Sunday, June 7, 2009

US Promoting Democracy in the Middle East? I Don't Think So.

I posted the following comment on Kevin Drum's blog in response to this post on Obama and democracy:

No US president can speak of "promoting democracy" in the Middle East as long as we are allied with and propping up dictators across the region, expanding a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, failing to pay reparations to Iraq, and supporting Israel's denial of Palestinian refugees the right of return. Our overall effect in the region is utterly anti-democratic. You can't claim to promote democracy with one hand while you're holding people down and destroying societies with the other hand. Until the US ceases ALL its imperialist policies in the Middle East, it will be promoting tyranny and destruction there, not democracy. As I argued here, while Obama may be prettifying the face of US imperialism, he is preserving its core features, and the result is going to be more of the same for the Middle East (see also here). Finally, it's absurd for a US president to lecture the rest of the world about having an adequate civil society after the last eight years. It's the rest of the world that should be lecturing us.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech: Imperialism and the International Double Standard

Ali Abunimah of Electric Intifada has a great article on the speech for the Guardian that points out that "Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama's speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy." You can see this by looking at the plan Obama laid out for individual conflicts, or you can look at the overall logic he applied to the Middle East.One way you can look at this logic is as a two-tiered system for evaluating responses to conflict: one for the US and its allies, and another for everyone else.

According to Obama, when the US is wronged, even when only a relatively small number of its citizens are affected, it has the right to respond with overwhelming force:
Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody.
Al Qaeda's murder of 3,000 Americans justifies the invasion of Afghanistan, but America's invasion of Iraq, in which many times that number died, were injured, or were forced to flee their homes, doesn't justify resistance. Those who fight back against the American occupation of Iraq are "extremists" who have to be isolated. (As Matthew Yglesias pointed out a couple weeks ago, an "extremist" is generally anyone who doesn't accept American hegemony.)

Likewise, America's invasion of Afghanistan, its support for dictators across the Middle Easat, and Israel's expulsion of Palestinians from their land and its refusal to let them return don't justify resistance, even though all these policies are far more deadly and destructive than al Qaeda's attack against America. That's a double standard for the use of military force, which is one of the essential underpinnings for imperialism, and under Obama it will continue to be official US policy, despite all the pretty talk about respect and understanding.
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Friday, May 29, 2009

Things I Like About Liberals, Transportation Policy Smackdown Edition

The focus of this blog is the contradictions and failures of liberalism: how liberals see themselves as supporters of social justice and international cooperation, but how in reality they support both capitalism, the structure of which guarantees massive inequality and crushing poverty, and imperialism almost as much as conservatives.

But there are some things I like about liberal blogs, or else I wouldn't read them. Take this post from Matthew Yglesias, one of my favorite liberal bloggers:

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much. But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism. For example, O’Toole whines a bunch about how Ray LaHood wants to spend less money on highways and more on transportation alternatives before denouncing this agenda as “central planning.”

Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning.
This is a brilliant 30-second smackdown of a really stupid conservative argument. But I do have to disagree with Yglesias about one thing. Explaining the history of transportation policy in the US, Yglesias says that
beyond the interstates, American cities made a collective decision in the early part of the twentieth century to totally reconfigure their streets so as to become more convenient for car traffic—they’d be paved in an auto-friendly way, and the streets divided into a (larger) cars-only portion and a (smaller) people-only portion.
What Yglesias calls a "collective decision" was in fact a decision made for Americans by automobile manufacturers:

In a 1922 memo that will live in infamy, GM President Alfred P. Sloan established a unit aimed at dumping electrified mass transit in favor of gas-burning cars, trucks and buses.

Just one American family in 10 then owned an automobile. Instead, we loved our 44,000 miles of passenger rail routes managed by 1,200 companies employing 300,000 Americans who ran 15 billion annual trips generating an income of $1 billion. According to Snell, "virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system."

But GM lost $65 million in 1921. So Sloan enlisted Standard Oil (now Exxon), Philips Petroleum, glass and rubber companies and an army of financiers and politicians to kill mass transit.

The campaigns varied, as did the economic and technical health of many of the systems themselves. Some now argue that buses would have transcended many of the rail lines anyway. More likely, they would have hybridized and complemented each other.

