular revolution impossible will make extreme Islamist revolution inevitable."

For decades beginning during the Cold War, U.S. policy in the Islamic world has been aimed at suppressing secular reformist and leftist movements. Beginning with the CIA-engineered coup against a secular democratic reform government in Iran in 1953 (it was about oil), Washington has propped up dictators, coaching these regimes in the black arts of torture and mayhem against secular liberals and the left.

In these dictatorships, often the only places where people had freedom to meet and organize were mosques -- and out of these mosques sometimes grew extreme Islamist movements. The Shah's torture state in Iran was brilliant at cleansing and murdering the left - a process that ultimately helped the rise of the Khomeini movement and ultimately Iran's Islamic Republic.

Growing out of what M.L. King called Washington's "irrational, obsessive anti-communism," U.S. foreign policy also backed extreme Islamists over secular movements or government that were either Soviet-allied or feared to be.

In Afghanistan, beginning before the Soviet invasion and evolving into the biggest CIA covert operation of the 1980s, the U.S. armed and trained native mujahedeen fighters -- some of whom went on to form the Taliban. To aid the mujahedeen, the U.S. recruited and brought to Afghanistan religious fanatics from the Arab world -- some of whom went on to form Al Qaeda. (Like these Washington geniuses, Israeli intelligence -- in a divide-and-conquer scheme aimed at combating secular leftist Palestinians -- covertly funded Islamist militants in the occupied territories who we now know as Hamas.)

This is hardly obscure history.

Except in U.S. mainstream media.

One of the mantras on U.S. television news all day Friday was: Be fearful of the democratic uprisings against U.S. allies in Egypt (and Tunisia and elsewhere). After all, we were told by Fox News and CNN and Chris Matthews on MSNBC, it could end up as bad as when "our ally" in Iran was the Shah.

Such talk comes easy in U.S. media where Egyptian victims of rape and torture in Mubarak's jails are never seen. Where it's rarely emphasized that weapons of repression used against Egyptian demonstrators are paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Where Mubarak is almost always called "president" and almost never "dictator" (unlike the elected president of Venezuela).

When U.S. media glibly talk about the Egyptian and Tunisian "presidents" being valued "allies in the war on terror," it's no surprise they offer no details about the prisoners the U.S. has renditioned to these "pro-Western" countries for torture.

The truth is that no one knows how these uprisings will end.

But revolution of some kind, as King said, seems inevitable. Washington's corrupt Arab dictators will come down as surely (yet more organically) as that statue of Saddam, another former U.S.-ally.

If Washington took its heel off the Arab people and ended its embrace of the dictators, that could help secularists and democrats win hearts and minds against extreme Islamists.

Democracy is a great idea. Too bad it plays almost no role in U.S. foreign policy.

[Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.]

Source / Common Dreams

Fluxed Up World

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Environmental Catastrophe Near at Hand?

Workers drain away polluted water near the Zijin copper mine in Shanghang. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Choking of China - and the World
By Johann Hari / January 24, 2011

The world knows that the Chinese economic boom has led to a huge increase in carbon emissions. But the damage has to stop if global environmental catastrophe is to be averted, says Johann Hari

The world is watching China’s economic surge with understandable awe – while politely and passively ignoring the country’s ecological disintegration.

When the journalist Jonathan Watts was a child, he was told, like so many of us: “If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.” Three decades later, he stood in the grey sickly smog of Beijing, wheezing and hacking uncontrollably after a short run, and thought – the Chinese jump has begun. He had travelled 100,000 miles criss-crossing China, from the rooftop of Tibet to the deserts of Inner Mongolia and everywhere, he discovered that the Chinese state was embarked on a massive program of environmental destruction. It has turned whole rivers poisonous to the touch, rendered entire areas cancer-ridden, transformed a fertile area twice the size of Britain into desert – and probably even triggered the worst earthquake in living memory.

“The planet’s environmental problems were not made in China, but they are sliding past the point of no return there,” Watts argues in his new book When A Billion Chinese Jump – the essential starting-point for this conversation. The uber-capitalist Communists now have the highest emissions of global warming gases in the world (although the average Chinese person still emits a tenth of the average American). We are all trapped in a greenhouse together: environmental destruction in China becomes environmental destruction where you live. This story will become your story.

So Watts stands in the village in Guandong province where the world’s old motherboards – yours and mine – are sent to die. There, children pick through the old computers, breaking down every reusable part, like they were the globe’s intestine. But the children sicken with lead poisoning, and develop brain damage, cancer, and kidney failure. Even when the kids get to sit in a classroom, they have to wear masks, to protect them from the mountains of garbage.

So he goes to meet the environmental activists who are trying to stop this poisoning of their children, and watches as – terrified – they are carried away to prison. (Imagine if Al Gore had been imprisoned for exposing Love Canal, and was still in solitary, and you get the idea.)

So he ventures out on a ship with an international band of scientists to save the last Yangtze dolphin – an animal that was swimming though China’s rivers 10 million years before the first human, and was a common sight not long ago. But gradually he realises he is too late. They are all dead. He says: “Man had wiped out his first dolphin? The end of a species after twenty million years felt terrifyingly momentous. This was not just a piece of news. It was even more than history. It was an event on a geological timescale.”

So he watches as the globe warms and China’s deserts stretch further and deeper with each passing year. So he stands and stares as the Himalayan glaciers – where most of Asia’s great rivers begin – melt and die, with two thirds on course to vanish by 2050.

This is not an unambiguous story. This destruction is not being pursued out of wickedness: it is happening as a side-effect of a benevolent impulse. The Chinese people are determined to rise from poverty to prosperity. Forty years ago, China was starving. Today, it is in surplus. Some Chinese argue: if environmental damage is the price we pay for whiplash development, why not? You Europeans and Americans destroyed your environments, felled your forests, trashed your habitats all through your Industrial Revolution – and when you were rich enough, you cleaned it up. Yes there is a cost, but it is less than the cost of staying poor forever. How dare you lecture us, when most of our emissions are from factories you have outsourced to make goods and process waste for you, and when you refuse to even make tiny cuts in your emissions at home?

