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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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Georgia, Kosovo, and the US's Shifting Stance on Independence

Consistent with my regular pleas for historical literacy and context, it is impossible to witness the renewed fighting in South Ossetia without also considering the recent unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, and comparing the differing reactions from US officials. Ossetia has voted several times for independence to no avail, while Kosovo voted once and the US rushed to push for instant recognition by the UN.

First, the similarities of the two situations are fairly clear. Both involved an enclave comprised of an ethnic group starkly different from the surrounding areas, Albanians in Kosovo and Russians in Ossetia. Both have long held de facto independence, with their own government structures, and both were recognized by portions of the world community while denounced by others. On paper, the US would have to respond to the situations in a similar manner, if logical consistency or rationality is to have any bearing on our foreign policy. Luckily for US officials, no one holds them to that standard. Again, the reasoning behind the differing responses requires very little investigation.

Kosovo, in declaring its independence, was allying itself with the West, allowing for the US base Camp Bondsteel (perhaps more lawless than Guantanamo) to remain in place, and would benefit US control of the Balkan/Caspian Sea oil pipeline through the region. (Of little surprise, both Bondsteel and the pipeline are Halliburton enterprises.)

South Ossetia, on the other hand, should it break away would instantly become a Russian satellite, and thus its independence must be fought, despite the fact that the situation there resembles Kosovo in every other respect. While the varying reactions to similar situations may appear to be lacking consistency, it is remarkably consistent as far as US foreign policy goes. Independence and democracy is to be rewarded when it benefits US strategic goals. Should those actions, though, be perceived as going against US goals, they are to be fought and stifled. Far from being inconsistent, it is a policy that has remained wholly unchanged for more than a century, and resulted in the US propping up tyrannical regimes, often after placing those regimes in power. (Pinochet in Chile and the Shah in Iran come instantly to mind.)

Understandably, it is hard to get a clear picture of how the recent fighting began, as both sides have entered full propaganda mode, but it is most likely some combination of Ossetia baiting a conflict and worldwide distraction over the Olympics. But the fog of war isn't about to muddy the waters for John McCain, who's moral clarity is still as sharp as ever:

Today news reports indicate that Russian military forces crossed an internationally-recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia. Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory. What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences for Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave.

The government of Georgia has called for a cease-fire and for a resumption of direct talks on South Ossetia with international mediators. The U.S. should immediately convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to call on Russia to reverse course. The US should immediately work with the EU and the OSCE to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course it has chosen. We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia’s security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation. Finally, the international community needs to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia.

The statement was posted Friday around 11 o'clock, well before anyone had established even a working view of the origins of the fighting, making John McCain on the campaign trail half a world away more privy to the workings than reporters on the ground in Georgia. (If the man has omniscience like that, maybe he should be president.) More likely, though, his roles are already in place, Russia is the villain and Georgia the poor, defenseless, "freedom-loving" country that needs our support. Who rolled into Ossetia first doesn't matter, the facts are to be determined by pre-ordained roles as good or bad.

McCain's portrayal of Georgia as "freedom-loving," however, comes with the requisite chinks in the logic. A Congressional Research Service report on Georgia details democratization challenges:

In early November 2007, the Georgian government forcibly suppressed demonstrations, closed some media, and declared emergency rule. Some Alliance members raised concerns about Georgia’s apparently faltering democratization and the suitability of inviting it to participate in a MAP at the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008.6 Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer criticized the imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets by the government in Georgia as "not in line with Euro-Atlantic values." Domestic and international criticism may have helped convince President Saakashvili to admit that his government appeared non-responsive to the concerns of many citizens, and to resign and seek re-election by pledging reforms.

Here, "freedom-loving" implies its usual translation as "US-aligned." Democracy and freedom have nothing to do with the definition. Secretary Rice called for Russia to respect the "territorial integrity" of Georgia, apparently without a hint of irony, as one wonders when the US will begin to respect the "territorial integrity" of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Serbia, Iran and the numerous other instances of its failure to do so.

The variance in the responses to the two nearly-identical situations of Kosovo and South Ossetia are indeed very telling, and show a remarkable consistency on the part of the US. Responses are not defined by a set, objective standard that takes empirical observations into account. Rather, the response is consistently tied to one, and only one, standard: Which party is more closely allied with US strategic goals.

In Kosovo, the Albanians allow for US use of a lawless prison and increase US control over the Balkan oil pipeline, therefore their independence must be immediately recognized. In Georgia, South Ossetia would ally itself with Russia, and thus their own declarations of independence must be summarily dismissed as illegitimate and Georgian force must be instantly supported. Clearly, the US would not declare that Serbia had the right to reclaim its "territorial integrity" by invading Kosovo, but such trivialities don't matter.

