Quagmire

Obama did not exactly say, “Putin, trust me, we Americans know what it means to get stuck in a quagmire, so take this warning to heart.” Nor, of course, did Putin take it that way. Pity.

President Obama noted publicly that “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.” Obama will quite probably be proven correct, but to understand the outrageous hypocrisy of the remark, simply remove the names by abstracting as follows:

An attempt by [a global power and a regional client] to prop up a [vicious regional dictator] and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.

There was, for you young readers who haven’t studied your history, once a guy named Leonid who discovered this for himself in Afghanistan. Too bad Leonid was too old to write a history, for we are all still suffering from the consequences two generations later, and it would have been considerate of him to have warned us against repeating his mistake. Now, to be fair, I suspect Obama has in fact read some history, judging from his path-breaking (we hoped) Cairo speech way back at the now long forgotten beginning of his White House years, but in the rush of trying to run the world, one overlooks even the most obvious of lessons, which leads to having to rush all the more to learn them all over again…which brings us to the hypocrisy of Obama’s pot calling Putin’s kettle “black.”

This very week, as Putin solidifies his military position in Syria and flattens Aleppo (wasn’t that once a city that supported Assad?), Obama, who has been vigorously arming Riyadh with the bombs it has been using the past couple years to flatten Yemen, actually opened fire against one side in the very long Yemeni civil war. Did any Houthi imagine that Obama would respond to a Houthi rocket attack on a highly threatening U.S. destroyer sneaking around off the Yemeni coast by apologizing for the havoc wrought across the world’s most abused society by U.S. bombs over the past two years? [Note: it remains unclear whether it actually was Houthis rather than some false flag element hoping to provoke a thoughtlessly violent American response.] Bad judgment by the Houthis it may have been, and yet, fighting for your political rights against the combined might of Western bombs and Western-supplied Saudi jets for two years and then watching a U.S. destroyer, armed to the teeth, sticking its nose where it did not belong (was it…no surely not…inside Yemeni waters???) must get frustrating. More to the point, to quote a certain U.S. politician, all this is going to get the short-tempered superpower that just moved from the background of the Western campaign to manipulate the Yemeni civil war into the limelight “stuck in a quagmire.”

Follow-Up:

Dear Donald, Dear Hillary, “If elected, will you continue the Obama policy of supporting the Saudi aerial war against one side in the Yemeni civil war?”

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Will Netanyahu’s Provocations Backfire?

