Too Big to Punish

The concept of ethical standards of behavior for either corporate officers or government officials has become something of a joke in this bright, new century. Politicians seem utterly uneducated when it comes to discriminating between right and wrong, the media morally dead, voters hopelessly confused, the powerful cynical and smirking all the way to the bank. Petty offenders feel the full force of the law, but the serious criminals who buy elections, impoverish millions, and provoke wars that undermine society and governance are “too big to punish.” Are ethics and morality really too complicated to think about in our busy modern world? Not really—the answer is staring us in the face.

We are all held up to standards of behavior. Drivers must drive on the right, at least in the U.S.This illustrates an arbitrary but quite valuable standard; head-on collisions are inconvenient. Other standards are less arbitrary yet bizarrely more controversial and far more studiously avoided. Minor bureaucrats are sternly warned to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest while national leaders pursue self-enriching conflicts with few qualms and almost no risk of punishment. Still, at least in some countries, ordering the murder of a political opponent is deemed beyond the pale. Even for the most powerful officials in major democracies, then, at least some standards exist. The question, for those who care about the quality of governance, is how far to carry these standards, how high the standards should be, and how rigorously the most powerful officials should be held to these standards.
No Empire Is Too Big to Fail; No Leader Too Big to Punish

Lawyers can and will debate the details endlessly. More important and most glaringly absent in contemporary American public consciousness is the principle underlying the debate over standards. Why should, for example, a President not be allowed to lie to the people about his reasons for launching a war? Why, for example, should drones not be sent to kill untried individuals who are “suspected” of being either military or civilian adversaries? Why, even if drone attacks are judged appropriate, should the President or some unknown official buried in the bureaucracy of the CIAor the Pentagon not be allowed to make the decision to kill such adversaries in cold blood without a formal judicial finding? Why should a bank official be allowed to evade personal responsibility for “losing” someone’s mortgage papers and then stealing back the house of a homeowner who was faithfully paying his or her mortgage? Why should a corporation that poisons a nation’s prime fishing grounds continue to exist, and why should its officials not contribute every penny of their ill-earned millions in compensation? Where lies any justification for allowing those who commit the most grievous sins against society to evade responsibility simply because they disenfranchised, impoverished, poisoned, or slaughtered an uncounted number of unknown people rather than a single specific individual?

Are these just tedious hair-splitting issues for lawyers to argue behind closed doors, carefully protected from the prying eyes of the foreigners being bombed or the Americans whose mortgages have been stolen? Well, no, they are not; they are, in fact, rather clear-cut examples of a society that has lost its path to the degree that it can no longer recall its own values. These issues rest solidly on a simple principle that has been clearly stated for all to see more than once in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln did not “invent” this principle, but he may have stated it best half way through the war “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That is the essence of “American values,” not slavery (on cotton farms or in Chinese factories), not genocide (of Native Americans or Palestinians), not the propping up of thuggish regimes that host our naval bases, not the protection of corporations that poison our commons, not neo-conservative wars of choice, not neo-liberal economic oppression. By what mental slight-of-hand did “national interest” come to mean the opposite of “the people’s welfare?”



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.

Global Leadership Vacuum

If American society is losing the capacity, long assumed, 
to lead the world, then who will?

A debate over the potential for U.S. collapse has intensified since the 2008 financial crisis. Some focus on the collapse of the anti-Islamic imperial project; others focus on the increasingly evident dysfunctionality of the capitalist financial system in its current form, but the negative direction in which the U.S. is headed is quickly becoming evident to almost everyone. Unfortunately, this debate centers on the wrong question.

