More on the neocon ISIS Tilt

Michael Oren at Aspen: Genocide has its uses…s

Michael Oren at Aspen: Genocide has its uses…s

Here is Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., holding forth on the subject of ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — in conversation with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 27:

 Keep in mind that I don’t speak for the [Israeli] government, I’m speaking for me … and what I’m going to say is harsh, perhaps a little edgy, but if we have to choose the lesser of evils here, the lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shiites. …  It’s an evil, a terrible evil.  Again, they’ve just taken out 1700 former Iraqi soldiers and shot them in a field.  But who are they fighting against?  They’re fighting against a proxy with Iran that’s complicit in the murder of 160,000 people in Syria.  You know, do the math.  And again, one side is armed with suicide bombers in Iraq and the other side has access to nuclear military capabilities.  So from Israel’s perspective, you know, if there has got to be an evil that is going to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail….

This is horrifying, of course, although I don’t know who is worse, the speaker, his bland interlocutor, or upscale festival-goers listening to nonsense without a murmur of protest.  Oren’s charge that Iran is complicit in the murder of 160,000 people in Syria is an outrage.  While Teheran certainly has its crimes to answer for, it is the U.S. and its Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf who have funded the Syrian civil war and kept it going long after it began degenerating into a sectarian bloodbath.  Patrick Cockburn, the London Independent’s brilliant Middle East correspondent, recently recounted a conversation with Richard Dearlove, the former head with MI6, the British secret intelligence unit, who in turn quoted a rather offhand remark by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador in Washington and until recently head of Saudi intelligence.  “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard,” Prince Bandar told him, “when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’  More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”  That was prior to 9/11, according to Dearlove, which is to say back in the days when Riyadh was still funding Osama bin Laden and the Saudi-Iranian conflict was still in its infancy.  Since then, we have seen the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which infuriated the Saudis by installing a Shiite-dominated government, and then the Arab Spring, which tore apart the compromises holding the region together and pitched the Muslim world into headlong sectarian strife.

Now the Saudis are funding a Sunni fundamentalists who are out to slaughter every last Shiite, beginning with the Syrian Alawites then moving into the Shiites in Iraq.  In the process, it also wishes to enslave the Christian population of both countries.  Yet this is the group that Oren now regards as the lesser evil.  Isn’t it remarkable that a country founded on revulsion against genocide now views an Alawite genocide with something less than alarm?

Oren, of course, is disingenuous in insisting the he does not speak for the Israeli government.  In fact, his views perfectly mirror the thinking of the ultra-rightists currently running the Jewish state.  A few days before Oren spoke in Aspen, Benjamin Netanyahu was only slightly more circumspect on “Meet the Press.”  When asked what the U.S. should do to counter ISIS, he replied that militant Shiites and Sunnis are  both anti-American.  “And when your enemies are fighting each other,” he said, “don’t strengthen either one of them.  Weaken both.  And I think by far the worst outcome that could come out of this is that one of these factions, Iran, would come out with nuclear weapons capability.”

A plague on both their houses, but an extra-special plague on the Shiites.  When asked whether the U.S. should launch air strikes against ISIS, Netanyahu went on to say: “I think that there are two actions you have to take.  One is to take the action you deem necessary to counter the ISIS takeover of Iraq.  And the second is not to allow Iran to dominate Iraq the way it dominated Lebanon and Syria.  So you actually have to work on both sides.”  Give Maliki just enough aid, in other words, to prolong the slaughter indefinitely.   Then, when the countryside is littered with countless bodies, blame it all on primitive Arab bloodlust.

A Friend Writes…

Philip D. Zelikow: Admirably candid about neocon intentions

Philip D. Zelikow: Admirably candid about neocon intentions

Further evidence that the neocons are continuing their pro-ISIS tilt can be found in a column by Philip D. Zelikow that ran in The International New York Times on July 5.  Zelikow, a high-ranking member of George W. Bush’s State Department, executive director the 9/11 commission, and of course an enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, had this to say about the dismemberment of Iraq and Syria:

The most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamist extremism is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards.  Our current policy seems to recognize that, but we must stick to it, swayed neither by artificial deadlines nor dreams of holding Iraq together by going easier on Tehran.  Iran’s interventions across the region are part of the problem; they cannot reliably be restrained by agreement.  Still, negotiators can make Iran choose between economic recovery and military advancement, as we are now trying to do in the nuclear talks.  Sanctions should be relieved only if Iran offers to comprehensively roll back that program.  If needed, American military power can be readied to maintain or strengthen the sanctions.

Second, the United States should not join in the Iraqi government counteroffensive to reconquer northern and western Iraq.  Let that divisive government, like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, reap the balance of power that its narrow policies have sown.  The United States should not expect to be able to fashion desirable replacement regimes, and there is no compelling American interest now in restoring the unity of Iraq or Syria.  Their borders reflect only the British-French bargains that divided the spoils of World War I.

ISIS may seem like a super-Al Qaeda, but Zelikow’s advice is not to be deceived.  Iran remains “the most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamic terrorism” and hence is still the real enemy in the Middle East.  Because ISIS is only a pale imitation, moreover, the Obama administration should do nothing to challenge it head on.  It should not support Iraq’s counteroffensive and should continue to apply military pressure against Iraq’s main ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It should also see the ISIS-Kurdish dismemberment of Iraq as a fait accompli and recognize that Maliki — and, by implication, Syria’s Assad — are now reaping the whirlwind that their “narrow policies have sown.”

Could anyone imagine a more glaring violation of the old Bush doctrine that people like Zelikow once espoused?  According to Bush, Al Qaeda represents pure metaphysical evil and anyone who has anything to do with it will wind up morally besmirched.  “If you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists,” he declared.  But now Zelikow informs us that ISIS is less important than Iran, that the U.S. should not allow itself to be dragged into the fight to roll it back, and that, in any event, its rise is somehow a case of poetic justice.

Indeed, his column implies something more.  In expressing a certain satisfaction that Maliki and Assad are reaping what they have sown, he is essentially advising the White House to recognize ISIS as a de-facto asset.  Obama obviously should not embrace it too closely, but neither should he be unduly concerned about its activities.  For the moment, ISIS’ efforts do not go counter to U.S. interests, so why not leave al-Baghdadi alone in his mini-caliphate and hope that he continues to apply pressure against Bashar al-Assad?

Zelikow is a blazing hypocrite, obviously.  But to be fair, the Middle East has never been more overflowing with hypocrisy.  ISIS created a mini-revolution with its June blitzkrieg.  It completely upset all the old alliances, which were coming apart at the seams but now are completely in tatters.  Everyone is scrambling for new allies as a consequence and tossing old principles overboard.  The U.S. professes to be anti-terrorist but, in sponsoring sectarian warfare against Assad, it has in fact been playing footsie for years with people who make Osama bin Laden look like Bill Moyers.  Now it thinks it can make use of ISIS to secure a momentary advantage against Syria, Iran, and, to a degree, Iraq as well.   Israel also claims to be anti-terrorist.  But since a battle-hardened Baathist state is the last thing it wants on its northern border, it would not be unduly upset if ragtag Salafists caused heads to roll in Damascus.

