Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pentagon Finally Concedes Point on Pakistan

It very rarely happens, but it is refreshing and a (shameful) ego boost of sorts when the Pentagon finally admits publicly something you've been arguing in isolation for quite some time. This is just what has happened in regards to the US's Pakistan policy in Congressional testimony Wednesday by Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen.

In mid-July I wrote:

The most glaring difficulty is that the Taliban stronghold they seek to root out is not in Afghanistan, but Pakistan. Thus, regardless of the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan, whether increased by 10 or 50 thousand, the same issue of Pakistani sovereignty exists. The Pakistani government has shown no willingness to allow NATO forces to conduct cross-border raids, so any suggestion that the Surge forces would do so would come as an affront to the wishes of our 'ally.'

Musharraf's hold on power grows weaker by the day, which has led to the Pakistanis remaining lax on raids in the FATA and NWP in order to avoid stoking a fire which might drive him from the seat of government. Allowing NATO to conduct itself in Pakistan with autonomy would surely be unpopular among the populace and put Musharraf in greater peril.

Musharraf is now out of the picture, but the US is no closer to forming a plan to deal with the Pakistani reality, and the Pakistanis are no closer to allowing the US operational freedom within FATA, explicitly warning the US on Wednesday to keep its troops out of Pakistan. On Wednesday, Mullen finally admitted what those of us with a foothold in reality have realized for some time now.

Mullen said he was "looking at a new, more comprehensive strategy for the region" that would cover both sides of the border, including Pakistan's tribal areas.

"These two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," Mullen said.

"We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan ... but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming."

If admission is the first step toward a solution, the next step will be infinitely harder. The US must find a way to deal with the Pakistani aversion to US operations there, and failure to do so (which seems probable at this point) will only result in the continuation of an ineffectual Afghanistan policy no matter how many troops the current or future president deploys there.

As I've said many times before, the Pakistanis are not neutral observers in this instance, as their security service -- the ISI -- has armed, funded, and cultivated the extremists working out of the border region for many years.

The ISI has long associated itself with anti-American militants, whom they utilized to advance their shared aims on targets in Afghanistan and India. Now, the ISI is drunk with American funds and free to pursue those long-standing policies with even greater fervor, and the US as usual is surprised to find that not everyone who accepts funding is necessarily as dedicated to orthodoxy as we would like. To that end, the ISI is believed to have played a significant role in last month's bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

In his book, Descent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid even details an instance where the US was asked to pause offensive strikes to allow ISI agents to extricate themselves from Afghanistan where they were fighting alongside the Taliban. Though the president likes to deal solely in religious-style absolutes, the multi-faceted relationships in Pakistan prove yet again that this habit can only lead to folly, as the line between friend and foe is inexorably blurred in reality.

In August, I also insisted that the solution to Afghanistan was more economic than military, a suggestion that seemed at desperate odds with administrative policy, a voice in the wilderness. Consider Admiral Mullen a late invitee to the party:

The officials said the West should do more to help Afghans with new investments in roads and other infrastructure, education and crop assistance.

"These are the keys to success in Afghanistan," said Mullen. "We cannot kill our way to victory."

I refuse to believe that a solitary man in the Midwest had a fuller picture of the situation in Afghanistan than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, leaving only the alternative that the administration has known the reality of the situation for a substantial period of time, but continued to maintain a facade until yesterday. Why, then, were they so adverse to expressing what many already understood?

Because in American foreign policy, reality has little bearing on the running narrative. What matters is not what is happening, but rather what the ruling class wants, or needs to happen. Suggesting that we "can't kill our way to victory" is surely the rational outlook on the situation, but it doesn't do anything to build and support the profit opportunities for the defense sector. What little money that was spent on reconstruction ended up in the hands of American contractors, though often they failed to fulfill their contractual obligations. Billions were given to companies like Bechtel and Halliburton to build schools and infrastructure with little to show for that investment.

Far from an investment in Afghanistan, the "reconstruction" money instead served as a form of socialized capitalism, where the American tax payers foot the bill for private profits, lending credence to the indication that George Bush is perhaps the biggest socialist in America. Running political narratives make that seem laughable on the surface, but a glance at the last eight years reveals a continuous flow of government money into private hands with little, if any, oversight or consequence. The Bush administration is not for lower government spending in the slightest, they merely differ on to whom tax money will be distributed, pushing that reality into the shadows of a rhetorical fantasy world which posits that they are against such spending.

Denying until Wednesday the reality of the situation in Pakistan is an integral part of that framework, which requires that platitudes and nonsensical euphemisms be given precedence over honest and objective assessment. While it is probably true that Admiral Mullen himself did not refrain from such observations to serve corporate needs, he understands very well the environment in which he works and who it is he serves.

Aside from the economic element, there remains the purely political element, even more accentuated in an election year. Republicans must maintain at all costs the specter of "winning" the war in Afghanistan. Whether US activities there constitute a war at all, or how precisely one could define "winning" or "victory" are unimportant. All that matters is that the traditional political theme concerning national defense be maintained. Republicans must be presented as safe, Democrats as a danger. Everything else fades in comparison.

That Republican rule has left us no safer, and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are both far from confirming even the vaguest notions of "victory" are immaterial to the argument. Indeed, all appeals to reality, reason, and logic constitute little, if any, of the domestic argument of foreign policy. To the extent that foreign policy is even broached, discussion of the topic always revolves around the typical roles, defined for ages despite all available evidence to the contrary, and no amount of empirical evidence will be allowed to interfere with the freight train that is a political fable taken for granted.

Denial of reality is simply part of Admiral Mullen's job, as integral a part as any other, for it is his task to put an apolitical face on a political view of the world. As we have seen in the case of Admiral Fox, deviation from the script can cost jobs, position, and prestige, but Mullen's testimony on Wednesday indicates that the facade, so meticulously maintained for seven years, is beginning to wear away, even if it will have minimal effect on the domestic political agenda.


Fumbling in the Dark, August 2
Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Fallacy of Faith in the Rational Voter

Among several others, one of the topics that tends to pervade my writing on this site is cynicism regarding the intellectual and rational capacity of the average voter. One need only look at the style and substance of the typical campaign ads in an election year to see clearly that their appeals are being made to emotions and prejudice rather than the human capacity for reason. Michael Dukakis looks funny in a helmet, John Kerry looks effete while windsurfing, and too many other examples to name, all exemplify the emotional appeals that, more than simply influencing American politics, form nearly the entirety of the system.

Though the absence of rationalism in American politics appears rather obvious on the surface, it remains taboo to suggest that something is amiss. Politicians certainly will not broach the subject, especially those that wish to continue on for more than a single election. Journalists, too, (save for Mencken, of course) are adverse to insinuating the average voter is ill-informed or irrational, probably stemming from a combination of feelings of fraternity and the necessity of ad revenue. Thus, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myth of a vast conglomeration of rational voters is perpetuated ad infinitum (and ad nauseum), and the accumulation of proof otherwise seems destined never to be addressed.

Writing for Newsweek, Alan Ehrenhalt, has given it a try, though his conclusions indicate that even as he calls out the electorate he is hesitant to speak in absolutes and still clings to the common conception of the rational voter as one would a faith learned since birth. In the end, Ehrenhalt agrees with the conclusion reached by Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We?, in claiming rather anti-climactically "We can have a smart electorate."

In proposing such a fantasy, Ehrenhalt assumes that there exists a single ingredient missing from the less-informed voters and a simple vitamin or even a vague allusion to eugenics ["how we might go about making more of them"] can save us from their torment. What Ehrenhalt and Shenkman both fail to see is that more than simply a lack of good voters, our political apparatus suffers because at its core it is founded upon these voters, and over the years has only grown as ivy over lattice to incorporate anti-rational voters into itself. The system does not suffer for lack of sufficient input, it requires the very input that it receives and as such would be incapable of functioning should the situation be otherwise.

The political advertisers and marketers have built their operations around the voter as he is found in nature, not the mythical voter as found in popular rhetoric. These con artists do not simply incorporate the ill-informed voter into their work, but establish their entire social function around him, so that without the current crop of voters the system would wither and die. Surely a new system would crop up, but the political marketing apparatus as it is currently constituted would cease to exist.

The supposition that we are but one step away from a league of well-informed, rational voters also belies the very nature of advertising, which at its core depends on irrational, emotional appeals even more than it feeds them. Differences between commercials from automakers and political campaigns scarcely exist, both seeking to paint a fantasy in the minds of the audience rather than appealing to some superstitious belief in the mental superiority of the common consumer. Whether the good in question is a vehicle or a politician, the sales pitch is the same.

