Belaboring the Obvious

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Just following up...

... on the previous post, trying to fill in a blank or two.

Because we define ourselves as a "superpower" on the world stage, we tend to never question either the truth of that assertion, nor do we give much thought as to the definition of the term. It, rather, stands in place, static, a symbol of the monolithic gargantuan we believe we have become.

By contrast, for decades we've used the term "banana republic" to describe the puny, occasionally troublesome but inconsequential countries hovering just inside or just outside our sphere of influence.

We have a mental image of the banana republic--hot and humid, poor, a president in military garb with gold lanyards and lots of medals, a place where small-scale corruption and penny ante bribes are a way of life and where occasional state brutality occurs, but which is otherwise unremarkable.

For some time, I've seen the banana republic as having somewhat different characteristics--for me, it's a state which tends to the authoritarian and/or the dictatorial, has an economy which depends all too greatly on outside forces in league with compliant figures in the government, which is over-armed for its size, heavily in debt and which is obsessed with internal security, often with the aid of the military.

Certainly not how we would describe ourselves, and yet, we exhibit most, if not all, of those tendencies. Yes, we have a supposedly coequal tripartite government, but, over time (and especially in the last two or three decades), those three branches have become less and less independent of one another and have grown much more intertwined in this last decade's irrational overreaction to the specter of terrorism.

One might argue about our government being authoritarian, but, one can't argue that much more power has been invested in the Executive over the course of the last decade, and by a specific process which has steadily evolved in a now-predictable pattern. At first, Congress is railroaded by events (9/11) into granting supposedly temporary emergency powers far in excess of what existed previously (the USA PATRIOT Act). The Executive, under Bush and Cheney, usurped further powers not delineated in the emergency laws, including widespread and often indiscriminate spying on U.S. citizens, torture, state-sponsored kidnapping and the establishment of secret prisons around the world. Moreover, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the major thrust of the Executive in all those actions was to render the courts and the due process system of habeas corpus and warrants inoperable. Over time, as those extrajudicial excesses are revealed, Congress cooperates in rendering them moot, instead of investigating and referring the people and agencies involved for prosecution, sometimes even giving those involved retroactive immunity (as with the telecom corporations). Congress even attempted to restrict rights to habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The greatest bulk of the enabling legislation is renewed when earlier sunset clauses require retirement, and even when evidence surfaces that extrajudicial tools such as National Security Letters (NSLs, the use of which was greatly expanded by the Patriot Act) had been horrendously abused for years, the current administration signals to Congress that it wants the scope of NSLs drastically increased.

Now, most Congresses have been reticent to completely undo the actions of their predecessors, and have preferred to tinker around the edges of previous legislation, but what has been happening over the last few years goes well beyond that. National security legislation in the last few years has not only constituted a general attack on civil rights of U.S. citizens which increasingly conservative courts have refrained from challenging, but has also transferred power to the Executive and has created new mechanisms--in conjunction with existing laws on secrecy--to actively prevent any intervention in Executive Branch activities by the courts.

To say this has emboldened the Executive is an understatement. After years of thinking that such actions were aberrations resulting from the peculiar disrespect shown for the Constitution by Messrs. Bush and Cheney and their hired thugs, in concert with increasingly authoritarian Republicans in Congress, it's clear today that the trend continues unabated. Bagram is the new consolidated "black site," Guantanamo remains open and most of its activities are still well outside the civil courts system. The current administration continues to entertain the belief that it has the right to arbitrarily impose "indefinite detention" even upon those whom military or civilian courts determine to be innocent of any crime, and has taken the further step of targeting U.S. citizens for state assassination.

How greatly different is that from banana republic justice? No matter how elegantly written the legal policy reviews may be, it's no different at all from what has gone on in some of the worst U.S. client states in Latin America, and the excuse is always the same--threats from within. Today in the United States, it's terrorism. In El Salvador, or Honduras, or Guatemala, it's organized campisenos, or trade unionists, or human rights activists. Inevitably, it's a result of the Executive acting with impunity without court intervention, and often with the assistance of the military, excused by national emergency.

The Washington Post has just completed a long investigation of the growth of the surveillance state in the last nine years, and the results ought to be scaring the pants off of the ordinary citizen. While Tim Shorrock delved into the matter of the privatization of intelligence in his 2007 book, Spies for Hire, this latest series of articles gives some statistical heft to Shorrock's conclusions, and, reading carefully, it's apparent that the lines between public and private, military and civilian, legal and illegal, are already hopelessly blurred, and that the Executive Branch prefers it that way.