There’s some justice in these responses. Your contribution to global warming (and mine) vastly exceeds the average Chinese person’s. Every successful environmental treaty in history began with the biggest polluters cutting back first. Yet we are refusing to do it, and far from urging China to go green, our governments are doing the opposite. It wasn’t mentioned in the industrial quantities of journalistic hot air that accompanied Hu Jintao’s trip to Washington D.C., but the Obama administration is currently suing the Chinese government at the World Trade Organization to stop them from subsidizing wind farms, saying it represents ‘unfair competition.’ A seventy-a-day smoker riddled with lung cancer isn’t really in a position to lecture a younger man to stop smoking, especially if he’s trying to steal his nicotine patches.

But if this debate dissolves into a game of mutual finger-pointing – you’re the worst! No, you are! – then we will be trapped in a spiral of mutual environmental destruction. The argument that China will simply clean up the damage when they’re rich doesn’t work, alas, for two reasons. Firstly, 700,000 people are dying every year in China as a result of the extreme pollution, according to the World Bank. They can’t be compensated at some later date with a wind farm. Secondly, and even more crucially, the West “cleaned up” largely by exporting its pollution to poor countries like China. As Watts puts it: “This model relied on those at cleanup stage being able to sweep the accumulated dirt of development under a new and bigger rug. When this process reached China, it had already been expanding for two centuries. Now “the waste [is] getting too big and the rug too small.” Where is China going to export it to? For how long?

The alternative is to fuel China’s development (and our own continued existence) with clean energy sources – the mighty power of the wind, the Sun, and the waves. If you believed the gassbaggery of America’s most influential columnist, Thomas Friedman, you’d think it had already happened. He is forever telling readers of the New York Times that China is becoming a ‘green superpower.’ The truth is much more complex. Some 69.5 percent of China’s energy needs come from the dirtiest and most planet-cooking fuel of all: coal. At the same time, the Chinese government is significantly increasing funding for renewables – but as an addition, not a replacement. This is a crucial distinction. If you ate a KFC bucket and a Weightwatcher’s meal for lunch, nobody would say you were on a diet. The Weightwatchers’ has to replace the KFC. In the same way, the renewables have to replace the coal, not just form an additional add-on. That’s not happening today. Not at all: coal burning is increasing.

Partly, this is because the Chinese government has less control than foreign observers assume. Watts says: “China’s political system is neither dictatorship nor democracy. At the top, the state lacks the authority to impose pollution regulations and wildlife conservation laws, while at the bottom citizens lack the democratic tools of a free press, independent courts, and elections to defend their land, air and water.” Inbetween there stand corporations and corrupted local governments bent exclusively on profit and growth, whatever the cost. So “when it comes to protecting the environment, the authority of the authoritarian state looks alarmingly shaky.” Yet at the same time, China’s leaders are – like ours – refusing to pursue the big projects that could haul us out of these dilemmas.

Watts interviews some visionary Chinese scientists who show the real alternative. One of the most fascinating – Professor Li Can, of the Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy – shows him how all of China’s country’s energy needs could be met without any carbon emissions at all, using technology that already exists. You would need to cover a third of the Gansu and Xinjiang deserts with photovoltaic solar power cells. It would turn the barren deserts into the country’s greatest asset. There have been similar proposals for harnessing the Sahara to power Europe, and America’s deserts to power the US – but none of our leaders have been visionary enough to do it. So humanity is left largely addicted to the filthy coal of millennia, steadily baking us all.

It’s in the interviews with Chinese environmentalists like Li, and the ordinary victims of eco-destruction, that the question asked most frequently about China books – is it pro- or anti-China? – is exposed as fatuous. Is it ‘anti-China’ to warn the country is driving at high speed into an ecological wall? Is it ‘pro-China’ to cheer that on? Chinese culture is divided – like ours – between the people who want to preserve our habitat, and the forces of ecocide. This argument has been going on in China for a very long time. As early as the Eastern Zhou period – 700-256 B.C. – there was a saying: “People who are of ruling quality but are not able to respectfully preserve the forests, rivers and marshes are not fit to become rulers.”

In fact, anxiety about ecological destruction is the theme of some of China’s most popular and disturbing recent artworks. The mega-seller novel ‘Wolf Totem’ by Jiang Rong is the story of a young Han Chinese man who is sent to live with the nomads of Inner Mongolia – and watches in horror as his people vandalistically turn the lush grasslands into desert. The movie ‘Still Life’ follows a Sichuanese migrant who returns home after a decade away, only to find his village is empty rubble, about to be flooded for the Three Gorges Dam.

Indeed, the immediate blowback from the country’s casting aside of natural processes becomes most plain when you look at its dams. China has 87,000 mighty steel and concrete dams, directing the nation’s water-supplies along largely man-made routes. The nation will clear away millions of human beings if they are in the way of taming nature in this way. It’s at the centre of the new China’s sense of itself: the current President, Hu Jintao, is a trained hydroengineer. It’s hard not to feel a flicker of awe: they have taken on the oldest rivers and unimaginably vast torrents of water, and for a moment, they seem to have won.

But not for long. By 1980, 2796 dams had failed, with combined death toll of 240,000 people. After the construction of the Three Gorges dam, it soon began to trigger landslides and deadly waves. The rivers feeding it were not able to flush out garbage – so the water became carcinogenic and threatened people in 186 cities. But the most startling effect followed the Zipingpu dam – which may well have caused the Sichuan earthquake.

When the plans were first unveiled to build the Zipingpu dam on an ancient faultline, many scientists warned it was a bad idea. True, the faultline had been dormant for millions of years. But, as Watts puts it: “Each time it filled and emptied, more than 300 million tons of water rose and fell. It was like a giant jumping up and down on a cracked surface. Several leading scientists speculated that the result was a reservoir-induced earthquake.” Less than two years after reservoir first filled, the Sichuan earthquake struck, killing around 68,000 people. Discussion of this question was suppressed in China. But many distinguished scientists have argued that the country’s worst recent “natural” disaster wasn’t natural as all, but a direct result of government policy.