In America's foreign relations, all that matters is the potential benefit to US strategic and economic goals. All else, even in situations that are for all intents and purposes mirror images, must take a back seat to that reality, logical consistency be damned.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Ivins Case Revisited

***Update Appended 8/10 @ 1134 CDT***

Tuesday, I made the case that the failure on the part of the FBI to present a viable case against Bruce Ivins and likewise of American journalists to be sufficiently skeptical of that proposition was independent of the eventual resolution to the scenario. Indeed, there will likely be no resolution, as there is no longer anyone to prosecute and closing the case precludes further investigation proving someone other than Ivins is responsible (if he, in fact, is not).

Under enormous pressure, the FBI has since outlined its case, which shapes to be exactly as I suspected it was from the start, a collection of circumstantial evidence lacking anything remotely definitive which will avoid serious scrutiny for lack of a living suspect. The government released a substantial stack of documents which prove to be nothing more than a series of warrant applications and findings. In other words, as Ivins lawyer states, "it was an explanation of why Bruce Ivins was a suspect," but offers nothing in the way of conclusions.

The FBI, of course, assures the skeptical among us that they "could prove his guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt," a task surely far easier when the jury is purely hypothetical. Again, of Ivins' guilt are innocence I am not sure, but what remains clear is that he provided the FBI with the perfect fall guy, a suspect who acted strangely enough to present himself as a plausible suspect with the added bonus of never forcing the government to test its hand in court. Once the media predictably forget about the case in a week's time, seven years of bumbling ineptitude will be safely down the memory hole.

And that, really, is all the government is after. For all the time given to assuring us that the government is in good hands and providing safety against foreign terror, the only tangible proof in that direction is their inability to protect the country from domestic attack, much less foreign, failure to ascertain the responsible party for those attacks, and a wildly-expanding bureaucracy no more capable of preventing testers passing weapons by TSA screeners. By posthumously prosecuting Ivins in the court of public opinion, the government can point to success in the national security arena without the threat as in previous instances of facts painting a different picture down the road.

The Ivins case, though predicated on the flimsiest of evidence, provides a salve for an ailing government which, though given seven years, is no closer to closing the gaps which stood wide open in 2001. Here, the FBI is aided immensely by the lack of an accused able to stand trial and a complicit media more than willing to play their role without question.

Throughout, there has been scant mention of Steven Hatfill, as any mention of the previous suspect in the case may beg the question: "If you were so wrong on Hatfill, are we now to believe that you've nailed it on Ivins?" Pleasing enough to the FBI, no one seems to have been so impolite as to ask such an impropriety.

The script for the two individual accusations could not be more similar: the FBI launching a baseless allegation built upon scant evidence and a media more than willing to spit it out to a credulous public without digestion or investigation. Yet no one seems the least bit apprehensive about performing an encore, even if the last act closed with the government forced to pay Hatfill $5 million for destroying his reputation and career. Fortunately for Hatfill, he still has his life.

The Ivins suicide is, in some respects, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The FBI exerts ever-growing pressure on the scientist, accuses him of murdering American citizens in cold blood, Ivins becomes paranoid as a result, folds under pressure, and presto he opens the door for the government to point and say, "See. Would an innocent man do that?" We see the same tact in foreign policy, where we perform unprovoked attacks on countries meant to provoke a response, and if it comes we say, "See they're a danger to their neighbors."

I claim no omniscient knowledge of Ivins' guilt or innocence, but I can lay claim to historical literacy, something that is sorely lacking on the American scene. Americans have long lacked even basic competency in linking events together through time, viewing each occurrence as a separate instance completely disconnected to everything that happened before. Clearly this is a deficiency, as holding such a talent might allow gullible observers to see the public prosecutions of Hatfill and Ivins as two sides of the same coin. If the memory of the American public was longer than 48 hours, questions beneficial to the search for the truth might be broached, and lives might be saved in future acts of the tired play. But I'm not holding my breath.

***Appended 8/10 @ 1134 CDT***

Apparently, the FBI agrees with me:

FBI official John Miller said that "what we have seen over the past few days has been a mix of improper disclosures of partial information mixed with inaccurate information and then drawn into unfounded conclusions. None of that serves the victims, their families or the public."