The core question raised in this debate seems to be: Is the U.S. losing power? The issue at the core of the U.S. slide backwards over the last decade and, more accurately, since the entrance into the White House of Ronald Reagan is not the extent of U.S. power, however, but something more subtle, which one might call vision or leadership quality.
U.S. power remains overwhelming, be it military or economic or cultural or technological. Where the U.S. is slipping is in its capacity to define its place in the world and in its wisdom. The fog of confusion seems to be dimming Americans eyesight at all levels. After all, it was not just Wall St. crime or Federal regulator complicity or even fraud in the mortgage industry in your hometown that brought on the recession: many good, patriotic American citizens were knowingly playing the system as well. All were not stupid. Thousands if not millions were quite happy to buy homes they knew they could not afford in what they knew full well was a massive Ponzi scheme.
In foreign policy as well the guilt for the wave of U.S. imperial overstretch and brutality toward the Muslim world was by no means restricted to Washington politicians. Voters by the millions supported the War Party in its self-defeating hubris. Few cared about the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent  bystanders, the denial of due process to and outright torture of others generated by that wave of hubris.
It is not just the wealthy elite and their political lackeys who are irresponsible and confused but much of the U.S. population. Consensus on what America represents, the kind of society we aspire to creating, the price we are willing to pay to achieve it, and the kind of leadership we are willing to offer the rest of the world appears to be evaporating even faster than our squandered blood and treasure.
Aside from bin Laden, rejected by most Muslims long before his death, and Ahmadinejad, who is not all that popular even in his own country, where are the candidates to lead our planet if the U.S. can no longer be bothered or cant stop tripping over its own feet?

Two Societies

Is it just a coincidence that I am thinking, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about how to organize society?

Consider a mythical society organized on the principle of open debate in the free marketplace of ideas as the road to problem resolution. Consider an alternative mythical society organized on the principle that might makes right. We can surely agree that these constitute two clear alternatives for constructing a human community. Indeed, they are pretty good end points, two extremes, simple and mutually exclusive. One could sort out all real human societies somewhere between these two extremes, and if one did so, one would quickly see that one had thereby rated all those societies. We would all no doubt concur that one extreme was “good” and the other “bad.” We would all choose to live pretty close either to one extreme or the other. That much we can all agree on.

The disagreement would come over choosing which end of this “continuum of human societies” was to be considered “good” and which “bad.” It won’t require much imagination to guess that Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin would have strongly preferred living in a society based on “might makes right.” Indeed, they did and presumably enjoyed the experience, at least until Saddam went underground and Joe lay down on his final sickbed terrified of his doctors. But ask yourself how many public figures in the United States today might, in their heart of hearts, agree with Saddam and Joe.

Listen! I can almost hear the protests already! Everyone is yelling, getting angry, feeling insulted (i.e., guilty), and starting to pick up rocks to throw at me. “It depends!” they say.

I beg to differ. It does not “depend.” It is conceivable that the strongest among us might, theoretically, at least once in the course of human history happen to be right, with everyone else wrong, but even if so, that individual’s strength would be an irrelevant detail, a curious coincidence. Indeed, it would be a statistical anomaly, because there is no poison more likely to induce stupidity than power.

Can we slice and dice this fundamental choice about social organization? Can we, for example, have a foreign policy at one end of the scale and a domestic health or financial or environmental policy at the other end of the scale? Can one department of government be run according to the principle of “might makes right” while another is run according to the principle of “open debate?” How might the two respective secretaries participate in a policy-making session with the President? Would the former bring a gun to the White House, while the latter invited a dozen of his experts to testify? And what about the President himself? Can he make foreign policy at 9:00 on the basis of the former principle and sincerely devote himself to considering the needs of the domestic weak and poor at 10:00 on the basis of the latter principle? Or, to reverse the situation, can a leader who oppresses his population be trusted honestly to implement international treaties with weak countries?

Perhaps some such amazing event has occurred during some instant of history, but I would not bet my mortgage on it.

The sad truth is that today in the U.S. many CEOs of financial corporations and many politicians are doing their best to push American society as fast as they can toward the “might makes right” end of the scale.