This compresses all the fears about China’s current ecology-trashing binge into one single event, like a dark metaphor. What if you take on nature, and lose? What if your progress today is triggering a catastrophe tomorrow that will leave you worse off than you were in the first place? Yes, a billion Chinese have jumped. If they jump towards renewable energy sources – as their bravest and smartest citizens advocate – they will show humanity how to save itself, and be lauded by future generations as heroes. But at the moment, they are jumping off a cliff.

Source / The Independent

Fluxed Up World

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Monday, January 17, 2011

A Completely New Paradigm to Sustain Life

Ant Farm's Cadillac Ranch.

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Government
By Tom Whipple / December 8, 2010

We are trapped in a very complex civilization that is rapidly losing the sources of energy and numerous other raw materials that built and maintained it.

In case you missed it, a couple of weeks back the International Energy Agency in Paris got around to disclosing that the all-time peak of global conventional oil production occurred back in 2006. Despite that fact that this declaration was tantamount to announcing the end of the 250-year-old industrial age, few in the mainstream media noted the event and it was left to obscure corners of cyber space to ponder the meaning of it all.

It is also worth noting that oil is back in the vicinity of $90 a barrel and even Wall Street economists, who are paid to be eternally optimistic, are starting to talk about oil going for $110-120 a barrel in the next year or so.

In the meantime, the talking heads, pundits and even hard-headed reporters chatter on about the slow but persistent economic recovery that is supposed to be taking place. As the effects of last year's near-trillion dollar stimulus start to be felt, every statistical twitch upward is hailed as proof that normalcy will soon return. Realists, however, call this twitching "bottom-bouncing" and are convinced that far worse is yet to come.

As we all know by now, a new crowd has descended on Washington vowing to make everything right again by cutting taxes, reducing the size and the role of some parts of the government. Above all the folks are committed to getting government regulation off our backs so that free enterprise, the entrepreneurial spirit, merchant capitalism, or what have you can flourish as it did in the past.

What all those calling for reduced government fail to grasp, however, is that 200 years of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy has transformed this country into something completely different. Take food as an example, 200 years ago, some 90+ percent of us were involved in its raising or otherwise procuring food -- or we would simply not eat. Now, thanks to cheap fossil fuels, less than 3 percent of us are engaged in agricultural endeavors and I suspect only a fraction of our "farmers" still have all the requisite skills to feed themselves and their families in the style to which they have become accustomed. Take away the diesel for the tractors and farming is going to become mighty different. Has anyone yoked an ox lately?

In short, 200 years of abundant energy have allowed us to build an extremely complex civilization based on dozens of interrelated systems without which we can no longer live - at least not in the style to which we have become accustomed. Food production and distribution, water, sewage, solid waste removal, communications, healthcare, transportation, public safety, education --- the list of systems vital-to-life and general wellbeing goes on and on.

Those who believe that ten years from now we will be able to get along with much reduced government have little appreciation of how modern civilization works or how bad things are going to get as fossil fuel energy fades from our lives. The notion is absurd that we are in the midst of a routine downturn in the business cycle which can be cured by Keynesian stimulus favored by the Democrats or tax cuts favored by the Republicans.

While no one can foretell the future in detail, every now and again a window opens that allows a general outline of coming events to emerge. For example, in the years leading up to the Second World War one did not have to be clairvoyant to appreciate that a great disaster was about to befall.

Although few recognize how precarious the situation is, we are trapped in a very complex civilization that is rapidly losing the sources of energy and numerous other raw materials that built and maintained it. In America today we have millions un- and under-employed and that is certain to grow into the tens of millions before the decade is out as our politicians horse-trade tax cuts for billionaires in return for extensions of unemployment benefits. The good news is that this phase of the great transition from the industrial age to that which will follow cannot last much longer for events are moving too fast.

Whether one likes it or not, the size and complexity of the coming transition will be so great and unprecedented and there will be so much at stake that only governments will have the authority and power to cope with the multitude of problems that are about to emerge. Be it heresy in some as yet unknowing circles; all this is going to require a massive transfer of resources from private hands to public ones. Take something as simple as jobs. If anyone thinks the employment situation is difficult, wait a few years until the very high priced motor fuels makes discretionary car travel unaffordable. Millions upon millions of jobs in the retail, travel, hospitality, recreational, and dozens of other industries will be lost.

The current efforts by various levels of government to stimulate job creation or save people from home foreclosures will prove to be ridiculously inadequate. A completely new paradigm of what we do to sustain life is going to have to emerge or things will become far worse than most of us have ever known. Modern civilization simply cannot stand a situation in which a substantial share of its people is destitute. The potential for social disorder is too great.

If current trends continue, somewhere in the next five years a critical mass of us will realize that new foundations for civilization, and new ways of life must be found and implemented if we are going to survive with a modicum of comfort, economic, and political stability. Until then there will be many false prophets calling for a return to a civilization which is no longer possible.

[Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.]

Source / Falls Church News-Press

Thanks to Roger Baker / Fluxed Up World

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

If You're Not Confused ....

Why We Should Take Jared Loughner's Politics Seriously
By Steve Striffler / January 14, 2011

Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, apparently drew political ideas from the radical right and radical left, listing (fascist) Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and (communist) Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" among his favorite books. He was also attracted to conspiracy theories, thought we should be on a gold standard (because the government was trying to control us through currency), and at times just believed life was meaningless and nothing could be done.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, however, holding muddled political views does not in and of itself necessarily make Loughner mentally ill, unstable, crazy, or even particularly unusual. It makes him American and peculiarly so. In the college classroom, at political events and in grassroots organizing meetings, it does not take long to find many young (and not so young) people who hold what many of us consider to be an oddly contradictory collection of political views. After more than a decade of teaching, I can say that very few of today's college students have any sense of what "the left" or "the right" are or have traditionally stood for, what "liberal" and "conservative" have historically meant or where on the political spectrum we might place fascism and communism. When asked, most students - most Americans - "know" that Hitler and Marx are "bad," but very few can articulate what they stood for politically and many often assume that Nazi and Communist are synonymous.