Netanyahus combined efforts to push the U.S. into a war on Iran as a smokescreen for his plan to absorb the West Bank and to manipulate the U.S. presidential election may open the door to an alliance of U.S. and Israeli national security officials who believe in security through peace and justice.
Netanyahu is interfering in the current U.S. Presidential campaign to put into office a president who will kowtow to his factions agenda, namely to get the U.S. to attack Iran to facilitate Israeli consolidation of control over the West Bank. While U.S. politicians remain mostly in denial about Netanyahus interference in the U.S. political system and threat to U.S. national security, former Israeli foreign minister Livni openly criticized Netanyahu for endangering the U.S.-Israeli alliance by his anti-Obama attitude.
Although it is impossible to distinguish with certainty the responsibility of Washington from that of Tel Aviv for recent acts of anti-Iranian aggression, even the militantly right-wing website DEBKA seemed recently to be hinting that the recently murdered Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by Israel to provoke a U.S.-Iranian war:
By denying “absolutely” any US involvement in the killing, the administration implicitly pointed the finger at Israel, [emphasis in original] an unusual act in relations between two friendly governments, especially when both face a common issue as sensitive as a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama seemed to suspect that Israel staged the killing to torpedo yet another US secret effort to avoid a military confrontation with Iran through back channel contacts with Tehran, while the administration’s extreme condemnation is seen as tying in with its all-out campaign to hold Israel back from a unilateral strike. [DEBKA 1/14/12.]
Netanyahu seems simultaneously to be interfering in U.S. internal affairs and attempting to undermine U.S. foreign policy in a way that directly harms U.S. national security. While neither represents anything unique in the long, troubled U.S.-Israeli relationship, Netanyahu may well be carrying such anti-U.S. behavior to an extreme that will finally awaken the American public to the harm of allowing Israel to manipulate the U.S.
Ironically, Obama has numerous natural allies in Israel for any effort to avoid the dangers of a war with Iran, which would put Israel in a highly exposed position. The most obvious ally for Obama is ex-Mossad chief Dagan, who has, since his recent retirement, been on a public campaign to warn against the belligerence of the Netanyahu faction. Perhaps no foreign policy mistake by Obama is more difficult to comprehend than his failure publicly to associate himself with such Israeli national security officials as Dagan who fear that the poor judgment of Israeli political leaders will endanger Israeli national security.
Despite having the reputation of having been an extreme hardline defender of Israel quite willing to fight dirty covert war, Dagan has over the last six months made his distrust of Netanyahus war-mongering crystal clear. In December, he reiterated his concern, noting, on the subject of a possible U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran:
The commotion surrounding the immediate alternative of an attack may lead the Iranians into a reality in which they are (pushed over the edge) and try to obtain nuclear capabilities as quickly as possible instead of treading rather carefully while taking the international community’s demands into consideration….this situation could prove to be problematic because it may (affect the entire Middle East) in such a way that it would have security and economic-related repercussions for Israel…[Ynet News12/19/11.]
Dagan spoke publicly again in early January, implying that Israeli political leaders do not pay attention to Israeli national security, specifically accusing both Israeli defense ministers and prime ministers of ignoring IDF exercises designed to study Israeli national security issues [Israel National News 1/4/12].
Dagans calls for caution regarding Iran echo similar concerns voiced by leading U.S. national security figures, and, while falling far short of advocating that Irans interests be taken into consideration, nevertheless open the logical door to a new approach along those lines.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently made clear the threat to Israeli national security, even to its continued existence, posed by Netanyahus belligerent policy of provoking tensions simultaneously with Iran and Palestinians, observing:
At this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, it’s not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what’s happening. [The Corner Report 10/9/11.]
Former defense secretary Robert Gates also reportedly accused Netanyahu of endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank [Haaretz 9/7/11.]
Rather than listening, Netanyahu has evidently decided not only to dig in his heels but to attempt regime change in Washington. Netanyahu has long been confident of his ability to manipulate Washington and with good reason, but this time he may be biting off more than he can chew.
The more openly Netanyahu allies himself with the dishonored neo-con wing of the Republican Party that is struggling to reinvigorate the Bush-Cheney policy of U.S.-provoked imperial wars at a time when the U.S. is retreating from the Islamic world and struggling to recover from its decade of foreign adventures and financial excess, the more he opens political space for American officials who believe in a more cautious route to U.S. national security to ally themselves with like-minded Israeli officials.