The Appearance of Elite Collusion Against Democracy

Apparent fraud brought us the financial crash of 2008 and resultant, on-going tsunami of (permanent?) unemployment: apparent fraud throughout the whole system of elite rule, which was characterized by government agencies concealing information to prevent open democratic debate, rosy scenarios, conflicts of interest, and failure to hold anyone responsible for his actions. Will those leaders stay under this cloud of apparent guilt for the rest of their lives, staining the name of democracy, or will they have their day in court?
The shocking and sobering expose of corporate-government financial collusion to enrich the rich by stealing from all the rest of us offered by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner in Reckless Endangerment concludes with the following assessment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010:
It did not insist that large and unmanageable institutions be cut down to size to alleviate their threats to taxpayers in the future. Nor did it increase the accountability of those running institutions that will need government assistance in the future.
Therefore, despite this presumed reform of the corrupt U.S. financial system, will, they ask, a debacle like the credit crisis of 2008 ever happen again? Their answer: Most certainly, because Congress decided against fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail institutions when it had its chance. [304-305]
Congress failed the American people. That is the outside peel of the infinitely-layered onion of elite corruption.
As for why Congress failed, peeling back the second layer of the onion makes that question is easy to answer: the foxes still guard the henhouse. As the authors make painfully clear, many of the key individuals in charge of bending and breaking the rules, of looking the other way and of carefully planning and implementing fraudthose there at the creation of economic ruin for millions of Americansremain either in power officially or active behind the scenes. No real prospect of bringing these men to justice is visible on the horizon.
Ripping one more layer off this rotten political onion, the problem goes well beyond the handful of corrupt, short-sighted, and arrogant politicians, Wall Street executives, and mortgage company managers named in Reckless Endangerment. As the authors make clear, the real rot was systemic: the collusion not just of individuals but of the institutions at the core of the system, including Wall Street, mortgage companies, rating agencies, the privileged semi-governmental Fannie Mae, Congress, the White House, both the Democratic and Republican branches of the monopolistic/elitist political party that runs the whole show, and most shockingly even the actual regulatory agencies designed to prevent such corrupt and apparently criminal governance.
From all sides, the leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder bulldozing aside every courageous, far-sighted, and patriotic civil servant who warned of the coming disaster. Whatever other lesson one takes away from the financial collapse of 2008, we should all remember this one: it was no surprise. It resulted from the willful denial of truth and a literally incredible inability on the part of everyone who was profiting to remember the warnings of the very recent past (the original Depression, the S&L scandal of the late 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management scandal, the 2001 Enron scandal, the 2001 crash of the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market, the 2002 WorldCom scandal) in the interest of maximizing personal profit. And who can blame the thieves? After all, we let them keep what they stole, and it seems that no one wants to know how many layers of the onion are rotten.
It is hard to imagine how faith in democracy in America can be restored unless those members of the elite under the cloud of a prima facie case of criminal behavior can have their day in court to make the case to the American people that they are in fact not guilty. If they by some miracle do not deserve to be jailed, they have the right to clear their names.
Far more important, the American people deserve closure on what must be one of the most egregious betrayals of the American people by a rapacious gang of the ruling elite in American historyor perhaps not. Perhaps if the Geithners, the Raines, the Greenspans, the Blankfeins, the Bensingers, the Weills, the Lewises, the Paulsons, the Gramms, the Leaches, the Blileyes, the Franks, the Johnsons, the Clintons had their day in court, they would explain how they all had our best interests at heart.

The Appearance of Fraud

Republican member of the House of Representatives Darrell Issa has been trying to protect Goldman Sachs from being investigated while pouring his wealth into Goldman accounts. If he thinks Goldman is a valuable and upright American institution, then why is he afraid of an investigation that could exonerate Goldman and restore its tattered reputation?

Create a Supreme Foreign Policy Court

The establishment of a Supreme Foreign Policy Court independent of elected officials and empowered to comment publicly on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy might enhance the quality of U.S. national security.

When a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wonders why the Government is “covering up” the nature of Saudi Arabia’s connection to 9/ll, citizens must wonder “What is going on?” Exactly who is “the Government” such that it would exclude the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the key intelligence issue of this century?

The cited report about ex-Senator Bob Graham raises numerous broad questions of current concern, including:

  • Is Saudi Arabia truly an “ally” of the U.S., or are we kidding ourselves? Distinguishing friends from foes is about as basic a requirement for responsible governance as one can imagine, and it is a task poorly executed by leaders who go for the short-term advantage.
  • To what degree is the national security structure in the U.S. an institution in crisis, incapable of identifying key threats to U.S. national security? 