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nothing to See Here, Move Along

After lying dormant for six or seven years, the topic of Anthrax has assumed the role of Lazarus and again forced itself into the national discourse, though most likely for just as brief a stay as the first. To understand just why it has been away for so long is not difficult, as one need only recognize that the perpetrator of the 2001 attacks is most likely home-grown, and therefore of no use to an administration in dire need of a them.

That is not to say they didn't try, of course.

When the anthrax attacks occurred, Iraq was immediately fingered by some experts and many neoconservative hawks as a possible source; ABC News quoted three unnamed government sources as saying the powder in the letters matched the type produced in Iraq.

Even though most serious analysts were highly skeptical that the tainted letters came from Hussein, the mere possibility that Iraq could have maintained a stockpile of anthrax was enough to convince many people that it was a looming threat.

ABC's ineptitude in this case is par-for-the-course in American journalism, where the government leaks things to the media it thinks will help its cause and the media dutifully act as stenographers for those in power. Totalitarianism has its bludgeons and gulags. America has its complicit press.

Afghanistan, though by this time was assuredly the source of the WTC attacks, was simply not sexy enough a target. One of the most backward and poorest countries in the world, the pot at the end of the rainbow would surely not be filled with gold. Most of Bush's top aides had been praying for a disaster to link to Iraq since the late 90s under the umbrella of the PNAC, and thought for sure they could manufacture one in the Anthrax attacks, helpfully guided by gullible journalists with an unquenchable thirst for access to government sources.

Unfortunately for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, facts presented at least a fleeting obstacle, though one in its waning days of influence. Once the attacks were believed to be of US origin, they were duly forgotten and discarded, as though domestic terror is not in fact terror at all, at least not terror that can be used to propagate fallacies about foreign nemeses. The people that died, however, remain dead to this day, comforted little by the lack of utility found in their deaths.

Seven years later, 'unnamed government sources' are back, slowly sowing the seeds for another disappearance of the topic, this time in the form of a dead scientist. Completely ignoring their previous credulity in the public prosecution of Steven Hatfill, the media bandwagon is once again taking passengers, destination to be determined by the US government. Journalistic timing couldn't be more impeccable, as it was only late June of this year that the government settled with Hatfill for its propagation of lies about him in the initial phase of the story. No bother, all the more reason to blindly jump after the next government target without question.

I don't pretend to know the guilt or innocence of Bruce Ivins, no one does, but the story reads to me like so many we've read before, with endings well known. There was Hatfill. Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombings. The constant rehashing of the Jon Benet case. And of course, the story of the pretty, affluent, blond girl in Aruba that insists on keeping Nancy Grace compelling me to throw a blunt object at my television on a nightly basis. Aesop was no more proficient in providing ample guides on how to proceed, but reason-be-damned, sensationalism must rule the day.

Others have examined the details of the FBI's shaky case in much more detail than I wish to, and they are worth reading, but in doing so, they seem to be placing the verdict in the hands of the outcome. The final fate of the case, however, has no bearing on the lack of integrity involved all around.

Journalists are widely being used as tools of the FBI in the case, waiting patiently to write unquestioningly the next tidbit of information passed onto them by the government, and in that way are no better than journalists used to perform their patriotic duty a century ago by printing stories of bombed American ships in order to instigate war with Spain, though the ships were done in by the US itself for precisely that function. The tale, though the players are different, is well-worn and remains transparent.

The argument over the state of journalism in America shouldn't be over liberal versus conservative, but rather over competency versus sheer ineptitude, the latter a defining characteristic of all but a select few American journalists. Whether Ivins is proven in some way guilty at the end of this parody is unimportant. It will do nothing to obfuscate the fact that there has been no actual reporting on the case at all, merely rote repetition of unnamed government sources weaving the tale most beneficial to their cause.

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fumbling in the Dark

Much as a sixteen year old would fumble and grope in the dark when presented with his first potential catch, the overwhelming legacy of the Bush administration's newfound legal and logistical toys is one of incoherency and incompetence. Although the government has had more tools at its disposal, and less incursions from the Constitution, than any previous administration, it has parlayed those advantages into a bumbling policy which invariably fails to heed the reality of world affairs, is prone to distractions, and has accomplished next to nothing, if not in fact overseeing a growth in the virility of terrorism around the world.

Nothing exemplifies this reality more than the thorny relationship with Pakistan, the earliest and most enduring of the international relationships forged after the WTC attacks in 2001, a relationship which brings into clear focus the inability of the Bush administration to perceive any specifics in foreign affairs and its propensity to rely instead on a worldview consisting only of good versus evil, us versus them. This worldview become prohibitive in practice, all but eliminating the ability to discern the difference between the population and leaders of Pakistan and its intelligence apparatus, the ISI.

