Designing a Peace Government

The U.S. and most other countries have political structures with a subtle and dangerous bias toward war, a design that counterintuitively encourages leaders to launch wars. Political systems so designed are irrational and urgently need reform.

The fog of war that clouds the state of the battle is nothing compared to the fog of causality that makes nearly impossible the distinction between a war launched for national security and a war launched for the personal profit of the leader who gave the order to attack. By the time a leader works up the nerve to risk all on war, even he likely cannot make the distinction. Recent wars are swamped with evidence that politicians and leaders of the broader military-industrial complex gained such massive personal profit from the wars that it begs credulity to imagine that the visions of that personal profit did not color their decision to support the decision to launch the war.

Illogically, the political system is designed to encourage war for personal gain. Leaders, during war, are almost guaranteed support, and later few will want to uncover old dirt by looking into the motivations of those who “defended” the nation, for even the most egregious aggression is always called “defense.” Voters, sick with war fever, can seldom differentiate between supporting the war leader and being patriotic, even though the two positions have no necessary relationship whatsoever. Making the argument that “harming the war effort” would be the patriotic course if the war were being fought for the benefit only of some corrupt political faction seems logical enough in an academic setting but gets nowhere in an angry crowd. Saying you love your country so much you want to make it admit that the ultimate decision (to start a war) was not correct and should be reversed is simply too much for most humans to contemplate (call that arrogance, cutting off your nose to spite your face, or–if you want to be polite about it–cognitive dissonance).

Leaders tend to benefit personally by committing the worst sin any leader can commit – launching an unnecessary war, but the argument over whether the leader’s motivation for starting a war was primarily to win reelection/line his pockets or primarily to protect society will never be decided in time to matter if it ever be decided at all. Therefore, logically, the political system should be designed to protect society from the disaster of an unnecessary war.

For the U.S., a “war amendment” to the Constitution might be considered, with provisions designed, first, to clarify what legally constitutes a “state of war” (something that has become utterly meaningless with the advent of mercenaries beyond the reach of Congress and drones) and, second, to implement reforms that would impose personal costs on any leader launching a war, with those costs not so onerous that a patriotic leader would not accept them as the price of doing his duty but sufficiently onerous so as to persuade most leaders not to start wars for career advancement.

To clarify the “state of war,” the following might be useful:

  • No military forces may be maintained under the direct command of the President without the oversight of Congress;
  • When forces representing the U.S. employ force overseas, whether uniformed or mercenary, “war” exists;
  • “War” is illegal without the express permission of Congress, with the automatic penalty that the President be immediately removed from power.

The following provisions might help ambitious or greedy leaders to think twice before launching a war:

  • Within 24 hours of launching a war, the President and Vice President shall both resign, with no right to hold elective office for five years and no right to work ever in their lifetimes for any firm that produces weapons or holds government contracts related to the war effort or engages in the financing of the war effort;
  • Members of Congress who vote for war shall be ineligible for reelection when their term ends and similarly prohibited from working for the military-industrial complex;
  • Presidents cannot be reelected without leaving power for one term;
  • Members of Congress can only be reelected twice;
  • CEOs of corporations that sell weapons or provide contractors and supplies for the war effort shall have their salaries cut to minimum wage levels for the duration of the war.
Finally, the electoral system must be reformed to prevent buying elections. The easiest step in this direction is to provide free TV time for campaigns. The real free speech issue in modern society is not the corrupt idea that dollars equal votes but the defense of the “communications commons:” TV stations should be required, as a condition of using the common airwaves, to offer free time to all candidates and prevented from offering any paid time. However society decides to allocate time to candidates on TV, money should have nothing to do with it.

The message of these reforms should be that holding office is a privilege and launching a war constitutes the failure of the leader to carry out his responsibilities to society: war may be necessary, but the mere fact that it became necessary demonstrates that the leader has failed to prevent the situation from becoming so dire. Firemen should not be placed in the tempting position of being invited to start fires so they can be rewarded for putting them out. Surely, these reforms would not, by themselves, make war obsolete, but they might remove some of the personal incentive, so blatantly obvious in recent years, to commit the nation to a course of aggression.


Too Big to Exist

When corporate or government institutions become too big and too socially destructive to exist, we need a graceful method of putting them on a diet and reforming their lifestyle.

The American genius for creating magnificently productive mega-institutions has a potentially fatal downside: we have, as a society, no idea how to downsize them when they “go rogue,” i.e., become socially destructive. On balance, today, several of America’s major mega-institutions–the Imperial Presidency, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Finance–either are or are fast becoming socially destructive. They are “too big to exist;” we need to figure out how to downsize them gracefully, reorienting them toward socially useful behavior.