Saudi attitudes are particularly complex.  Contrary to Zelikow, the people who have really sown the whirlwind are King Abdullah and the exceedingly mysterious Bandar bin Sultan, Dubya’s former bosom buddy and, until recently, chief of Saudi intelligence.  Today’s Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed U.S. official as declaring, “There was no question that Bandar and private Saudi people were pouring money into” anti-Maliki tribal groups who became the backbone of the ISIS-led Sunni jihad.  But now Abdullah is worried that he has gone too far and that a victorious ISIS will turn against him just as Al-Qaeda turned against the Saudi monarchy in the years following 9/11.  If so, his fear is that he will wind up as the latest victim of Chop Chop Square, the Riyadh plaza famous for its public decapitations.  It would be real poetic justice if he did.  But with neocons like Zelikow now firmly in control of U.S. foreign policy, the Obama administration is determined to stand by its oldest Mideastern ally — at least for now.


A World War III Lexicon

Oceania has always been  at war with Eurasia….

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia….

Exciting news!  World War III is busting out all over – in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia!  For perplexed souls wondering how the earth got itself into such a sorry mess, here’s a political lexicon to help make sense of it all.

Terrorism: Extreme violence directed at U.S. interests.

Shock and Awe: Extreme violence directed at people the U.S. doesn’t like. e.g. Saddam Hussein.

Freedom Fighter: Anyone who practices extreme violence in an authorized manner, e.g. Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Terrorist: Anyone who practices extreme violence in an unauthorized manner, e.g. Osama bin Laden after he turned against the United States in 1998.

Islam: Noble religious tradition dating from the seventh century.

Islamism: Noble religious tradition taken to political extremes.

Jihad: Noble religious tradition taken to violent extremes.  Laudable when aligned with U.S. interests as in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  (See “freedom fighter.”)  Reprehensible when not.

Sectarian: Any Shiite who behaves in a way prejudicial to Sunni interests, e.g. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Non-sectarian: Any Sunni who behaves in a way prejudicial to Shiite interests, e.g. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Extremist: Any Muslim who turns Islam into a source of hatred and fanaticism, e.g. Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Moderate: Any citizen of a pro-U.S. Persian Gulf state even if he funds Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra, or ISIS.

Axis of Evil: Formerly Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, but since reconfigured now that Baghdad is in the U.S. fold and Iran may be needed to beat back ISIS.  Putin’s Russia and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela may be added at some future date.

Bush Doctrine (“If you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists”): Formerly applicable to Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, but never to Saudi Arabia even though Hillary Clinton admitted back when she was secretary of state that Saudis “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”  Kuwait and Qatar are also exempt, as are Turkey and Jordan even though they have allowed terrorists to use their territory to stage attacks inside Syria.  Applicability to Iran currently uncertain.

Democracy: Essential goal for all Middle Eastern states except certain Sunni oil producers in the Persian Gulf.

Repression: What Bashar al-Assad did in crushing popular protests in 2011.

Restoring Law and Order: What U.S. ally Bahrain did in crushing popular protests in 2011.

Propaganda: Information, communications, etc. contrary to U.S. interests.

Crude propaganda: Russian information, communications, etc. contrary to U.S. interests.

Caricatures in the Russian media’s fun-house mirror: Moscow’s cockeyed view of world events in The New York Times’ offhand description.  (See Andrew E. Kramer, “Front and Center in Ukraine Race, a Leader of the Far Right,” Mar. 11, 2014.)

Caricatures in the American media’s fun-house mirror: Contradiction in terms since U.S. media are always rigorously objective.

World War II: Great military conflict won by Tom Hanks at D-Day.

Battle of Stalingrad: Great military conflict that can be safely ignored since everyone knows the combatants were morally indistinguishable. For an extended disquisition on Soviet-Nazi moral equivalency, see Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010.

Genocide: Greatest conceivable political crime unless it involves the Syrian Alawites, in which case it is simply part of the price of ridding Syria of Assad family tyranny.  (Sorry about that.)

Safe Haven: Something that John Kerry says that ISIS must absolutely be denied, except in Syria where the U.S. has been providing it for years by sponsoring sectarian warfare against the Assad regime.

Political debate: A process that lesser countries engage in but never the U.S. because Americans know what’s right without even having to think about it.

Indispensable nation: America due to its unerring moral compass.

American exceptionalism: The doctrine that the aforementioned moral compass exempts the U.S. from ordinary legal standards and allows it to assume the role of global dictator.

Energy conservation: Something for dispensable nations to worry about.

Bonus question: How do you tell a good neo-Nazi from a bad neo-Nazi?

Answer: A bad neo-Nazi is someone like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who taunts Jews and makes light of the Holocaust.  An even worse neo-Nazi is one who gains real political power, e.g. the Jobbik Party following its strong showing in the Hungarian elections last January or Jörg Haider when his far-right Austrian Freedom Party became part of the ruling coalition in the year 2000.  But a neo-Nazi who becomes part of a pro-U.S. government in an important swing state is another story.  This is why Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, who once railed against “the Moscow-Jewish mafia” ruling the Ukraine, was granted a friendly photo op with assistant U.S. secretary of state Victoria Nuland in February.  Anti-Semitism is very bad unless it’s on the side of the U.S., in which case it’s no longer anti-Semitism at all.



The Obama Straddle


State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

Why isn’t Barack Obama pouring troops and weapons into Iraq in response to ISIS’s dramatic offensive?  Most liberals assume that the president has at last learned the lesson of Libya and other such misadventures, which is that bombing not only doesn’t work, but that often backfires, spreading the fires of Islamic terrorism all the faster.  Obama is thus getting in touch with his inner non-interventionist.  But State Department spokesman Jen Psaki’s daily press briefing on Tuesday suggests something more complicated.  Here is what Psaki had to say when a reporter asked her reaction to Iraqi Prime Minister’s charge that Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham both “financially and morally”:

PSAKI: Well, that’s the opposite of what the Iraqi people need right now, and we have continued to make the case to Prime Minister Maliki – Ambassador Beecroft met with him just yesterday – that taking steps to govern in a nonsectarian way, to be more inclusive to increased support to the security forces is what his focus should be on.  And this is obviously the opposite of what that is.  It’s inaccurate and, frankly, offensive.  

QUESTION: Would you say that –

QUESTION: Sorry. What –

QUESTION: – he is fanning the flames of sectarianism

QUESTION: – is inaccurate?

PSAKI: The comments that he made.

QUESTION: What is inaccurate and offensive?

PSAKI: The comments he made.  I would –

QUESTION: About Saudi?


QUESTION: Would you say that Maliki is basically fanning the flames of sectarianism?

PSAKI: I think I would say there’s more that can be done to be more inclusive and govern in a nonsectarian manner.

QUESTION: And one more – sorry James – on this.  Saudi Arabia called the events in Iraq a Sunni revolution, adding that the sectarian – that the exclusionary policies in Iraq over the past three years are behind the recent unrest in the country.  Do you agree with the Saudis on this?

PSAKI: Well, I – the way we see this is that the situation is complex, and there are some tribes and key local Sunni politicians have joined with the Iraqi Government.  Others are working with ISIL through violence to destabilize the government.  Those working with ISIL are, of course, supporting terrorists who adhere to an extreme ideology, which believes that Shia should be killed based on their sect alone.  Obviously, our view is that there needs to be – the way that Iraq is governed by the leaders needs to take into account the legitimate grievances of all of the people.