How would we know? Would confusion over who was really responsible for a terrorist attack on the U.S. constitute a wake-up call? Would you be even more concerned if such confusion still existed a decade later and extended to the level of an ex-chairman of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence? Where is the line between the need to reform the national security “institution” and the need for an “orderly failure” of that institution? How would one go about safely managing the orderly failure…and, one hopes, replacement of such a critical government institution?

Going a bit deeper, if society determined that “orderly failure and replacement of the national security structure were called for, what exactly would need to be changed: the president alone, the access to information for the Congressional committees, or what? Given the performance of the U.S. national security decision-making process at the very top, perhaps these considerations are worth pursuing to lay out a process for shoring up the principle that the leaders of government are responsible to the people and do not have the right to design a foreign policy behind the backs of the American people that sacrifices national security for goals that may be dangerously short-term or focused on the interests of some elite special interest.

How to do this is obviously far beyond the scope of this post. The point is to launch a debate that would raise national consciousness about the issue. For starters, it may be worth considering that the issue of ensuring governmental responsibility to society was considered by the Founding Fathers in the domestic context, way back before the national security state was even a gleam in the eyes of our leaders. The Founding Fathers’ answer was a Supreme Court independent of the electoral cycle. How about a Supreme Foreign Policy Court composed of national thinkers, with the majority required to be individuals who have never been elected to national office and are not otherwise employed in public service but with access to all foreign policy information and entitled to comment publicly on the quality of our leaders’ decisions?

Empowering Iran’s New World Order

Now that Riyadh seems to be trapping Washington into supporting its counterrevolution, the fate of Iranian crusaders for a new, anti-American world order seems to be in good hands with…Washington. Tehran is on a strategic roll playing the good guy, cheering Arab democracy against the Saudi-Israeli-U.S. axis of dictatorship. In a word, Washington is empowering the Iranian World Order, and all Tehran needs to do is be patient.

The American World Order has always been schizophrenic, the imperial face biting the democratic face. Aspiring to lead a new world order, Iranian rejectionists—be they nationalists or militant Shi’a—have a simple theoretical answer to what liberals see in the American World Order as a fundamental dilemma: the Iranian rejectionists dismiss both faces. Whether Washington aspires to lead a global crusade to establish empire or to spread democracy makes little difference to Iranians dedicated to domestic supremacy of the state over the people and international overthrow of a U.S.-centric international order.