Perhaps the first step toward this new way of thinking that needs to replace the tarnished old “bigger is better” mantra is to understand the evidence supporting the contention that these mega-institutions are so bloated that American and, indeed, global society can no longer afford them. (I call these social units “institutions” because each is truly a unified organization composed of, perhaps, separate governmental or private units, but operating according to a clear if unstated and frequently illegal set of monopolistic rules designed to maximize profit and power at public expense and, in the case of the Imperial Presidency, at the expense of the rest of the Government as well.) Consider the following examples of mega-institution misbehavior:

  1. The Imperial Presidency, i.e., the rising ability of the White House and all its military-industrial support mechanism to overshadow Congress and Constitution on foreign policy, now employs something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million mercenaries overseas, constituting an armed force capable of making independent war on most countries–completely outside of Congressional control and often beyond the reach of U.S. judicial authorities [see Jean MacKenzie, Jeremy Scahill, Glen Ford]. Since Augustus overthrew the Roman Republic with his palace guards and established the Roman Empire, we have known the profound threat to democracy posed by a mercenary army under the command of the chief executive.
  2. Big Pharma, constituting the whole U.S. health care industry, has degenerated so far that, to boost profits, it now essentially writes off as a “business loss” all of the nationa’s elderly with the almost universal cognitive problems associated with aging. At their most vulnerable, they are thrown into the arms of untrained relatives utterly unprepared for 24/7 nursing.
  3. Big Oil, alb eit receiv ing billions annually in welfare payments from U.S. taxpayers, can destroy ever-growing chunks of the earth through careless cost-cutting measures and escape responsibility. For the rest of our lives, we will be watching BP’s poison creep with Gulf Stream currents up the North American east coast and over toward England, while everyone complains about $4 a gallon gas, a price only a fraction of the real cost.
  4. As for Big Finance, the cost of its irresponsibility is now glaringly obvious to everyone. At the very least, Wall St. should keep accurate books, and regulators should scrutinize them.

The traditional way of toppling rogue mega-institutions is of course well known: the “barbarians” did it to Imperial Rome, Lincoln did it to the Southern slave system, Gorbachev did it to the Soviet state. But as these mega-institutions take on global scale, the cost of violent overthrow rises sharply. We should be able to do better.

Key to the smooth downsizing of rogue mega-institutions is twofold: 1) the breakthrough understanding of the bottom line insight that a cherished social structure has outlived its usefulness as currently designed combined with 2) the identification of specific traits requiring elimination. Specific reforms (Step 2) without acceptance of the goal of institutional downsizing, and redirection into a socially beneficial mode misses the point. That was the mistake of the Wall Street bailout, which successfully saved the bad old exploitative system rather than taking the opportunity to dismantle it by, for example, rebuilding the wall between the stock market and personal savings accounts. Similarly, eliminating mercenary forces while leaving the political supremacy over Congress of the Imperial Presidency untouched will only have a temporary impact. Surgical removal of a specific cancerous tumor must be done in the context of lifestyle changes related to nutrition, avoiding pesticides, and exercise.

Rogue mega-institutions must be recognized as enemies of society and redesigned to return to their proper purpose of servinhg society. The Presidency’s power should be balanced with that of Congress; stock market investments should b e used to stimulate growth, not gamble with people’s mortgages and savings accounts; the health care system should exist to provide a universal right, not to make a profit; the cost of gas should b e set by government to reflect its true value, incluyding the cost of pollution clean-up and the cost of wars fought to get the oil. And no industry that takes welfare from the taxpayer should turn its leaders into billionaires immune from prosecution.


To its credit, Washington is at least thinking about this issue. See comments by FDIC’s Sheila Bair.

Saleh’s Ultimate Weapon: Apres Moi, C’est al Qua’ida!

With exquisite timing, “Yemen’s army repelled an attack…by al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to Saleh’s regime, as Saleh ran out of all options for maintaining his dictatorship except waving the bloody flag of “terror” in Washington’s face. Why not? It has worked for him so far, and, indeed, might, with a grain of salt, even just possibly be true, but could al Qua’ida be so shortsighted as to pick this moment to make its move, giving Saleh precisely what he wants?

True or not, the “attack” came in the nick of time to bolster the fortunes of a leader who has few friends left outside of Riyadh and some corners of Washington. Needless to say, some in the U.S. mainstream media bought his claim hook, line, and sinker (e.g., CNN).
Meanwhile, as clashes erupt between pro- and anti-Saleh military units, tanks in Yemen’s capital are taking the nearly unprecedented step for an Arab country of protecting (!) the people. The West should note this precedent: government military forces being used not to protect politicians but to protect the people. What is this world coming to…
What it may be coming to is a struggle between military dictators and democrats. After all, the military is still running things in Egypt, the military is increasingly running things in Iran, Israel is transforming itself from a pioneering democracy into a garrison state, Bahrain has turned to its and its neighbors’ militaries to stifle popular aspirations, and Gaddafi is relying on military power to defeat his adversaries. As for Yemen,
What Ali Muhsin is doing is setting himself up for a post-Salih future and further limiting who will have to go.  His statement today – and it is important to note that he didn’t say he was joining the protesters, only supporting and protecting them – puts him in position to head the military or military council under the next government. [Gregory Johnsen.]
As with Egypt, the rise of the military to overt political control is the same old gang playing musical chairs. The attack on El Baradei appears to be one example, and the pro-regime bias in the media (something that will shock Americans, I’m sure) may be another. It remains to be seen how much influence the changing socio-political context will have on governmental structures or the behavior of rulers.

