Much could be criticized about bias in the reporting of the mainstream U.S. media–its sensationalism, traditional political bias (either pro-Administration or anti-Administration, as the case may be), its superficiality, its shortsightedness, and its constant effort to whitewash American sins. Nonetheless, the efforts of politicians to avoid transparency constitute a far greater threat to the freedom of Americans. In arguments over bias in the behavior of the media, the broader context of the efforts of politicians to classify information to avoid personal embarrassment rather than to prevent the country’s enemies from gaining access should always be the primary consideration. The American public has little leverage over corrupt officials without the constant probing of a free media.
Maybe it’s a good thing. For three-quarters of a century, Americans have been taking it easy. Oh, I remember the civil rights struggle and the horrors of the “American War,” as many Vietnamese call it, and the Cold War, but through it all, the Federal Government was, in general, our friend, handing out gifts and trying to make life easier for us, even if only partly out of conviction, partly to bribe us into tolerating the abuses and excesses of the rich.
No more. Now we Americans are going to have to learn self-reliance…not selfish individualism but networked, self-organizing self-reliance, security achieved by cooperating for the common good. Do we want equality? Start by treating each other decently. Do we want clean air to breathe? Start by using less energy. Do we want protection from self-serving corporate greed? Demand that the legal concept of eminent domain, which is being used to allow pipeline corporations to rampage across America, be redefined truly to function for the PUBLIC, not private, good. Do we want government that protects our liberty? Educate ourselves about the meaning of liberty: read Madison on the meaning of democracy, learn what our state district attorneys are doing, and vote for district attorneys and judges who stand up for human rights. Do we want responsive Congressmen? Demand and vote for candidates supporting such reforms as recall—the legal right of the population to fire a bad politician. And always, always demand transparency by our elected officials. Why should Big Oil be permitted to force citizens to sell their land to make space for a pipeline? Why are these decisions made in backrooms? If it is arguably in the national interest, then politicians should be bragging about it…and providing time for citizens to participate in the decision-making process.
Cities addicted to Federal handouts will have to figure out ways to take care of themselves, and we certainly do not want Detroit (or Cochibamba) to be the model. Admit that the neo-liberal policy of protecting the wealth of the rich first that has been favored by both conservative parties over most of the last 50 years is the source of our current mess. Recognize that Trump is absolutely correct in asserting that America needs a better model. America needs a socio-economic vision better than either neo-liberalism or Federal care and feeding. Trump may not have the answer, but he has identified the failure of past leadership. Now it is up to us, on the ground, in our neighborhoods, to transcend the outdated debates so useful to the old, self-serving two-party structure and come up with an answer for the good of the whole society.
Earth Day got it right, but we Americans, we oh so very comfortable Americans, did not commit ourselves. The Occupy Movement got it right, but again mainstream Americans turned their backs. The anti-Vietnam War movement showed us all a thing or two, but anti-war thinking was nowhere to be found at the beginning of the 21st century. Teachers, police, and firemen in Wisconsin demonstrating in frigid cold came very close to taking back their state. Bernie’s attempt to transform the old Democratic Party into a new party of the future only missed by a hair. Then came the Women’s March: a breathtaking sign that now, at last, Americans are waking up.
So, maybe this turning point in the official attitude of the Federal Government is a good thing. Get over reliance on Washington; start relying on each other. Take charge. Stop thinking “Me first.” Stop asking for welfare. Stop expecting Big Government to help you. Big Government we will certainly continue to have…in fact, bigger than you ever dreamed in your worst nightmare, but it will not be the Nanny State; it will be the Corporate State. The U.S.A. is the richest society in history: we do not have to find scapegoats for our own failures or beat down our neighbors so we can stand up; the pie is big enough to give everyone a piece, and together we can make the pie bigger. We—me and the funny-looking guy next door—can talk to each other, give a little, listen a little, and find a positive-sum outcome. We, the citizens, can do this.
Democratic societies whose public servants conduct a foreign policy based on “good guys” vs. “bad guys” undermine their own long-term security. The attitude of a state toward another state should rest on an assessment of the counterpart’s behavior, not its race, religion, or ideology. Perhaps needless to say, such an approach to foreign policy formulation hardly exists in the modern world.
States may rationally select partners for many reasons, and having a foreign policy based on case-by-case judgment, i.e., with no permanent partners at all, is by no means the least rational basis for foreign policy, though it takes a very clear-thinking statesperson to guide such a policy. Possibly the most incompetent and self-defeating (taking “self” to refer not to the leader but the society) foreign policy of all is the typical one, based on old prejudices and habits from an era long gone. To discern the difference, a logical method of distinguishing classes of foreign policy behavior would be a nice tool, if we could but design it. Hard as it may be to identify any real-world regimes with such a tool for identifying other regimes worth supporting, a simple continuum from selfish behavior to behavior for the common good would make a solid, if not revolutionary, foundation.
In the complex arena of foreign policy, doing harm is almost as common (and vastly more costly than) doing good, implying that there is sufficient room for improvement to anticipate real value even from a simple tool. If we can accept foreign policy based on the assumption that a general minimization of harm done would, over time, benefit us all, then we are set to move forward to a definition of broad categories of behavior that should be viewed as harmful or beneficial to the common good regardless of the identity of the actor.