Iraqi Lessons

The Washington elite decision to invade Iraq occurred for reasons that thinking Americans will bitterly debate for much of the rest of this century. Like it or not, the influence of that decision will be heavy on the shoulders of every person alive on earth for the rest of that persons life. The question now centers on the lessons we all learn.
Lesson #1: War does not create democracy. If Washington invaded Iraq to defend freedom, the invasion was a disaster. The behavior of the U.S. toward occupied Iraq, the behavior of U.S.forces in Iraq, and the behavior of Iraqi politicians during the occupation have all tarnished the reputation of that ever out-of-reach ideal known as democracy.
Lessson #2: The American way of war destroys societies rather than saving them. If Washington invaded Iraq to save the Arab people, its destruction of the most advanced middle class society in the Arab world makes the failure of that goal crystal clear.
Lesson #3: A flashy war somewhere else will trick the American people every time. If Washington invaded Iraq to keep Bush-Cheney in office, the plan worked brilliantly, rescuing an apparently doomed administration. Perhaps the worst president in American history was able to preside over what was, in moral terms, perhaps the most immoral decade in American history, step nimbly over the thousands of dead civilians, ignore the tattered remnants of U.S. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and announce with a grin that being president had been fun.
Lesson #4. Empires feast on war. If Washington invaded Iraq to build empire, the lesson to be derived from the perspective of the American people is quite different from the lesson that an empire-builder would derive. Despite being fought to a draw by rag-tag extremists”—many of whom were in fact genuine nationalists and having its uniformed forces essentially kicked out, the empire-builders have much to savor: Iraq remains, sort of, in the U.S. orbit, with huge and dangerous U.S. mercenary forces evidently planning to remain. Then theres that monster fortress embassy in the Green Zone. As for the ring of real fortresses, the U.S. military bases, just exactly what is happening to them? More significantly for empire-builders, the war facilitated the establishment of a larger ring of U.S. bases throughout the region, not just surrounding Iran but making clear that, for the moment, the U.S. is the winner of the Central Asian Great Game that Russia and Great Britain used to fight. Of course, the small matter of how to avoid a second embarrassing victory”—in Afghanistanremains to be worked out; some of our brilliant strategists are now suggesting the (to empire-builders) obvious solution: expand the failed Afghan adventure to Pakistan.
Lesson #5. Even winning a war can harm your security. OK, maybe the U.S. did not exactly win the Iraq war, but it certainly conquered the place and invented its current government. Yet who in the U.S. feels more secure? The war empowered bin Laden for years, multiplied anti-U.S. feeling worldwide, contributed greatly to a continuing U.S. economic mess, left the country profoundly divided, and left the U.S. embarrassingly irrelevant in the Arab world, as became obvious when the White House sat on the sidelines during the heady days of Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, Iran, which empire-builders and Likudniks so love to criticize, is manifestly more significant on the world stage than it was a decade ago. Much more seriously for real strategic thinkers, Russia and China are steadily moving forward with low-cost economic development projects to expand their global influence while being pushed more and more warmly into a strategic embrace by the squeeze the U.S. is putting on them.
Lesson #6. Aggression is complicated. If Washington invaded Iraq to get Iran, well, Washington transformed Iraq from Irans main enemy into, shall we say, a very friendly and submissive neighbor: dare we say Iraq is Persian for Canada? And now Washington is almost throwing Pakistan as well into Irans orbit. In the process, Washington also taught Iranians at least two lessons that will come back to haunt Americans. First, Iranian efforts to work with the Bush Administration were accepted briefly when desperately needed to construct a new Afghan regime, after which Bush immediately insulted Iran (remember Axis of Evil???). Second, tensions with Iran have greatly empowered Irans own militaristic, super-nationalistic neo-cons. Iranians have learned that hostility toward the U.S. pays a lot more than cooperation.
Lesson #7. War enriches the rich. This one is harder to contemplate; it’s a real conspiracy theory and surely must impute more deviousness to certain factions than they deserve, but if some of those who supported the invasion of Iraq did so to blind the 99.9% to the accelerating shift of power and wealth into the hands of the 0.1%, they certainly achieved what they wanted. One one level, the shift of wealth to the uber-rich occurred directly through the enormous benefits handed to CEOs profitting from the war. On a second level, war tensions distracted Americans. Linking the levels together was an insidious dynamic of rising impoverishment of the 99%, facilitating the task of persuading some of them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of empire. That this in fact worked and did so on at least two crucial levels is pretty much beyond dispute; that it was planned from Day 1 is less clear. Nonetheless, now they own it all.
The American people (not the Occupiers; that courageous minority understands the need to defend democracy) are right: a self-satisfied if embarrassed grin followed by firm denial and a trip to the mall is the only way to deal with this mess. Face up to reality and we will all need psychiatrists.

Pakistani Academic Warns of U.S. Threat

Opinion and policy emerge not just from the politicians but also from informed society. If a recent Pakistani academic’s assessment of the U.S. as a threat that Pakistan must counter by cooperation with Iran and Russia becomes representative of Pakistani public opinion, the U.S. is likely to face a significant diplomatic and strategic defeat.

At a recent meeting with an Iranian delegation, Punjab University Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Mujahid Kamran articulated an outspoken perspective on Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-centric global political system that Washington decision-makers would do well to contemplate [University of the Punjab Press Release 12/19/11]:

Dr Kamran said that Iran was a great source of inspiration and had set a standard for all the Muslim countries to take stand against the powers who want to control the world. He said that American people were not our enemy but a cabal of international bankers had manipulated wars and brought governments under debt. He said that US Congress and other institutions were their agent and don’t represent the aspirations of American people. He said that through National Defense Authorization, police state conditions would formulize [sic] in the US. He said that elite wanted to take control of Iran but Iranians had a government which represented people and it would not be easy for them to run over Iran. Iran stood like a rock, he said.  “A grim bulletin of Russian Ministry of Defense issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev states that the Chinese President Hu Jintao has agreed in principle that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through direct and immediate military action. Russian General Nikolai Makarov said he did not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war including nuclear weapons,” the Vice-Chancellor added. He said according to Chinese Rear Admiral Zang Zhong [sic], China would not hesitate to protect Iran even with a Third World War. He said that Pakistan should join Iran, China and Russia to expel US from the region.