Theory is one thing, practice another, however, and the relative emphasis Washington gives to its imperial tendencies vis-à-vis its democratizing tendencies has enormous impact on the practical difficulties facing Iranians on a crusade to upset the global political system. As long as Iran remains the only serious challenger to the corporate-friendly American World Order, Iran’s real goals are less the issue than Iran’s symbolic position of exceptionalism as the only defender of liberty (though, to be sure, Iran is only defending the liberty of the state vis-à-vis the international system, not the liberty of individuals, but that is a distinction that will be lost on young Arabs being murdered in the street by their own governments). To the degree that people worldwide begin to see Iran as the sole champion of liberty, its dissident crusade becomes immeasurably empowered.
Such a perception would be worth far more than a primitive collection of nuclear bombs to Iranian crusaders, but there is probably little Iran, by itself, can do to spread such perceptions. Ironically, there is much that Washington can do: all it will take is a few simple foreign policy miscalculations in Washington, the type of miscalculations Washington decision-makers are quite prone to make, to hand Iranian crusaders this present on a silver platter. It is ironic that confident, forward-leaning Tehran must rely on its main adversary to open the door for it to make progress. It is even more ironic that it is precisely the Zionists’ fears of a nuclear Iran that induce them to engage in the most short-sighted oppression of civil liberties in the Mideast, “short-sighted” because it plays so neatly into the hands of precisely those Iranians most interested in acquiring nuclear arms.
Again, the issue is not the real goals of Iranian crusaders but the degree to which people, for the moment specifically the people of the Mideast and Central Asia, perceive Iran as their only ally in their struggle for liberty and justice. The virulence of repression in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Palestine will not allow those repressed populations the luxury of examining the motives of a potential supporter.
Tehran could of course always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by making its own mistakes. Tehran could terrify the Mideast with nuclear threats, drive its own people into revolt, or alienate democratizing Arabs with images of fundamentalist Shi’i velayat-e faqih (Khomenei’s theory of rule by religious dictators responsible only to Allah). One of the difficulties in predicting political events is the ever-present possibility that politicians will manage to defeat themselves by overreach regardless of how certain their victory appears. But as long as Iranians avoid such blunders, with the U.S. dog on the leash of the Saudi billionaires,  time is on Tehran’s side.
Ironically, in view of the panic they provoke, Iranian crusaders actually have yet to demonstrate that they have much to offer the Mideast or any other part of the world that many would find attractive. Aside from talking a good talk (and even then frequently lapsing into clumsy, self-defeating rhetoric), Iranian crusaders have little military power, little money, little attractive ideology. They have not succeeded in accomplishing much that is very impressive in Iraq, despite the strong position the neo-con adventure granted them. What improvements in living standards do Iraqis credit Iran with having given them over the last decade? Similarly, what improvements in the lives of the average poor Shi’a in Lebanon would the average person there thank Iran for. The truth is that Iranian crusaders, their noise notwithstanding, have yet to demonstrate that their opponents need fear them very much.
But if Washington succeeds in alienating the rising generation of Arab youth–just as it begins to assert itself–by allowing the American imperial face unambiguously to take precedence over the American democratizing face, then where else will Arabs have to turn? Communism is gone. Salafi jihadis have slaughtered so many Sunnis that they have managed thoroughly to discredit their vision of a new Caliphate in the eyes of the Sunnis masses. Only one symbol of an alternative to the American World Order exists: Iran. (Mr. Davutoglu, if you disagree, please step forward and make your case.) But it is, for obvious reasons, a tarnished symbol, and can only be made attractive by comparison with the degree to which Arabs perceive that the American World Order will or will not permit them to have a decent future within its constraints. If Washington defines the masses of the whole Arab world as rebels to be crushed by the American World Order, it will give Tehran a victory it could never achieve for itself.
Riyadh has clearly thrown down the gauntlet, its savage repression of Bahraini hopes for a new dawn spelling out exactly what the old guard is willing to offer the Arab people. Iranian crusaders presumably have no interest in a genuine flowering of democracy in the Muslim world; that would put them in a highly unstable and marginalized position. But to be the only country unconditionally cheering for Arab democracy against the unholy trio of Zionist Israel, salafi Saudi Arabia, and an imperial U.S. would be a dream come true for Iranian crusaders in which they could finally dominate the Arab street…and do so at no cost.
Whether or not the Iranian crusaders are smart and patient enough to play this game remains to be seen, but initial indications are that they are doing so far more skillfully than Obama, who, after a good start in response to Tahrir Square, now  appears to be falling solidly under the spell of the Saudi sheikhs. The game, admittedly, is hard for the U.S.: it must figure out how to balance the removal of bad allies so that new and independent regimes arise in a context that leads them to chart their own course in a way compatible with U.S. interests: that will be a tricky thing to pull off. For Iran, things are easier. Iran’s strategic position is so much improved with Iraq in its orbit, Afghanistan imploding, Turkey friendly, and Egypt warming up that it (i.e., the ruling elite) can afford to be patient (whether particular individual Iranian leaders will calculate that they personally can afford to be patient is another thing). In essence, Washington must work assiduously to balance contradictions, while all Iran need do is…nothing. Given the daily slaughter by murderous security forces in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, Iran’s call for a new world order can hardly help but shine brighter and brighter over the desert sands. Terrified at the thought of its old alliance system crumbling, Washington is busily empowering Iran’s crusaders for a new world order.

How To Spot a Hypocrite

How do we distinguish trustworthy politicians from hypocrites? On the budget war, there is a simple test.

Great leader to people: “If you want to lead the world, bite the bullet. World leadership takes effort, determination, sacrifice. And we are the greatest people in the world. Therefore, you (not me personally, of course) will sacrifice your environment, your health care, your national parks, your safety (running the world means making enemies, after all), your kids’ education, and your civil liberties. That’s the sacrifice part. In return, we (including me personally, of course) will then rule the world.”