Congress has been all too willing to throw great wads of tax money at the intelligence agencies in the name of fighting terrorism, and the result is predictable. Just as with the extraordinary excesses documented in the Operation Ill Wind prosecutions of more than twenty years ago (after Reagan demanded and Congress provided huge budget increases to the Department of Defense), so, too, the intelligence agencies of the Executive Branch and the Pentagon have received so much money that there is no way to account for it all, and that systemic growth is now, for practical purposes, cancerous and out of control.

Ultimately, much of this hugely increased capacity for spying and surveillance will be turned inward on the American people, if only because the federal government has done so much to cultivate local police forces and state National Guard offices through mechanisms such as fusion centers, and, let's face it, the police forces of the nation's major cities, when it comes to surveillance of citizens, have as little respect for the Constitution as the Executive Branch. Witness, for example, the activities of police intelligence units in Los Angeles, Denver, New York, and Baltimore.

As dire as the situation is now, it's almost inevitable that it will get a lot worse before it gets better--if it ever does. This pernicious tendency to not undo mistakes has a way of not only creating new mistakes, but also of creating a long series of self-fulfilling prophecies in order to justify the continuing funding and expansion of these highly undemocratic activities--which have the additional and undesirable effect of further concentrating power in the Executive.

So, how is that like a banana republic? Growing dictatorial powers in the Executive? The blurring of military and police functions inside the country? Over-armed to the point of absurdity? Unaccountability of the Executive? Much of the spending on such police powers done on the nation's credit card? Obsession with internal security? Wholesale indifference to civil and human rights? Virtual disregard for an independent court system?

Maybe the only thing that continues to encourage us to categorize such talk as hyperbole is our own proclivity to self-deception.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Just a few random thoughts...

... on Wikileaks, and its recent document dump.

Ostensibly, the leaked documents simply confirm in some detail what many people have either known, or suspected, for some time: that the war in Afghanistan was militarily unwise and has been going downhill almost from the start.

In that way, they do resemble the Pentagon Papers. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, they weren't written as a history of an ongoing war, but, nevertheless, they constitute a history of sorts--and that makes them substantial.

The responses to the leaks are utterly predictable. They aren't substantial, because what's been leaked has been known in general (which sort of ignores that the power and impact of the leaks are in the details). The people leaking the material to Wikileaks are traitorous and vile. Wikileaks can't be thought of as journalists because they're anti-war, and are, therefore, activists. Jim Jones, Obama's national security advisor, even invoked Bush-era White House/NYT cooperation: "WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the U.S. government about the documents, said Jones, who added that the administration learned from news organizations that the documents would be posted," wrote the LA Times. (The LA Times did not mention, in context or otherwise, that the U.S. government is spearheading a manhunt for Julian Assange in an attempt to shut down Wikileaks. One would think that would be a good reason for not contacting the White House. The paper did mention that all the newspapers receiving the documents did contact the White House.)

All of which ignores the truism that the first casualty of war is the truth, and that's the great problem with secrecy. As the process of starting and prosecuting war becomes ever more bureaucratic and political, the veil of secrecy becomes progressively more opaque, and the need to enlist the press in the propaganda effort becomes ever more urgent.

For the ordinary citizen, maybe it boils down to trusting the government, or not trusting it. If one trusts the government, one's inclination is to assume that secrecy is not only necessary, but that the government's application of security measures and classification are wholly benign, i.e., that the government has nothing to hide that wouldn't directly harm the American people or the soldiers fighting the war. If one doesn't trust the government, one can find plenty of reasons to doubt the honesty of the government and its system of security (and to doubt the motives of the government in vigorously prosecuting unauthorized leaks).

Unfortunately, there's little reason to trust the government in matters which have been labeled as important to national security, if only because the history of the government and its elected officials is replete with substantive examples of the government using that rubric to hide wrongdoing, send embarrassing fuck-ups down the memory hole and to generally bamboozle the public into thinking its government is behaving honorably when it is doing quite the opposite.