These advertising schemes do not tolerate inanity, but thrive on it. The ill-informed public is a necessity, making the jobs of marketers (commercial and political) both essential and perpetual. Ehrenhalt's analysis of a man who believes in the rationality of voters, Samuel Popkin, is even more implausible than his faith-based acceptance of Shenkman's premise:

In a similar way, Popkin doesn't base his theory of the "reasoning voter" on claims that we go to the polls primed with information about the choices on the ballot. He says we practice "low-information rationality," piecing together scraps of knowledge gleaned from personal experience, historical events, media coverage and other sources to pull the lever based on what amounts to gut reasoning. But he believes that it works most of the time.

An electorate, in other words, is something like a jury. It's a panel of ordinary people, limited in their knowledge and training, who combine to produce a judgment of greater wisdom than any of them could make alone. The crowd, in some mysterious way, is wiser than the individual. The average voter may be no genius, but the electorate as a group is no fool. So the theory goes. It is a theory that allows candidates, scholars and journalists to get through the day without having to question the fundamental tenets of American government.

I don't contend that the theory is groundless. There is something in the wisdom of crowds.

At the root, Popkin is claiming that a well-informed voter is not even a necessary aim, as when enough faulty parts are conjoined, they form a functional whole. This is, of course, preposterous. You can't build a running car out of non-working parts any more than you can construct a functional democracy from an irrational populace. The belief in the "wisdom of crowds" doesn't even merit a retort.

That the voter is physiologically capable of becoming informed or utilizing the gift of rational thought passes without question, to be sure. But to suspect that we are but one or two steps away from such an occurrence is pure fantasy. Our entire political system is built on the ill-informed. Campaigns are constructed so as to best utilize emotional, anti-rational appeals, and little attention is paid to questions of policy. When policy is accidentally brought up, it is too often a cavalcade of half-truths and outright lies so that even these discussions devolve into evidence of baseless zeal.

In the arena of foreign policy, most Americans can't find Canada on a map, and care even less about the intricacies of policy half a world a way. All those that are not Americans are by definition "the others." Differences between Shia and Sunni, Punjab and Pashtun, have no bearing on the American mind, and thus never interfere with swift-boat politics. Nuanced, historically-literate discussion doesn't move product, tales of heroism and romanticized narratives do.

Political campaigns are simply a series of fantastical mirages of one candidate and farcical suggestions about the other, and the favor is always returned, so that we are left with nothing but a endless supply of supposed gaffes, faux controversy, and feigned outrage. Whether people vote against their own economic interests is off the table, and discussion must center on a single word ("cling"). Discussion of the efficacy of comparisons between the Iraq occupation and World War II are immaterial, and all roads lead to a intentional misinterpretation of statements on the subject (100 years).

Every so often, this farce is pointed out by an isolated opinion writer, myself included, but it remains true that the majority of American voters do not recognize their own failures, and remain even further from lending hope to a reversal. The problem here remains the weakest component of democracy, for a system that rewards every citizen with a vote must inevitably allow those that should not vote to do so.

As we cannot take away the vote, and should not desire to for fear of the alternatives, we must instead change the system. To do so requires more than simple wishful thinking and an interest in education. The entire system must be torn down from the base. Only after there ceases to be a market for the current state of political framing will politicians and political operatives be forced to use a different tact.

Previous appeals for a betterment of the system have centered on a wish for ad campaigns to appeal to intellect rather than emotion, but these have the sequence of events backward. If detailed specs of cars sold the product, the ads for them would illustrate that reality. If intellectual appeals sold politicians, we would not see ads claiming that a vote for a particular politician is equal to rape, homicide, or pedophilia. No, the system will not change for the voter. The voting base must change the system. We must eliminate the market for crap and in its place create one for genuine discussion and debate, and the prospects are not nearly as good as Ehrenhalt would have us believe.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

When the Tiger Chastises the Lion for Being a Predator

The Orwellian nature of the US response to Russian action in South Ossetia and Georgia has been comical at best, and a bellicose display of overt hypocrisy at worst. As I wrote mid-August, US leaders were able to simultaneously declare "the days of spheres of influence behind us" and sign a missile-defense pact with Poland (to compliment the existing deal with the Czech Republic) to, in essence, extend their sphere of influence. Thus, they went a step further than the typical hypocritical foreign policy stances and were actively engaged at that precise moment in exactly the thing they were speaking out against.

It is certainly a mark of supreme arrogance to engage in such practice, to make it so blindingly clear that the rules one would apply to others shall have no application to oneself, and perhaps in a bygone era the US's argument would have flown. But the Iraqi occupation is not yet a thing of the past, and the moral standing of the US, already shaky, has worn perilously thin. Here was one predator to another saying, "Thou shalt not eat meat." And the entire Western world nodded in unison.

The US continued its campaign of unintentional brevity yesterday, by withdrawing from a nuclear pact with Russia (at least temporarily), as a means of punishing them and teaching them those lessons we never felt beholden to ourselves. But, it seems, recent history has caught up to the administration, as they withdrew that proposition today.

The Bush administration, after considerable internal debate, has decided not to take direct punitive action against Russia for its conflict with Georgia, concluding that it has little leverage if it acts unilaterally and that it would be better off pressing for a chorus of international criticism to be led by Europe.

Their aversion to unilateralism is perhaps a few years too late, but laudable nonetheless. Of course, the underlying accusations are the same, the Bush administration just realized it has no leverage. They still believe that only certain nations are allowed satellites, only certain nations are granted retaliatory action, and only certain nations are to be given so much as a matter of weeks to withdraw its forces from a country.

That this comes from a country that invaded a country that had performed not a single act of aggression towards it (Georgia, however, did attack Russian citizens in South Ossetia), and a country that still occupies a country more than five years after it declared the end of a war, has met with only miniscule cynicism speaks volumes as to the waning influence of reason and logic in American politics.

The reality of the situation can be debated, but no matter the conclusion of such banalities it remains true that none in power are concerned with the outcome of such an argument. Reality does not matter. Reality is not indicated by truth or objective assessment, but by success. That is to say, that which breeds the desired result shall stand as reality. If the ends sought should change, so, too, will 'reality' be bent to serve them.

Though they may plea otherwise, the dealings of the past three weeks have been nothing if not overt exertion of spheres of influence, those despised relics from the past. Georgia's inclusion in NATO, and by extension, further isolation of Russia, is all that is sought, and the arguments are being bent around that goal (inevitability, rather). Standards of democracy do not apply. Even such basic tenets of forward-progressing time do not apply, as Georgia's initial incursion into Ossetia has been effectively flushed down the memory hole.

Such assaults on logic and reason are not merely tolerated, but celebrated. The realpolitik of a new generation, citizens, pundits, and journalists alike stumble over each other to play the game better than the next. Citizens can be expected to be overly credulous. On foreign policy, pundits range between 10 and 9.5. But journalists should provide a voice of reason, or at least an honest accounting of facts. That they don't is the pillar of the degradation of American democracy, for without an independent, functional media corps, democracy ceases to exert the will of the people and rather begins to merely echo the sentiments of the ruling class.

This doesn't have to be so. But as long as the economics of today's corporate media dictate producing news as cheaply as possible, journalists will continue to rely on the easiest source of that news: the very people they're meant to cover. As long a journalists defer to their subjects to preserve open channels of communication (what was once called propaganda), they fail the population in performance of their nominal task. If journalism was meant to be mere repetition of the company line, it would be sufficient for the government to also be the sole source of news.

Assuming that the majority of Americans would be adverse to a Ministry of Truth for a new era, the time has long since passed to begin calling on journalists to perform their jobs effectively. Cheap sources of news are not necessarily the best sources of news. Sometimes stories must be worked for, sought out, recovered from the abyss. At the very least, journalists could begin by pointing out conspicuous absurdities in the government line, such as those that have propagated themselves surrounding the Russia-Georgia conflict.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Republican Convention: Enterprising Pioneers, All

Party conventions, by definition, have become little more than over-wrought pep rallies; short on specifics and purpose, long on pomp and glitter. As I wrote concerning the Democratic Convention last week, conventions provide ample opportunity for party supporters to push aside credulity and lend unwavering support to the party's corporate overlords. They are a time for healing, by which I mean abandonment of any and all trepidation about the party platform's divergence from the will of the voters. Glenn Greenwald expressed concern over AT&T's exclusive party, yet never seemed to approach a realization that the Democratic Party itself was just such an organization.

Central to these conventions, which have lost all tangible purpose now that the nomination itself no longer takes place there, is indeed the central tenet of the entire American political system. Namely, they are a charade meant to present a narrative which intersects reality at no juncture, a cinematic presentation of candidates and platforms as they are meant to be seen, not as they are.

It is within this framework that the Republican Party, forever bedfellows with the ruling elite and corporate oligarchy was marginally successful at presenting itself as the party of the people, even -- more laughable, still -- agents of change. Change, of course, is perennially the platform of the non-incumbent party (George Bush was the candidate of change in 2000), but it strains even the few remaining strands tying American politics to logic and reality for the party in power to do so.