Like Loughner, a significant portion of young people are, for very good reasons, profoundly anti-establishment, distrustful of anything they hear from the government or mainstream media. But this does not make them crazy anymore than it automatically leads them toward a coherent critique of the political system. Rather, in a world where fragments of information come from so many sources, it often leads them to the odd place where any explanation of the world is as good as any other, where there is no conceptual rudder for judging one theory or idea against another. Hence, they draw from wildly opposing political ideologies and are attracted to conspiracy theories. And it often leaves them in a frustrated place where public figures cannot be trusted, and to the conclusion that nothing can be done to change the world (except perhaps something chaotic and dramatic). Hence, the tendency toward apathy and (after a philosophy class or two) nihilism.

How the hell could we expect otherwise? It is bit ridiculous to ask why so few Americans are politically literate, much less hold politically coherent ideas, after we have gutted public education, turned schools into learning prisons and told young people over and over again they are consumers and not citizens. Political literacy, we learn, is no longer even a requirement for seeking political office, but is in fact seen as a drawback. And an important source of such political guidance, the left, has all but disappeared from mainstream life.

Within this context, it is amazing that any person in their twenties is able to develop anything resembling a coherent political framework for understanding the world, let alone acquire the tools to decipher between news and entertainment, to critically evaluate the fragments of information flying at them 24 hours a day from their TVs, computers and smart phones. Most do not have these tools by the time they arrive to college, and I long ago stopped expecting them to. But neither do I hold it against them, or dismiss their views simply because they are (from my perspective) muddled, incoherent and frequently go in completely opposite directions. I take them seriously both because it is my job as an educator and because I know a better future depends on equipping them with the ability to piece together a critical framework for understanding the world.

It is a bit ironic that at the same time as many commentators are urging us to listen more closely to our opponents' ideas and resist the urge to demonize them, that we are dismissing Loughner's political views without even so much as a real discussion. What he did is horrible, but the commentary has gone too quickly from "Loughner's actions were politically motivated" to "it had nothing to do with politics." We are now told that because his political views do not fall seamlessly into a neat box labeled "left" or "right" that they were irrelevant for understanding events in Arizona and, by connection, for understanding the current political situation in the United States. We should take Loughner's political views seriously. His mental state may have led him down a particularly destructive path, but his political confusion is by no means unique.

Source / Truthout

Fluxed Up World

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Understanding the Solutions to Capitalist Failures

Photo from Facing Change: Documenting America, a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.

It’s the Unions, Jack: Why America’s working class would fare better in a social democracy
By Thomas Geoghegan / January 2011

Americans may believe that the United States is set up for the middle class, and Europe is set up for the bourgeois. Or let’s put it this way: America is a great place to buy kitty litter at Walmart and relatively cheap gas. But it is not designed for me, a professional without a lot of money. That’s who Europe is for: people like me.

OK, I’m a union-side lawyer, so Europe’s really set up for people like my clients, or those who used to be my clients before the unions in America collapsed. Let’s put my own self-interest aside: Where would my clients, who are not poor, who make $30,000 to $50,000 a year and yet keep coming up short, maybe by $100, $200 a month, really be better off?

That’s easy: Europe. I can answer that as their lawyer, the way a doctor could answer about their health. The bottom two-thirds of America would be better off in Europe. I mean the people who have not had a raise (an hourly raise in real dollars) in maybe 40 years, and who do not even have a 401(k), nothing but Social Security, and either have no health insurance or pay deductibles of $2,000 or more. Sure, they’d be better off in Europe. When they’re unemployed, they’d certainly be better off in Europe. Over there, even single men can get on welfare. And in much of Europe, contrary to what we hear, overall unemployment is no higher than it is here.

One of the ways Europe is set up for the bourgeois—including, perhaps, many readers of this magazine—is the very fact that it is also set up for people who make $50,000 or less. Since it’s set up for these people, too, the bourgeois—me, maybe you—get the political cover to have it set up for them. What the people-in-the-unions get, people-from-the-good-schools also get. (And indeed, in Europe people-in-the-unions are often people-from-the-good-schools.) They get the six weeks of vacation each year and the pension like a golden parachute. And the higher up we are in terms of income, the more valuable these things are. In America, they don’t tell us: Social democracy, or socialism, or whatever Europe has, pays off biggest for people in the upper middle class, those just below the top.

Take Zurich and Chicago. One looks good and the other, broken down. If America has such a famously high GDP per capita and Chicago is one of America’s crown jewels, maybe there is something wrong with using GDP per capita as an index of social well-being. It’s not that the numbers “lie” in any crude way, but past a certain point, maybe these numbers mislead us as to where we’re better off. For to look at the numbers, who would guess that Zurich looks gloriously like Zurich all over, and that Chicago looks glorious in Lincoln Park, dumpy west of Pulaski Avenue, and gulag-like by 26th and California? But forget the look of the place. It’s also the way of life.

The numbers say, on paper, that I have a better way of life in Chicago. But are these numbers right? It may be that, past a certain level, an increase in GDP per capita pushes my living standard down. I don’t mean this in a spiritual sense—I mean it in a cold, neutral, out-of-pocket sense. Example: If I make more by working longer, I might subcontract out more of my life and incur other “costs,” like losing a trip to Zurich, which may be of far more value than the extra income. Or another example: If I get a raise, I might be worse off. I might widen the gap in income with others around me. Who cares? Well, by doing this, I might be spreading poverty, which, like everything, is relative. I might make my public space more of a hellhole than before.