A Chinese admiral allegedly recently issued an extraordinary warning to the U.S. about attacking Iran:

On Dec. 4, according to a report in Press TV, a news network owned by the Iranian government, Chinese rear admiral and prominent military commentator Zhang Zhaozhong said, “China will not hesitate to protect Iran even with a third world war.”
It is not clear when the statement was made or in what context. Once reported, the statement went viral in China and elsewhere.

Whether this remark was accurately translated or not, the point is clear: an attack on Iran could easily spark a broader war.

Reports of a Russian Ministry of Defense bulletin underscored the point:

A grim Ministry of Defense bulletin issued to Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev today states that President Hu has “agreed in principal” that the only way to stop the West’s aggression led by the United States is through “direct and immediate military action” and that the Chinese leader has ordered his Naval Forces to “prepare for warfare.” [EU Times 12/7/11.]

American pressure appears to be generating broad global movement toward anti-American cooperation. Empires provoke the rise of opposing coalitions.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Human nature creates crises: the safer, smoother, more stable things are, the more risk people will take, sooner or later wrecking all that stability. Despite the outpouring of analyses of the 2008 Financial Crisis, it remains unlikely that society has internalized this lesson about the ever-present threat of human nature even as regards economic crises, however obvious the message may be. How much less likely is it that we are anywhere close to protecting ourselves from self-inflicted political crises?
We all are now aware that the shortsighted, selfish behavior of a few millionaires on Wall Street, a few politicians, some compliant regulators, and–truth be told–more than a few of the “other 99%” looking to cheat their neighbors for a quick buck can combine to generate a financial tsunami. It’s not about foreigners. We are our own worst enemy. What most complacent and confused Americans fail to understand is the degree to which we make our own international political crises as well. From the American War in Vietnam to the Global War on Terror to the looming war against Iran (backed by Russia, China, and maybe Pakistan), the U.S. has the power to take the initiative and create these disasters but lacks the power to resolve them in a beneficial manner.
Note clearly that this discussion concerns self-inflicted crises, those resulting from the conscious choice to engage in unnecessarily greedy behavior. A crisis caused by an external force, human or natural, lies outside the discussion. Here the concern is on a class of crisis caused by perfectly avoidable human greed leading to obviously risky behavior (in effect, investing in a chain letter). To put it differently, the class of crises of interest here is a class for which one should expect the guilty to be named and punished (both by the judicial system for crime and by God for their sins).
Since everyone is now thinking about utterly unnecessary and egregiously man-made financial crises even as we are hit by repeated utterly unnecessary and egregiously man-made political crises, a question that seems timely and useful flows from the above paragraphs:
Can our recently learned lessons about financial crises help us to avoid political crises?
In The Black Swan, Taleb reports an alleged pattern of economic risk-taking:
The economist Hyman Minsky sees the cycles of risk taking in the economy as following a pattern: stability and absence of crises encourage risk taking, complacency, and lowered awareness of the possibility of problems.[78.]
Nouriel Roubini, the economics professor who predicted the 2008 Financial Crisis in brilliant detail, described the vicious cycle of economic crises as consisting of [once I delete the economic adjectives] the following steps [Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics 18.]:
  1. Worries drop;
  2. Costs fall;
  3. The bubble drives growth;
  4. Increasingly risky ventures are undertaken.
Applying this abstract vicious cycle (to which I would simple add the obvious final stepcollapse, i.e., the point at which the cycle ends…with a bang) derived from economics to international relations is suggestive. Whether in economics or politics, the dynamics of the bubble of greed are frequently equivalent. In the aftermath of 2008, the point as regards economics must be obvious to all, whether they have read Marx, Keynes, Minsky, and Roubini or not. Every poor, naïve, uneducated (or just greedy) homeowner who took out a mortgage that he or she obviously could not afford and has now lost that home is today an expert in bubble economics and the danger to us all posed by unregulated capitalism.
But international politics is harder to see clearly through the fog of greedy politicians who classify information to prevent the voters from learning the truth and who wave the bloody shirt of foreign menace to promote their careers. Language too helps to obfuscate. We do not talk of imperialist bubbles. But if one abstracts to clear away the clutter of detail, the dynamics of greed, willful denial, moral hazard, and willingness to riskeven promote—“collateral damage in so-called Global War on Terror looks like nothing so much as the 2008 Financial Crisis. Leaders became increasingly confident that they could not be stopped, with their appetites for new victories, new wealth, and new power rising apace. As the new policybe it the issuance of new securities based on sub-prime mortgages or military adventures in yet another Muslim societyproceeded without major defeat, each new venture seemed less and less costly. Every small gain was used to justify a larger gain, every small risk to justify a larger risk. Even when the risks were seen, they were dismissed; after all, it was the poor who would suffer from unemployment and foreclosureor death on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the case of the wars, most of those poor were foreigners. Moreover, like the Wall Street firms bailed out by politicians generous with taxpayer funds, the White House was too big to fail.” Like Wall Street megabanks, the White House knew it and took advantage of it: moral hazard gone wild. Like big bank CEOs, presidents and vice presidents are almost never held criminally accountable in court for their sins. And then suddenly, the financial/imperial party was over, and the victims were left to clean up the mess.