Debates over exceptions will of course explode the instant one attempts to categorize specific behaviors as harmful to the common good and thus warranting opposition, but at least a default attitude (e.g., “war is bad”) would serve to make one hesitate and demand justification. In the case of good behavior by an adversary, the burden of proof would be put on one’s own leaders to justify any inclination they might have to oppose good behavior simply because done by the wrong regime. In addition, having the scale at hand would make it easier to notice and harder to “ignore” a shift in behavior. The continuum also offers an easy way to promote the common good: attacking the bad behavior of adversaries need not be the focus of foreign policy; a great step forward could be made simply by applying the continuum to one’s own behavior, to see if “we” are truly setting an example for the world.
Several common behaviors suggest themselves immediately as harmful to the common good:
aggression surpassing the scope of a threat;
denying autonomy to a disliked and marginalized minority;
putting reporters on trial in secret;
arresting anyone for “insulting” a leader.
Several other common behaviors seem to deserve immediate support:
obeying international law.
This short set of criteria already suffices to generate a good deal of thought…and no little embarrassment. Consider the example of how the West might tackle the problem of finding partners in the Mideast. Israel is guilty of colonization of the West Bank, multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of any threat, nuclear ambiguity, and collective punishment of the residents of Gaza. Saudi Arabia is guilty of multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of the threat (or perhaps “preventive war). Turkey is guilty of denying autonomy to a disliked minority, putting reporters on trial in secret, and arguably for arresting people for insulting the leader. Iran was guilty of nuclear ambiguity.
Are the charges accurate? Are there justifications? To what extent are the categories of equivalent seriousness? Given the ease with which one could find similar guilt among leading Western democracies, is the test so tough that no powerful state can pass? What constitutes passing?
That last question leads to two particular cases that stand out not for the nature of the states’ behavior so much as the change. Iran has, or at least one may so hope, abandoned nuclear ambiguity (in stark contrast to Israel). Turkey has, over the last year, shifted from a policy of democratization and inclusion of Turkish Kurds in its political system (note that the former has little meaning without the latter) to a policy of repressing the Kurds by not just fighting their extremists but also by marginalizing their politicians and more broadly restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression for the whole Turkish population.
These two dramatic cases raise the issue of whether current regime behavior or the direction of change is more important. Given the extreme differences in the development of civilized governance within a given state over time and across states at any particular time, it might well be more logical to emphasize the direction of change. Given the need for progress in governance to evolve from within a society than be imposed from without, emphasizing the direction of change is also more likely to have practical value, particularly if the international community both practices what it preaches and reacts quickly to changes.
Obama’s decision to avoid receiving Erdogan at the end of March 2016, months after Erdogan’s shift toward repression and centralization became clear to the world, might thus be judged a good move but too little, too late. It may well be imagined that Erdogan has by now become so committed to his new policy of repression that a factional realignment of forces within his political party can offer much hope of setting Turkey back on the path to modernization, democratization, and secular inclusivity.
The Western call for new anti-Iranian sanctions for testing missiles in the context of the nuclear agreement is even more curious, sending the nearly unmistakable signal that despite the huge concession Iran made in settling the nuclear issue in the absence of a similar requirement being levied on Israel, the West remains committed to subjecting Iran to discriminatory rules. Is there any other state in the world that has been ordered by the West to forego the testing of missiles? More pointedly, are Saudi Arabia and Israel required to sign up to the rules concerning missiles that Iran is being told to follow? Of course, one might protest that “Iran is different,” but this argument is like pouring water into a wicker basket in view of the aggressive foreign policy of both Saudi Arabia (preventing Bahraini democratization, internationalizing the Yemeni civil war, pursuing regime change in Syria) and Israel (invading Lebanon, retaining the Golan Heights, imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghetto).
The real issue in Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that, being both essentially fundamentalist religious regimes and expansionist nationalist regimes, they do not welcome the rising competition from yet another state playing the same game. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the issue is clear: they desire neither the military competition for regional influence nor the direct ideological challenge to their dreams of religious empire. For Western regimes, the Mideast confusion of competing fundamentalist religious and sectarian interests complicating and aggravating aggressive nationalist claims and counterclaims is—if addressed as such—impossibly arcane. To deal with this problem, Western regimes tend to simplify it by assigning essentially meaningless labels that facilitate decision-making while ensuring that those decisions will be counterproductive. In an effort to evade the cultural complexities of the Mideast, Western regimes thus become captive to those complexities, making themselves servants of whatever cultural group they happen to label as “friend,” for “friend” as a political term among states means “looking the other way,” i.e., renouncing your right to think for yourself and criticize your counterpart when you perceive improper behavior. A Western state should never support or oppose a Mideast state because of the religion or sect of the Mideastern society; the Western state’s attitude should instead be grounded in an open-eyed assessment of the nature of the behavior in question. Making this assessment with a carefully defined set of behavioral criteria in mind could help Western leaders to distinguish more accurately between beneficial and harmful behavior.