For John McCain to run a successful campaign as an agent of change by running on a platform which promises no deviation whatsoever from the standard right-wing fare is ludicrous indeed, but meets with marginal success due to the American electorate's staunch ignorance of words and their meanings. Reason and logic hold spectacularly less import in American politics than do appearance and presentation, and the Republican Convention recently closed in Minnesota was a clinic in that reality.

Only in an environment which never questions theatrical presentation could a beer baroness present herself as a pioneer. In fact, among the speakers, it was near impossible to find a single individual of privilege. Every last one was suddenly a pioneer, a frontiersman, a by-product of the American Dream. This narrative has been central to the Republican presentation for decades, convincing successive generations to vote against their own economic interests while simultaneously insinuating that they are doing precisely the opposite.

Thus, promoting policies which guarantee the elimination of small businesses in favor of multinational corporations becomes looking out for the entrepreneur. Promoting educational policies which would eliminate the teaching of evolution or sex education as enforcing choice and parental controls. Promoting the elimination of any safeguards against capital flight becomes creating job security. In this Orwellian fantasy we've established, it is no longer necessary to sprinkle speeches with small intrusions of fact, for no one questions clear falsehoods, no one asks that definite meanings be attached to words or phrases.

Sarah Palin, herself a political gimmick, utilized her husband as one in her own acceptance speech. Despite the Right's unwavering opposition to organized labor and higher wages of the working class, she posits that being married to a member of that class suffices to eliminate a century of history.

He's a lifelong commercial fisherman ... a production operator in the oil fields of Alaska's North Slope ... a proud member of the United Steel Workers' Union ... and world champion snow machine racer.

Throw in his Yup'ik Eskimo ancestry, and it all makes for quite a package.

Again the specter of that American Dream, and a quasi-minority no less.

Despite being chosen precisely to reassure the base and draw attention away from McCain's occasional infidelity to his Party, Palin attempted to present herself as a change, a threat to the "Washington elite." For the most part, such an outlandish proposition seems to be bought in sum by the majority of the mass media and electorate. She may have supported the Bridge to Nowhere, but she's a threat to the Washington elites. She may be for drilling on protected lands, but oil companies supposedly fear her. She may be for the elimination of choice in school curriculum, but parents across America will thank her for doing just the opposite.

This was the spirit that brought me to the governor's office, when I took on the old politics as usual in Juneau ... when I stood up to the special interests, the lobbyists, big oil companies, and the good-ol' boys network.

If by standing up to the big oil companies she meant adopted their policies as her own governing platform, then I suppose she is correct. If by standing up to the lobbyists she means joining a campaign up to its teeth in some of the most influential corporate and despotic-regime lobbyists in Washington, then she is being honest.

If, however, words are to have any meaning, if the American voter is to require that actual linguistic and logical standards be applied to the nation's political language, then her speech and all others in the past two weeks have been pure farce.

Despite all claims to the contrary, the bevy of orations engaged in over the past fourteen days have barely intercepted the will of the public at-large at any point. Promises and chilling narratives abound, but nowhere was there an honest accounting just how the lives of Americans will be better four years from now. This, I suppose, is to be accepted in a country as religious as the United States. Its citizens are more than willing to accept everything on faith, and hastily discharge with anything that seems to conflict with their reigning worldviews. Inconvenient facts become nuisances to be swatted away so that the Kool-Aid may be imbibed without interference.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

On Bias and Polarization

The two-party system that we've concocted in America requires us to view every occurrence, both foreign and domestic, through a myopic vision of our own political structure. Under this system, we act as if the women and children being slaughtered in Iraq are somehow concerned with the outcome of November elections. We presume that they are watching elections thousands of miles away, though they are without power and clean water for most of their daily lives. It is this supreme arrogance, this belief that the world hinges on the day-to-day banter in American politics, that precludes Americans from perceiving the distaste we leave in the mouths of others.

On the domestic front, the electorate seems only capable of adopting a stance of unfettered allegiance to one party or the other, unable to examine policy from the viewpoint of logic and reason, but only from the standard of whether it benefits the preferred party. The human mind seems unable to function in the presence of ambiguity. Everything must be pushed to one side or the other, to one wholly-inclusive worldview or another. Of these two acceptable positions, it is imagined that one is wholly true while another always false. As the world's religions operate on the pretext that of the thousands in existence one of them has everything exactly right, a statistical impossibility, so does American politics. That the holders of each faith believe that theirs is that single holder of absolute truth is responsible for the fanaticism tearing the world apart, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

The stakes may not be quite as high in domestic politics, but it is only within that framework that every opinion is met with charges of bias from one side or the other. Arguments are examined, not on their merits, but entirely on which of the two acceptable sides they support. Nevermind the rules of logic inherent in the argument, if it supports one side it is met with shouts of "bias" from the other.

Facts are not examined for truth, the truth is instead seen as arbitrary. The insurgency in Iraq must be filtered through the American political framework, replete with its designated enemies and allies, villains and friends. Statistics are discarded as bias, replaced instead with pre-ordained conclusions that remain firm in spite of all available evidence. Anti-smoking groups spread propaganda about the harmful effects of smoking, complete with scientific proof, yet they cannot be taken seriously in light of the beneficent tobacco companies whose own studies surely bear no bias. Greenpeace may be nuts, but that is no reason to suspect that the oil companies seeking to drill pure profit in certain regions are being entirely forthcoming in the area of the effects of such drilling. To believe such absurdities provides ample fuel for the counter-productive fires that burn in American politics and ensure that the truth takes a back seat to unadulterated conviction.

I don't read Democratic talking points any more than I read Republican ones. I don't want to be part of a team, I don't want to be part of a group that requires allegiance to its members above my own reason. Yet no matter what stance I adopt, it will be viewed by the other side as subservience to the other party structure.

Because I abhor groupthink, I have no difficulty mocking the people fainting and fawning over Obama. Yet, just the same, I refuse to concoct some wild tales of him and Michelle acting as some Manchurian candidates trying to destroy our system of governance. I'm not concerned about tracking down a forged birth certificate any more than I lose an ounce of sleep over the fact that McCain was born in Panama.

McCain's old. Obama's exotic. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to get past those points, and nobody wants to legitimately discuss any issues. Differences of opinion are laudable so long as they're based on reason and thoughtful examination, but those are severely lacking in our political system, on both sides. That I sometimes hold opinions that coincide with one side or the other is not a signal that I've bought allegiance to that 'team,' but merely intersected them for the moment.

I want to move away from this bipolar charade, this system which requires every occurrence, both domestic and international, be examined within the faulty framework of our two parties. I want to move to a point where arguments are examined on their merits rather than proscribing the speaker into one camp or the other where he's responsible for everything that that side has said and done. I want to move to a point where political decisions are made to provide the greatest benefit to the governed rather than the strategic aggrandizement of power for the politician.

The one thing I'm trying to get across with my writing is that I'm consistent with my reasoning. If you stick to the rules of logic (and there are rules), you can be forgiven for a difference of opinion. The problem with the two-party system is that you always end up on one side or the other -- you have to mathematically -- so the other side always assumes you're on some sort of hobby horse, that you've sold your soul to the perceived enemy.

The bipolar system never requires anyone to hold consistent views, never requires them to oppose the side that they support, never requires that they actually answer to the will of the governed. Politics are not discussed bound to rules of logic and reason, they are discussed only in a framework of two parties that require absolute allegiance in an arena with absolutely no historical literacy whatsoever.

In the Clinton years, I was with those that railed against Clinton's nefarious ways and dismissal of certain parts of the Constitution. My own constitution, however, will not allow me to simply switch my allegiance when the White House changes hands. This puts me at odds with former allies, but I still believe the same things; only my targets have changed. My reasons and principles remain unaltered: The President exists to serve the people, not his own crony or corporate interests.

I have not changed from one side to the other, but have stayed the same as the parties have rotated. I believe wholeheartedly in the ideals of this country. I believe in democracy and liberty above all else. The problem is, neither party is all that keen on promoting those ideals. Both parties are more concerned with increasing their own political viability while they pit the populace against each other under false pretenses so that they pay no attention to the dealings behind the curtain.

It is the system, not my actual arguments, that make it seem as though I have been the one who has changed, when in fact it is merely the fact that a Republican now holds power. Check clips from the late Nineties of Sean Hannity, and you will find him engaged in diatribe against Clinton's use of executive power. Yet, now that Bush holds office, he supports unbridled executive power, even in its still-more-perverted form of the "unitary executive" theory.

That can signify only one thing: he bases his stance not on whether or not executive power should be checked, but rather who wields it. That is a shifting and logically dishonest argument, based not on a consistent logical structure, but on what best amplifies the power of Republicans while curtailing that of the Democrats. This is a detriment to the political discourse.