In the abstract the pattern of failure is clear: failure of the people to carry out their democratic responsibility to monitor their leaders, arrogance, abuse of power, denial about the risks, corruption, lack of concern about collateral damage, and moral hazard.

As long as society trusts those in power, the powerful will abuse that trust for personal advantage, be it the selling of bad securities or the selling of bad wars. The more society is willing to countenance collateral damage to workers driven into unemployment and homeowners foreclosed, or Muslim wedding parties bombed and Muslim societies denied the right to civil liberties and national independence from the globalization avalanche, the more the rich and powerful will hold parties at the expense of everyone else. Bubbles are very good business for those who create them. Theywill never stop doing so until weput in place the moral strictures, legal regulations, and judicial holding to account necessary to stop them. But it is not that simple, for many of us were tempted to buy houses we judged we could flip into the hands of a more naïve neighbor to skim an unfair profit; many of us looked the other way while innocent Muslims across the globe were slaughtered in the name of global war to retain all the undeserved special privileges that make possible a rich life in a poor world. So in the end, the old saying is true: we get the government we deserve.

U.S.-Pakistan: Sliding Down a Slippery Slope

Dynamics may generate behavior at multiple levels, so the short-term dynamics do not necessarily forecast long-term trends, but still, the daily course of events in U.S.-Pakistani relations suddenly seem noteworthy.

First, consider that at precisely the moment of greatest public irritation in Pakistan with the long-standing U.S. practice of causing heavy collateral damage, we are hearing about talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban. The context, i.e., that in this instance the collateral damage was the deaths of Pakistani soldiers, is also important, because while the Pakistani army itself is guilty of widespread collateral damage to Pakistani civilians, it is not likely to accept easily the friendly-fire deaths of soldiers at the hands of Americans, thus pushing the military and the public onto common anti-American ground. Now, in that ominous context (for Washington global manipulators), the Taliban and the regime suddenly seem to be finding their own common ground.

In the past, anti-American feeling might arise, but in general the Pakistani army knew which side its bread was buttered on. Washington decision-makers should realize, however, that a strong argument for Pakistani regime compromise with the Taliban exists: Islamabad is after all correct that the core conflict in Pakistan between the government and the Taliban really is not very closely related to Washington’s battle with al Qua’ida. Rather, it is about local autonomy and is a culture war rather than a conflict for global power. In the broad context of rising Pakistani democracy, the regime has every reason to search for positive-sum solutions to this local culture war, which has become a severely negative-sum conflict for Pakistan. One issue on which most Pakistanis, Talibani or not, can presumably agree is the desirability of diminishing U.S. military activity in and above Pakistani territory.

These considerations lead to the second interesting development. After the U.S. strike on the Pakistani army position, Islamabad halted the flow of trucks delivering military supplies to U.S./N.A.T.O. forces in Afghanistan, resulting in the trucks piling up in a parking lot. That parking lot was just attacked. The Pakistani regime puts the trucks in parking, where they are vulnerable to the Taliban: this sounds like a neat way of working toward that joint goal noted in the previous paragraph, though no evidence of actual collusion is yet apparent.