QUESTION: That means you don’t agree with them that what’s happening is a Sunni revolution?

PSAKI: I think I made my comments clear.

But what, precisely, is inaccurate about Maliki’s statement?  Administration officials have long complained that Saudi Arabia, not to mention Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, were looking the other way while it came to private donations to Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.  In Hillary Clinton’s 2009 Wikileaks memo, the then-secretary of state complained that “while the kingdom … takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”  The memo goes on to note that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” and that various restrictions put in place by Riyadh “fail to include multilateral organizations such as the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).  Intelligence suggests that these groups continue to send money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas.” While shutting down some channels, in other words, the Saudis have left others wide open.   David Cohen, under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, made essentially the same point just this past March.  Although Cohen’s focus was on Kuwait and Qatar, he made it clear that the problem was regional:

Donors who already harbor sympathies for Syrian extremists have found in Kuwait fundraisers who openly advertise their ability to move funds to fighters in Syria.  Constraining this flow of funds is particularly challenging in an era when social media allows anyone with an Internet connection to set himself up as an international terrorist financier.  We see this activity most prominently in Kuwait and Qatar, where fundraisers aggressively solicit donations online from supporters in other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which have banned unauthorized fundraising campaigns for Syria.  

Nothing had changed. While the Saudis continued to impose certain restrictions, fundraisers have no trouble getting around them. Money continues to flow to Al-Nusra, ISIS, and other such groups from sources throughout the peninsula.  So why does Jen Psaki now describe Maliki’s remarks as inaccurate? Admittedly, Psaki is an unscrupulous hack who will say anything to advance the latest State Department line.  But her words are revealing nonetheless.  What seems to be going on here is that the Obama administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act between defending Iraq and appeasing the Persian Gulf forces that fund ISIS and side with it in its battle against the Baghdad government.  Obama is wavering in between the pro and anti-ISIS elements, neither supporting the effort to tear Iraq into pieces nor opposing it either. In a bizarre but nonetheless interesting item on the Washington Post website, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, observed:

Many of the most vocal Arab backers of Syria’s rebels support what they cast as an Iraqi popular revolution against an Iranian-backed sectarian despot.  They equate the Iraqi uprising with the Syrian uprising, as a Sunni revolution against a Shiite tyrant, and actively oppose U.S. or Arab intervention against it.

ISIS may be a mite over-aggressive, but its heart is basically in the right place — or so Saudis, Kuwaitis, et al. seem to believe.  Lynch quotes a popular Saudi professor named Ahmed bin Rashed bin Said as declaring, “We must support the Sunnis of Iraq not only because they represent the Arab and Islamic face of Iraq, but to save Syria and limit Iran and protect the Gulf.”  He also quotes Faisal bin Jassim al-Thani, a Qatari journalist: “Hezbollah and the United States and the United Arab Emirates are all in Maliki’s trench while the people and the ulema and the honest ones are with the revolution.” ( Actually, Lynch notes, the UAE has withdrawn its ambassador from Iraq and is now critical of Maliki.)  According to a McClatchy news service article, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, a former Qatari ambassador to the U.S, recently tweeted:

For the West or Iran or the two working together to fight beside Maliki against Sunni Arabs will be seen as another conspiracy against Sunni.

Psaki’s failure to forthrightly condemn the characterization of the ISIS offensive as a “Sunni revolution” indicates that the State Department is struggling to accommodate the Saudi perspective.  So Obama is not heading off in a new direction after all, but standing by his old policy of endlessly appeasing Persian Gulf interests.  Or, to put it a bit more kindly, he’s trying to head off an all-out sectarian war involving Iraq, Iran, Syria, and possibly the gulf states too by reassuring Riyadh that he continues to tilt in its direction.  But it still means the same thing, i.e. countenancing mass murder or at least not opposing it too strenuously.  Has American policy ever been more bankrupt?

Postscript: The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“U.S. Signals Iraq’s Maliki Should Go”) quotes White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying that regardless of whether Maliki stays or someone else takes his place, “we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance.”

Sorry, but what government is more aggressively sectarian than Saudi Arabia’s?  Riyadh terrorizes propagates ultra-Sunni Wahhabism throughout the world, it terrorizes its own 15-percent Shiite minority into submission, and in March 2011 it sent troops to crush a democratic protest movement among Shiites in neighboring Bahrain.  Non-sectarianism is an absolute necessity for Iraq, yet Saudi Arabia gets a free pass.  How do these people look themselves in the mirror?

Nine things wrong with US Mideast policy

 Alfred E. Neuman: The genius behind U.S. Mideastern policy?

Alfred E. Neuman: The genius behind U.S. Mideastern policy?

The disaster in Iraq has exposed a rich vein of incompetence not only in the White House but in the press.  In a recent column, Roger Cohen points out in the Times that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, carried out under entirely false pretenses, has backfired in any number of ways.  It has played into the hands America’s nemesis, Iran, while infuriating Saudi Arabia, a key ally.  It upset the Sunni-Shiite balance of power, leading to the all-oout sectarian warfare that is now engulfing the region.  It encouraged the growth of  Al Qaeda in Iraq and has forced Washington to seek help from Tehran.  Yet help is not likely to be forthcoming due to resistance everywhere from Riyadh and Tel Aviv to Capitol Hill.  In the end, Cohen throws up his hands and declares: “A logical approach in the Middle East is seldom a feasible approach.” Nonsense.  It is not logic that got the U.S. into this mess, but a tower of illogic that neocons like Cohen have helped build up to frightful proportions.  Why is U.S. policy in the Middle East such an utter mess?  Let us count the ways.

  1. The United States pretends to oppose militant Islam yet allies itself with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other Persian Gulf states that are the prime funders of jihad throughout the globe.  In a secret 2009 memo made public by Wikileaks, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton observed that the Saudis “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”  Yet Washington has done nothing to force the Saudis to turn off the spigot.  To the contrary, Obama has fairly fawned over the Persian Gulf tyrants, bowing low to Saudi King Abdullah during a G-20 summit meeting in 2009 and absurdly praising Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani for promoting democracy everywhere but in his own country.
  2. The U.S. claims to oppose religious fundamentalism, yet supports Saudi Wahhabists who, since the 1980s, have funded the construction of thousands of mosques and madrasas from Indonesia to London, every last one a breeding ground for violence and intolerance.
  3. It claims to oppose religious sectarianism, yet, directly or indirectly, has backed sectarian forces in Syria and Iraq that are now slaughtering every last Shiite they can get their hands on.
  4. It claims to back only moderate, secular forces in Syria.  Yet the Free Syrian Army, the chief object of its affections, has been implicated in anti-Christian atrocities and has collaborated militarily with Al-Nusra.
  5. The U.S. has never officially repudiated George W. Bush’s absurd “Axis of Evil” rhetoric even though it now seeks a rapprochement with Iran, number two on Dubya’s list of evil-doers.
  6. It tosses the “terrorism” label about with abandon despite the facet that years of misuse have rendered the term all but meaningless.
  7. It has provided Israel and Saudi Arabia with open-ended security guarantees that effectively allow either country to lead it about by the nose.  With ISIS now tearing Iraq into little bits and pieces, it is therefore at a loss over what to do.  If it allies with Iran, it will infuriate both Riyadh and Tel Aviv.  If it doesn’t, it will have to stand by and watch as Iran, Iraq, and likely Syria as well form themselves into a Shiite arc of resistance while ISIS carves out a caliphate extending from t the Tigris and Euphrates he Mediterranean.
  8. It claims to want nothing more than stability in the Middle East, yet by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars a year into the region in the form of energy revenue, much of which is then used to purchase U.S. military hardware, it is pouring oil on the fire.  Saudi Arabia is a basket case.  Besides oil, it exports nothing but Qur’ans and holy warriors.  It devotes 13 percent of GDP to the military (Israel devotes only about 9 percent)l, yet in the event of a real war it would be a sitting duck.  Besides oil, it exports nothing other than Qur’ans and holy warriors.  Yet the Obama administration is tied to it hand and foot.
  9. The U.S. has done nothing to rein in a monstrous oil economy that is at the heart of today’s turmoil.  Even Thomas L. Friedman is occasionally right about certain things, and one of those is a carbon tax, which, if adopted, would have a wide range of positive effects.  It would reduce CO2 output, it would reduce highway congestion and suburban sprawl, and it would send energy prices falling through the floor. With the Persian Gulf states losing much of their economic clout, funding for groups like ISIS would plummet. Yet the U.S. is paralyzed. It prefers to watch its empire collapse all around it rather than engage in meaningful reform.