So you may say that I'm biased if you want, but understand that it is bias toward my beliefs of Constitutional governance, not a particular party.

Conservatives say they vote for views and beliefs, yet in November we will see them vote for a man that they have railed against for over a decade, a man that they claimed didn't share those views and beliefs. So how far does that impenetrable nobility go? Democrats would certainly tell you that they do the same, but in November they will support a choice for VP that stands for everything their presidential candidate has founded his campaign against. In November, voters will ultimately vote for the D and the R, nothing else.

Republicans would have voted for Guiliani had he been won the nomination, despite the fact that he's had several mistresses, been divorced three times, dresses in drag and engages in any number of other things that those so-called conservative value-holders abhor (in public statements). Republicans would have supported as VP (or candidtate) the former governor of a state that legalized gay marriage and has a mild form of socialized health care. In the two party system, values are out the window in November.

Anyone writing an opinion piece has a bias, otherwise their writing wouldn't be an opinion, it would be nothing. Bias is typically defined as "an opinion different than mine," but the speaker refuses to see that they, too, hold opinions. If they were without opinions, I would check their pulse.

Some take everything Republicans say at face value, while accusing every Democrat of speaking with alterior motives, then accuse me of bias. I believe they're all full of crap, so who's biased here? Some look at a good speaker, then try and tear him down because he does so in the presence of teleprompters, while at the same time supporting fully a president who has barely a passing acquaintance with the English language, then tell me I'm biased.

Everyone's biased. No one is devoid of opinions. What matters is that these biases are consistent with reality and the rules of logic. When my bias tells me all politicians lie, I'm being consistent and intellectually honest. When their bias tells them that only Democrats lie, they're lying to themselves.

When my bias requires tangible proof through their actions that someone is a supporter of some Christian morality, I'm being consistent and intellectually honest. When their bias tells them that Republicans caught in men's rooms and with prostitutes can continue to spout off about "family values," they're lying to themselves.

Republicans love to paint critics of their policies as "America-haters," but nothing could be further from the truth. It's simply that we love the ideal of America as it was conceived. Loving the freedoms and opportunities provided by this country does not preclude anyone from criticizing the policies of its current leaders.

Parents love their children, and would never construe criticism of their decisions as "hating" them. Nor would punishing them for misdeeds be a signal of some nefarious allegiance to the neighbors' children.

Loving America isn't waving the biggest flag or sporting the biggest yellow ribbon on your car. It's supporting the ideals upon which this country was founded, and those ideals have been absolutely trounced in recent years, with the perpetrators all the while claiming that it is actually they, pillagers of the Constitution, that love this country.

So you can say I have bias if you wish. So long as you realize that my only bias is to the Enlightenment ideals of this nation and the documents that serve as the product of that intellectual milestone. America should indeed serve as a model for the rest of the world, but it must be the right model, we must take the right lesson from the 18th Century. We should indeed spread the lessons provided us by the Minutemen and the Constitutional Congress, and we should absolutely criticize our government when it instead spreads through the world the policies of the Red Coats and King George.

I am biased. I'm biased to the ideals this country was founded on. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, and I will support whoever best supports those ideals at the moment. I hold no illusions that one party or the other holds a monopoly on those ideals. To believe that is delusional. All politicians lie. Members of both parties plot and scheme to accrue their own power. To believe otherwise is the worst kind of bias, for to believe that one side is wholly noble while the other fully nefarious is to serve a delusion that exacerbates not the will of the people, but the continuation of the aggrandizement of power in the hands of a detached ruling class.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Second Coming of Harriet Miers

John McCain's selection of Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate on Friday is one of the most transparent, reactionary moves I've seen in political gamesmanship is quite some time. The selection was clearly made for one reason: to take as many of Hillary Clinton's disgruntled primary voters as possible. There's no other plausible explanation for choosing a woman from a sparsely-populated, little-traveled state with no foreign policy positions, let alone experience, who no one has ever heard of. The move was clearly designed to take the news spotlight away from Obama's Convention appearance as fast as possible with the added side show of pretending John McCain is some sort of women's libber all of the sudden.

Palin's acceptance speech was pretty standard fare, hitting all the required BS points, like being a mother (apparently a qualification for high office?), loving her children (must take guts), being married to a Steelworker, and being against 'politics as usual.' (Logic dictates, though, that if every politician were against the 'same old politics' like they say, the status quo wouldn't exist. But somehow it persists with al the 'change' artists in the midst. Odd.)

Of course, by being against 'politics as usual,' what Palin means is that she is a cookie cutter, typecast archconservative of the standard mold. Both McCain and Palin mentioned that she "fought the oil companies," but perhaps they meant fought for the oil companies, as Palin has been out in front of the movement to disregard all scientific evidence and drill in ANWR. An honest mistake, I'm sure.

Palin is also for the teaching of Creationism (read: magic) in place of science in schools, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and supported Pat Buchanan in opposition to George Bush being too moderate. If Palin's offering 'change,' it can only mean a harder turn right, but I don't think that's the impression (or aftertaste) she's trying to leave with the voters. No matter, they don't listen that carefully, anyway.

Did I mention she's a woman? A strong and capable one at that. While McCain may have selected Palin in an effort to woo Clinton voters, it's hard to fathom that the feminist persuasions of a large portion of them would be swayed to vote for a woman like Palin who is a polar opposite of nearly everything Clinton stood for (in public). McCain seems to have tried to pick a person that would both woo the base and disgruntled Democrats, but may have failed on both counts.

Palin's speech also hits the typical "one of us" platitude, one of the most familar tactics in the usual politics she so despises. She is not alone, of course, Michelle Obama did the same earlier in the week, and both McCain and Obama constantly bicker over who's more Joe Six-Pack. The tactic is tired, worn, and completely immaterial to who would better lead the country, yet it persists.

The American electorate seems determined to select a Mother-in-Chief or a Golf-Buddy-in-Chief rather than a leader of the country. This preposterous notion that in searching for the best leader of the country we should spend even one second worrying about who's more normal flies in the face of logic and reason. Politicians should give up the act, and voters should stop caring. Everyone loves their children, it doesn't qualify you for high office.

From a purely practical aspect, it's hard to imagine the selection of Palin as a boon for McCain. By selecting a woman who opposes every progressive stance pertaining to the sex, he has pushed away the very voters he was aiming for with the choice. By selecting a woman, he may have pushed away his own base. I can't foresee him changing his mind, but the selection of Palin has Harriet Miers written all over it.

Update: September 1 @ 1745 CST

Already? Bristol Palin is pregnant.

Personally, I couldn't care less, as it has nothing to do with her mother's ability to govern (her not having the slightest acquaintance with foreign policy handles that), but does this not affect her ability to serve as theocratic strongman for the McCain campaign?

Can we now be spared the circus routine of the GOP traveling the country assuring us that unwed mothers are unfit to be human beings? Please? I doubt it.

Again, this has absolutely no bearing on the ability to govern, but that's exactly the point. We know they still love their daughter, as does everyone else the GOP has railed against for decades. We know kids are faced with difficult choices and they sometimes make the wrong ones, but that's exactly the point. Everyone understands that except for the theocratic moralista on the Right. If you have an unwed teenage mother at home, you have to leave your regressive moralizing there with her.

Also, as an aside, I don't want it construed that Palin wasn't picked to shore up the base. Obviously that was the choice. I was working off the assumption that that was a given, and moving from there, making the choice of James Dobson's wet dream a woman rather than the more well-known men of the same constitution the operative variable.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Conventional Folly

One of the defining characteristics of our bi-polar politics is the willingness, nay, eagerness, of the dedicated rank-and-file to shed all elements of doubt and reason in favor of throwing themselves in full support of the party structure, no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem on the surface. Republicans who have spent the last decade decrying John McCain as anything but a real conservative are more than happy to shuffle along in zombie-like fashion as the man poses as the reincarnation of George Bush, and Democrats are so desperate in their Quixotic search for a different (any will do, thank you) direction they ignore the glaring signs that Obama is anything but.

Glenn Greenwald personifies this delusional nature, writing about his shock -- shock! -- that the corporate sponsor of the Convention, AT&T, would act like, er, a corporate sponsor.

Last night in Denver, at the Mile High Station -- next to Invesco Stadium, where Barack Obama will address a crowd of 30,000 people on Thursday night -- AT&T threw a lavish, private party for Blue Dog House Democrats, virtually all of whom blindly support whatever legislation the telecom industry demands and who also, specifically, led the way this July in immunizing AT&T and other telecoms from the consequences for their illegal participation in the Bush administration's warrantless spying program.

Greenwald knows, whether he indicates it or not, that this party is but a drop in the bucket, a trifle compared to the billions already showered on all members of Congress in the past year by the telecommunications industry thanking them for their dutiful service to the poor, cash-strapped conglomerates of this great nation.