A top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.

The C.I.A. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said.


The C.I.A. assessment specifically points to links between members of the spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and the militant network led by Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, which American officials believe maintains close ties to senior figures of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The C.I.A. has depended heavily on the ISI for information about militants in Pakistan, despite longstanding concerns about divided loyalties within the Pakistani spy service, which had close relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.

It defies credulity to infer that the CIA is just now getting wind of this relationship, but it is not hard to believe that any concerns among the US intelligence structure may well have been downplayed by the Bush administration. Although polarization is a prevailing curse of American politics, it tends to ebb in the area of foreign policy, but the current power structure has seen a reluctance to rely on the career bureaucrats in agencies like the CIA and seek the substitution of analysts and advisers with loyalties closer to Bush's wishes than realities dictate.

The Iraq war cannot be divorced from the American policy toward Pakistan. In order to push for the distraction to the West, the administration needed to portray Afghanistan as under control, and a significant part of that policy was misguided reliance on the efforts of Pakistan and the ISI. Having forced the Taliban and al Qaeda to seek refuge in Pakistan, the US talked up the Pakistanis, assuring the world that the Taliban were sure to find the border region less than hospitable. For all intents and purposes, the policy worked, as the public remained largely unobtrusive on the topic for the better part of 5 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.

Aside from using American money to pursue enmity with India, the ISI has been playing both sides of the fence, warning militants in the border region of impending US attacks and "in some cases allowing militants to avoid American missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas."

Although this reality is sure to place a strain on US-Pakistani relations, there is of course no expectation that the tap will be turned off. Barbs will be traded for a short period, to be sure, but the situation will soon return to normal, with American funds and arms flowing into Pakistan only to find their way back at the point of an RPG. Throwing money at problems, though, is all the US really attempts to solve them. Examining the underlying causes might require a but of introspection, of self-criticism which in American foreign policy is sacrilege. Thus the wheel continues to roll unabated, America throwing out money and then throwing up its hands when it comes back at it, never sure just what to make of it all, never willing to truly investigate the core of international relations.

All the US is left with for its efforts, half-hearted as they were, is a narco-state in no better shape than it was in 2001. The per-capita, post-war investment in Afghanistan pales in comparison to all other such situations, significantly less than that for post-conflict and post-natural-disaster rebuilding in every other part of the world. Left alone to reconstitute in Pakistan, the Taliban has renewed its assault on Kabul, forcing even more investors to flee along with any Afghans of any intellectual import or promise.

Although it has not happened, even had the Taliban been eliminated the situation would scarcely be different. The specific propagator of violence is of less importance than the arena of economic devastation left in the wake of destruction followed by inattention. Until the US learns to fight the root causes of terrorism in addition to its contemporary perpetrators, it is doomed to remain tied to merry-go-round, with little hope of getting off.


Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15
Afghanistan: Right War or No, It's Still War, July 21

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Obama Concedes Point on Offshore Drilling: Change in Action

Contrary to the caricature Obamatrons have of their hero and savior, he has repeatedly shown himself to be of no particular threat to the status quo, making the massive donations flooding in from the financial sector seem less incongruous by the day. Obama has made equivocation an art form, utilizing shiny language to dress up the old guard and shiftily dodge the realization that whatever 'change' he pretends to stand for will not be realized during his presidency. This, of course, is well aided by the fact that no one ever asks him what 'changes' he might bring.

The latest slumber-inducing backtrack comes on the topic of drilling on the OCS.

“My interest is in making sure we’ve got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices,” Mr. Obama told The Palm Beach Post’s Michael C. Bender. “If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage - I don’t want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done.”

Carefully circumscribed? What does that mean? If, in fact, this effort in bipartisan hackery turns out like all its predecessors, those in Quixotic search for progress seem to have been sorely misled. If I may take a stab at transcribing Obama's cute elocution, I believe what he's trying to say is this: "If, in the end, I have to sign on for maintenance of the prevailing winds of bullshit on Capitol Hill, I'm game, but you'll have to excuse my manner of circumscribing logic and forthrightness in the interest of wooing some voters in the process. Don't worry, they won't bother us after November, and we can get back to the task at hand."

John McCain will undoubtedly pummel Obama with cat calls of "flip-flopper," but it has only been a few months since McCain did the same, showing that he was merely ahead of the curve.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

What Orwell Didn't Know

The idea for this piece was stolen from the collection of essays by the same name. Overall a mediocre effort, but a worthy idea.