But with a varied arsenal of political and financial subterfuges, GM helped gut the core of America's train and trolley systems. It was the murder of our rail systems that made our "love affair" with the car a tragedy of necessity.

This is a classic liberal move: describing a decision that was actually made by capitalist class interests as a democratic, consensual choice.
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Democrats Deny Funding to Close Guantanamo

This is really shameful. Supposedly, the reason that Democrats in the Senate are refusing to provide funds to close Guantanamo is because they're worried about dangerous terrorists being released into the US. Putting aside the fact that most prisoners in Guantanamo were never terrorists in the first place, this argument gets the burden of proof backwards. The United States imprisoned these people indefinitely without charging them with any crime, tortured and humiliated them, and denied them access to their lawyers and the Red Cross. The US is the victimizer here, not the victim. The government has a moral obligation to close Guantanamo and free all the prisoners as quickly as possible, and it's sheer hypocrisy to cast the people that it has brutalized for the past seven years as a danger to Americans, when in fact it's the American government that has been engaged in immoral and illegal actions against them. We should be begging for their forgiveness, not arguing about where to keep them locked up.

Once again (see also here and here), this demonstrates that the Democrats are no great opponents of injustice. To their credit, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Atrios have ridiculed the Democrats' absurd fears that the prisoners will escape. However, the reasoning behind their criticisms leave something to be desired. None of them have questioned the underlying ideas behind the Democrats' arguments: that these people are "terrorists," that they are dangers to us rather than vice versa and that they are guilty until proven innocent.

Yglesias's argument is that "Closing the facility is important to rebuilding America’s international relationships." As with his argument that avoiding killing Afghan civilians is important because it hinders our policy objectives, he shows no interest in the fact that US policy is immoral, only what it means for US "national interests."

Kevin Drum also slams the Democrats, but comes to some pretty uninspiring conclusions:

I never expected Barack Obama to be anything other than pragmatic and center left. Still, I confess to feeling a little in the dumps lately over just how much he seems willing to bend and compromise on some key issues. But then I read things like this...

And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against. His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine. The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway. Because they're scared. And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

But that's the reality that Obama has to deal with. Under the circumstances, I guess he's not doing so badly after all.

Rather than concluding that the Democrats as a whole are a pro-war, anti-civil liberty party, his conclusion is that Obama's mis-steps aren't so bad. This is a great illustration of why it's dangerous to subordinate opposition to the war to the Democrats: when they inevitably refuse to repudiate war and injustice, there's no independent force to fight back, so you're left with no choice but to ultimately accept whatever it is the Democrats decide to do, no matter how awful it is.


Casey Says US Will Be in Iraq for Ten Years

On Tuesday, Gen. Casey, the Army chief of staff, said that the US was going to keep troops in Iraq for ten years. As far as I can tell, the White House hasn't issued any response Casey's comments, although though they obviously contradict Obama's plan to pull all US troops out of Iraq by August 2010. There also hasn't been any comment on this from any of the liberal bloggers I've checked. Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein, Spencer Ackerman (or rather, his guest bloggers, since he's on vacation), Atrios and TPM have all been silent.

It's hard to tell exactly what this means. Casey has gone on record as contradicting Obama's policy, yet there has been virtually no media coverage of it, no response from the White House or the Secretary of Defense and no pushback from liberals, all of which are disturbing. One thing it definitely implies is that Obama does not have control over his generals. But what is Obama's response going to be? Over the next year and a half, there are going to be numerous forces within the military, the Republican party, and among Obama's own advisors and other Democratics pushing to continue the occupation of Iraq. They have already won victories in Obama's decision to keep a "transitional force" in Iraq until 2011, the extension of Obama's withdrawal timetable by three months and the decision to seek exceptions to the June deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraqi cities. Obama is going to need to be very steadfast to maintain his commitment to a complete withdrawal. Will he do what it takes?
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Finally, a Decent Mainstream Article on Socialism

In contrast to the numerous misleading articles on socialism that have appeared in the mainstream press lately, this article in BusinessWeek (of all places) actually represents socialism reasonably accurately. Of course, it doesn't endorse socialism, but it does manage to maintain a completely neutral tone, which is really nothing short of amazing.