How the West should react to violence is the obvious case-in-point. The constant need for Western states to decide whether to support or oppose the endless Mideast acts of violence in the name of Shi’i, Jewish, or Sunni Salafi interests will always provoke a pointless and useless debate as long as the underlying question is: “Which sect’s acts of violence should the West support?” From the long-term perspective of Western democratic societies, the answer in the abstract is “None.” As the events from 9/11 to the late March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels should make evident, sectarian violence is not in the interest of Western societies. Indeed, even if we have forgotten the horrors of the 16th century religious wars in France or the Thirty Years’ War a century later, we should have learned the lesson from the KKK and Kristalnacht.
But Western politicians try endlessly to distinguish “justifiable” violence by a regime or private group by looking first and foremost at the sectarian identity of the guilty. Over time, that approach accomplishes two things: it exposes Western politicians as hypocritical (thereby weakening the West’s credibility as a moral leader) and establishes a dynamic that degrades the foundations of Western democracy by setting into motion a cycle of cynicism and violence. Bad behavior, short-sighted behavior, brutal behavior, emotion-based rather than thoughtful behavior is always more readily copied than the other kind. The world is watching the steady contagion of calls by politicians for sectarian policies (building walls, patrolling urban regions based on the sect of the inhabitants, banning political parties that support the political integration of minorities); collective punishment (by mistreating refugees, stripping minority regions of political rights, suicide bombers or wars against cities); drones to kill presumed but untried and perhaps unidentified opponents (to date, in “other” countries). In each case, society goes down a slippery slope: the principle is at first violated in some seemingly benign manner (e.g., racial targeting) or extreme manner presumably done as an exception (e.g., killing a known and identified individual combatant posing a direct and immediate danger) that then leads both to less benign or more common violations while also quickly establishing a precedent. It may take generations for a leading world power to convince the world to accept a new principle (banning slavery; allowing women to participate in politics; religious freedom; the right to criticize the leader; open trials; making such terror weapons as poison gas, white phosphorous, barrel bombs, nuclear warheads illegal; granting autonomy to repressed minorities). Popularizing barbaric forms of behavior that violate accepted moral and legal principles, in sad contrast, happens effortlessly and almost instantly, with unpredictable but reliably negative consequences for progressive democratic societies. A world of wars against cities, repression of minorities, and the freedom to use whatever weapon one can design or buy is a world in which dictators and extremists flourish: only societies aspiring to peace and civil liberties suffer.
Democratic societies need to impose upon themselves a higher standard of behavior–particularly in the implementation of foreign policy–not just in some idealistic quest to make the world a better place but as the core of self-defense.
International law is collapsing in the Mideast-Central Asian region, and its replacement by conflict between states, client statelets, and private militias poisoned by the rising use of mercenaries threatens to cripple the ability of states to manage foreign affairs. As bad as the record of states has been, the behavior of private armies, free from any society’s control, promises to be far more dangerous.
International law, so painfully designed in recent centuries to offer human civilization some measure of protection by both giving states control over military force and regulating how those states use that monopoly, is collapsing before our eyes in the Mideast-Central Asian region because of the short-sighted misuse of power by all sides, but in particular by those very global powers most responsible for designing and benefiting from the current system of international law. In essence, international law offers states a monopoly of force plus total control over their own populations in return for constraints limiting their legal rights to start wars. People are thus sacrificed in cases where repressive regimes exist in hopes at least that this very imperfect system will inhibit war. The greater the education of the masses and the better the exchange of information among increasingly connected societies, the more repressed populations will protest and organize to combat repression. Since the weaknesses and injustice inherent in current international law are not being addressed as fast as people worldwide are becoming aware of their rising potential to take matters into their own hands, the system is cracking and–in the Mideast-Central Asian region–is collapsing.
This process of collapse begins with local dictatorships being protected by global powers, which leads to local protests that are repressed with violence, thus promoting radicalization leading to wars of national liberation, civil wars, a steady rise in the use of violence both by local dictatorships and the repressed populations. The violence radicalizes both sides while also offering all manner of opportunity for war profiteers, criminal gangs, extremist groups, and arrogant politicians willing to sacrifice their people for personal gain. This cycle of violence is now provoking the rise of secretly sponsored militias and private militias in a cycle of institutional decentralization that may well be even more dangerous than the cycle of violence provoking it.
The cycle of institutional decentralization is leading to a loss of control over military force, a nightmare scenario in which private armies are gaining sufficient power to challenge states. Both Syrian and Iraqi society have already reached the point where it is virtually impossible to distinguish “good” militias from “bad,” or even to tell what side a particular militia is on…or what its political goals are. At best, militias protect only a favored ethnic group, thus provoking beggar-thy-neighbor civil wars; at worst, they are no more than self-financed criminal gangs. Locally, people are desperate for any organized force that offers them a modicum of security; internationally, aggressive global powers are seeking ways to maintain the benefits of empire without paying the price of actually doing the fighting, a contradiction seemingly resolved first by remote-controlled drones and second by hiring mercenaries. The latter is a pact with the devil in which states relinquish power to private armies that have no purpose but to foment the endless violence that justifies their paychecks. The rich states doing the hiring either do not care about civil liberties and the rule of law in the first place or blindly make exceptions for their mercenaries, who end up with blank checks to act with impunity outside of the legal system of the hiring state. When their power reaches a sufficient level, they essentially transform themselves into independent pirate enterprises that have no societies over which to rule and simply run amok. While the Islamic State and Boko Haram may be the obvious examples, Shi’i militias in Iraq; the FARC in Colombia; a variety of militias in Syria patronized by the Gulf States, the U.S., and Turkey; the Taliban in Pakistan; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas in Gaza; and militias in Nigeria and Somalia are equally pertinent examples. Another important but murky layer is the pseudo-official militia, of which many examples exist, including illegal settler military groups in Palestine protected by the Israeli regime, Colombian armed groups formed by cattle barons protected by the Colombian regime. As these three layers interact, even official state governmental structures may decline into something more properly considered to be what might be called “semi-official client militias:” no longer real states, controlling perhaps little more than the former state capital, supported only by a minority of the population, and manipulated by a foreign patron. Baghdad under U.S. occupation, Bahrain after the Saudi military intervention (supported by Pakistani mercenaries), the restored Yemeni regime re-installed by Saudi Arabia, Baghdad today as an Iranian client entity, and Damascus under Russian protection exemplify this layer.