One of the first things that struck me about Orwell, as it does about many historical figures, is that both sides (in our polarized world, it is imagined that there are only two worldviews, to be taken in whole or not at all) claim him as their own. The right, recalling 1984 sees him as a virulent anti-Socialist and anti-Communist, though it is clear that it is the tyranny he opposes rather than the economics. The left, likewise, revels in his scathing of totalitarianism while simultaneously ignoring their own talent for the same. Orwell, himself, saw much the same pillaging of Dickens in his essay, Charles Dickens:

When Chesterton wrote his introduction to the Everyman edition of Dickens's works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson, has made spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a bloodthirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as "almost" a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as "almost" a Catholic.

The argument is baseless from the start, as Orwell was writing for his own time, not to please one side or the other of this counter-productive, mundane, polarized muck we've found ourselves in. But also, one of his prevailing themes is the use of language and its effect as a vehicle for propaganda and abuse. Who, having witnessed the banality of our current campaign season, cannot see examples of Newspeak and Orwellian language in abundance? If not used explicitly for propaganda, then at least to obfuscate the fact that the speaker, while profusely spilling forth words, is indeed saying very little.

What is clear from Orwell's writing, especially Politics and the English Language, is that he would achieve no favor in either camp, Obama a master of flashy vacuousness, and McCain a great utilizer of phrases which have assumed meanings but whose definitions he intentionally fails to apply. Citing the lack of precision in his contemporary prose:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Both Obama and McCain are guilty of this fault, neither wishing to attach their prose to a specific meaning, preferring instead to allow the listener to paint their own canvas of what they want to hear. Boxing in their rhetoric with the concrete would force explanation and only inhibit their ability to woo as many people as possible.

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

It seems that a men like John McCain and George Bush were no less prevalent in Orwell's time, as both embody Orwell's laments in the above passage. Both are rhetorical fans of freedom, democracy, and patriotism, but both are equally opposed to applying a concrete definition to the words. In speech, both are avid fans of Iraqi democracy and sovereignty. In practice, they see the country as nothing more than the 51st state which just happens to contain an obscene amount of oil. By throwing the words out, however, the listener applies their own meaning, and as such is capable of seeing a process in which 100s of thousands of Iraqis die as a humanitarian mission and "for their own good." Cluster bombs don't spread death, they spread democracy and freedom. The words, in true Orwellian fashion, hide from view the practical outcome of their true meaning.

Likewise, Obama is greatly aided by the fact that he, himself, is a blank canvas, which only further strengthens the effect of his equally-vacuous words and phrases. Obamas followers paint onto him their own hopes and dreams, their own wishes for a "new direction," and little attention is paid to his actual words. Much of the recent presumption of Obama flip-flops stems from the reality that many are hearing his words for the first time, although he has repeated them often.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is in this manner that killing thousands of people becomes an act of good will, the sending of other parents' children to die an act of bravery, the calling for the addition of troops and the addition of a new country in which to fight as anti-war. What's more, the electorate for the most part does not ask politicians to eliminate euphemism or vagueness. For the most part, the voting public has no more desire to see the dark face of reality than politicians have motive for giving it to them. As such, to a large extent, the American public censors itself and consigns itself to orthodoxy.

Controlling the public in a totalitarian world is simple, in democracy a little more tact is needed. Propaganda has developed since the time of Orwell in a manner which invites the target audience to do most of the censoring and imbibing of falsehoods themselves. Under the guise of a free society, the public is bombarded with false images and half-truths to the point that they censor themselves, they begin to take as fact total falsehoods without the ruling party lifting a finger.

Americans are bombarded with images of materialism on a daily basis, convinced that all they need to be happy is more toys, and in this pursuit they shed all skepticism of the political structure and cease to ask questions, preferring instead to chase pipe dreams and manufactured illusions. The public clamors for coverage of Obama's bowling average, engages in ritualistic shock at nearly every phrase consisting of anything more than pre-fabricated euphemisms and phrases, all the while ignoring any significant discussion of topics which might actually affect them.

Great pains are taken to paint the two candidates as inhabiting the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, which sucks the public into a false, polarized debate which ignores virtually anything of substance and import. Presenting Obama and McCain as the extremes of acceptable thought rules out any possibility that the public might begin to think outside that range, might begin to question facets of the system itself. A public that willingly chases red herrings will keep quiet in the corridors of power. A public that censors itself won't ask questions or seek a return on the empty, vacuous rhetoric employed by politicians of all stripes.

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