Previous mainstream articles on socialism have been seriously flawed and have tended to reinforce the many existing misconceptions about socialism. For instance, this Newsweek cover story ("We Are All Socialists Now") defined socialism as government intervention in the economy and a large government sector. Nothing about workers' control of the economy, ending exploitation and oppression, fighting imperialism, or even raising workers' living standards. As if this weren't bad enough, the article was extremely flippant, at various points equating socialism with France, Europe, croissants and berets.

This Time magazine article, which was the cover story in its European edition but didn't appear at all in the American edition, is also very bad. It completely discounts Marx's vision of socialism, which it inaccurately equates with Stalinism, but appears to accept Marx's critique of capitalism, although it never actually explains what his critique was. It also doesn't explain how it's possible to fix capitalism by reforming it, as the author suggests is possible, if Marx was right about capitalism's inherent structural flaws.

The BusinessWeek article even explains the distinction between revolutionary socialism and reform socialism (i.e., social democracy) correctly, although it doesn't mention that only the former is Marxist. The article also includes this kick-ass quote from a leading ISO member:
Sherry Wolf, an activist with the Chicago-based U.S. branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), scoffs at the idea that the U.S. is at the dawn of a socialist era. "What Marxists mean by socialism is different from what Rush Limbaugh means," she says. "We believe the class that produces the wealth should own and control that wealth. That's a far cry from what's happening now. The state is propping up banks, mortgage, and insurance companies, while the lives of working people are torn apart by foreclosures, evictions, and unemployment. It's an effort to save global capitalism from its own excesses."


Carl Levin Wants to Build a "Guantanamo North"

I find this funny in a really sick way: via Matt Yglesias, Democratic Senator Carl Levin wants to build a "Guantanamo North" in his home state, Michigan. What I find funny about this is the way that the needs of the "war on terror" dovetail with Obama's stimulus package: for Democrats, it's a two-birds-with-one-stone situation. Plus, Michigan is in a lot of economic pain because its auto industry is dying, so maybe building new prisons can help plug the hole. The prison-industrial complex is one of America's biggest growth industries, after all.

Yglesias says that we don't really need another prison, but he's blind to the irony of prison-building as a solution to Guantanamo, and certainly doesn't oppose expanding the prison-industrial complex on principle.

On a more serious note, the idea of Guantanamo North is a reminder of the fact that while Obama has curbed some of the abuses that happened at Guantanamo--granting prisoners there habeas corpus rights and ending the use of torture--he is continuing many of the foundations of Bush's enemy-combatant detention policy. He is relying on military commissions rather than civilian courts to try "enemy combatants." He is continuing to deny US prisoners held on foreign soil (at Bagram prison, for instance) all legal rights, leaving them even worse off than Guantanamo detainees were under Bush and safeguarding Bush's end-run around the US judicial system. He has also pledged to continue to incarcerate an undisclosed number of Guantanamo prisoners even if they are never convicted of any crime:

The most tricky category, Mr Obama said, would be those detainees who could not be prosecuted but who posed a "clear danger to the American people".


"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security, nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people," he said.

Yet he asserts that this policy will somehow be "defensible and lawful."

Finally, there are the individuals who are already facing Guantanamo-like conditions within the US, which suggests that even if all the Guantanamo prisoners were transferred to the civilian courts (which Obama isn't even proposing), they would still likely be the victims of serious miscarriages of justice.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Piotrus.
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Monday, May 25, 2009

Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall Debate Imperialist Strategy for Afghanistan

Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall are kicking around the pros and cons of American strategy for the Afghan invasion. Marshall has previously supported escalation of the invasion, but is now starting to have some doubts:
Furthermore, if you look at the history, the role of Afghanistan going back over the last few decades, wasn't so much that it allowed for safe havens but that the guerilla, semi-irregular wars there spun off thousands of violent, highly-trained and religiously intoxicated extremists who later spread out around the world spreading terror right and left. And that makes intensifying the conflict in Afghanistan to prevent the growth of safe havens a logically questionable proposition.
This is correct. Al Qaeda emerged out of the CIA-funded resistance to Russia's invasion. The Taliban emerged out of the resistance to the formerly CIA-funded warlords once they'd taken the country over and were running it into the ground. What this tells you, if you didn't know it already, is that when imperialist powers invade weak countries, the result is mass death and destruction, social breakdown, political chaos, and a power vacuum, which in turn lead to the rise of dictators or warlords, which in turn invite yet another round of imperial invasion, starting the cycle all over again.