This is the equivalent of a four-way head-on collision.  U.S. policy in the Middle East is so rickety and absurd that the entire structure is now crashing down around us.  Ordinary people could not come up with something so ridiculous. Rather, it took some of the best minds in the country working together for decades on end.  Unchastened, neocons are now scouring the globe for fresh disasters in the making – in the Ukraine, in the Baltic, and perhaps the East China Sea.  Is this the way empires end, not with a ban or a whimper but a sigh of confusion?

The coverup continues….

The Svoboda wolfsangel.  IF you think this looks like a swastika, you're a Russian dupe….

The wolfsangel, the Svoboda Party’s chosen insignia.  If you think this resembles a swastika, you’re obviously a Russian dupe….

I came across a curious article by someone named Alina Polyakova on The New Republic website.  Entitled “Russia Can’t Decide If Ukrainian Jews are Villains or Victims,” it dished up the usual White House-NATO rant about how Putin & Co. are exaggerating the role the Svoboda (Freedom) Party and the Right Sector in the new government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk for propagandistic purposes.  So what if Svoboda originally called itself the Social-National Party of Ukraine in imitation of Hitler’s National Socialists?  So what if it used a modified swastika known as a wolfsangel, or wolf’s hook, as its party insignia?  Ditto party leader Oleh Tyahnybok’s declaration of war against the “Russian-Jewish mafia” allegedly calling the shots in the Ukraine or the torchlight parades party members are fond of holding in honor of the Waffen SS Galicia Division.

None of it matters, according to TNR’s Polyakova, because Svoboda has matured.  Now that it has gotten a taste of power, she writes,

Svoboda has moderated its rhetoric and softened its image. In the interim government, Svoboda members hold three out of twenty positions, and most Ukrainians would no longer call the party “radical.”  Many jokingly call it “white and fluffy”: harmless as a bunny.

As for the Right Sector, the masked street fighters who spearheaded the assault on the former government of Viktor Yanukovych, they are also not the storm troopers they are often made out to be.  According to Polyakova:

The group styles itself as a nationalist organization in the tradition of Stepan Bandera, a polarizing historical figure.  Bandera led a guerrilla army fighting for Ukrainian independence during World War II, but was condemned as a traitor and Nazi collaborator by the Soviet Union.  KGB agents assassinated Bandera in Munich in 1959.  Yet Bandera also spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp, complicating his depiction as a Nazi stooge.  Historical evidence suggests that Bandera and his followers were not programmatic anti-Semites, but rather ruthless militants willing to murder anyone – Jews, Russians, Poles, and even Ukrainians – who stood in the way of their political goals.  In western Ukraine, where Bandera fought his battles, he is now remembered as a hero and freedom fighter.  In the south and east, he is still remembered as a Nazi collaborator. 

Since Bandera was something other than a “programmatic” anti-Semite, his sins were of a lesser order.  Since he didn’t launch pogroms against Jews alone but against non-Ukrainians in general, Jews have no more reason to be afraid than, say, Russians (who are in fact up in arms).  So don’t worry, the latter-day Banderites are cute as bunnies while it’s Putin who is the new Hitler.  Just keep repeating: Russians bad, Banderivtsi white, fluffy, and adorable….

What makes this all so amusing, in a ghastly way, is where it appears.  In the bad old days under former editor Martin Peretz, The New Republic was notorious for spying anti-Semites behind every rock and tree.  Peretz was an equal-opportunity paranoid, pointing an accusing finger not just at Arabs and assorted left-leaning Europeans, but at American Jews like The New Yorker’s David Remnick and Rick Hertzberg, mild liberals who gave aid and comfort to the enemy, according to Peretz, by letting slip a mild criticism of the Jewish state.  “[D]espite all the true evil in the world,” Peretz noted darkly in 2011, “the designated target of the chic progressives, including alienated Jews, is the Jewish state.  There are many predecessors of the type in history.”

But that was the old New Republic.  The new New Republic dismisses Svoboda as harmless, argues that the Right Sector’s anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, and describes Stepan Bandera as merely “polarizing.”  (What next — Hitler as “controversial”?)  In a few short years, it has gone from hyper-vigilance over the threat of anti-Semitism to anger at Putin for so much as raising the subject.

Polyakova and her editors are misinformed: Bandera’s anti-Semitism could not have been more “programmatic.”  Dmytro Dontsov, whose ideas inspired the formation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1929, a portion of which Bandera would go on to lead, has been described as “an organic anti-Semite” who translated the anti-Semitic writings of Hitler, Goebbels, and others for the benefit of his fellow militants. Volodymyr Martynets, editor of the OUN’s most important ideological journal, described Jews as “parasitical … morally damaging … corrupting … racially unsuited for miscegenation and assimilation,” while Bandera and his followers issued a general call on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Russia to “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime.”  Following the German invasion, Stepan Lenkavskyi, the chief ideologist of the Banderites, urged the physical elimination of Ukrainian Jewry, while Iaroslav Stetsko, prime minister of the new pro-Nazi Ukrainian state, called for “the destruction of the Jews and the expedience of bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine….”  (For more on this, see Pers Anders Rudling, “Anti-semitism and the extreme right in contemporary Ukraine,” in Andrea Mammone, Emmanuel Godin and Brian Jenkins, eds., Mapping the Extreme Right in Contemporary Europe: From Local to Transnational (London: Routledge, 2012), esp. pp. 190-91.)

Not only did Banderivtsi participate in the slaughter of thousands of Jews after June 1941, but they also killed anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Poles in an effort to purify the western Ukraine in 1943-44.  While it’s true that the Germans clapped Bandera in prison, they released him in 1944 as they set about creating a special Ukrainian unit of the Waffen SS, the same “Galicia Division” that the Svoboda Party now celebrates.