All this of course raises the question of how judicious Washington’s response to this delicate situation will be. One initial indication is provided by a very important Spencer Ackerman report in Danger Room revealing U.S. plans to allow mercenaries to run air missions across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The report deserves close reading. Giving local control to contractors in it, in the end, for the money and beyond the range of Congressional oversight and U.S. law speaks for itself.

The point here is not to read too much into a few events but simply to caution that incidental short-term dynamics can have a way of turning into long-term trends if not treated with sufficient seriousness and sensitivity.

The Imperial Presidency’s ‘Superfluous Imagination’

 The neo-cons were supposed to have lost the election, but the Imperial Presidency’s attack on the U.S. Constitution continues…
Dennis Blair, who evidently* claimed before Congress that the U.S. Government has the right to murder Americans at its own discretion without paying heed to the U.S. Constitution or legal process, is out, but his prescription for dictatorship (is anything prohibited if murder without legal sanction is permitted?) has not been rejected. Whatever good Mr. Blair may have attempted to do as Director of National Intelligence, such as nominating Charles Freeman–a man with the courage to stand up against the Israeli lobby–to chair the National Intelligence Council, cannot begin to compensate for his effort to undermine the Constitution on behalf of the imperial presidency.
It would be difficult to find in history an example of a dictator arbitrarily oppressing his people without having justified his actions as his “right” or “morally required” or “to carry out God’s will” or “to defend national security” or “to protect our way of life.” The fact that the perpetrator of abuse of power defends his own actions is no defense. If the leader can make up new powers all by himself, then the government has passed from democracy to dictatorship: being able to “dictate” your desires to the people is precisely the definition of dictatorship.
In the words of former presidential candidate and Representative Dennis Kucinich [Democracy Now 2/9/10]:
I think it’s incumbent upon the Attorney General to explain the basis in law for such a policy. Our Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, our Seventh Amendment, our Fourteenth Amendment all clearly provide legal protections for people who are accused or who would be sentenced after having been judged to be guilty. And what’s happened is that the Constitution is being vitiated here. The idea that people are—have—if their life is in jeopardy, legally have due process of law, is thrown out the window. 
And, Amy, when you consider that there are people who are claiming there are many terrorist cells in the United States, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to imagine that this policy could easily be transferred to citizens in this country. That doesn’t—that only compounds what I think is a slow and steady detachment from core constitutional principles. And once that happens, we have a country then that loses its memory and its soul, with respect to being disconnected from those core constitutional principles which are the basis of freedom in our society. 
The obvious unconstitutionality and anti-democratic nature of allowing the Executive Branch to decide on its own outside of the legal process when it can commit murder is beyond discussion and surely the ultimate example of a conflict of interest. The core purpose of the constitutional separation of powers is to prevent the organs that legislate from the organs that arrest and from the organs that kill. Any individual or bureaucratic organ that is handed the power to give itself new powers and use those powers to destroy people will, sooner or later, abuse that authority. See Glen Greenwald for useful discussion of Obama’s power-grab at Salon. It is also worth referring to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s studies of bureaucracy gone wild, where abuse of authority is unchallenged. Obama does not have the “right” to decide on his own outside of a trial by law to murder anyone, but he now has the power – because we are letting him invent such a “right.” Bureaucrats will grab all powers not expressly denied them.
How do we preserve democracy against the creeping threat of politicians/bureaucrats steadily undermining democratic principles in order to “defend democracy”? I surely do not know, for the solution has never been discovered, but imagine the following first step: imagine that Congress were to stand up and represent us by passing a law that enumerated a simple checklist of “acts impermissible in a democracy” and banned such acts. The intentional killing of any American citizen by the executive branch without trial would surely be a key item on that list, along with the launching of a war without prior Congressional approval. Two more items on my list would be the hiring of mercenary forces outside the control of Congress and the launching of a “preventive” war without some very precise Congressional and legal review demonstrating a “clear and present danger.” Indeed, one must go further than that and add to the list of proscribed actions the authority to murder anyone, citizen or not, outside either of declared war or the use of the judicial system. I know, a mere list would accomplish little. After all, issues as peripheral to U.S. national security as the anti-Somoza rebellion in Nicaragua have been, without embarrassment, termed threats to the security of the U.S. by politicians. “Lose control of those banana fields, and nothing will be secure.” The list is just intended to serve as the simplest of ideas, to provoke citizens to think about their freedoms, for only popular oversight over government can prevent abuse of authority. No shield to protect our freedoms against the abuse of authority is foolproof, but that is no reason for citizens of a democracy to walk around naked.
_____________________
* These remarks are based on media reports; I have not seen the transcript of Blair’s statement. If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting what he said, please send me the text.