Greenwald uses the term "Blue Dogs" with derision, but it is plain for all paying attention that the vote to extend immunity for clear violations of the law was as inevitable as it was infuriating, and merely indicative of the state of American democracy. Lefties like to pretend that the Democrats are simple beings, led by only one cause, that of the people. That Democrats alone are immune to the influence of power, prestige, and corporate money showers is delusion bordering on lunacy.

Amazingly, not a single one of the 25-30 people we tried to interview would speak to us about who they were, how they got invited, what the party's purpose was, why they were attending, etc.

Really, Glenn, was it that amazing? Or was it an entirely predictable and natural offshoot of American democracy? There was no democracy to be had within the Convention, and what little there was outside was kindly put in its rightful place.

Individuals arrested at the Democratic National Convention will be processed at an industrial warehouse with chain-link cells topped by razor wire, a facility some have compared to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Groups planning marches, concerts and other events during the Aug. 25-28 convention dub the center "Gitmo on the Platte," for the nearby South Platte River...Video footage of the north Denver warehouse on Denver's KCNC-TV showed coils of razor wire topping chain-link cells. A sign read: "Electric stun devices used here."

This is what passes for democracy in America. Protests require permits, are constrained to preposterous "free speech zones," and performed under the threat of detention in a razor-wire rimmed Gulag. The chances that the participants inside the Pepsi Center would allow the wishes of these insignificant Americans to influence the party platform were about as high as President Bush allowing the whims of dying Iraqi children influence his foreign policy.

Inside the Pepsi Center, emotions ran exceedingly high, undeterred and unfettered by the loonies outside. Speakers were determined to leave no platitude unsaid, no empty phrase (change, anyone?) unuttered, secure in the assumption that their captive audience wouldn't dare call them on specifics or demand that the platform reflect their wishes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of foreign policy. People have been successfully convinced by the Obama team that he represents a stark shift in direction from the past eight years, so much so that they have given up the formality of listening to actual words spoken and actions undertaken. Obama's foreign policy team is chock full of the typical imperial fare, nicely rounded out by last weekend's selection of Joe Biden as running mate, one of the most firmly-ensconced members of the foreign policy establishment, strongest purveyors of unbridled American expansionism, and avid supporters of the War in Iraq.

Anyone actually listening to the speeches of Biden and Obama would have been pummeled by images of continued American militarism under an Obama presidency, including -- but surely not limited to -- expansion of the war in Afghanistan, continued stoking of the flames in Iran, and diligently renewing the Cold War with Russia. If one didn't know better, one would think the Republicans just held their Convention in Denver.

But all this is par for the course. Politicians chant empty mantras like change (every challenger for the last several hundred years has offered a change of direction) without ever being held to such promises. Obama says "change," his supporters jump, and no one thinks to ask what that "change" might entail, or how it might manifest itself. By all outward signs, change will come in the form of continued militarism in a prettier package -- more engaging speeches and more empty gestures to international organizations (before ignoring them). Liberals don't oppose war, they oppose unsuccessful wars. Had the Iraq occupation gone as planned, Biden would still be all for it, as would all Democrats who spent all of five minutes questioning the decision of the "anti-war" candidate to take the "pro-war" figure as his running mate before climbing on board with nary a peep.


Change Personified, August 25
Renewing Afghanistan, July 21

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Change Personified

One of the premier reasons many have taken to mocking Barack Obama's persistent and pretentious rhetorical flourishes is that he has proven himself time and again to be as much an establishment figure as every other candidate to quadrennially roll out the hope machine before him. Each election brings a new character who promises a break from the past, and each time he receives plenty of donations from the same sector as everyone else because those benefactors know he's nothing of the sort. Whether it's engaging in a race to see who can be the bigger hawk on Russia, suggesting a compromise on offshore drilling (read: indefinitely prolonging dependence on foreign oil), or selecting one of the longest-tenured members of the foreign policy hierarchy as his running mate, one thing remains clear: those who Obama claims are living on borrowed time are not cowed in the slightest by his campaign.

Dissecting why Obama chose Biden is simple enough: Biden lends the foreign policy and experience credentials Obama lacks. It's a purely strategic move that should be accompanied with little confusion and even less feigned surprise. And Obama can rest easy knowing that all those who have willed themselves to believe that Obama stood for drastic change will soon do the same regarding Biden's unwavering support for Hegemony, Inc.

Writing at The Nation, John Nichols is already off to a running start with a steady stream of nonsense and non sequitors to compliment willful ignorance of everything Democrats have been screaming about throughout the Bush presidency.

But don't expect McCain's attempts to use Biden against Obama to do much damage.

Democrats, and ultimately Americans, should be able to reconcile themselves to the fact of a No. 2 who suggested Obama was not ready to be No. 1.


Bullshit barely missed the cut, or Nichols might have been writing his answer from Beijing.

By recognizing that in the modern era political-party tickets really do blend into a whole.

For all the silly talk about vice-presidential nominees being irrelevant, the truth is that they have always mattered -- either to party unity or to the broader electorate.

Presidential and vice presidential candidates run as a team, complementing one another and guarding against the vulnerabilities of their running mates.

The preceding argument of course means absolutely nothing, and serves only as a vehicle for expressing the foregone acceptance of whomever Obama had picked. Nichols would have been equally pleased with a Bayh or even a Clinton. The name on the ticket doesn't matter, it's the logo on the jersey. The proof of that becomes even more lucid a few paragraphs hence:

For all of Biden's imperfections -- a charge of political plagiarism twenty years ago, a reputation for verbosity, a record of gaffes and a wrong vote to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq -- the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gives Obama what he needs.

Obama's whole primary campaign was staked on his inability to vote on the Iraq War resolution, but now it receives a passing notice at the end of a string of other slight imperfections. So much for principles.

Among those blemishes that Nichols glosses over ever so smoothly is Biden's history of foot-in-mouth disease in the race arena, surely no small obstacle considering his new running mate. In early 2007, Biden went with the ever-popular, patronizing angle when referring to Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." (In contradistinction to the slobbering Quasimodos like Jackson and Sharpton, I presume.) Prior to that, he bemoaned not being able to "go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." Saint Joe rounds those improvisational missteps out with a planned and pre-written eulogy of Strom Thurmond.

Apart from that elephant in the room, there is no shortage of other issues on which Biden serves to contradict, rather that compliment, the Obama campaign, all of which will be brushed aside in short order and forgotten by the obedient rank-and-file automatons that constitute the American electorate. (No, the Democrats do not hold a monopoly on blind obedience.)

Over his long career in politics, Biden's biggest financial supporter has been the giant credit card company MBNA, which was also one of George W. Bush's biggest donors in 2000 and 2004. His son, Hunter Biden, was hired as a management trainee at MBNA straight out of law school, and was quickly promoted to executive vice president. The younger Biden has since left MBNA to establish his own lawyer-and-lobbying firm, but still receives a $100,000 per year consulting fee from the bank, which has since been swallowed by Bank of America. In 2006, Hunter Biden was appointed by President Bush to a five-year term on the Amtrak Reform Board.

Corporate influence? Check.

"I can't believe the American people can't see through this. We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. We've all voted-not, where I've voted, and others have said, look, marriage is between a man and a woman and states must respect that."

Reactionary religious stands? Got 'em.

And, finally, in what should be a death knell to either campaign at this point, Biden was more than open to a draft when speaking on Meet the Press in 2005:

MR. RUSSERT: In order to continue current deployments, might we need to revert to a draft?

SEN. BIDEN: Remember during the campaign you asked me that question? And I said Kerry isn't making anything up. We're going to have to face that question. I agree with Curt. I think we can avoid it by changing the mix. But the truth of the matter is, it is going to become a subject if in fact 40 percent shortfall in recruitment. It's just a reality.

Barack Obama's primary campaign teetered entirely on the fulcrum of Clinton as manifestation of the old guard, and he has now sent himself spiraling off the edge by choosing perhaps the only VP candidate that could challenge her in that regard to be his running mate. The disconnect is easy to spot, but blunter still is the realization that the rank-and-file won't care one bit.


FISA, Democrats, and False Hope, July 11
Obama Concedes on Offshore Drilling, August 2
Foreign Policy Redux, June 25

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Judges Rule That Government Officials Can Commit Crimes With Impunity

Last Tuesday, a Federal Appeals Court upheld the dismissal of Valerie Plame's lawsuit against those who revealed her identity, setting a dangerous precedent that goes beyond even the "Nuremberg Defense." The specific case involved is of course politically volatile, but the specific parties are less the victims than is the Rule of Law, itself.

Government employees who engage in questionable acts, such as abusing prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay facility or engaging in defamatory speech, cannot be held individually liable if they are carrying out official duties, the court said.