If you like that, you are empire material; if not, you’re a wuss. No matter. The point is, the above statement is honest.

Perhaps the fundamental problem in U.S. politics today is distinguishing honesty from hypocrisy. How do “we the people” spot hypocrisy? Actually, it’s easy.

Take the budget, for example. If a politician in Washington is discussing the popular topic of how to cut the budget (we all know that politicians hate spending our hard earned tax dollars), that politician will offer ways and means of cutting costs (praise his soul). If he does not start by noting that the only significant source of potential savings lies in the war budget, then you, dear citizen, have just discovered a hypocrite. This is the dirty little secret that everyone knows and that everyone (who is anyone in the ruling elite) has agreed not to mention (“vatever you do, don’t mention the war!!”).

If you think I am being too flip about a subject that is frankly risking the destruction of the American way of life, I suggest you read the writings of Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz for the sobering details about the cost of American empire. At the moment, the mathematics are not my interest.

My point here is simpler: the ruling elite (composed of the Republican and Democratic wings of the American Conservative Party, Wall Street executives, Big Pharma,  Big Oil, and of course those who preside over the manufacture of all those weapons) will to a man refuse to admit that significant budget savings are only possible by cutting the war budget because the war budget is their personal priority. Not the wars per se, the war budget…the massive mercenary armies, the assumed need for more weapons than are possessed by all the rest of the world put together, the endless construction of city-sized overseas bases to defend against threats that did not exist until the bases provoked opposition. To be more clear, the “war budget” is not a cheap attempt at sarcasm: it is quite real, encompassing the official U.S. defense budget plus all those little hidden extras like the multi-trillion dollar war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the endless billions in backroom deals to stimulate Israeli militarism. For those of you interested in the underlying dynamics of things, the latter point is a neat example: we hand endless offensive weapons to Israel (almost none of which are designed to prevent terrorist attacks on the Israeli people), thus tempting the most aggressive politicians to use them, thus provoking general hostility toward Israel, thus “justifying” the provision of further arms because now the security of the Israeli people truly has been endangered; for arms manufacturers, it is a no-lose process, and it comes in handy for those who need global tension to justify empire-building, too.)

All this is good business, and it is the business of the elite. The members of the elite are not stupid. Well, not that stupid. They know what they want: the good (for them, not for you obviously) business of empire. They also know what they do not want: they do not want cuts in arms production, they do not want to trim the monstrous army of Defense Department contractors making semi-private war throughout the Muslim world (those private armies are gold-plated and drive the best SUVs), they do not want to be forced to provide health care to people who cannot pay top dollar for the service, they do not want their Wall Street gambling habit (using your mortgage payments) to be taxed, they do not want to spend corporate earnings for stuff like clean drinking water, they do not want teachers’ unions demanding higher teacher pay (which would lead to more educated and therefore more argumentative citizens).

This essay could have been far more detailed, with lots of statistics, but others, such as the eminent Stiglitz, have done that work. What I hoped to do here was make the message clear, and I don’t know how to make it any clearer than this. Now you understand the Washington budget debate. Have a nice day.