In this context, it's instructive to remember a few of those examples. During the 20th anniversary proceedings of the National Security Archive, co-founder Scott Armstrong said, in rather unequivocal terms, that the government expended its greatest amount of effort in preventing the American people from knowing what it was doing. This might be why every administration pays lip service to transparency and then uses every tool available to prevent that transparency. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have made extensive use of the so-called state secrets privilege to prevent exposure in court of government wrongdoing, including state-sponsored kidnapping, denial of due process and torture. That privilege was established in a 1953 Supreme Court case, U.S v. Reynolds, in which the evidence provided by the government was itself an outright lie. (The government claimed that accident reports involving the deaths of several scientists in a B-29 crash could not be revealed in court because of national security concerns, and further claimed that the government had the special privilege of denying its own citizens information during discovery that would effectively deny them the Constitutional right to redress in court, if the government itself determined that national security might be endangered by disclosure. Nearly fifty years later, the documents withheld in U.S. v. Reynolds were declassified, and it was found that the accident reports not only did not contain national security information, but also contained details of negligent engine maintenance that directly contributed to multiple engine failures and the crash which killed the scientists. Despite the truth in the matter, the state secrets privilege continues to be an essential item in the government's toolbox in preventing redress in open court.)

So, early on in the post-WWII years, we have solid evidence that the government consciously chose to give itself powers to protect itself from its own citizens. Through the `50s and `60s, in part because of the influence of the Doolittle Report on the clandestine agencies, "national security" became an all-purpose excuse to engage in illegal and inadvisable behavior and to consciously construct the circumstances necessary to position American forces all around the world, to engage in discretionary war and, perniciously, to see substantial segments of the American public as the enemy.

This attitude is a root cause (but, by no means, the only cause) of the intelligence and military excesses behind Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Watergate, the assaults on civil rights common to several administrations (including Operation CHAOS and COINTELPRO), Nicaragua and the contras, the invasion of Panama and the circumstances leading to the first and successive wars in the Gulf, the second Bush administration's concentrated legislative attacks on the Constitution, and, yes, Afghanistan, too.

Apropos of the above, but lost in most discussions of government secrecy, is that when the government is in complete control of so-called national security information, the government decides what it wants the public to know, and that the government itself is the biggest leaker of all--in furtherance of promoting its own views. The leadership of government, in both its official and unofficial capacities, becomes the arbiter of public information. If the government wants to take us to war because of decidedly mixed motives, it is not only likely, but virtually certain, that the government will provide the public and the press only the information which the leadership deems necessary to justify that war, or which will incite the public toward support for war. It's rare to never that the government provides all the information it has on a given national security issue in an effort to further a genuinely democratic debate on matters which affect both national blood and treasure, and, as events of the last few decades have shown conclusively, that leadership uses the national security apparatus to actively deceive the public, along with the press which is purportedly tasked with informing the public.

Which brings me to Wikileaks. In a society in which information of national importance is both limited and selected by those in power, all protestations of transparency and openness by those in power are ludicrous and without substance. In days long past, the press understood that, when it comes to the self-interest of government leadership, it had to be somewhat adversarial. For a host of reasons unrelated to national security matters, the press has become much less adversarial over the years. Congress has become fractured along ideological lines and, as a result, is now virtually ineffectual in its oversight role. As a consequence of these changes, there's no force left which consistently challenges the government's version of the facts. Without all the facts, democracy becomes a pretense, while the opportunity to choose only between candidates who will further the pretense just adds insult to injury.

Someone or something has to fill that void in democracy for democracy to survive. Over several decades, the country's government has been transformed from a republic (in which representative democracy depends upon a fully-informed public) into a national security state in which its leadership determines what we can know about what our government does and does not do, almost always making those determinations on the basis of some degree of self-interest, either political or personal or corporate or institutional, or some combination of all those motives.

It's a sign of the degree of decay of democracy under the national security state that a small group of individuals decided, on their own, to seek out and publish the information the government refuses to provide, to create a secure conduit for national security whistleblowers which previously did not exist and to make that information widely available without exclusively depending upon the press for dissemination of the information. Congress has refused to include national security whistleblowers in protections it has mandated for other government workers (as marginal as those protections are), so a secure means of maintaining anonymity for such people is their only protection, and without that protection, we might otherwise not know what is common knowledge in the bowels of the national security apparatus. It's a very rare person who chooses to be incarcerated or have his life destroyed for doing the right thing.