People at the libertarian Cato Institute love to scoff: “Oh, our poor in America are so well off in GDP per capita.” Go ahead. Argue. I’ll let you win. But I dare the Cato types, when the argument is over, to go outside and walk around some Chicago neighborhoods.

In other words, the further ahead we get, the more our standard of living drops. Let’s say, as a European, I work 1,500 hours a year. Now, let’s put me at 1,800 or even 2,300 hours, like many Americans. While I’ve moved to higher GDP per capita, I don’t have six weeks off; a perfect cup of coffee to sip at some place other than the office; a city to inhale like a bank of violets.

In 2005 the real hourly wage for production workers in America was approximately 8 percent lower than it was in 1973, while our national output (productivity) per hour is 55 percent higher. So it’s dubious whether most Americans have gained even a penny in purchasing power since 1989. And even skewed by all this U.S-type inequality, we understate what Europeans at the “middling” level are able to get for free: publicly provided goods like education, health care, cities like banks of violets. Even apart from the grotesque U.S. social inequality, the net purchasing power disparity after we toss in the public goods is not so great.

It’s no accident that the social democracies—Sweden, France, and Germany, which kept on paying high wages—now have more industry than the United States or the UK. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Anglo-Americans, the neoliberals, the Economist crowd, and the press generally would taunt the social democrats in Europe: “You’d better break the unions.” That’s the way to save your industry.

Indeed, that’s what the United States and the UK did: They smashed the unions, in the belief that they had to compete on cost. The result? They quickly ended up wrecking their industrial base. But Germany, Sweden, and France ignored the advice of the Anglo-Americans, the Financial Times elite, the banking industry: Contrary to what they were told to do, they did not wreck their unions.

And it was the high labor cost that pushed those countries into making higher “value-added” things. Where is Germany competitive? It’s in high-end, precision machinery, made by people with the highest skills. It’s in engineering services. People look at Germany and say, “What about the German unemployment?” But no one in the United States ever says, “What about the German labor shortages?”

Even in 2008, precisely because of “globalization,” Germany had a serious shortage of people able to fill high-skill, high-paying jobs, especially engineers. In the United States, engineers complain that they can’t find work; many of them end up in sales. In the union-free, lower-cost United States, we don’t create the kind of jobs engineers can do. Germany’s problem? It has too many such jobs. It’s our whole globalization thesis turned upside down.

That leads to a seeming paradox: Higher labor costs can make a country more, not less, competitive. In many ways, the United States and the UK got out of manufacturing because their labor costs were too low. I have spent my life watching plants close in Milwaukee and Waukegan, where skilled labor was paid $26 an hour, only to reopen in Georgia and North Carolina, where it was paid $8 an hour. While we’re still fighting over severance two years later, we get the news: The company is bankrupt. The products it makes so cheaply are now crap.

In the United States, our elite, scoffing, says that there is just not enough labor-market flexibility in a country like Germany to allow it to adapt to globalization as we do. But it’s precisely because of our flexibility that we can’t compete. What the laws manage to do in Germany is to keep people together and to hold onto their skills in groups. Co-determination and works councils—in other words, worker control—keep people in groups, rubbing elbows with each other, and all this rubbing of elbows helps build up human capital.

Indeed, this is now a fashionable idea among some economists. Think of all the buzz about the “knowledge” economy, which, in the world of academic economists, is an inquiry into how knowledge drives economic growth. David Warsh in his 2006 book Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations introduces us to economists trying determine the relationship between group collaboration and economic growth.

German worker control contributes to a group interaction that over time not only builds up but also protects a certain amount of human capital, especially in engineering and quality control. This kind of knowledge is not just individual but also group knowledge. It’s the kind of group knowledge that our efficient, “flexible” labor markets so readily break up and disperse.

It’s our flexible labor markets that make it so hard for the United States and the UK to compete. We spend vastly more on basic research than the Germans do—U.S. companies are unrivaled. We spend far more on higher education. But with our flexible labor markets, we’re unable to capitalize on this research and education. Sometimes we try the Japanese model of work, but we never try the German, because we don’t want to cede any real control to workers. Supposedly it’s a great mystery why Germans keep investing in manufacturing and even prospering, despite claims that the German education system is broken (OK, it needs help) and that they aren’t spending enough on research (OK, they aren’t). But they’re doing something right. What is distinctive about Germany is the privileged position the worker has within the firm.

And we must look to that privileged position of the worker to explain how our own middle-class way of life can survive. Putting more money into education is a waste of effort. Putting more money into basic research is a waste of effort. We already spend enough. In fact, we have every factor of production going for us: We have more land, more labor, more capital, and higher levels of formal education. But with our flexible labor markets, we cannot develop the human capital or knowledge we need to wean ourselves away from turning out crap.

The answer to the problems of our country is education, but not the kind we’re pursuing, that is, jamming more kids into college or even teaching practical skills; instead, it’s teaching them how, politically, to cut themselves a better deal. As long as that’s going on, it’s impossible to write off the European or, more specifically, the German model.

Just as the answer to the problems of democracy is usually more democracy, so the answer to the problems of a social democracy is usually more social democracy.

[Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Geoghegan. This work originally appeared in Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission. We spotted the excerpt in the pages of In These Times (Aug. 2010).]

Source / Utne Reader

Thanks to Deva Wood / Fluxed Up World

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

This Climate of Hate Threatens Us All

No Ordinary Cross Hairs
By Karen Dolan / January 9, 2011

Christina Taylor Green might well have made the world a better place someday. According to reports, Christina had just been elected to her elementary school's Student Council. Her neighbor brought her along to Rep. Gifford's community event in the corner Safeway parking lot. He thought it would be of interest to this young, budding public servant.

Nine years old, a ballerina, a ball-player, a student councilmember and a beloved daughter, Christina Taylor Green was felled by a would-be assassin's bullet.