“The past is never dead,” said Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”  This is why Tyahnybok gave his now-notorious speech in 2004 lauding the Banderites for fighting “against the Muscovites, Germans, Jews, and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state” and why another Svoboda firebrand, Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, according to Pers Anders Rudling, described the Holocaust in 2011 as “a bright episode in European civilization.”

So how does one explain TNR’s journey from paranoia to complacency?  Although many leftists see the magazine as little more than a mouthpiece for AIPAC and Tel Aviv, its prime loyalty has always been to the State Department, especially the “neo-liberal” wing of the foreign-policy establishment headed by Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and now John Kerry.  The Israelis are not as hostile to Putin as one might think, while the Anglo-American liberal media, from the London Review of Books to The New York TImes and TNR, have been far quicker to jump on the hate-Russia bandwagon.  Liberals raised a clamor when Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party entered the Austrian government in 2000 and when the equally far-right Jobbik Party became a major power broker in Hungary as well.  Yet the current attitude with regard to Svoboda and the Right Sector is one of hear, speak, and see no evil.  Thanks to the Internet, information has never been more abundant, yet the punditocracy has never been more timid and conformist.

American democracy and the Ukraine

A portrait of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera hanging over the entrance to Kiev city hall.

A portrait of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera hanging over the entrance to Kiev city hall.

George Orwell observed not long after World War II that people once believed that totalitarian states enjoyed an unbeatable edge over liberal democracies.  Germany was strong and powerful under a single ruler whereas Britain was torn by dissent and debate.  Hence, the mighty Nazi war machine should have triumphed over the weak and divided Allies.  But it didn’t.  Divisive as it might be, debate turned out to have certain advantages.  After all, Orwell observed:

The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the USSR while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight.  Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power.  So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

Although no one likes being second-guessed, in other words, a word or two of dissent might have done some good from a strictly military point of view if it had persuaded the Wehrmacht not to open a second front while fighting was still raging along the first.

But is it really so simple?  What if Orwell’s common man speaks out but no one listens?  What if debate is structured so as to all but guarantee that he will be ignored?  The man in the street will be able to carry on all he likes while the war machine steams on undeterred.  From a militarist point of view, it will be the best of all possible worlds since it will allow the regime to pose as a supporter of free speech while making war with as much abandon as ever.

This is pretty much the situation in the United States, a corrupt but still-liberal oligarchy that allows people to freely to denounce the powers-that-be and the government to freely ignore them.  On February 15, 2003, hundreds of thousands of Americans took part in a global day of protest against the upcoming invasion of Iraq.  Since Saddam Hussein had obviously had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, protesters pointed out over and over again that attacking him in response to 9/11 would be like attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor.  Yet the effect was nil.  During the Senate “debate” on the proposed invasion – which was more like a mini-Nuremberg rally – one Democrat after another echoed Republican lies about Saddam Hussein and the mushroom cloud he was supposedly preparing to unleash.  Hillary Clinton, for example, announced the she was voting for of an invasion because:

Intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program.  He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members….  I want to ensure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and … our support for the president’s efforts to wage America’s war against terrorist and weapons of mass destruction.

John Kerry was no less mendacious.  “Saddam Hussein has a choice,” he declared.  “He can continue to defy the international community, or he can fulfill his longstanding obligations to disarm.  He is the person who has brought the world to this brink of confrontation.”

It was a perfectly democratic debate in which everyone democratically marched over the edge of a cliff.  Rather than carting protesters off to concentration camps, the Bush administration allowed them to march hither and yon (except in New York, that is, where Michael Bloomberg’s police immobilized them in great open-air pens) while ignoring what they said.  As Nicholas Lemann observed in The New Yorker, Democrats and Republicans were of one mind when it came to shock and awe:

Foreign-policy Democrats are a bit to the right of their party, because they feel that it tends to be too hesitant about the use of American power, and foreign-policy Republicans (excepting the hawks) are a bit to the left of theirs, because they feel that it undervalues diplomacy.  The result is that the foreign-policy arms of the two parties form a continuum of opinion (excepting, again, the hawks), despite the custom that forbids those who have served in Administrations of one party from serving in Administrations of the other.

Instead of two separate parties, there is only just one party as far as imperial strategy is concerned.  Criticism is permitted as long as it is to no effect.

Official imperviousness is back in the news thanks to the standoff in the Crimea.  All the same people are at it again, making all the same noises.  Hillary Clinton compared Putin’s intervention to “what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” while Kerry declared,“You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext,” forgetting, apparently, about the trumped-up pretext that the U.S. employed to invade Iraq.  Nicholas Lemann has not yet been heard from, fortunately, but The New Yorker website is once again filled with denunciations of the enemy du jour as an expansionist, revanchist, and God-knows-what-else.  David Remnick – the same New Yorker editor who denounced Saddam in 2003 as “an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them” – weighed in with a description of the Russian leader as equally unscrupulous and autocratic: “Putin’s pretext – that frightened masses of Russian-speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine were under physical threat from ‘fascists,’ and were crying out for ‘fraternal assistance’ from Russia – is a fiction generated by his intelligence services and propagated by Russian state television.”  But then, referring to the ultra-right Svoboda party, he undermined his own argument by noting:

In December, when John McCain spoke to demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, he stood side by side with [Svoboda party leader] Oleh Tyahnybok, who was once expelled from his parliamentary faction after demanding battle with “the Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”  Perhaps this was bad advance work from team McCain – much like the advance work on the Sarah Palin nomination – but it did manage to fuel Moscow’s bonfire of suspicion.

So are Russian fears baseless or not?  Remnick seems to be of two minds, although he is absolutely certain that the Russian leader is “an unabashed authoritarian” who “risks alienating himself not only from the West and Ukraine.”  Facts be damned – the guy is still an SOB.

A March 3 editorial in The New York Times was no less contradictory.  “Mr. Putin’s claim of an immediate threat to Ukrainian Russians is empty,” it declared.  “There were some scuffles in the industrial cities where Russians predominate, but nowhere were Russian speakers or Russian interests seriously threatened….”  But less than two weeks earlier, the Times’s own Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer reported that street fighters who had taken over Kiev’s Maidan Square were “heirs to a nationalist tradition that traces its roots to Stepan Bandera and the fanatical nationalists of western Ukraine who violently opposed their Polish and Soviet overlords in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s before finally being subdued.”  If fanatical nationalists do not send a chill up Russian spines, what does?  Over at The New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder sounded the same theme.  “The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe,” he wrote.  But “why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously?”

Yet if Snyder read his own book, the much (but not universally) praised Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010), he would know the answer.  In it, he wrote:

The Germans had killed about 1.3 million Jews in the former eastern Poland in 1941 and 1942, with the help of local policemen.  Some of these Ukrainian policemen helped to form a Ukrainian partisan army in 1943, which under the leadership of Ukrainian nationalists cleansed the former southwest Poland – which it saw as western Ukraine – of remaining Poles.  The OUN-Bandera, the nationalist organization that led the partisan army, had long pledged to rid Ukraine of its national minorities.  Its capacity to kill Poles depended upon German training, and its determination to kill Poles had much to do with its desire to clear the terrain of purported enemies before a final confrontation with the Red Army.  The UPA, as the partisan army was known, murdered tens of thousands of Poles, and provoked reprisals from Poles upon Ukrainian civilians.