Tehran: Champion of Nuclear Non-proliferation?

Is Washington ceding the diplomatic initiative on nuclear proliferation to…Tehran?!?
The issue of Israel’s rogue nuclear status (i.e., possessing the weapons but rejecting the NPT) has officially been on the IAEA’s plate since a majority of its members so voted last year and is now being actively pursued by Amano in the form of an official letter to world governments requesting comment. Amano’s timing seems designed to raise the level of attention; in the context of Ahmadinejad’s reasonable call at the U.N. for a nuclear-free Mideast—an idea now also being championed by Cairo—and Washington’s rather inept murmuring of theoretical agreement but only after finding a solution to the Palestinian issue, which Washington’s Tel Aviv partner is conveniently blocking (!), global diplomatic initiative on nuclear proliferation is passing to Iran.
For Iran to emerge from the U.N. NPT review conference as the innovator and moral leader on the issue of nuclear proliferation would be not just ironic but a major blow to the prestige and influence of the U.S. This is exactly the outcome predicted by the hypothesis that if Ahmadinejad presented a moderate face at the conference, he would “win big.” For Iran clearly to gain the moral high ground on the nuclear issue would underscore the harm that American subordination to the Israeli right wing does to U.S. national security. It would, perhaps quite dangerously over the long run, empower militarist circles in Iran. It would also seem likely to undermine pro-American moderates that have been trying to find a solution to the nuclear impasse with Tehran. Ceding the initiative to Tehran, which is on a crusade to redesign the international political system, is quite different than ceding it to the likes of Ankara and Brasilia, which are relatively comfortable in the Western-led international political system, albeit desiring certain rather reasonable reforms.
Washington needs to find a way to evade a completely negative position as a roadblock to global progress on nuclear proliferation. Tel Aviv’s militarists are pulling Washington into a dangerously reactive position that only undermines Obama’s professed interest in making progress on this issue. It is bad enough for Washington to fail to offer a reasoned response to Ahmadinejad; but when Washington falls so far behind even the IAEA, it looks like a very tired superpower.

Failure of Imagination about the Mideast: Pt. 1. Nuclear Transparency

U.S. freedom of maneuver toward the Mideast is crippled by failure of imagination. What would happen if American decision-makers actually starting considering “all options?”

As the world’s only superpower in an environment of great instability but no overwhelming immediate threat, the U.S. has, in principle, enormous freedom of action to implement an effective Mideast policy. Yet, its Mideast policy is an unmitigated disaster, a constant drain on U.S. blood and treasure and a humiliating demonstration of American incompetence that leaves even its favored client Israel feeling insecure and moving steadily away from democracy toward racism and authoritarianism. American weakness derives from Washington’s failure of imagination. American leaders simply do not see the selections on the vast buffet table of policy options.

To address this failure of imagination, some fundamental questions that Washington decision-makers appear not to have even asked will be considered in a series of essays. The first question concerns nuclear transparency:


What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency? 


The most immediate change would be to demonstrate that the world’s most powerful country was now thinking creatively and taking charge. That in and of itself would enhance Washington’s influence by giving it the leadership position that it has increasingly been ceding to Ankara. The whole rest of the world would immediately start playing catch-up.