"The conduct, then, was in the defendants' scope of employment regardless of whether it was unlawful or contrary to the national security of the United States," Appeals Court Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote in the opinion.

At Nuremberg, former Nazi officials claimed that they were just following orders, and were thus not liable for the attempted extermination of European Jews and other atrocities, but this decision goes beyond even that defense, claiming that any action, ordered or not, performed while in office is beyond punishment. The consequence of such a decision should be immediately apparent. Here, federal judges state in clear terms that the law does not apply to government officials. There is nothing inherent in the decision which would preclude murder or random imprisonment of selected demographic groups or any other number of crimes, so long as the perpetrator currently held office. Indeed, under the decision, Holocaust would not be a punishable offense.

What one may think of Plame and her husband -- granting that the fact that Joseph Wilson was telling the truth apparently means less to some than that he opposed the invasion of Iraq -- all should be fearful of the grounds on which the case was thrown out. Far from manipulating the typical "standing" argument used to throw most cases out, the judges stretched the entire body of American law to the breaking point, making it almost unrecognizable, and surely inapplicable in the corridors of power.

Examining the Judge writing the opinion, Judge David Sentelle, leaves no doubt as to where his loyalties lie (hint: it's not with the Constitution). A Regan appointee, mentored by Jesse Helms, and a favorite of the Federalist Society, Sentelle has a long history of siding with individual conservatives in lieu of interpreting the law as written.

On the DC Court of Appeals, Sentelle voted to overturn the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter. He was also a cog in the push to replace Robert Fiske with the more aggressive Kenneth Starr, indicating that perhaps he sometimes thinks the law applies to government officials, should they be members of the right party. In 2007, Sentelle voted to pretend that the Constitutional clause guaranteeing habeas corpus simply didn't exist, or at least need not be applied if the Chief Executive so wishes.

What is clear is that the specific parties in this case have been allowed to trump the rule of law. Exacting vengeance on a political opponent has been lifted above upholding legal precedent. Indeed a new precedent has been set in the process, one that goes well beyond even the defense used at Nuremberg and looms ominously over the future of the Constitution.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Haiti: A Case Study In Condi's 21st Century Foreign Policy

Plenty of blatantly hypocritical assumptions and proclamations have made their way onto the scene as a result of the conflict over South Ossetia, but Condoleezza Rice deserves an award for the masterpiece she uttered, straight-faced even, the other day:

Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that's its military power. That's not the way to deal in the 21st century.

Any member of the press present that did not instantly burst out into uncontrolled laughter should have their credentials revoked. President Bush, no stranger to rhetorical one-upsmanship, won't go down without a fight, though:

The Cold War is over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us...Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.

A formidable challenger, to be sure.

There is no country on Earth to which Condi's epithet is more applicable than the United States, for when it comes to finding a military solution to every perceived problem, the US is without peer. Running a close second is the US's baby brother, Israel, with the aid of US arms. For all the animosity flung in the direction of Iran, Iraq under Saddam, and North Korea, none have invaded another country in the past ten years, a claim the US is in no position to make.

Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, provides but one prescient example of the US's dependency on military solutions to diplomatic problems, presenting us with perhaps history's only example of a country performing a second coup on the same democratically-elected leader in 2004. Not surprisingly, the first came in September 1991 under the first President Bush, when the US funded a coup that forced out Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had beaten out 11 opponents with a massive 67 percent of the vote. (For comparison, our current president didn't even capture a majority against a single opponent the first time around.)

Aristide was reelected in November 2000, again democratically, but hadn't yet learned his lesson. As he again moved to push out the criminal elements of the military, democratize the government, and begin other social programs sure to be unpopular in the boss of the hemisphere to the north. In February 2004, the US kidnapped Aristide and took him to the dictatorial Central African Republic. The official narrative, dutifully repeated verbatim by a complicit press, was that the leader simply chose to up and disappear, with no help from the US. But as Amy Goodman notes,

Why would Aristide have willingly chosen to go to a place he'd never been -- the Central African Republic -- a remote African dictatorship with poor communications and minimal access to the outside world? [Static, page 120]

Indeed, the US also banned the Steele Foundation, in charge of Aristide's security detail, from performing their duty, ordering them to leave the country instead.

For all its harping on the need to spread democracy around the globe, the US has an absolutely miserable record when it comes to supporting it more than simply rhetorically. Haiti is but one more example of the US aversion to democracy when it comes at the expense of multinational corporations of US influence. Democracy is to be supported only when it amplifies US power, never the reverse. The US, in some cases, takes an active role in bringing down democracies, as it did in Haiti.

Upon Aristide's reelection in 2000, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute set about creating his opposition, spending millions to create, arm, and organize the group, which was portrayed as a grassroots movement free of foreign influence. Thus, while promoting democracy in its rhetoric, the US was actively making Haiti ungovernable, paving the way for the return of dictatorial rule. The leaders installed by the Bush administration began a military campaign, rounding up Aristide's supporters with the help of US marines, who had conveniently failed to show up to protect the democratically-elected leader.

The story is well-worn by now. America is rightfully a symbol of democracy and republican government to be a model for the rest of the world. When it comes time to practice what it preaches, however, it invariably fails anywhere that falls out of step with Washington. The NED and IRI, central to the coup in Haiti, also had a hand in the attempted coup of Hugo Chavez in 2002. (Chavez is indeed a demagogue, but in the words of Bush, himself, "the days of overthrowing regimes are over.") If the US backed up its rhetoric with tangible support of democracy, its problems would be diminished many-fold, but it chooses instead to tear democratic leaders down.

Worse still, is that the American public and its press agents absolutely refuse to call the government on their double-talking foreign policy.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Maliki May Attack Sunni Awakening Councils

One of the more significant factors in the tempering of violence coinciding with the US Surge has been the willingness of Sunnis in the Anbar province to accept money to stop fighting the Americans. While that tact has certainly aided the US, especially on the PR front, it has also created new problems, such as a well-armed block of Sunnis seen as a threat by the predominantly-Shiite government. Garreth Porter, writing for IPS, recounts several issues seen by Colin Kahl, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security (which supports a long-term US presence in Iraq), during his recent trip to Iraq.

Kahl and the CNAS, as they support a long-term US presence, are put off by Maliki's growing confidence in his security forces and find that he is becoming harder to work with. I interpret that as he's become less receptive to unilateral US demands in the area of a long-term legal framework, which is sour news for the administration. Maliki's confidence has left him opposed to any SOFA without a specific withdrawal date, something the US is loathe to offer, choosing instead to play hardball, saying that without an agreement, the US forces would be pulled out at the turn of the year.

It's hard to fathom Bush following through on such a threat, but that negotiations have deteriorated to such a point is surprising. Most of the tension stems from the US's decision to put its lot in with the Sunnis in an effort to thwart Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iraqi government is overwhelmingly Shiite, and are not open to allowing the freshly-armed Sunnis into the ISF as promised.

Kahl said in the briefing that, of the 103,000 Sunnis belonging to those militias, the Iraqi government had promised to take into the security forces only about 16,000. But in fact, it has approved only 600 applicants thus far, according to Kahl, and most of those have turned out to be Shi’a rather than Sunni militiamen. [Which does nothing to dispel the prevailing notions of Sunnis that the Iraqi government is a Shiite-run militia. -Tim]

"There’s even some evidence that [al-Maliki] wants to start a fight with the Sons of Iraq," said Kahl. "Al-Maliki doesn’t believe he has to accommodate these people. He will only do it if we twist his arm to the breaking point."

Bush was entirely incapable of tempering the ISI's support of militants in Afghanistan, and there is no reason to suspect that his foreign policy has become any more in tune with reality or that he has any strategy up his sleeve for heading off such a conflict should it materialize. If Maliki did decide to go after the Sons of Iraq, the US would be in a position where it was forced to support the established government in a battle with a contingent it has armed and funded for over a year.

Kahl also noted that al Sadr has been drawing his Mahdi army down at the behest of the Iranians. As I noted before, the Iranians do have inroads into the Iraqi government through Shiite militias, but it's Badr and ISCI, not the Mahdi Army. Despite that reality, the US has focused almost entirely on al Sadr's forces. As such, the Iranians seem to be asking al Sadr to draw down so as to remove one of the major reasons for the US to stay in Iraq long-term. By eliminating a US bugaboo, the Iranians hope to see vacation by US forces without suffering any effect on their influence in the Iraqi government.

Kahl's concern are coming from his position in support of a long-term US presence, and cannot be construed as the ramblings of an anti-war hack as the Bush administration loves to do. These are real concerns about the reality on the ground in Iraq, a reality that the Bush administration uniformly fails to address in any of its rhetoric. Iran is serving as a stabilizing force -- for purely selfish motives, to be sure -- and al Maliki is threatening to attack the US's strongest block of allies. These are serious issues that need to be addressed as the deadline for a SOFA quickly approaches.