The New World Order
The result is a nearly complete continuum of official to private military regimes, all calculating the degree to which, on any given day, they should fight with or trade with any of their many active adversaries. It appears, for example, that one day historians will tell us that virtually every state opposing the Islamic State both attacked the IS and simultaneously purchased from IS the oil that keeps it afloat. Perhaps the only people to whom this insane situation makes sense is the war profiteers.
The one element missing from this continuum going from official states to private armies is the corporate army, though the story of Blackwater illustrates how rapidly we are approaching a world in which a private corporation will be able to launch a war against a state.
…Erik Prince, who is a top target on Al-Qaeda’s ‘hit list’, has moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the crown prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is paying him $529 million to create an 800 person battalion. Trained by Prince and US Navy SEALs, the small army will serve as sort of Praetorian Guard for the crown prince’s own purposes, a useful tool during times of turmoil in the Middle East. It would not be the first time that a foreign player has patiently watched the US experiment – and struggle – with a concept before adopting it and all best practices as their own. [http://yris.yira.org/essays/707.]
Already Blackwater is, independently of the U.S., organizing military forces for other countries, very possibly for uses that will harm U.S. national interests. A U.S. corporation enriched by the U.S. government as a security arm of the U.S. government has now morphed into an independent international player completely outside of the bounds of international law, as much a lone wolf as a terror gang and with potentially far more power. Whatever loyalties or moral self-constraint Blackwater may have, its evolution shows where current trends are pulling naïve and short-sighted governments: toward a world in which private interests increasingly control global politics, even to the extent of fielding private armies. Corporate armies already play key roles in wars among states, enabling tiny rich states to become overnight military powers; how far behind, if no action is taken, will be the decision of a private corporation to invade a state?
- Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE have hired hundreds of ex-Colombian army soldiers to help it subdue Yemen. With the half century-long Colombian civil war now winding down, Colombia has many veterans with broad experience repressing the poor, supporting rich cattle barons, and punishing democracy advocates: just what the petroshiekhs and their Salafi allies need to colonize Yemen. [Middle East Eye 11/2/15.]
- According to mercenary analyst Tim Shyrock, “Without much notice or debate, the Obama administration has greatly expanded the outsourcing of key parts of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East and Africa…” [The Daily Beast, 12/10/15.]
- Houthi forces have reportedly killed Blackwater mercenaries in Yemen. [El-Akhbar.com.]
Rule by a corporate elite requires war, corruption, and a cowed populace; democracy requires an educated population loudly demanding transparent, responsive government. Make no mistake: this is war. Guess who is winning?
Corporate elites (i.e., CEOs, CFOs, VPs, board members) of top corporations want four things: freedom from regulation, rock-bottom wages for American workers, a stock market bubble, and political control. To be clear, “top corporations” means the major Wall St investment firms that pretend to be banks, the major energy and mining corporations, and the major arms manufacturers – i.e., the firms whose CEOs have been making a personal killing from both the trashing of Iraq by the US military and the Great Recession of 2008. Needless to say, they are getting exactly what they want despite the lessons of both the Iraq occupation and 2008 recession scandals. It is they who run the economy, not representatives of the social good. These key CEOs also pretty much run the government, sending their representatives to Washington to write the laws and, more importantly in many cases, the implementing guidelines. Corporatism is probably the best name for this system we have in the U.S.; it is certainly not capitalism (i.e., free competition), a method reserved for Mom and Pop, who are perfectly free to go bankrupt whenever they wish.
This exclusive band of the corporate elite does not see a problem with declining wages, disappearing benefits, millions giving up the search for work, millions of home foreclosures (a great investment opportunity!), endless war, and brutal treatment of whistle-blowers to repress dissent. The corporate elite is achieving exactly what it has been trying for much of the last generation to achieve: the abolition of the New Deal compromise to facilitate a wholesale transfer of national wealth and political power into their private hands. All the public lamenting by Obama and Bernanke about “remaining problems” in the economy is just so much fluff. The problems of the U.S. economy are not “bad luck;” they are the intended outcome. The U.S. is being transformed into a third world economy of people too busy looking for work to make trouble by sticking their noses into politics (the proper business of the elite) and too poor to risk striking for higher wages. Obama and Bernanke (and Geithner) have been supporting this process with meticulous care by avoiding any hint that any actual live corporate individual was in any way morally or legally responsible for the harm their corporations have caused the American people.