Such a policy announcement would also enhance Washington’s tattered reputation as the world’s moral leader. 
A call for nuclear transparency would surely be attacked by Israeli rightwingers but would also empower Israeli liberals, both those concerned about proliferation and those concerned about the state of Israeli democracy. The result would probably be a healthy domestic Israeli debate about the merits of its nuclear policy. It would be difficult for Israeli rightwingers to make a serious case that Israel was being harmed since calling for transparency would have no immediate or obvious impact on actual power relationships: no change would occur in the possession of actual military hardware.
In Iran as well a debate over nuclear strategy would probably be stimulated, though it would perhaps be closely held within the national security community. Calling on both Iran and Israel to accept the same standard would surely open the door to the argument that Iran could benefit by cooperating more with the international community.
Transparency should in the end be easy for Israel to accept since it would retain its nuclear monopoly. Transparency should also be easy in the end for Iran to accept since it already claims to support such a policy and would now see a benefit to adhering more carefully to the spirit of that policy. With the US in the lead, promotion of nuclear transparency would give momentum to Obama’s anti-proliferation policy. Transparency would serve as an easy first step toward the much more challenging goals of preventing proliferation, cutting back stockpiles of nuclear arms, but the mere fact of the international community taking a first step that applied to all would at least minimally reassure everyone, thus cutting tensions somewhat and thereby facilitating the next step. It could thus, at little if any cost, turn into an historic opening.  

 

Thoughts on Power and Security

Do power and the quality of decision-making vary inversely, condemning us to losing security as we gain power?

Imagining that constant action can replace deep thinking, blinded by hubris, more interested in looking good than doing good, politicians manipulate the instruments of power in ways that undermine the homeland’s security. The tactics of the leading decision-makers, who define national security professionalism in terms of power wielded and points scored, tend either to ignore or exacerbate underlying dynamics. As a result, the more they do, the less they accomplish; the more power that is expended, more insecure we become.
The endless bombardment of the Gaza Ghetto with F-16s has led to the entrenchment of Hamas as a surprisingly effective government. The greater Israel’s application of force, the stronger the hold of Hamas.
The one-sided use of force short of outright military attack also seems surprisingly ineffective. Despite overwhelming preponderance of both economic and military force, the world’s last remaining superpower cannot even stop Iran from appearing to do what it says it does not want and is not doing. The U.S. has perverted its whole posture toward the rest of the world by its obsession with preventing the emergence of Iran as a leading regional power with the independent right to challenge Israeli domination. Not only has Washington failed to halt Iran’s rise, the more it tries to push Iran down, the faster Iran seems to rise up and the more Washington’s tactics rely on bullying, the more obnoxious Tehran’s riposte. The tactics selected to realize the strategy contain the seeds of strategic defeat.
These policies centered on forcing the adversary’s submission are counterproductive, undermining rather than reinforcing the security of the country choosing to apply the force. Whether or not a policy based on sympathy for the adversary’s aspirations or designed to elicit acceptable aspirations (e.g., encouraging Hamas to dedicate itself to good governance of Palestine and encouraging Iran to promote peace and security in the Mideast) might be effective remains unknown because such policies are rejected out of hand. Hamas is illegally overthrown after making the historic concession of peacefully participating in the democratic process; Iran is punished for legally refining uranium, while Israel is rewarded for becoming a rogue nuclear power.
Speaking only the language of force, leading powers force their adversaries to speak the same language. Be it Romans vs. Persians, Chinese vs. Vietnamese, or whites vs. Native Americans, there is, in human history, of course nothing new about that. What is new is the astonishing inefficacy of force precisely at the point in history when the centers of power have, by some measures, the greatest preponderance of force over their adversaries that has ever been possessed by one side.
“Power,” it seems, is not “force,” though it is unclear what one might mean by “power” if not the ability to “force” some desired result. Politicians examine their power to break things and equate that with the power to achieve things, but the power to break something cannot be equated with the power to achieve something, so a policy based on one’s superior destructive power mysteriously fails to achieve the goal.
The devil seems to have offered a Faustian bargain to the world’s elite: all the power you want, but the more you take, the less effective it will be. Has some new natural law of politics been passed, mandating that those with power must waste it?
When the expenditure of $1 trillion to win an evenly balanced and crucial struggle might have seemed worth it in the Cold War, Washington decision making was relatively cautious. Once Washington became the center of a unipolar world, however, it insisted on engaging in an optional adventure on the margins of the global political system that was not only stunningly expensive but generated precisely the outcomes American leaders might have been assumed to be most intent on preventing – the escape of bin Laden and the rise of Iran.
If leaders are condemned to a portion of wisdom that varies inversely with the extent of their power, then that would explain why empires fade away.