A million-plus Jews, tens of thousands of Poles – by comparison, the Ku Klux Klan seems like small change.  Given bloodshed on this scale, what on earth does Svoboda’s triumph in the Ukraine’s February coup d’état mean if not a “the return of National Socialism to Europe”?  What would Jews or, for that matter, Poles do if 15,000 followers of Bandera held a torchlight parade through the streets of Lower Manhattan the way they did in Kiev in early January?  Considering that a member of the Svoboda Party is now deputy prime minister while a member of Right Sector, an even more hard-line group, is deputy chief of the national security and defense council, which oversees the armed forces and police, what would African-Americans do if, say, a militant white supremacist were named vice president and  an out-and-out klansman appointed deputy secretary of defense?  Do you think they’d get a mite bit upset?  And if they did, would Timothy Snyder accuse them of shying at shadows?

“Our grandfathers fought the Nazis,” yesterday’s Guardian quoted a Crimean factory worker named Vladimir as sating, “and now they are in tears looking at these revolting fascists in Kiev.”  Given that Yuri Mikhalchishin, the leader of Svoboda’s skinhead wing, has vowed that “[o]ur Banderite army will cross the Dnieper and throw that blue-ass gang, which today usurps the power, out of Ukraine,” I’d say that “revolting” is the mot juste.  Since Mikhalchishin has promised to “make those Asiatic dogs shut their ugly mouths,” it is hardly a surprise that those same “Asiatic dogs” are now looking to Russia for protection.

People like Remnick, Snyder, and the anonymous Times editorialists are able to carry on in this manner because they believe they operate in a criticism-free zone in which they can be as illogical as they please without having to worry about complaints from below.  What makes it all so galling is that Barack Obama, the man ostensibly in charge, was elected to put a stop to such warmongering.  In his famous October 2002 speech against the invasion of Iraq, he had tough words for the laptop bombardiers who were determined to plunge the country into one conflict after another.  Obama emphasized that he was not opposed to all wars, merely those that were stupid and unjust:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war.  What I am opposed to is a rash war.  What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

Strong stuff.  Yet once in office, he opted to leave the hardliners undisturbed, rewarding the empty-headed hawk Hillary Clinton by appointing her secretary of state and then doing the same for the even more fatuous John Kerry.  The effect was to give both a license to lie.  The result is a foreign policy that is little better than George W. Bush’s and in some ways worse thanks to the growing use of drone warfare and U.S. support for the unprecedented Saudi-Qatari-Al Qaeda assault on Syria.

America has a two-party system of sorts when it comes to domestic affairs, but a one-party dictatorship when it comes to the imperial war machine.  Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is currently sending populist hearts a-flutter with her attacks on free-market economics and outrageous loopholes that allow billionaire to pay less in taxes than their secretaries.  But when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis, she has remained silent.  Apparently, it is easier to attack Wall Street these days than Foggy Bottom.  In a way that Orwell could never have anticipated, U.S. democracy is structured so as to place certain topics permanently off-limits.

Catching up…

Bashar al-Assad.  The most rational political leader left in the Middle East?

Bashar al-Assad. The last rational political leader left in the Middle East?

It’s almost exactly six months since my last post, but I’ve got a good excuse for being so dilatory.  I had to whip into final shape a massive book that I’ve been working on for more years than I care to admit.  But now that it’s finished and hopefully on the way to publication, it’s time to get back to the business at hand, which is charting the ongoing decline of the U.S. imperium.

What’s happened since last summer?  Well, for one thing, there were the curious events in late August when the Obama administration came within a hair’s breadth of bombing Syria, backing off only when the House of Commons staged a surprise revolt against military intervention.  But why should Washington have cared about a vote in faraway London?  One reason is that the U.K. is a crucial ally and the U.S. could hardly afford to embark on such an adventure with the support only of France.  But another is that with U.S. policy in the Middle East reaching the last stages of absurdity, it was obvious to all but a few die-hard warmongers that tossing a few hundred cruise missiles into the mix would only make matters worse.  After pledging to hunt down and destroy Al Qaeda, the U.S. had found itself on the same side as Al Qaeda in the battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  If the effort had succeeded, the only result would have been to allow Jabhat al Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and like-minded groups to overrun Damascus, slaughtering Christians and Alawites and establishing an Al Qaeda state in the heart of the Levant.  It was a prospect too terrible even for the sleepwalkers in the White House, which is why Obama seized on the vote as an excuse to back down.

Reason prevailed, amazingly enough.  Since then, the administration has continued driving with one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator, opposing Al Nusra and ISIS while at the same time putting out feelers to “moderates” such as the Islamic Front whose views are hardly less genocidal.  The White House still calls for Assad’s removal even though the consequences would be even more catastrophic than in South Sudan, another place where U.S. nation building has gone awry.  The administration meanwhile administration supports the Maliki government in Baghdad in its battle against Al Nusra and ISIS in Anbar province, but only on the condition that it not support Assad in his battle with the same forces on the other side of the border.  It is like fighting Hitler on the western front but refusing to back the Soviets fighting him in the east, an insupportable policy, in other words that can only lead to disaster the longer it goes on.

What else happened while I was laboring over my book?  Oh, yes, the federal government shut down in mid-October as it teetered on the edge of default.  The fact that the Republicans ultimately pulled back seems to have convinced a lot of people, including a number of Marxists, that the whole thing was for show and that, when push came to shove, there was never the slightest doubt that Congress would live up to its obligations with regard to the international capitalist system.  I more or less agree even though the possibility of the Republicans doing something truly crazy can never be ruled out.  Nonetheless, I think the episode is still worth taking seriously as an example of the growing stresses on the constitutional system as a whole.

Why?  Leftists often dismiss the “Repocrats” as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, bourgeois parties that are two sides of the same coin as far as loyalty to the ruling class goes.  This is true.  But while there is no doubt that the two parties are equally loyal to the bourgeoisie as a whole, they represents different wings of the ruling class that are locked in an increasingly poisonous struggle over political and economic strategy.  One wing is isolationist and authoritarian with a touch of the Old Confederacy about it, while the other is more sophisticated, “liberal,” and internationalist and hence more responsive to needs of global capital.  One party seems “progressive,” while the other seems more and more the personification of Sunbelt bigotry.  But what gives the debate an increasingly bitter edge is that neither strategy is really working.  What with military tensions in the East China Sea, economic stagnation in Europe, and a Muslim world that is on fire from one end to the other, Obama-style internationalism is in a free fall.  Yet the alternative, a retreat to some small-town Fortress America, is hardly viable either.  If France and Britain were able to stage an orderly retreat in the 1950s and ’60s, it is only because they could count on an even more powerful empire to pick up the slack.  But as the first – and hopefully last – global empire, America is all alone.  The instant it pulls back, a power vacuum will develop and disorders will erupt.  Who knows, for example, what would happen if the U.S. were declare the East China Sea a bridge too far?  Would war erupt between Japan, the two Koreas, and the PRC?  It is hardly farfetched, which is why the U.S. cannot afford to gamble.  The empire is grotesquely over-extended, yet has no alternative but to stick with the status quo.