The People Are the Enemy: Algerian Chapter

Following the standard handbook of repressive regimes, the Algerian dictatorship continues taunting the long-suffering Algerian society.
Algeria’s regime is now visibly intent upon defining pro-democracy demonstrators as “the enemy,” with the standard repression of meeting legitimate popular demands for reform with violence and warning the population not to express its opinions (unless they match the opinions of the oppressive rulers). Whatever the likelihood a week ago that Algeria would follow in the footsteps of Tunisia, the likelihood of that today is higher, and the regime has only itself to blame. 
Ironically, demonstrations in Algeria have been small and would most likely hardly have been noticed except for the heavy-handed response of an intolerant regime. But with a reported 800 protesters injured so far this month and the regime apparently in no mood to listen, intensification of popular demands is predictable. Harsh repression of minimal demands, in the age of al Jazeera and in the context of neighboring Tunisia’s increasingly bold popular challenge to misgovernment, may very well provoke intensification of demands and a rise in sympathy for the few who have so far dared openly to confront the regime.
Dynamics. The Algerian regime first tried to fix the “problem” of protests by cutting food costs in early January. This fix is probably in part responsible for the small size of subsequent protests, yet the regime has now shifted to an emphasis on violent repression, eschewing the obvious alternative of trying to co-opt the demonstrators by allowing peaceful protests and making a show of sitting down to listen to the opposition. In any case, fixing the superficial symptom of high food prices left the underlying causes of dissatisfaction–unemployment, oppression, poverty–unaddressed. In addition, its temporary cooling effect, if any, may actually have encourged the regime to take a harder line subsequently.
Washington’s Input. Meanwhile, in yet another stunningly incompetent example of bad taste and poor timing, Washington publicly lauded Algerian dictator Bouteflika’s “anti-terrorism” activities precisely when he was beating up pro-democracy demonstrators. Bouteflika is the perennial candidate of the military, which destroyed incipient democracy in Algeria after Islamic reformers won election two decades ago. He has presided over a society subjected to widespread human rights violations, undemocratic elections, and great economic stress, with real unemployment reportedly as high as 25% and 15 million of the country’s population of 36 million under 30.

Confusing “Civil Rights Activism” and “Terrorism”
Over 100,000 Algerians died during the political strife of the 1990s. Thousands more were “disappeared” by security forces or abducted by armed groups fighting the government and never found. The 2006 Law on Peace and National Reconciliation provides a legal framework for the continued impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of atrocities during the this era. The law provides amnesty to security force members for actions they took in the name of combating terrorism and to armed group members not implicated in the most heinous acts.Human Rights Watch

Bleak Future. But the Algerian military has been firmly on the side of the elite for a generation, since a vicious civil war that squeezed moderates between the Scylla of Islamic extremists and the Charybdis of military extremism; the astonishingly smooth removal of the Tunisian dictator seems an improbable outcome for Algeria.

Leaders: Experimenting on Us?

When leaders appear to be promoting a short-sighted, evil, or counter-productive policy, are they in fact simply conducting an experiment, testing an hypothesis (perhaps with you as the test material) they wish to apply to a completely different issue?
It is tempting, for those of little faith, to jump to judgment on our leaders, assuming that they share our values. Perhaps we believe in peace and jump to the conclusion that government policies that so obviously provoke war demonstrate the “stupidity” of leaders. It is undeniably easy to name leaders who give every indication of stupidity, but governments are not run by a single individual; policy is almost always the result of the input of at least half a dozen, and perhaps of many dozen, individuals. Becoming a leader is not easy; a particular one may conceivably be a hapless front-man for some shadowy elite group, but if that is the case, then still policy is flowing from a group (perhaps a financial elite or a military-industrial complex or a group of rich ranchers or the army’s leading generals or a frustrated faction out to change the world). The policy-making group may be composed of folks all of whom harbor some delusion but all are unlikely to be stupid. After all, they had the smarts to get power! More than that, leadership requires or at least is associated with inventiveness. Leaders tend to be activists with all sorts of ideas. These ideas may certainly be short-sighted, inimical to the interests of the country, or even counterproductive for the individual policy-makers themselves. But if you have set yourself the task of figuring out what is going on, jumping to the conclusion that these policy-makers are simply “stupid” is probably the wrong place to start.
Neatly trim your hairy initial thoughts with Occam’s razor. That may not lead to truth, but it will give a logical foundation on which to erect your mental framework. Assume that policy flows from a group with intelligence. If that policy appears short-sighted or counterproductive, consider that the policy-making group may have different goals than you. National security may, for example, be not at all in the interest of a jet-setting group of rich men on the make, nor is national security necessarily in the interest of an international reform movement or a fundamentalist group intent on overthrowing the international political system.
But to observe that leaders are probably not, in comparison with the average person, “stupid,” is certainly not to claim that they are, in comparison with thoughtful and well educated students of human behavior, “intelligent.” Perhaps the assumption that they are inventive is the best starting point. Leaders are people who go to considerable effort to acquire power and, along the way if not from the start, can generally be assumed to have wild imaginations about what they would do with that power. Do they have vision? Not necessarily. But the probably do enjoy experimenting…more than you might have imagined.
Before exploring the question of whether or not leaders play with their power like a mad scientist building Frankenstein just to see what Frankenstein’s first words might be rather than because of any particular objective that he might want Frankenstein to achieve, a couple comments on the marvelous ability of leaders to drop rocks on their own feet may be in order. The question of whether a given policy is an example of “dropping rocks on one’s own feet” or in fact for some ulterior motive known only to the leader is central to understanding human politics. Here, an example will suffice.
In a concise little study of U.S.-Latin American relations, Amira Armenta focuses on the counter-productive nature of U.S. policy, which presumably has been designed to achieve control over Latin regimes for the benefit of, say, U.S. corporations or some concept of U.S. national security, but which repeatedly provokes utterly unnecessary waves of anti-Americanism that end up costing the U.S. money and decision-maker time that could better have been applied to real global challenges.