And, that's the crux of the biscuit: doing the right thing. If we are, indeed, a democracy, we are able to make distinctions about what is right and what is not in the national security arena. Spying for money grates on our sensibilities. So does burning a spy for partisan political purposes. Using taxpayer-funded information which the national security state has hidden behind a cloak of secrecy to paint a truer picture of a war's prosecution should not, especially if that war has been both promoted and continued out of extreme self-interest.

It may well turn out that, even with that information, the public would choose to continue that war, for any number of reasons, but, at least the public gets a better sense of what it's actually supporting. On the other hand, if the release of the information shatters the aura of respectability and altruism which the government has carefully constructed around the war by its selective and propagandistic use of information, leading to a strong reversal of opinion about the war and much wider demands for its cessation, then democracy has been well-served, even though the institutional integrity of the national security state has been harmed (which is quite a different matter than actual harm to the people of the country).

One of the great myths of the post-WWII years has been that we remain a country which adheres to strong democratic principles and maintains strong democratic institutions when, in fact, those principles and institutions have been steadily eroded by government secrecy and appeals to fear in the name of national security, which are intended to make a drift toward authoritarianism seem less dangerous and more palatable. The simple truth is altogether different: the national security state and democracy are antithetical to each other. As the former becomes ascendant in power and priority, the latter is descendant and diminished. The core value of the national security state is its own survival and the survival of the elites who nurture it. The core value of democracy is governance through citizen participation, which ultimately depends upon the quality of the information available to all citizens and the breadth and timeliness of its dissemination among them.

Which entity is pro-democracy? The government which seeks to hide from its own citizens what it is doing and what is happening in the country and the world because of its actions, or the group that exposes what the government seeks to suppress?

Monday, July 19, 2010

In the midst of confusion...

... one begs--often in vain--for clarity.

It's funny, in a perverse sort of way, that the Information Age has, more often than not, created even more confusion in our lives. We're bombarded with information, much of it useless or counter-productive or untruthful, and we have a declining ability to winnow the wheat--the truth--from the chaff without expending copious amounts of time that we often don't have.

If the Nielsen and Arbitron ratings are any indication, a lot of us simply go mindless, seek escape in mediocre movies and reality television, let the giant one-eyed beast provide the fantasies and phony controversies on which our minds feed, let the commercials and the uncritical stenography of the news media wash over us, creating a state of mental suspended animation, providing a space where we don't have to think too much, or in ways that society--whatever the hell that is--doesn't prescribe.

I don't mean this to be some elitist screed on anti-intellectualism, but, rather, to ask a simple question: what if we have lapsed into a state of confusion created by the Information Age, and if so, what are the implications?

There are rather strong anecdotal indications that a significant response to that confusion is to retreat into ideology that seems to provide order, even if that order is little more than the comfort of the familiar, bumpersticker slogans that make us feel as if there is a path back to some more rational time (this, I think, is a prime motivator for the teabaggers, the genuine need to believe in the myth of a better time). The greater the confusion and disorientation we feel in daily life, the greater the need to simplify, the larger the desire to turn back the clock to some idyllic other life that might never have been.

That's an easy emotion to politically manipulate, and we've seen plenty of such manipulation in recent years. The subtle (and, sometimes, not so subtle) racism inherent in the Tea Party movement is rooted in this myth of a better, simpler time, namely, the `50s, when racism was much more institutional, and therefore accepted as the norm. One never needed to apologize for or feel any guilt for what was accepted as normal.

The level of confusion is also apparent in the teabaggers' embrace of contradictory messages. They are acrimonious over the bailouts of the big banks, of Wall Street, generally, but also think the answer to the problem (guided as they have been by astroturf groups such as Dick Armey's Freedom Works) is less government interference and less regulation and oversight (precisely the policies that created the problem with the banks in the first place). Orwell, in 1984, described this as doublethink--the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in mind and be certain of the absolute truth of both at once. The only way that can work is if the mind is in a state of perpetual and ongoing confusion, and when such confusion is perceived as normal.