This exact process is repeating itself right now in Pakistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan temporarily pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan and forced them to take refuge and regroup in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, where they had already established themselves. Meanwhile, US pressure on Pakistan forced the government and the army to turn at least partially against the Taliban, which the army and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, had historically supported. This created a war between the Taliban and the Pakistani army that the army is now losing, which in turn is being used by the US to justify escalating its intervention in Pakistan.

Yglesias agrees that the US needs to stay in Afghanistan, but disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the US's goal should be the elimination of "safe havens" for terrorists. Instead, he think that the US needs to stay in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from being further destabilized. He thinks that this requires a political rather than a military solution, and that the US should therefore reduce its use of aerial bombardment, which frequently kills Afghan civilians, in favor of "protecting" civilians from the Taliban, which will supposedly stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan and turn public opinion against the Taliban.

There are several problems with this. First, the US and its warlord allies are no better at protecting the welfare of Afghans than the Taliban, and quite possibly are worse: the warlords, who the US put in power in the first place, are just as brutal and repressive as the Taliban, including in their treatment of women, and always have been, while economically, the Taliban was a significant improvement over the warlords. The US's various interventions, together with the Russian invasion, have been the cause of Afghanistan's instability, not the solution to it.

This pattern of imperial destabilization of Afghanistan doesn't start with the US and USSR. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find Britain and tsarist Russia competing to dominate Afghanistan. The post-Stalin USSR continued Russia's role as imperialist power, while the US picked up where Britain left off. The current invasion of Afghanistan and its extension into Pakistan fit neatly into this historical pattern. Far from being a stabilizing influence in Pakistan (the ultimate goal of Yglesias's proposed Afghan policy), our invasion of Afghanistan is what destabilized Pakistan in the first place.

The core problem is that Yglesias is under the illusion that invading and occupying a foreign country are somehow going to lead to political stability. This is a dangerous and misguided notion, as I pointed out last week.

Finally, the most important point in this debate is one that neither Yglesias nor Marshall mentions: this invasion is morally intolerable. Strikingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, neither Yglesias nor Marshall even bother to consider what the effect of the invasion is on Afghans and Pakistanis; their only concern is how it will impact American "national security." Thus, Yglesias writes:
Consider air strikes. If you define the goal as “eliminate safe havens” then maybe airstrikes that accidentally kill Afghan civilians aren’t that big a deal. By contrast, if we’re there to help Afghan civilians, then killing Afghan civilians is a very big deal.
Yglesias thinks that if all the US cares about is eliminating "safe havens," then killing Afghan civilians isn't a big deal. It all boils down to a policy choice for him: we only have to care about killing Afghans if we decide it's in our interest to.

I couldn't come up with a better illustration of the imperialist mindset if I tried.
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Audacity of Hope

Hilzoy has been doing great work documenting the miscarriage of justice against the Uighurs of Guantanamo. However, when it comes to drawing conclusions from this travesty, the best she can come up with is to hope for the best:
I was brought up to believe that when I made a mistake, I should admit it and try to do whatever I could to make it right. I think this is true of me, and I think that it is true of my country. We should not let innocent people languish in prison just because we are afraid, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they might do something bad. It's foolish -- it's not as though no one will be able to keep track of the Uighurs if they are released. But more than that, it's cowardly and ignoble.

I would hope that my country is better than that. I hope that we have the minimal decency not to allow ourselves to be convinced by demagogues that we should be afraid to admit our mistakes and try to make things right. I would hope that we would actually investigate charges that people were "trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001" before we decided to let them rot in jail for no good reason.

I'd hope we would have the grace to do this even if the person making the charges wasn't someone who blamed liberals for a murder in which a woman cut another woman's abdomen open and stole her unborn child.