This makes Obama seem not only more progressive but more practical, too.  But he’s not – he’s merely a deer frozen in the headlights, unable to move forward or back and therefore helpless before the coming onslaught.  The U.S. should be rethinking its foreign obligations at this point and, in particular, taking steps to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, which has the effect of inserting it ever more deeply in the affairs of an explosive Middle East.  Yet for any number of reasons, it can’t.  It has no choice but to stick with the current policy, disastrous as it might be.

Meanwhile, the economy remains awful for everyone but a small number of Wall Street investors while the political system grows creakier by the day.  The spectacle of a small number of Republicans shutting the government down in October was indeed appalling.  But when the constitutional machinery dates from the days of silk knee-britches and wooden teeth, one can expect it to seize up when under stress.  The system fairly cries out for an overhaul, yet thanks to an increasingly restrictive amending clause, the prospect is unlikelier now than it ever has been in the past.  Faced with all those antique pulleys and gears, Boehner & Co. couldn’t resist tossing a wooden shoe, or sabot, into the works the way striking mill workers used to in Belgium and northern France.  The result was no doubt a satisfying crunching sound as the mechanism ground to a halt just as it was for the original saboteurs.  Although they eventually had to pull it out, the Republicans certainly succeeded in demonstrating just how shaky and vulnerable the whole affair is.

But the GOP’s ludicrous tactics should not cause people to forget that the debt question is quite real.  Contrary to all the Krugmanites out there, the federal debt burden represents a growing danger from an imperial point of view.  Since the Crash of 2008, the federal debt load has risen from 68 percent of GDP to 99, nearly a fifty-percent increase.  To be sure, the cost of servicing the debt has remained stable thanks to the easy-credit policies of the Federal Reserve.  But you don’t have to be a Niall Ferguson to recognize just how easily the situation could change.  No one knows what the precipitating factor might be, a run on the dollar, a decision by the Chinese to dump U.S. treasuries, or whatnot.  But regardless of the details, the fact remains that the Fed can’t hold interest rates artificially low forever.  When it finally yields to reality by allowing them to rise, the cost of servicing the debt will go up.  What now seems to be a manageable debt load will suddenly grow unbearable.  The consequences will make 2008 look like a passing squall.

So the U.S. is caught between equally unpalatable choices in this regard as well.  It can’t not borrow because the economy would stall and it can’t borrow ad infinitum because a day of reckoning is surely on the way.  The only thing it can do is stick with the present course while promising to cut back at some later date, which of course never comes.  Sometimes, muddling through works; the British, after all, made it into an art form for much of the twentieth century.  But in this case, it is more and more obvious that it will not do.

The brinksmanship on display in October did have one positive outcome.  The disarray on Capitol Hill seems to have put to rest once and for all the ridiculous patter about the U.S. system of checks and balances being the greatest plan of government since the Garden of Eden.  So complete was the breakdown that, for a few days there, the blogosphere seemed to overflow with talk about the dysfunctional government bequeathed by the Founding Fathers.  “Our Broken Constitution,” Jeffrey Toobin’s entry in the field in the Dec. 9 New Yorker, was typically shallow and glib, especially since it wound by assuring readers that “the founders … left just enough room between the lines to allow for a continuing reinvention of their work.”  (Translation: readers can go back to sleep.)  But at least it makes clear that the perfection of the U.S. constitutional system is no longer one of those things that can be simply be taken for granted.  This is a small revolution in itself.

Political paralysis and the drift to war

LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley at his arraignment in 1967.  Where is he now that we really need him?

LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley at his arraignment in 1967. Where is he now that we really need him?

In case you haven’t noticed, the Middle East is exploding.  Yes, I know, it’s always exploding, but this time is different.  In a replay of the fitnas that raged across the Muslim world in the seventh and eighth century, the Shiite-Sunni conflict is flaring from the Persian Gulf to the Nile, threatening to bring the entire region down with it.  Is an extremely ugly situation with no obvious way out.  So what should the United States do in response?  The only answer is to get itself out of harm’s way double quick.  Nothing it does will make the situation better and, in fact, will only make it worse.  So the only solution is to pull out before it finds itself badly singed as well.

But it is impossible to withdraw from the Middle East without addressing what got the U.S. involved in the first place, i.e. oil.  With per-capita consumption double or triple West European levels, America is far and away the heaviest major user of fossil fuels in the world.  Despite the recent uptick in domestic energy production, it remains massively invested in the Middle East, not only as a consumer but as the leader of a global economy that is highly dependent on fossil fuels as well.  The situation is grim, therefore, but not hopeless.  If only on a technical level, the solution is actually rather easy.  All the U.S. has to do to dig itself out of its hole is (a) institute a comprehensive program of carbon taxes and other reforms aimed at de-incentivizing fuel consumption and encouraging a shift to conservation and alternate energy sources and (b) re-jigger the tax code so as to preserve progressivity and insure that the burden does not fall on workers and the poor.  As any competent economist will attest, human beings are highly price sensitive.  Keeping prices artificially low creates the illusion that oil is cheap and abundant, no matter how much you tell them otherwise.  Taxing oil and eliminating a host of hidden subsidies such as free highways and free parking drives home the point that fossil fuels are actually highly expensive once the full range of associated costs – global warming, military expenditures, etc. – are factored into the equation.  Directing the resulting revenue stream to other forms of transport renders everything from trains and trolleys to walking and cycling more attractive and more competitive.  Americans may claim to love their SUVs, but all you have to do is change the price structure to see how fast tastes can alter.

So in the end it is rather simple.  All Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and John Boehner have to do is lay the problem out, come up with a plan that is both simple and effective, and then walk it through Congress.  No U.S. politician likes voting for a new tax no matter how many good causes it will fund.  But no U.S. politician wants to be ensnared in a nightmare like the one unfolding in the Middle East.  So once the situation has been explained, we can be confident that the people’s representatives in Washington will do the right thing by putting the country on the path to energy sanity.

Thank God for LSD, eh?  So much better than the dreary reality we all find ourselves in….

In fact, the chances of anything like this happening are absolute zero.  If Obama were to so much as whisper the phrase “carbon tax,” the Republicans would begin firing on Fort Sumter while the Democrats would head for the hills.  Not only does America’s superannuated political system render any such reform impossible, it makes it impossible even to think about it in a rational, comprehensive way, which is why no pundit who wants to be seen as practical and realistic would so much as pen an op-ed article on the subject.  Global warming is accelerating while conditions in the Middle East grow more dangerous by the day.  Yet both the White House and Congress are structurally incapable of doing anything other than burying their collective head in the sand.

This is an old story, admittedly.  But think what the consequences of such political paralysis will be.  While carbon taxes would lead to higher prices at the pump, the effect on the global oil market would actually be the opposite.  By putting the world’s most voracious oil consumer on a diet and inviting others to follow suit, it would send a message to producers like Saudi Arabia that the market for their sole export is shrinking.  The pressure on prices would be increasingly downward.  Not acting, on the other hand, sends a message that demand will continue despite the depressed capitalist economy.  Prices will remain strong, while profit margins will stay healthy.  Thousands of Saudi princes will rest secure in the knowledge that they can to continue blowing huge wads of cash on casinos, prostitutes, and Ferraris while arms will continue flowing to Wahhabist pro-Al Qaeda rebels in Syria.  Considering that Saudi Arabia already spends an astounding 13 percent of GDP on its military – nearly fifty percent more than what Israel spends – U.S. arms manufacturers will also have the satisfaction of knowing that generations of petro-sheiks will continue buying F-16s and other baubles.  But it will also means deeper involvement on the part of the Pentagon and a growing likelihood of American “boots on the ground” in Syria and elsewhere.