Tragedies do happen. Innocent people, even children, are caught in cross hairs every day in this country. But these were no ordinary cross hairs. These cross hairs appeared on the website of an immensely high-profile political leader, indeed that of a former U.S. Vice-presidential Candidate. Tea Party Spokesperson Sarah Palin. This map targeted, with the cross hairs of a gun barrel, Rep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). And to reinforce this map of "targets," Palin tweeted to conservatives last year "Don't Retreat...Reload."

These cross hairs hung in the air when 2010 Congressional-candidate Sharon Angle, another Tea Party favorite, said in an interview that people should exercise their Second Amendment Remedies.

These crosshairs were present at a campaign stunt which Gabby Giffords' Tea Party-backed Congressional opponent Jesse Kelly. Kelly's campaign event website posted a photo of him in his Marine uniform holding his gun, advertising a target shooting event: "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Palin, Angle, Kelly and the Tea Party neither pulled the trigger nor can be said to be responsible for the shootings. They have rightly decried the violence. The suspected shooter, Jared Lee Laughner's internet rants seem to indicate mental instability and radical right-wing delusions. But so far there is no indication that he believes he was following instructions from any particular public figures.

No, they are not "behind the shootings." But neither have they acknowledged the dangerous potential of their violent rhetoric. They have not repudiated their remarks or election tactics. They are not personally to blame for the tragedy. But can anyone say that they bear no responsibility for creating the cross hairs in which 18 innocent people were caught?

Pima County Arizona's Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said in the Press Conference following the shooting, "People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it's not without consequences."

So, no. These were no ordinary cross hairs. And in them a well-loved public servant, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot through the brain. Six people were killed. Thirteen more were injured. And Christina, a child embarking on her own mission of public citizenship in her school, was caught in them and brutally murdered.

Incendiary rhetoric has ballooned in the past two years and has crafted the cruelest of cross hairs. This climate of hate threatens us all.

[Karen Dolan ( is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.]

Source / Common Dreams

Fluxed Up World

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Signs of a Sick Society: When American Crimes Against Humanity Are Utterly Ignored

When Manners Get You Nowhere: 30 Weeks of Protesting Torture in 2010
By Justin Norman / January 9, 2011

Three years ago, if someone had suggested to me that I don an orange jumpsuit, black hood, and haul a cross down the street in opposition to torture, I would have laughed at them. Yet here I am at the end of 2010 having pulled that stunt or something akin to it more than 30 times in the past year.

Street protests in America today are far less common than they have been in years past, but they are particularly out of place in the relatively upscale business districts of West Des Moines, Iowa. There, week after week, a small, rotating group of ordinary people carry out the old tradition of holding signs inscribed with simple messages. These range in tone from straightforward pleas -- "Shut down Guantánamo", "No More Torture: Not Here, Not There, Nowhere", "Free Shaker Aamer" -- to sarcastic slogans -- "USA: Torturing Our Way to World Peace", "Don't Worry, We'll Tell You What to Confess!"

Note from the marketing department: if you are looking to convert strangers to your ideas, waving signs on a street corner is not your best bet. Nor is shouting through a megaphone, waving a corporate logo-stamped American flag, or acting unruly in general. All of this we did on a regular basis in 2010, and all of this was greeted with predictable hostility from those who passed. We were threatened with violence repeatedly, told we were ungrateful for our freedom, accused of being anti-American, and informed that we would soon burn in hell for defending the "terrorists" our brave soldiers had fought so hard to lock away.

It was all of the things I had imagined it would be when street protesting was first proposed to me after a screening of the film, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Counter-productive", "antagonistic", and "mind-numbingly pointless" were phrases that came to mind back then, and it seemed clear that friendlier modes of communication were abundant. After all, how is it that I learned what I know about torture? The books I've read are far more informative than a five-word slogan waved on poster board, and a large number of them -- written by people far more knowledgeable than I -- are readily available to the general public.

For an American soldier's perspective on torture one could turn to Inside the Wire by Erik Saar or How to Break a Terrorist by interrogator Matthew Alexander. To view US detention and interrogation policies from the eyes of innocent detainees, Moazzam Begg's Enemy Combatant or Murat Kurnaz's Five Years of My Life could be easily acquired. Or to put the latest round of American torture in perspective, a copy of historian Alfred McCoy's A Question of Torture or Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy would come in handy. Likewise, writings from lawyers, psychologists, scientists, and journalists are no more than a few clicks away for anyone who is interested.

But the problem, of course, is that most people are not interested. Who wants to read a book about some of the most unpleasant things imaginable when you can just believe the brief summary on the evening news? Even the film screening I'd attended -- a far less time-consuming affair than trudging through 400 pages of misery -- was meagerly visited, with less than 20 people in the room. No, I thought, if people are going to pay attention to this, the issue needs to be brought to a place in which they already gather.

Being raised as Christians, my friend Kirk Brown and I figured that churches would be a prime space for this. After all, one of Christ's central commands was to "love your neighbor as yourself" with specific emphasis on caring for the hungry, sick, and imprisoned. Many innocent captives in the War on Terror easily fit that description. So over the course of a few months we researched and wrote a presentation about two detainees: Dilawar of Yakubi, a 22-year-old peanut farmer who was tortured to death at Bagram Air Base, and Ahmed Errachidi, a London gourmet chef who was held in Guantánamo for five years before being released without charge. Controversy was kept to a minimum as the US itself had declared both of these men completely blameless, and reactionary feelings of helplessness would be partially overcome by inviting our audience to pray for and write letters to torture survivors and their families.

But the project was a near-complete failure. After visiting more than one hundred churches throughout Des Moines, Johnston, Adel, Van Meter, Indianola, and Waukee, and making dozens of follow-up calls and e-mails, we discovered that one thing was consistent across nearly every denomination: Guantánamo did not matter. Or if it mattered, it was not important enough to even warrant reviewing our proposed presentation. The mere fact that it was centered on people who had at one time been labeled "the worst of the worst" was enough to scare pastors away. One of the more forthcoming leaders we spoke to told us that it was simply politically inconvenient. "I agree with you that torture is wrong," he said, "but if you give this presentation we will lose membership." In the end, only one church agreed to let us present, and only if we cut the script in half.