La misma myopia que ha caracterizado la politica de seguridad de EEUU para el continente se puede percibir tambien en su politica economica. Cuando Washington predica su modelo de mercados abiertos y de libre comercio como receta magica para la prosperidad ecomomica, en realidead esta impulsando la penetracion de EEUU en los mercados latinoamericanos mientras mantiene al mismo tiempo una linea protectora y de subsidios para supropia industria agricola. Los impactos de esta judaga no tardan en revelarse: pobreza que genera malestar social, incremento de la delincuencia, migracion. Despues se preguntan, de donde surgen el chavismo, el indigenismo, el zapatismo y todos esto movimientos socials y politicos que acusan de populistas, radicals, izquierdistas, etc. [En el patio de atras 58.]

Heavy-handed economic exploitation provokes anti-American rebellion. Support for the rapidly spreading cancer of soy monoculture in Paraguay at the expense of the livelihood of the people may indeed be provoking yet another anti-American movement at the present moment. One may fairly ask if an elite can ever learn.
Policies can surely be counter-productive, but that judgment is derived from a long-term perspective. Over the long term, someone else will be in office. It is worth considering the evidence that leaders frequently are folks really just don’t think about the long term; rather, they like to tinker…with our fates.
One example is Gaza, which for years has been treated by leaders on all sides as a laboratory to experiment with hypotheses about running a global war against activist Islam or about making oneself a great Muslim champion.
Another example [“Men as Test Mice” on Historical and Literary Lessons] is suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag archipelago, wherein he describes the development of the Stalinist policy of imprisoning everyone with a mind of his own:
Юридической же формы, как  и у раскулачивания,  у не?
не было. Уголовный кодекс был сам по себе, а ссылка сотен тысяч человек --
сама по себе. Это было личное распоряжение монарха. Кроме того, это был его
первый национальный эксперимент подобного рода, это было ему интересно

…the German exile had no juridical basis. The Criminal Code [which dealt with all manner of individual infraction: WM] in itself was one thing, and the exile of hundreds of thousands of people was something else entirely. It was the personal edict of a monarch. In addition, this was his first experiment of the sort with an entire nationality, and he found it interesting from a theoretical point of view.
The thesis of Greg Grandin that Latin America “has long served as a workshop of empire, the place where the United States elaborated ,tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before it” [Empire’s Workshop (N.Y.: Holt Paperbacks, 2006, 2)] is yet another suggestive perspective, and is filled with examples of lessons learned in Latin America that were later applied in the Mideast, though it is of course difficult to find evidence to demonstrate the degree to which practitioners in Latin America may have had non-Latin countries in mind at that time as ultimate targets.
Perhaps seemingly vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies really are not about the particular subject population. Perhaps the policy-maker’s perspective is no more about “victory” than is a scientist’s daily experiment. Sure, the scientist will be happy to get the desired outcome, but failure to concoct a particular chemical in a test tube is also educational. Indeed, it is the only road to ultimate discovery. Did Stalin really care about a few tens of thousands of German residents or were the vast millions of subject Central Asian Muslims in his mind? Did Washington really see tiny Nicaragua as a threat or were the contras really a test of a broader Cold War-rollback hypothesis?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
To what degree can vicious, short-sighted, or self-defeating policies most accurately instead be understood as experiments to validate hypotheses designed for application elsewhere?