If one accepts the old aphorism as true that in chaos, there is opportunity, one might also be inclined to think that there is some nebulous conspiracy to generate that chaos, but, in a society such as ours, that's not really necessary--the desire for the profits which opportunity provides is enough to ensure that profit- and power-minded individuals will act in their own interests. Such might well result in conscious policies of chaos creation as individuals perceive the connection between confusion and profit, but, no grand conspiracy is necessary--the motivations are built into the system. There's money to be made in the technology and money to be made in the provision of "content," so the means of delivery of information and the information itself are mutually reinforcing--at least when it comes to making money--even though the net effects on society may ultimately be destructive, especially when that chaos alters the public discourse and becomes the norm in governance.

Here's, perhaps, the crux of this particular biscuit. Increasingly, because of the flood of information, it's getting more and more difficult to discern duplicitous, mendacious and/or self-serving behavior. All the traditional intellectual tools for coming to some assessment of fact and truth become less effective--and even more time-consuming--when presented with multiple and reinforcing streams of information. It is in such an environment that propaganda--of all sorts--flourishes. Even more problematic is the fact that the press no longer presumes skepticism--especially toward government and business sources demanding anonymity in exchange for information which may be propaganda in part or in whole--so, often specious or slanted information gains legitimacy by press exposure and repetition.

Perhaps the best example is the most recent and most well-known: the carefully-constructed disinformation campaign designed by the Bush White House to sell the Iraq war to the public. Almost no part of that campaign contained any solid truth that endured after the initial invasion, and yet, so pervasive was the propaganda that the usual method of comparing multiple sources and evaluating the veracity of sources on the basis of their proximity to the facts was effectively useless. Nor did most ordinary people perceive that sources with strong backgrounds on the issues were being marginalized. Most importantly, it was only long after the fact, after the damage had been done, that the evidence was found to be either absent, exaggerated and/or manufactured, which is exactly the wrong time to find out. If democracy depends upon the public having accurate information in order to advise their representatives of their wishes, democracy is subverted when that information is only available after the important decisions are made.

Of course, the general atmosphere of secrecy that has increasingly infected government does not make the task easier, nor does the increasing tendency of government to threaten and marginalize whistleblowers, especially those in the national security state apparatus. Nevertheless, when disinformation is coming from multiple sources which in detail or in general agree with each other, the usual means of establishing fact available to the ordinary citizen are less useful, and there is more likelihood that the disinformation continues to be held in high esteem even after its refutation by later information (which might explain why so many people continued to believe Bush administration claims regarding Iraqi nuclear weapons programs, chemical weapons, drone aircraft and associations with al-Qaeda, long after those claims had not only been definitely disproved, but were shown to be fabrications based on unreliable intelligence, as well).

Perhaps the more general question should be: is there a general confusion in society to which information overload has contributed, and is that confusion being exploited, incidentally or systematically, by professional propagandists inside and outside government? Broadly, I would say, yes, this is so, and because I think this true, the implications for democratic participation in governance are not good. One cannot in a Constitutional society restrict speech to filter out the noise of propaganda, so, perhaps, the answer lies in better preparing people through the education system to recognize when they're being deceived or misled (I doubt that many school systems are, for example, teaching Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"), and in pushing back against a corporate system that demands more and more of our time, and in finding ways to make more time available to evaluate all the information with which we are being bombarded.

Again, it's not a problem that's amenable to easy or quick answers, but, without addressing it, we can be certain that the cacophany around us will eventually overwhelm our ability to define the truth, let alone understand what it is.

(On edit, I suppose I should offer some explanation for why this very general look at too much information popped out. Unlike many Americans today, I have a lot of time to read about what's going on, I'm not distracted by television, and have enough education in language to give me a small advantage in recognizing when we're being conned. And yet, even I feel overwhelmed. In part, I've been feeling that way ever since the stories on the bombings in Zahedan, Iran and in Uganda, and the return of the Iranian scientist to Iran appeared, which were reported without much background, or historical context, or how these events may have been influenced by U.S. actions. Then, quite by accident, I ran across two articles by Chris Floyd that offered some of that context of which I was unaware, and, together, suggest a degree of double-dealing on the part of the U.S. government that's troubling. I got the sinking feeling that even I'm walking around pretty much clueless and confused at least some of the time.)

Friday, July 16, 2010


What the fuck is wrong with these people?

We've been spending absurd amounts of money on what now totals sixteen years' worth of illegal and pointless war, in two theaters, wasting enough money on so-called defense to keep several African countries in deep clover, and the wealthy, thanks to some egregiously large--embarrassingly large--tax cuts, are out buying his and hers private jets, but, the first suggestion of this White House is to offset some public education spending with cuts in food stamps?