Meek workers and meek citizens grateful for their Walmarts and the right to vote for either of two corporate candidates every few years is what the corporate elite wants. And they are getting exactly what they want. Remember how the protests in Wisconsin were shut down? Did you notice how fast the patriotic popular Occupy Movement disappeared? Are you watching how every whistle-blower gets bullied while the message they are trying to bring to the American public gets ignored? Snowden is at least the fourth NSA whistle-blower who has tried to alert Americans to the dangers of domestic spying over the last decade! Have we seen any official condemnations of NSA behavior, any independent investigatory commissions, any arrests or even admissions of guilt by senior officials?
The corporate elite and the citizenry have diametrically opposed interests. The corporate elite benefits from a stock market bubble, a main street depression, constant war, and discouraged citizens. In contrast, economic prosperity for the person, a vibrant democracy of involved citizens, transparency in government, regulation of corporations, and a foreign policy based on negotiated positive-sum cooperation are the components of a healthy society. Think of the things benefiting the corporate elite as food items in the corporate elite’s picnic basket and the starkly different items benefiting the population as foods in your picnic basket. You can’t mix items. Foreign war, domestic corruption, and an intimidated public are the legs on which corporatism towers over a democracy. In the long run, we the people really only have this simple choice: pick the basket you want…and if you want the democracy-peace-prosperity basket, hold on to it with both fists.
An elite culture of hostility toward the people is rising in the U.S. This elite is not just a plutocracy but, increasingly, an insecure and vengeful plutocracy that views popular participation in the democratic process, at home or abroad, as the primary enemy. This paranoid elite mindset is laying the foundations for dictatorship.
From the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo pre-trial torture, wars for profit, destroying the careers of honest Federal officials who oppose contract fraud, and drone attacks on unidentified civilians to bailouts of billionaires and “stay out of jail” cards for Wall St. CEOs despite prima facie evidence of fraudulent behavior to the vicious pre-trial torture of individual Americans guilty of embarrassing top officials, we are witnessing the rise of an elite culture based on self-defense against the people. The members of the elite who buy into this culture all agree that it is in their common private interest to treat the people as the enemy. Whether the president or Wall St. banker or arms corporation CEO happens to label himself Republican. Democrat, or apolitical businessman is becoming increasingly irrelevant: the elite is adopting a garrison state perspective that labels all debate, all independent thought as proof of treachery.
This culture of dictatorship rests on a foundation of private wealth used for public power: a few CEOs from the arenas of finance, energy, and war profiteering who specialize in transferring social wealth into their own hands for subsequent transfer to their political lackeys. Once bought and paid, the political lackeys pass the laws required for the protection of the CEOs’ wealth transfer scam. Do independent commissions write the implementing rules governing how Wall St. is regulated? No, bureaucrats supported by representatives from Wall St. write those critical implementing rules. Do independent commissions decide if NSA should be permitted to engage in domestic spying? No, a highly secretive internal government body does. Class war by the rich, immunity from prosecution for the powerful, and secrecy are the legs on which dictatorship stands.
We may differ on which politician is most guilty, we may differ on whether or not any specific official personally desires to institute a dictatorship. Regardless of the answer, the rise of this defensive, anti-popular elite culture is promoting the consolidation of a single elite committed to its own perpetuation and determined to fight to the death against popular participation in the democratic process. Just as dictatorship has a critical core, so does democracy. The legs of democracy are transparency and public accountability. Transparency does not mean the transparency of what you do in your bedroom or write in your emails but what officials do in their offices. Unlike officials who seem suddenly, in our post-9/11 world, to have become addicted to pre-trial torture, for citizens in a democracy, “public accountability” means bringing the powerful to court to defend themselves. [Why do I feel it necessary to spell out something so obvious?!? Did we not all learn this in high school?]
The dynamic powering the transfer from democracy to dictatorship is, in a word, that “power corrupts.” The more power is acquired via ill-gotten and hidden pathways, the harder those abusing power will try to cover up, until they reach the point where they can only protect their personal careers by outright dictatorship…by which point they may well have the power to do so. Whatever lies in the hearts of our current officials, sooner or later this mindset of hostility toward the public (first, the public in a few Muslim states and now only a few years later also the American public) will be exploited by a leader to build what we will all recognize as a dictatorship…unless we change the elite culture of hostility.
On the other hand…
Bipartisan senatorial critique of NSA domestic spying by Leahy, Udall, Frankin, Grassley supports transparency in government.
Today, the Judiciary Committee will scrutinize government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. In the years since September 11th, Congress has repeatedly expanded the scope of FISA, and given the Government sweeping new powers to collect information on law-abiding Americans – and we must carefully consider now whether those laws have gone too far.
Last month, many Americans learned for the first time that one of these authorities – Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act – has for years been secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of Americans’ phone records on an unprecedented scale….
In the wake of these leaks, the President said that this is an opportunity to have an open and thoughtful debate about these issues. I welcome that statement, because this is a debate that several of us on this Committee have been trying to have for years. And if we are going to have the debate that the President called for, the executive branch must be a full partner. We need straightforward answers and I am concerned that we are not getting them….