Tunisia: Two Steps on the Long Road to Democracy

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  Democracy requires a vigilant, responsible, knowledgeable society asserting control over all its social organs—including political and commercial organs. Tunisia has taken several significant steps recently, including replacement of the prime minister, but the road is long.

Tunisian civil liberties activist Radhia Nazraoui stated in an interview published on March 7 on that:
toutes les institutions sont encore là : d’abord le parlement, la chambre des sénateurs, la police politique de Ben Ali, qui a terrorisé les Tunisiens pendant des décennies, le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, mais en plus la constitution de la dictature, une constitution que Ben Ali avait amendée régulièrement, pour qu’elle soit sur mesure, pour qu’il puisse éterniser sa présidence. Donc, ce n’est pas du tout vrai qu’il y a maintenant la démocratie….
Les gouverneurs ! Il n’y a eu que des gouverneurs corrompus. Presque la
totalité des gouverneurs désignés par le gouvernement en place –et ils sont
connus- sont des gens « qui ont des dossiers », comme on dit chez nous. Donc,
il n’y a pas grand-chose de changé, jusque là.  

En plus, concernant la corruption et la « famille régnante », à part quelques-uns, les autres circulent librement. Les ministres responsables de la répression et de la corruption, ils sont chez eux. Même si l’on dit qu’ils sont en résidence surveillée –on n’en est pas sûr-, ils ne sont pas en prison.  

In a U.S. context, the principle that the Imperial Presidency is above the law has not been rejected by the Obama Administration. The principle that war can be legally started by lying to the population about the reasons for the war has not been rejected. The principle that the Federal Government can torture not just foreigners but even untried U.S. citizens (e.g., Manning) has not been rejected. The principle that war crimes can be committed by soldiers without either the soldiers or the Commander-in-Chief being held responsible has not been rejected. The principle that citizens accused of no crime can be spied upon by the government has not been rejected. Whether or not such actions occur at any particular moment is far less significant than whether or not such actions are, by precedent, “permissible.”
Tunisia took two major steps toward democracy (a political structure) and liberty (the goal) by abolishing, if the announcements are to be believed, both the Ministry of Security (secret police) and the Ministry of Information (censorship), as Juan Cole pointed out. But Rasaoui illustrates how many levels and organs must be reformed to transition from dictatorship to democracy; it requires, in a US context, not just Washington but Wisconsin, not just Main Street but Wall Street. Liberty is a high bar because liberty requires liberty everywhere: not just at the center but also in the periphery, not just relative to government but also relative to corporations, not just permission to be free but the will to exercise freedom responsibly, not just the freedom to speak but the ability to say something intelligent.
Her husband, Hamma Hammani of the Tunisian Workers Party, continued in the same interview:
il faut faire attention : ces espaces de liberté ne sont pas acquis de manière définitive. C’est-à-dire : ils ne sont pas institutionnalisés.  

Le code la presse est toujours là ; la loi sur les partis est toujours là; la loi sur les associations, le code électoral ; tout l’arsenal juridique fasciste de Ben Ali est toujours là.

Hammani continued by warning of the importance of who organizes the upcoming election for a “new” regime:
Les gens ont commencé à se rendre compte qu’on ne peut pas faire la transition d’une dictature à une démocratie en conservant le cadre de l’ancien système et par l’intermédiaire des personnes qui gouvernaient l’ancien système, par le biais des mêmes appareils, des mêmes institutions, de la même constitution. Cela ne peut pas se faire.  

Effectivement, le gouvernement veut, dans six mois, organiser des élections présidentielles. Parce qu’ils veulent, pratiquement, nous imposer un nouveau
petit Ben Ali. Certainement avec moins de prérogatives, mais un nouveau Ben
Ali. Mais, d’ici six mois, qui va préparer ces élections ? C’est pour cette raison-là qu’ils ont nommé dix-neuf gouverneurs RCD (« Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique », parti du président Ben Ali) sur vingt-quatre. C’est pour cette raison que la police politique est encore là. C’est pour cette raison que l’administration corrompue, à commencer par ses responsables, est toujours là. Les lois, tout est là. C’est pour cette raison que la majorité de l’opposition lutte contre ces élections.  

For a US analogy, what could one expect of a presidential election for “change” when the whole electoral structure continued to be managed by the same two parties, with each still comprised of officials following revolving-door career paths alternating between Washington and Wall Street or alternating between Washington and arms-manufacturing corporations?