Having been struck down almost unanimously by those worshiping one of the most prominent torture victims in history, our attempts to urgently yet politely point a spotlight on torture had failed. Likewise (and less surprisingly), blog posts I wrote were ignored, satirical podcasts that tackled the issue humorously were shrugged off, and invitations to book studies rejected. Finding myself at a loss to communicate this very important yet very overlooked issue to people, I turned to the method that I least wanted to participate in. Together with Kirk, I bought some black paint, a white board, stenciled the question "Torture for Liberty?" onto it, and perched myself atop a pile of snow by a shopping center in West Des Moines in February, 2010.

And for more than 30 weeks in 2010, that tradition has continued, looking far less tidy and polite than any of my preferred modes of communication. Security officers from the nearby mall accused us of trespassing, police threatened to arrest us for using a 10-watt bullhorn within a 50-watt sound ordinance, angry drivers fabricated stories about us running in and out of traffic in attempts to have us jailed, and insults, racism, middle fingers, and sodas were hurled at us time and again through both the steaming heat and freezing cold.

Note from the marketing department: you catch more flies with honey. Or so the saying goes. Yet one thing I have learned from all this is that people will do nearly anything to avoid talking about victims and survivors of American torture, regardless of what method is employed to communicate it to them. If it's not complaints about political inconvenience, it's whining about tone of voice, wording of slogans, not having all the facts, or just plain looking like a lunatic. Indeed, many of those who comment on the videos and photographs I've posted documenting the vigils would rather focus on our lack of manners than the spotlighted subject matter, allowing the issue of our rudeness to trump the issue of hundreds of innocent men and children being tortured and indefinitely detained.

But despite the general unpleasantness of street protests, one thing is certain about them that is certainly not the case for books, films, and multimedia presentations: they cannot be easily ignored. For at least a few seconds between traffic lights, hundreds of drivers are jolted out of their normal routine and forced to reconnect with something their tax dollars are paying for. The image of a man in an orange jumpsuit laying on a cross is a visual reminder that Christ was tortured by the "just doing my job" soldiers under the empire of his time much like many of those held in American detention centers today. For a few hours each week, the sight of a hooded detainee is pulled from the shadows where victims have been deliberately hidden and thrust into the light of everyday life. It is, in short, working to remember those whom the government works so hard to make us forget.

Of course, when it comes time to suit up and go out there next week, it will not sound that grandiose. It is nothing new, nothing profound, nothing all that exciting. It is a group of four or five people holding signs on a street corner, sharing gloves and conversation to keep from thinking about how damn cold it is outside.

Note from the marketing department: if you smile more, maybe people will actually listen to you. One common denominator of our critics is that they are almost never willing to do anything about the issue themselves. So they raise a middle finger and drive off. They post a message online about how ineffective our methods are. They do anything they can think of to keep from focusing on the issue at hand, and they go about their day. They do this because to them, it doesn't matter that less than 1% of detainees have been convicted in the nine years of the Guantánamo detention center's existence. Those are just passing statistics that have no bearing on the average citizen despite our financial connection to them. No, sadly, facts do not matter, and neither does emotional resonance, and neither does a kick in the teeth.

But it is no longer in the hope of successfully marketing ideas to people who don't want to hear them that I continue to stand in protest. It is out of the desire to love my neighbors as myself, knowing that if I was locked away in a cell for years, one thing I could not tolerate was people discovering this but doing nothing about it. I do it because if my letters to detainees ever make it past the censors, perhaps somewhere in a dark cell one of them will be reassured that they are not forgotten. Perhaps one of them will be encouraged that they are publicly remembered week after week, and that not all Americans are buying the lie of their universal guilt. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but it is better than voting for presidents and officials who don't keep their word. In any case, if it was me in the cell and you on the street, I think I'd appreciate the lack of indifference.

[Justin Norman is an activist and photographer from Des Moines, Iowa. He is on his way to Washington, DC to join Witness Against Torture's Fast and Vigil for Justice.]

Source / Common Dreams

Fluxed Up World

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

War: The 30-Year High From Hell

The Urge to Surge: Washington’s 30-Year High
By Tom Engelhardt / January 4, 2011

If, as 2011 begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine, strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all developments of our moment and beyond.

Just as 2010 ended, the American military’s urge to surge resurfaced in a significant way. It seems that “leaders” in the Obama administration and “senior American military commanders” in Afghanistan were acting as a veritable WikiLeaks machine. They slipped information to New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins about secret planning to increase pressure in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, possibly on the tinderbox province of Baluchistan, and undoubtedly on the Pakistani government and military via cross-border raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in the new year.

In the front-page story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with “sanctuaries” for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent border. You could practically taste the chagrin of the military that their war against... well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas, former Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists, and god knows who else... wasn’t proceeding exactly swimmingly. You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at the Pakistanis for continuing to take American bucks by the billions while playing their own game, rather than an American one, in the region.

If you were of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one. Admittedly, these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq years) about turning “corners” or reaching “tipping points,” but you can practically hear those phrases anyway, or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked behind them.

Take this sentence, for instance: “Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.” Can’t you catch the familiar conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never “less,” always “more,” that just another decisive step or two and you’ll be around that fateful corner?

In this single New York Times piece (and other hints about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going cold turkey. With all the sober talk about year-end reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and “progress” (a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted “overview” of that review recently released by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present tactics, it’s easy to forget that war is a drug. When you’re high on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical, as the public language you tend to use to describe them. But don’t believe it for a second.

Once you’ve shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired. Through its dream-haze, unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn’t do, you fantasize that you can. Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American planners and the peoples of the region. It only widened that war into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide. Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture, they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient against the mightiest of forces.

Think of the American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug’s effect in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call “the Greater Middle East,” Washington is now in its third and grimmest surge iteration. The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur, or even imperial megalomania. It focused on a global Pax Americana and the wars that extend it into the distant future. The third started in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as 2011 commences.