Mobil, Exxon, and Grumman will make out very well.  But more and more sons and daughters of the American working class will come home either in body bags or minus various organs and limbs, while the consequences for the masses of ordinary people in the Middle East will be even more horrendous.  In a 2009 cable made public by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton confided to her fellow diplomats that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”  If so, then with crude currently at $105 a barrel and rising, higher in real terms than even during the oil spikes of the 1970s and early ’80s, U.S. energy policies enable them to donate even more.  The effect is to fuel terrorism even as Washington launches massive domestic-monitoring operations to supposedly combat it.  It’s the best of all possible worlds for militarists and authoritarians.

The deepening constitutional rot in Washington is thus not only a domestic problem but an international one as well.  Looking back across the decades, we’re often struck by how clever the architects of the post-war capitalist order were.  Instead of the renewed depression that everyone expected (the threadbare Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 is a perfect example of this mindset), they engineered a 25-year boom that remade the world.  They stumbled badly in Vietnam, but recovered sufficiently under Reagan and Bush I to vanquish the Soviets and impose law and order of a sort in the Persian Gulf.  But as the economy has crumbled, the instability has deepened.  Although Americans still think of him as a liberal do-gooder, Obama has done nothing to stop the drift to war.  In fact, with his ready resort to drone warfare, his subservience to the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks, and his sword-rattling in Syria, he’s done everything to exacerbate it.  The masses are sleepwalking over a precipice, yet so far there seems to be no way to wake them up.

I think I need another hit of that acid….

Principled thoughtlessness

Jonathan Schell ... liberal constitutionalist

Jonathan Schell … liberal constitutionalist

Jonathan Schell has the lead editorial in The Nation this week on – what else? – the Edward Snowden affair.  The piece is a classic of liberal constitutional analysis, and not in a good way.  How did it happen, Schell wants to know, that the federal government came to launch a massive internet dragnet aimed at downloading information from countless emails and phone calls?  The answer, he says, is by straying from the true path laid down by the founders two-plus centuries ago: “If there is any single political idea that deserves to be called quintessentially American, it is the principle that government power must be balanced and checked by other government power, which is why federal power is balanced by state power and is itself divided into three branches.”  Yet as surveillance mania intensified after 9/11, checks and balances were nowhere to be found.  Casting aside their “appointed constitutional role[s],” the three branches plunged in headfirst.  Instead of objecting when the Bush administration adopted “warrantless domestic surveillance by the NSA,” Congress incorporated some of the program’s worst features into federal law.  The courts failed to protest, with the result, Schell now writes, that “[o]ur system of checks and balances has gone into reverse …. Balanced, checked power has become fused power – exactly what the founders of this country feared above all else.”

If this is what gave the founders shivers back in the 18th century, then it is our patriotic duty to be doubly terrified today.  Schell’s solution is to undo “this executive usurpation” by returning checks and balances to all their ancient glory:

What’s needed is counterrevolution – an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded.  Edward Snowden … saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of bringing it back into line is the public.  He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name. …  He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share.

Instead of going forward, it is necessary to go back to the past.  Presumably, 99 percent of American liberals agree with Schell on this count, as would many Tea Partiers, even if they did not quite share in his enthusiasm for Snowden.  But this just shows how pervasive this sort of retrograde thinking has become.  Liberals and conservatives are of one mind that the founders represented an unsurpassable summit of political wisdom and that it is the fate of us moderns to forever labor in their shadow.  Instead of thinking for ourselves, we must conform to their dictates.  If the founders believed in checks and balances, then we should, too.  If they feared a fusion of powers above all else, then out knees should positively shake at the prospect.  Like Little Red Riding Hood, we must nevert deviate from the path laid down by a long-ago group of slaveholders, merchants, and lawyers.

It is child’s play to pick this strain of argument apart.  Take, for example, Schell’s casual reference to certain ideas as “quintessentially American.”  The phrase is certainly apt when it comes to checks and balances and the like.  But does that make them any better than, say, ideas that are quintessentially French or British?  As all-American as checks and balances are, how do we know they are true?  Because James Madison said so?  Schell’s notion that the public is “the only force with a chance of bringing [government] back into line” makes little sense.  The word “public” is troublesome because it is supra-political.  (The public interest is always said to trump narrow partisan interest.)  But leaving that aside, why would a unified public take charge of America’s out-of-control government only to see its authority sundered into three separate parts?  If “we the people” are the source of all political power in the United States, then it seems that their “appointed constitutional role” is to subdivide their own authority and turn it against itself.  Since a house divided against itself cannot stand, why do it at all?  Why not strive for true popular sovereignty in which the people reign over the whole of society as a single undifferentiated force?

As I showed in The Frozen Republic, constitutional traditionalism of the sort that Schell represents goes back at least to the Elizabethan Age when English government was also divided along legislative, executive, and judicial lines.  (The union of functions under an all-powerful House of Commons would not get underway until the 18th century.)  Since then, whenever anything has gone wrong, a certain kind of old-fashioned patriot could be counted o[n to cry out that it’s all because those in power have failed to stick to the good old old ways while the various branches have failed to maintain eternal vigilance in defense of ancient liberties.  The solution, invariably, is to restore the “ancient constitution,” as it was known, with all its checks and balances and separation of powers.  It’s a formula that has been applied to everything from the Stamp Act to electronic snooping.  Yet because it is repetitive, boring, and patently ahistorical, people nod their heads in agreement but otherwise pay less and less attention — which probably suits people like Schell fine since it confirms them in their view that the modern world is going to rack and ruin.

One effect of such thinking is to ignore the specifically new things that have contributed to the current crisis.  Rather than separation of powers (or lack thereof), the real problem is a vast acceleration of militarism and imperialism since 9/11 and a corresponding shrinkage of political democracy.  Political debate virtually shut down the moment the first airliner crashed into the World Trade Center.  Journalists who failed to toe the official patriotic line – they hate us because they hate our freedom – were fired, questioning of any sort was essentially prohibited, and the draconian Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) sailed through Congress with only a single dissenting vote (that of Representative Barbara Lee, who was so frightened by the reaction that she refused to talk about it for six months after).  Since then, it has been impossible to criticize the war on terror in any fundamental way and hence impossible to criticize in any fundamental way the repressive apparatus that goes along with it.  The war machine is on automatic pilot as a consequence, with no oversight by Congress, the courts, or even Obama, who by this point seems to be little more than a tool of the NSA and CIA.  The war on terror was supposed to wipe Al Qaeda off the face of the earth, along with its assorted aiders, abettors, and apologists.  Yet no one seems to notice that the U.S. now finds itself effectively allied with Al Qaeda in the struggle to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria.  It is manufacturing the terrorism it has pledged to combat.  One would think that the Congress and the media would be up in arms over this obvious violation of the Bush doctrine that if you aid a terrorist, you’re no better than a terrorist yourself.  Yet there is only silence as the U.S. blunders into yet another Mideast war in Syria.  Americans are so deferential to the past that they have quite forgotten how to think for themselves in the present.