Just recently, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that he provided false testimony about the NSA surveillance programs during a Senate hearing in March….
The patience and trust of the American people is starting to wear thin….
The Government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not on its face appear to authorize this type of bulk collection. What will be next? And when is enough, enough?
Congress must carefully consider the powerful surveillance tools that we grant to the Government, and ensure that there is stringent oversight, accountability, and transparency.
Congressional coalition opposes domestic spying –
A stunning bipartisan group of 205 Congressmen voted to slap down the Administration and the Republican House leadership over NSA domestic spying. Advocates of continued nearly unrestrained domestic spying against citizens not accused of any crimes won a narrow victory that cannot but awaken them to the on-going national outrage over the domestic spying scandal by Intel agencies that have traditionally been barred from domestic activities. The Amash-Conyers bill represents a significant response to the post-9/11 trend, symbolized by the grossly mis-named “Patriot Act” toward abuses of power by an Imperial Presidency that shows little concern for Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties. We should all be grateful to Manning for sacrificing his life in the name of real patriotism.
A spreading movement to defend and expand democracy by citizens willing to face down repressive, militarized police in the streets is now being led by the people of Brazil and Turkey but represents the aspirations of people everywhere who are concerned about civil liberties and elite abuse of power. Unfortunately, the lack of both national and international organization in support of democracy activists has left citizens marginalized–not just in Turkey and Brazil but also the U.S.— while putting the initiative in the hands of an abusive political/corporate elite. Continue reading
America—American society and ruling elite—needs some good, old common sense New Year’s Resolutions. To me, three seem pretty much to sum it up: transparency, responsibility, and regulation.
Lack of Financial Regulation
…thanks largely to the fact that credit default swaps existed in a totally unregulated area of the financial universe—this was the result of that 2000 law, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, sponsored by then-senator Phil Gramm and supported by then-Treasury chief Larry Summers and his predecessor Bob Rubin—Cassano could sell as much credit protection as he wanted without having to post any real money at all. So he sold hundreds of billions of dollars’worth of protection to all the big players on Wall Street, despite the fact that he didn’t have any money to cover those bets. [Matt Taibi, Griftopia, (Speigel and Grau Trade Paperbacks, 2011), 101.]
banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates
Responsibility in Financial AffairsEven though they weren’t really in danger of losing any money by holding on to [WM: AIG executive] Neuger’s securities, they were returning them anyway, just to force AIG into a crisis. [Taibi, 116] …In essence, the partners of Goldman Sachs held the thousands of AIGpolicyholders hostage, all in order to recover a few billion bucks they’d bet on [WM: AIG executive] Joe Cassano’s plainly crooked sweetheart CDS deals. [Taibi, 118.]______________________________
Responsibility in Foreign AffairsAt the height of what looked like success in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials fretted endlessly about how, in the condescending phrase of the moment, to put an “Afghan face” or “Iraqi face” on America’s wars. Now, at a nadir moment in the Greater Middle East, perhaps it’s finally time to put an American face on America’s wars, to see them clearly for the imperial debacles they have been — and act accordingly. [Tom Dispatch 1/3/12.]________________________________________________________
Regulation in Financial AffairsWe are now in the worst of all worlds, where many TBTF institutions have been bailed out and expect to be bailed out in any number of future crises. They have as yet faced no sustained regulatory scrutiny, and no system is in place to put them into insolvency should the need arise. Even worse, many of these institutions—starting with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase—are starting to engage once more in “proprietary trading strategies,”…[Roubini, 224].______________________________
When the American Dream becomes defined in terms of money and force rather than values, then it will fade into “The American Nightmare.”
The American Dream, as every American knows, is a gem whose facets are values. We Americans actually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the American Dream, which is a great misfortune in times like these when it is under direct attack. If we do think about it, the thoughts are typically superficial, with jokes about “American as apple pie,” crass visions of a big suburban house with a greedy SUV out front, or just the brain-dead assumption that we can take the American Dream for granted. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the concerted neo-con attack on the Constitution’s guarantees and the judicial system’s protections for those yet to be convicted reveals. Deep down, though, when you slap an American awake, he can see that it is not about money: it is about values. So for Americans, the elephant in the room this election season as we hurl the thunderbolts of sound bites at each other, is the degree to which American behavior is destroying our values…cracking the translucent, shimmering but oh so delicate facets of that gem called “the American Dream.”
The latest canary in the moral mine of American society is the recent trend among the most irresponsible and unpatriotic of our astoundingly pathetic crop of current power-seekers to spout the pop soundbite about trying to justify torture as “just part of war.” This blatant return to the morality of a Grade B movie about the Dark Ages is ominous enough for those who want to live the American Dream, and these chickens will surely come home to roost, if indeed they are not already doing so in the form of increasingly brutal political and police suppression of democratic activism (not just against the Occupy protesters but also against the teachers and firemen…and, in street clothing, police[!] who protested the right wing attack on union rights and the sanctity of contracts in Madison last winter). It is a lot easier to cheat and brutalize citizens after you have accepted that torturing enemies is suddenly to be considered an “American value.”