In Central and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves as the urge to destabilize. Geopolitically, little could be uglier or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan -- or the United States. Three decades after the American urge to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower, the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold War era. And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an “unprecedented strategic opportunity” as this century dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act of strategic desperation.

That, of course, is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without much to call your own. Perhaps it’s fitting that Afghanistan, the country we helped turn into the planet’s leading narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.

So, as the New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.

Getting High in Afghanistan

As 2011 begins, what could be eerier than reading secret Soviet documents from the USSR's Afghan debacle of the 1980s? It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens (“The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon as possible -- every day precious lives are lost.”); or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan war must be ended in a year, “at maximum, two.” Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can’t help but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss of “credibility” would keep the Soviets fighting on to 1989.

Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an assessment that any honest American military commander might offer a quarter century later about our own Afghan adventure: “There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels.” Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan, boasting “on his last day in the country that ‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.’”

Or Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in 1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other great imperial power of the moment: “Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out.” (The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)

Or in 1988, with the war still dragging on, to read a “closed” letter the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest American leader could say of our Afghan war): “In addition, [we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]... One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan costs us 5 billion rubles a year.”

Or finally the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing (just as the American military high command would do of our war effort) that it was “not only unfair but even absurd to draw... parallels” between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American war in Vietnam. That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000 Soviet soldiers -- just about the number of American soldiers there today -- left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling. Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central Asia in increasing turmoil. In November of that same year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would disappear from the face of the Earth.

Reading those documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and “his euphoric ‘Afghan Team’” toasting the success of the Agency's 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary operation since the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists of that moment -- “freedom fighters” as they were then commonly called in Washington.

It’s easy to imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of the Vietnam effect. They had used the “war” part of the Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the two superpowers dry. As President Reagan would later write in his memoirs: “The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism -- money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.”

By 1990, the urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining. Forget that it had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that one-third of that impoverished country’s population had been turned into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together, funded, and empowered through the Afghan War. More important, the urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream. And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, “our” freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans, that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment to American power that they had been to the Soviets?

The Cold War was over. The surge had it. We were supreme. And what better high could there be than that?

Fever Dreams of Military Might

Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a “sole superpower” on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible “peace dividend” -- that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects -- for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.

And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.

Previously, the “arms race,” like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the U.S. prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American “global presence” -- from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces -- enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.

Thanks to the destructive acts of 19 jihadis, the urge to surge would with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001 -- and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as the newspaper headlines screamed) a “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.”

To take full stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de sièclestatement of principles.” In it, they called for “a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities.” Crucially, they were demanding that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration with a better sense of American priorities, “increase defense spending significantly.”

The 23 men and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank types. After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice president; I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby would be his right-hand man; Donald Rumsfeld would be Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first post- invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Aaron Friedberg, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director of Policy Planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb Bush, governor of Florida. (Others like John Bolton, who signed on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)

This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank. In either case, more than 13 years later, the success of that group can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness -- and scope -- of their thinking, and of their seminal document, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in September 2000, two months before George W. Bush took the presidency.

This crew of surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation that, as they saw it, offered Americans an “unprecedented strategic opportunity.” Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, in this way: “In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole."

“Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” if remembered at all today, is recalled mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect: “Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.” It remains, however, a remarkable document for other reasons. In many ways canny about the direction war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or “Net-War,” as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was a clarion call to ensure this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” into the distant future by military means alone.

In 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” It wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the planet -- and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious “world revolution.” Now, in the name of American safety and the glories of global democracy, we were -- so the PNAC people both pleaded and demanded -- to do what only evil empires did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.

We could, they insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources, untold billions -- they refused to estimate what the real price might be -- into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself, from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new “forward operating bases on land” to space and cyberspace. Pushing “the American security perimeter” ever farther into the distant reaches of the planet (and “patrolling” it via “constabulary missions”) was, they claimed, the only way that “U.S. military supremacy” could be translated into “American geopolitical preeminence.” It was also the only that the “homeland” -- yes, unlike 99.9% of Americans before 9/11, they were already using that term -- could be effectively “defended.”

In making their pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was “deteriorating” fast, that we were “increasingly ill-prepared” or even (gasp!) in “retreat” on a planet without obvious enemies. They couldn’t have thought more globally. (They were, after all, visionaries, as druggies tend to be.) Nor could they have thought longer term. (They were twenty-first century mavens.) And on military matters, they couldn’t have been more up to date.

Yet on the most crucial issues, they -- and so their documents -- couldn’t have been dumber or more misguided. They were fundamentalists when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of the U.S. military. They believed it capable of doing just about anything. As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking military destructiveness for global power. Nor could they have been less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they did imagine our future enemy to be China). Nor were they capable of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might be stopped in its tracks -- in the Greater Middle East, no less -- by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans. To read “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” today is to see the rabbit hole down which, as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.

It was a genuine American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their military-first policies in place; that, on September 12th of the year that “changed everything,” the PNAC people seized the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began channeling American treasure into the military solution they had long desired, and surged. Oh, how they surged!

That urge to surge was infamously caught in notes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments taken on September 11, 2001. "[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon... Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'")

And so they did. They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin of history. And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate, did not abate.

The Soviet Path

To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges. Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all. Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made “soviet” and “totalitarian” synonymous.

The U.S. economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the U.S. will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future) -- and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package abroad.

And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war -- the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory -- in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster. Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans. But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s not likely to be denied.

Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab. They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery. Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.

[Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). You can catch him discussing war American-style and that book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.

[Note on sources: The National Security Archive, filled to bursting with documents from our imperial and Cold War past, is an online treasure. I have relied on it for both the Soviet documents quoted on the Afghan war of the 1980s and an analysis of the American version of that war. For those who are interested in reading PNAC’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” click here and then on the link to the pdf file of the document.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Source / TomDispatch

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