And I would hope that politicians would show some leadership and remind us that we are better than this.

This gets at one of the basic paradoxes of liberalism. While liberals often identify real problems in our social, economic and political system, their solutions to these problems are inevitably constrained by what is possible within the limits of the status quo, rather than proposing to actually change the system. And they overwhelmingly place their hopes in politicians, ignoring the fact that successful reform movements are always based in mass social movements.

Thus Hilzoy, while invoking her faith in the righteousness of her fellow citizens, never thinks to mention the current state of the anti-war movement as one of the key determinants of whether there will actually be a full repudiation of the "war on terrorism." If she had, she would have seen that it is in a truly pathetic state, with the major liberal anti-war groups like UFPJ and MoveOn declaring victory after Obama's election, refusing to criticize Obama, and demobilizing their members.

Hilzoy says that "Barack Obama wants to close Guantanamo." But what has he done to roll back the abuses of the war on terrorism so far? He has refused to prosecute Bush administration officials for their crimes and even opposes a truth and reconciliation commission. He has promised to close Guantanamo,
but he
has left open loopholes in the prohibition against torture and secret prisons and defended the government’s right to hold terrorism suspects without charge and to invoke the state secrets privilege. And he has not stopped Bush-era miscarriages of justice, such as the prosecution of Syed "Fahad" Hashmi.

Liberals need to wake up to the fact that the Democrats are the other party of capitalism and imperialism. Obama is putting a kinder, gentler face on the war on terror, but he's not changing its fundamentals. The expansion of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan, the continuation of Bush-era legal policies and the delays in withdrawing from Iraq are all evidence that with the Democrats in power, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can the Credit System Be Reformed?

Via Ezra Klein, Steve Randy Waldman suggests that the government should offer every American a credit card with a limit of $1000 to be repaid in full each month as a public service, which Klein dubs "sort of brilliant." The goal of the card is to provide everyone access to cheap transactional credit, which is the ability to pay for goods you can afford right away but don't have the cash on hand to pay for, as opposed to revolving credit, which allows you to pay for things you can't afford right now and spread the payments out over time. In order to preserve the card's function as a public service and prevent it from becoming a burden to those unable to repay it, there would be no late payment fees, and if a borrower was in default for five years, his or her balance would be erased. Fees would be minimal, at most 1% and possibly 0% for some borrowers, just enough to cover the program's costs.

What makes this a public service is the fact that it would rescue borrowers, especially financially troubled ones, from exorbitant credit card interest rates and fees. I'm all for that. But of course, this idea has no chance of ever becoming law. Zero. Zilch. Squat. Why? Because the credit card companies would never stand for it. I suspect that Waldman and Klein know this and that this is why Waldman calls his proposal "speculative" and Klein qualifies it as only "sort of" brilliant. This points to one of the basic dysfunctions of capitalism, which one sees constantly in every area of the economy, government policy and politics, namely corporations' use of their massive economic and political clout to enrich themselves at the public's expense.

But even if the credit industry wasn't standing in the way, Waldman's idea has another fundamental problem: it ignores the fact that in today's economy, poor borrowers--exactly the people who must need protection from predatory lenders--don't just need transactional credit, they also need revolving credit because they can't afford the basic necessities of life on their regular income. This in turn is a result of the fact that for the last thirty years, virtually all of the growth in the economy has been absorbed by the ruling class, as shown in this chart from the CBO.

Waldman specifically states that in exchange for nearly free access to transactional credit, access to revolving credit would be made much more difficult to obtain. This would spell doom for the ranks of the working poor, who depend on revolving credit to pay for many of life's basic necessities. While the working poor pay dearly for their access to revolving credit, without it they would be even worse off.

So a further step is necessary to rescue the poor from their victimizers in the credit industry. Either the government would also need to offer low-cost revolving credit, which would essentially destroy the credit industry, or the widespread poverty in the US would need to be eliminated so that people would no longer need revolving credit to finance their continued survival. Neither solution would be possible under the current balance of forces between the ruling class and the working class; some massive shift in social power would be necessary to make this happen. In other words, we'd need a revolution, or at the very least a mass social movement.
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