Far more ominous is the nasty little twist of the term “all options” into a codeword for A) ignoring all the myriad positive, win-win, cautious, moderate, sympathetic options while B) focusing on the most insane of the zero-sum (and indeed in this case negative-sum, i.e., “lose-lose”) barbarisms at our disposal, namely unprovoked nuclear aggression. I will not further belabor this, or the ultimate affront to American values of a supposed American ally trying to push us into launching such a war. This case is so extreme that it should be obvious to anyone who thinks. Unfortunately, today it seems difficult for a person who thinks to get access to the mass media, but there are a few Congressmen, believe it or not, who are concerned about this ultimate attack on American values. You will not hear their speeches on the evening news, but reading their websites is well worth the few minutes it takes.
Making excuses for torture and nuclear war are egregious examples of the attack by Americans and others on the American values that form the core of the American Dream, but other examples, albeit less obvious, may be almost as serious…and more dangerous to the degree that they go unnoticed. Goldman Sachs provides an example from the central issue of financial policy writ large, i.e., the rules by which the super-rich and the government itself are allowed to employ wealth to manipulate the rest of us.
In the history of Goldman Sachs Money and Power, William D. Cohan describes how the company evolved over 150 years from a firm dedicated to providing funds to companies needing liquidity to produce into a company that appears to exist only to maximize its own wealth, with no regard either for its clients (against whom it bets) or society. This picture, in other words, shows Goldman evolving from part of the productive economy into a predator destroying the very system from which it profits: from an institution with a long-term view to an institution with a suicidally short-term view.
Whether or not one agrees with the above image of Goldman, it is all too reminiscent of the winner-take-all attitude that exemplifies the whole course of the corruption bubble that created the 2008 Financial Crisis, the winner-take-all wave of empire-building since 9/11, and the broader winner-take-all addiction that has in recent decades infected all of American society to be easily dismissed. Cohan’s book carries the subtitle “How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World.” He might have subtitled his expose “How Goldman Sachs Symbolized the Attack on American Values.” But don’t blame Goldman Sachs too much. What Goldman did was just on a larger scale from but morally no different than the Congressman passing a law to make financial fraud legal, the regulator looking the other way, the politician waving the bloody shirt of nuclear war to get elected, or the individual lying about his salary to buy a house on which he knows he cannot make the mortgage payments.
Do foreign policy chickens come home to roost? Consider the interlocking dynamics of mistreatment of foreign populations and mistreatment of the U.S. population generated by a foreign policy based primarily on the zero-sum use of force rather than the search for positive-sum solutions. A company produces a weapon of mass destruction designed to poison not just enemy soldiers during a battle but the very ground and air where it is used and all civilians who ever go to that location in the future…for tens of thousands of years. During manufacturing back in the good old U.S. of A., that same process of poisoning poisons the American workers manufacturing it and, of course, the surrounding environment. More, both the corporation and the U.S. government collude to prevent the workers from receiving justice. Irresponsible, short-sighted foreign policy that accepts collateral damage to foreigners generates irresponsible, short-sighted domestic policy that accepts the collateral damage of Americans.
Alliant manufactured over 16 million medium and large caliber depleted uranium munitions. The suburban Minneapolis site where Alliant made DU munitions is now a “superfund site” and the local community is fighting the company and the Pentagon over clean-up responsibilities.
In Iraq, U.S. troops fire DU weaponry from the Abrams battle tank, A-10 Warthog and other systems.A toxic and radioactive substance, DU– otherwise known as Uranium 238– is a byproduct of enriched uranium, the fissile material in nuclear weapons. It is pyrophoric and burns spontaneously on impact. That, along with its extreme density, makes DU munitions the Pentagon’s ideal choice for penetrating enemy tank armor or reinforced bunkers.
When a DU shell hits its target, it burns, losing anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent of its mass and dispersing a fine toxic radioactive dust that can be carried long distances by winds or absorbed into the soil and groundwater. According to a military spokesman, in the first year of the war in Iraq, the U.S. Army and Air Force fired 127 tons of DU munitions. Soldiers and civilians in the war zones and those who live near testing ranges like the one in Socorro, New Mexico where open air testing of DU was conducted for more than 20 years, have suffered the short and long term health effects of ingesting radioactive dust, such as kidney problems, birth defects, cancers and death. [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.]
The cost to the U.S. of its war of choice against Iraq in 2003 has been calculated by Nobel Prize laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz to be between three and five trillion dollars. How much more will the poisoning of Socorro and Minneapolis add to that cost?
One of the more subtle casualties of this foreign policy-domestic policy linkage is the government transparency upon which democracy stands:
The Pentagon has traditionally been tight-lipped about DU: Official figures on the amount used were not released for years after the 1991 Gulf War and Bosnia conflicts, and nearly a year after the 1999 Kosovo campaign. No US official contacted could provide DU use estimates from the latest war in Iraq. [Christian Science Monitor 5/15/03.]
This anti-transparency attitude that views the American people as the enemy extends to collusion with the industrial half of the military-industrial complex:
The DoD continues to deny any problem or responsibility of DU exposure by civilians or soldiers. ATK refuses to release medical studies of Depleted Uranium production workers at TCAAP. [Alliant Action.]
The attitude that “no one is responsible” is one of the most dangerous cracks in the structure of democracy.