Fences Make Good Neighbors, April 11
Iraqi SOFA: Out on the Curb?, July 14

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Obama's Magic Wand

One of the many long-ignored realities in the Afghanistan theater is the continuing support of the ISI for Islamic militants, both in the FATA and Kashmir, which has endured for decades as a buffer against Indian influence in the region. Because Bush is only capable of seeing things in terms of absolutes, Musharraf and the Pakistani military were never confronted on their double dealing, and the problem was allowed to fester.

Now, both presidential candidates have announced plans to send a couple more brigades in, yet still have not addressed any of the central inhibitions of progress. Obama, in keeping with his sorcerer theme, is convinced that he can succeed in getting Pakistan and India to put their decades-long enmity behind them, thus eliminating the need for supporting Islamic militants and leading to a general aura of good tidings and cheer in the region. A farcical foreign policy promise if ever there was one.

Obama is a capable speaker to be sure, but wooing scores of college freshmen is not the same as ending generational conflict between neighboring nuclear powers. Unless he has a plan for Kashmir which would satisfy both sides up his sleeve, the mere suggestion of easing tensions to the point he suggests is lunacy. Especially now.

The latest crisis in Kashmir has turned that logic on its head. After a dispute over land snowballed into some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989, India and Pakistan are back at each other’s throats, hurling allegations at each other. Rather than asking whether the two countries can be persuaded to make a durable peace, the question now is how bad the relationship can get. “India-Pakistan relations are getting perilously close to ground zero,” writes former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar in an Asia Times article.

Add in the domestic political instability in Pakistan, and relations between India and Pakistan have probably not been so combustible since they declared a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir in November 2003.

In other words, the plan is dead on arrival. That would be a problem for Obama if the American electorate were the slightest bit concerned about actual policy details, but un-fortified platitudes pass for foreign policy in the world of campaigning, which begs the question: What have we learned in the last eight years?

The last eight years have seen a disastrous foreign policy predicated on the same empty rhetoric, which, while different in tone, was still based entirely on the premise that no one would examine it too closely. We've witnessed the calamity wrought by a foreign policy long on promises and ideas but short on tactical details and historical literacy. We don't need four more.

McCain's bluster is easy to spot, a feat helped in no small part by his proclivity for uttering absurdities detectable by even the most geographically and culturally illiterate among us. Obama, though, has succeeded in dressing his foreign policy up in enough of a disguise that it comes off as deeper than it actually is. He understands the workings of the world infinitely better than McCain, but at the root, his foreign policy would be less a break from the typical American fare than we'd like to pretend.

One would be hard-pressed to find any variance between Bush, McCain, and Obama on the topic of Georgia, just as Obama's Afghanistan policy is largely mirrored by McCain's. What is clear, is that once in office, Obama will most likely settle into the same refrain seen for the last century in American foreign policy: A huge rhetorical structure of freedom and democracy all standing on a shaky foundation of ignorance of the realities of foreign lands.

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Orwell Alive and Well in Georgia

President Bush spoke in the Rose Garden today, and uttered perhaps the most consecutive laughably-false phrases the world has ever known. As I've said before, one of the overarching themes of American foreign policy is the inability to see that actions carried out by others are in fact mirror images of our own, which leads to our leaders making ridiculous statements condemning common occurrences in American foreign policy without the slightest realization or self-awareness. The Russian response in South Ossetia presented a rare opportunity for the long-dormant Cold Warriors to exhibit Pavlovian responses at the slightest of stimuli, making common sense and rational thought two of the first casualties.

For his part, President Bush assures us that "bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," hoping, I assume, that no one will point to the bullying and intimidation employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and currently Iran. Quite the contrary of Bush's statement, his foreign policy rests almost entirely on bullying and intimidation, as every nation can be placed in the "with us or against us" category.

Bush also states, "the Cold War is over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us." This said as the US signs a deal with Poland for a missile defense shield, to compliment the deal already signed with the Czech Republic, and works feverishly to accept Georgia into NATO despite the lackadaisical efforts at democratization undertaken by the former Soviet satellite. Far from signaling the Cold War is over, the US has been intent since the withdrawal from the ABM early in Bush's presidency to be the only country allowed to pursue it. The only possible interpretation of Bush's statement is "only the US shall be allowed a sphere of influence, and Russia will like it."

Thus, the same country that spawned the Monroe Doctrine and its Wilson Corollary expects the Russians to sit idly by and accept the build up of American arms along its borders. The Russian leaders would not be fulfilling their obligations to the Russian population if they did so, and the US, of all countries, should realize that.

Georgia is just another in a long line of US allies that are less democratic in practice than they appear in American foreign policy rhetoric. Saakashvili has shut down media organs and political affiliations opposed to his governance, sometimes violently. While the US would be quick to point out such shortcomings in Tehran, Georgia is necessary to built the US's sphere of influence around Russia and they are therefore swept under the proverbial rug. The US has no objective stance on democracy, it is but one more hobby horse used to advance its agenda because the target audience has their own view of the word in their head, precluding the US from having to settle on an objective definition.

There is perhaps no country more ill-suited to deliver a lecture of this kind to Russia in the current state of the world. Bush may speak out against bullying and intimidation, but it would be immensely difficult to find two words that better defined his own foreign policy. Rather than exhibiting good moral standing, Bush's prose is an exercise in Orwellian fantasy and ludicrous hypocrisy.


Missile Defense: Rehabbing the Cold War
, July 13
Reaping What We've Sown, August 12
Georgia vs. Kosovo, August 9

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review: Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos

Typically, American books on foreign policy, be they from the right or the left, see every foreign policy endeavor through the eyes of the American political system, tying action half a world away to the sturm and derang of the two-party system here. Very rarely are we treated to books about foreign nations by scholars actually acquainted with those nations and their inhabitants, and as a result we remain fatally detached from the realities of most foreign conflicts.

Ahmad Rashid, however, has lived in Pakistan for the whole of his life, and has journalistic and personal relationships with personalities on both sides of the various conflicts enveloping Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the whole of Central Asia. His ability to elicit frank statements from both Hamid Karzai and members of various Islamic terrorist organizations gives the reader a glimpse of that world rarely offered to the Western Hemisphere. His freedom from the American political system is a definite bonus, as he is under no obligation to artificially tailor all his arguments to suit its bi-polar nature, and is free to simply recount the facts and realities of the situation.

The overwhelming theme that I took away from the book is the continual doublespeak on the part of the ISI and the Pakistani military. Musharraf has welcomed American aid in all its forms -- debt forgiveness, cash, and arms -- while presiding over a nation that has continued its long-standing cozy relationship with Islamic terror.

The Taliban maintained power in Afghanistan in no small part because the ISI allowed it to. Even as the American bombing campaign wore on, the Pakistanis asked for a brief reprieve so that they might escort the ISI agents still aiding the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have allowed the Taliban safe haven in Waziristan and refrained from turning its members over to NATO forces, choosing instead to collect Arabs and call them al Qaeda. The ISI also believes itself to be combating growing Indian influence in the region and still maintains a vast expanse of madrassas in which to train future Kashmiri militants or fight the Indian presence in Afghanistan.

For its part, the US has for the most part avoided calling Musharraf on any of it, afraid that doing so might result in the loss of the strongest ally in the region. But, as Rashid exhaustively details, Pakistan has remained an ally in name only. The Pakistanis have welcomed American aid and arms willfully, to be sure, but when it comes time to fulfill their end of the bargain they have failed catastrophically.

In Afghanistan Proper, the US chose to fund various warlords in lieu of sending its own troops, resulting in a weak central government and even weaker security. The side project in Iraq not only siphoned off troops, but space-bound intelligence apparatuses as well, leaving the return of the Taliban essentially unchecked for years.

Rashid's book is full of immense detail and exhibits a wealth of knowledge about the region one would be hard-pressed to find in any contemporary American writer. Anyone who looks to better understand the true components of the resurgence of the Taliban and the failure of the Pakistanis to thwart an al Qaeda safe haven owes themselves the purchase of Descent Into Chaos.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reaping What We've Sown

The overwhelming media narrative of the conflict over South Ossetia is one of pre-defined roles and clearly-defined morality which leaves little room for actual analysis of reality. Though both countries are in propaganda mode, one thing remains clear, Russia's response -- "disproportionate" or not -- was exactly that, a response to Georgia's incursion into South Ossetia. No doubt that Ossetians were engaging in small-scale provokation, and no doubt the Russians were amply prepared, but that doesn't obscure the fact that this was a Georgian operation from the start.