As for what the Pentagon really thinks about its uranium-laced weaponry:
Six American vehicles struck with DU “friendly fire” in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.
While eager to use the weapons and quick to deny that these weapons cause collateral damage, the Pentagon is evidently not proud of its behavior.
Domestic-Foreign Policy Linkages.
If a state adopts a bullying attitude toward foreign adversaries, can it maintain a kindly, sympathetic attitude toward the weak in its own society? The history of the U.S. over the last decade suggests the following Reinforcement Hypothesis:
H1 = If either domestic policy or foreign policy in a democracy becomes markedly skewed, a similar tendency will be reinforced in the other.
For example, a bias in favor of the use of force rather than compromise in foreign policy will promote the use of force (perhaps economic power, perhaps outright police force) in domestic affairs. Similarly, as concern for domestic civil rights intensifies, foreign policy is also likely to give more weight to the rights of foreign societies. Whether or not the Reinforcing Hypothesis is true is unknown, but it is sufficiently intuitive to merit study, especially considering that it is consistent with trends in the U.S. over the last decade.
The processes by which such a linkage might play out are likely to be varied because it may occur across a wide range of link types (of which only two–the propensity to use force and sympathy for the views of others–are spelled out in the diagram. In the case of the U.S., as foreign policy increasingly focused on military force rather than diplomatic skill or generosity domestic policy increasingly focused on freeing the uber-rich from constraints. As the U.S. military was freed to use its power against overseas adversaries, the uber-rich were freed to use their power to take resources from the middle class for their own further enrichment. To interpret this as mere coincidence is intuitively illogical.
U.S. foreign and financial policy during the first decade of the 21st century illustrates the logic of the Reinforcement Hypothesis. This hypothesis views domestic and foreign policy as two components of a single system, a seemingly obvious statement but one whose implications tend to be overlooked. The impact of the nature of foreign policy upon the nature of domestic policy in particular is ignored by both politicians and voters, both of whom typically make judgments about the propriety of each in isolation. In the short term, a war of aggression may indeed offer benefits; the potential for the act of aggression to harm the moral fiber of the aggressor society tends to be overlooked. As illustrated in the diagram, the Reinforcement Hypothesis contends that a decision to conduct foreign policy with a bias toward the elite will generate a positive feedback loop creating a bias toward conducting domestic policy in favor of the elite as well, and this in turn will further promote an elite bias in foreign policy.
More abstractly, the Reinforcement Hypothesis holds that zero-sum foreign policy generates zero-sum domestic policy and vice versa. Similarly, positive-sum policy in one arena creates a tendency toward positive-sum policy in the other arena. As the “Domestic and Foreign Policy Reinforcement” chart illustrates, reliance on force (typically military) or exploitation in foreign policy encourages an attitude on the part of a regime that foments reliance on force or exploitation (typically financial) in domestic policy. A classic foreign policy example is the refusal to talk to opponents until they submit, combined with the use of threats (rhetoric and encirclement by military bases) to gain such submission. Domestic policy may be implemented, especially in democracies, somewhat more gently with increasingly severe police action to obstruct civil rights and financial policies that steal from the poor to enrich the rich.
In the context of demanding one-sided international benefits for the U.S. (as the only superpower, certainly the “elite” of global states), a habit of relying on force for short-term gain at the expense of the weak made it easier to conduct domestic financial policy in the same manner. The similarities between Washington’s intense focus on the military at the expense of diplomacy/compromise/sympathy for the weak of the world and Washington’s intense financial policy focus, especially but not only during and after 2008 on bailing out the rich while millions lost homes and jobs is striking.
Consider the alternative: if post-9/11 foreign policy had focused on police action against terrorists combined with a campaign to offer the Muslim world a fair hearing for its grievances followed by genuine reform of the international political system, would the marginalization of the American homeowner and the American worker have been so easy? Would an administration willing to address sympathetically the concerns of Muslims be inclined to engage in a consistent policy of favoring the domestic rich at the expense of the poor?
War and the Garrison State. The pretense, to take one now-infamous example from recent history, that a foreign war can be fought without impacting the aggressor’s domestic society, is the kind of nonsense that comes from a failure to understand the meaning of complexity. Borrowing the funds for war from overseas to avoid raising taxes up front obviously only puts the burden of paying for the war on future generations. Hiring expensive mercenaries to supplement or replace citizen soldiers to make war appear “free” is just another clear deception that thinking citizens should immediately see through.
Other interactions, however, are more subtle. To what degree may such practices change the values of the aggressor society from democratic, open-minded, sympathetic, and moderate to prejudiced and extremist as the price of war becomes increasingly concealed? How can democracy survive in the arms of an increasingly powerful garrison state that requires constant war to justify its continued existence and builds a constituency of war profiteers who personally benefit from its existence? As power steadily shifts into the hands of war industrialists and extremist politicians who get elected by waving the bloody flag, screaming “Emergency!”, who will defend the allocation of resources for domestic needs? Who will defend the right to speak out against endless war? Who will point out the moral linkages between the acceptance of collateral damage (e.g., tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians) in foreign policy and collateral damage (e.g., millions of unemployed workers so discouraged that they drop out of the workforce)?