The other obvious missing link here is the seemingly obvious revelation that should be lurking in the background: Russia's reaction is purely a manifestation of the seeds the US has sown. Taking proportionality out of the equation, Russia was at least responding to a tangible threat to its citizens. (South Ossetians are overwhelmingly Russian.) Compare that with the US policy of pre-emption, which states that we are allowed to take unilateral military action against threats as we perceive them, even if they exist solely in the imaginations of our imperial leaders.

The groundwork for the fight in Georgia was lain in 1999 with the NATO power-expanding adventure in Serbia, yes, to protect a breakaway enclave. The US has spend the inter-nicene period in a Quixotic quest to expand NATO influence and surround Russia, a policy of which Georgia was no small part. The US officials apoplectic over Russia's opposition to such power plays are members of the same government that spawned the Monroe Doctrine and has for centuries claimed the entire Western Hemisphere as its own. Witness the US response to Cuba, a solitary, minuscule island Communist country. The US wants to put missiles on Russia's doorstep, but seemingly can't fathom that the Russians might oppose such a move, as if the US response would be vastly different were the roles reversed.

The same government now demanding that Russia follow international law is the same government that invaded a country that posed no threat in clear violation of that law, and the same country that has spent an administration utilizing lawyers to effectively make international law inapplicable to its actions. International law is what we point to when we oppose others' actions, its not what we apply to ourselves.

The conflict also provides yet another opportunity for the administration and its surrogates to side with a regime it touts as "democratic" even though such a position is clearly belied by facts. Saakashvili has been increasingly un-democratic, shutting down opposition in the form of media outlets or political parties. "Democracy" again proves to be a word without objective meaning, pliable to whatever use the administration has for it. Our allies are invariably "democratic," no matter how authoritarian. Bill Kristol illustrates the motif perfectly:

[Georgia] has had the third-largest military presence — about 2,000 troops — fighting along with U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty. Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of — and perhaps destabilizes all of — a friendly democratic nation.

Because it is allied with NATO, Georgia becomes 'democratic' by default. Punitive measures undertaken by the ruler of the country to thwart democracy do not figure into the equation. Also, as I noted Saturday, it is intellectually dishonest to treat South Ossetia differently than Kosovo. When the US goes to war in support of a breakaway province, it's taking up the flag for democracy and liberating a people. When Russia does precisely the same after that province is attacked, its an "autocratic aggressor [gobbling] up part of [sic] a nation." The argument is blatantly fallacious on its face, and clearly has no foundation in either logic or intellectual honesty.

What is central to all of the reactions to the Georgia-Russia conflict is a failure to see that the actions of Russia are directly derivative of the US's own policies. It was the US that invaded to "protect" Kosovo in 1999. It was the US that declared that nothing but a perceived threat -- tangible or not -- is required for the country to take military action with complete disregard for the UN and international law. Of all of the world's nations, there is not a single one with less moral authority to now call for the application of either than the US.


Georgia, Kosovo, and the US's Shifting Stance on Independence, August 9
What's the End Game in Georgia?, August 10

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

What's the End Game in Georgia?

Reports are beginning to file in that Russia has moved past the South Ossetia border and into Georgia Proper, attacking the town of Gori. It should, however, go without saying that accepting any reports from a war zone at face value is inadvisable. Whatever the case, if it is indeed true, the Russians are most likely aiming for regime change. On Friday, President Medvedev hinted as much, saying that invading South Ossetia would be "the last mistake [President Saakashvili] would make as president."

The geopolitical picture here seems to be settling on a indication that the Georgian government expected much more support from NATO and especially the US, the lack of which has already brought about ire among the population and the Georgian military.

It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?

Since the conflict began, Western leaders have worked frantically to broker a cease-fire. But for Georgians — so boisterously pro-American that Tbilisi, the capital, has a George W. Bush Street — diplomacy fell far short of what they expected.

The question, then is what, if any, assurances were given to the Georgians before their offensive. It's hard to conceive that the US would have explicitly committed troops, so more than likely there was a excess of optimism or a misreading of signals.

What can be safely assumed, though, is that the US knew of Saakashvili's plans in advance, and did nothing to dissuade him from pursuing them. Why is a different matter. Surely the US never believed the Georgian military, despite the immense amount of arms and training provided it by the US, would be an equal match for the Russians, and the US wouldn't stand to gain much by provoking Russia over the breakaway province at a time when the US's attention is elsewhere. Those answers are even harder to come by than accurate reports from the front.

The Pavlovian Cold Warriors at Powerline have it figured out though: It's about the oil. That's right, the same people who wax apoplectic at the slightest hint that Iraqi oil had anything to do with the 2003 invasion are absolutely positive the BTC pipeline is the sole reason for the Russian activities in Georgia. As always, in American foreign policy, consistency and logic need not apply.

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The BioPort Connection

The latest government plant in the Ivins case is that the scientist was motivated by opposition to mandatory anthrax inoculation of the military, knowing that an attack would eliminate skepticism and most likely lead to a large government purchase of the controversial anthrax vaccine. While the premise overall is believable, surely there were people who stood to benefit much more than Ivins if that was indeed the impetus for the attacks.

Enter BioPort, the sole government supplier of the anthrax vaccine, and the direct beneficiary of the anthrax attacks. BioPort was in serious trouble, having been cited several times for health violations and contamination, which combined with the campaign against forced vaccinations was threatening to bankrupt the company. Despite its obvious problems, BioPort remained the sole government supplier, raising questions as to just who its friends were in the government.

A 2000 report by Defense Department Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, Robert Lieberman, details some peculiarities.

On August 13, 1999, the Office of the Inspector General, DoD, received a request from Congressman Walter B. Jones for a review of the financial and contractual relationship between the Department of Defense and BioPort Corporation, the sole U.S. domestic source of Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed (AVA). In his request letter, Congressman Jones noted that the General Accounting Office and Defense Contract Audit Agency had reported that BioPort was experiencing financial problems and having difficulty performing against Army contracts for AVA production. Congressman Jones expressed concern that "despite these serious questions regarding the overall viability of BioPort, the Federal government has chosen to more than double the value of the existing contract."

The report also notes that the facility's license was revoked in 1996, shut down from 1997 to 1998, and strapped for cash. BioPort asked the Army to supply it with a cash infusion to cover their lack of funds, and the request was duly granted. BioPort remained the sole contract holder with the government despite these problems and the fact that the FDA had not yet approved its only product, the anthrax vaccine.

Bioport was formed in 1998 by Ibrahim and Fuad el-Hibri, Lebanese businessmen, with the sole purpose of buying Michigan's state-run laboratory which only output was the anthrax vaccine. Fuad el-Hibri, not surprisingly, has contacts with Booz-Allen Hamilton and serves as CEO of the Carlyle Group, founded in part by George H. W. Bush, where he has immense dealings with the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family. The Carlyle Group's interdependence on the Sauds and the the revolving door with right-wing politicians in several countries is legendary.

Also on the board of Carlyle was Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan. Crowe invested heavily in Bioport prior to the 2001 attacks, despite the signals to outside observers that the company was in dire straits due to the issues already mentioned, which raises serious questions about what assurances el-Hibri was able to give to Crowe to compel him to invest in a failing company. After the anthrax mailings, the government predictably ordered significant amounts of the vaccine from its only distributor, Bioport, practically begging to pay three times the going rate.

Bioport continued its PR campaign into 2002, utilizing the administration's favorite surrogate journalist, Judith Miller.

The nation's sole producer of anthrax vaccine says it is in financial jeopardy because the Bush administration has failed to say how much vaccine it intends to buy, preventing it from selling vaccine to foreign and private customers at much higher prices.

Robert Kramer, president of the producer, the BioPort Corporation, said that although foreign and private parties -- which outsiders characterized as foreign governments and even large multinational corporations -- were pleading to buy vaccine for more than $100 a dose, the company could not sell to them until it had fulfilled its contract with the military to supply what one administration official estimated was about 3.4 million doses.

Despite the government providing a lifeline for a flailing and failing company based on no visible signs of viability, BioPort was still planting stories into 2002 hoping to further push the government along to buy even more vaccines, preferably at the boosted price (triple the cost). Miller even finds a way to work in her favorite hobby horse:

The impasse comes at a time when the Bush administration is vowing to oust Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who is believed to be storing thousands of gallons of anthrax that could be used as weapons in war or terrorism.

Again, the article designed purely as a PR campaign for BioPort, hoping to push larger contracts and ridiculous prices for its only product.

Beyond the speculation as to motive I mentioned at the outset of this piece, the FBI has offered no indication of just what Ivins stood to gain financially or otherwise by prompting the purchase of BioPort's product. BioPort's relationship to the anthrax attacks raises serious questions and presents serious irregularities, all of which would lead one to believe that its officials stood to gain much, much more than Ivins ever did by domestic anthrax attacks.

As with every theory advance by the FBI thus far, the latest suggestion about Ivins raises more questions than it answers.

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