We. Are. Just. Plain. Screwed.

The government today is making the Politburo look like public service wizards....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Quite apart from the obvious implications...

... of the WaPoo doing free publicity work to promote Newticles' books, haven't these bozos figured out that Newticles' mumblings about running for President are about as newsworthy as Lyndon LaRouche announcing his candidacy?

That ol' Newtie is in the news at all is much more an example of the Village's enduring fetishes with fat, corrupt, windbag Republicans than it is one of necessary reporting in the public interest.

(Via Atrios )

Monday, July 05, 2010

Hmm. I'm a little confused by...

... this article by Mel Goodman at Consortium News.

Many people today have concentrated on Eisenhower largely because of two speeches that bookended his term in office--his "Cross of Iron" speech in 1953 and his Farewell Address in 1961--as the person who best understood how to handle military minds, both in the Pentagon and in the nether world of intelligence operations, and Goodman makes this same point, for the purposes of illustrating how lack of experience with the military undermined Kennedy, Johnson and now, Obama.

In doing so, Goodman (whose general perceptions of the CIA's operations and leadership have been extremely helpful in understanding the increasing politicization--and militarization--of the country's intelligence services) buys into a bit of the hagiography surrounding Eisenhower. While he notes that Eisenhower signed off on operations such as Ajax and PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala, he nevertheless implies that the disasters of Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs had their origins in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and were the result of a naïveté about how the military operates, something of which, by definition, Eisenhower could never be accused.

The matter is much more complicated by the history of those times than Goodman suggests. While it is conventional wisdom to blame the origins of the Vietnam war and the Bay of Pigs on Kennedy, the facts suggest otherwise. Taking Vietnam first, it was, in fact, Eisenhower who began the covert war in Vietnam, using the CIA, almost immediately after French withdrawal after Dien Bien Phu, to destabilize both North and South and make U.N.-ordered unification elections impossible (because, even then, it was known by the CIA that 80% of the country would support Ho Chi Minh and his national liberation party). It was Eisenhower's CIA which plucked Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic with French sympathies (to run an overwhelmingly Buddhist country!), out of obscurity in exile and installed him in the newly-formed government of South Vietnam. It was Eisenhower's CIA which spent considerable amounts of money for the clandestine services of academics (particularly from Michigan State) to build a government around Diem. Finally, it was Eisenhower who first authorized the deployment of the U.S. military to Vietnam, in 1958. Though they were described as "advisors," that term fooled very few (it's a matter of record that some of the very earliest American deaths in that war were of NSA personnel doing signals interception in areas of combat).

It was that situation which Kennedy inherited. The same was true of the Bay of Pigs. That operation was begun with Eisenhower's approval, and training in Guatemala commenced in earnest in May, 1960, months before the election that would put Kennedy in the White House. As importantly, it was known in some circles in Eisenhower's administration and in the CIA that the Bay of Pigs operation could not succeed without the intervention and support of the U.S. military. From the start, it was seen by some as a means of precipitating a full-scale military invasion of Cuba.

And yet, that was not the way it was sold to Kennedy when he reauthorized the operation. To my knowledge, no one in the CIA or in Eisenhower's administration warned him of the operation's almost certain failure. There's almost no question, either, that Nixon, had he won, would have used the military as the back end of the plan required, despite the knowledge that the Soviet response was entirely unpredictable. Kennedy might have been able to smell the political trap being set for him were he less invested in his own anti-communist sentiments, but, that he'd been suckered by the CIA and the prior administration at the time of his reauthorization is not in question.

Then there's the matter of Eisenhower, because of his Farewell Address, knowing how to handle the military. The simple truth is that what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex had its birth and adolescence in Eisenhower's two terms, and much of the midwifery and nursing was accomplished by Eisenhower's first Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson. It was through programs such as those to have the taxpayers pay for not only military equipment, but for the production facilities themselves, as well (under the delusion that this would greatly speed up the conversion of commercial industry to war materiel production at the outbreak of war), that cemented the relationships between the Pentagon, the manufacturers and Congress that continue to bedevil the nation today.

The second considerable problem with this benign view of Eisenhower is that, by and large, Eisenhower left the Pentagon to its own devices, in part because much of its leadership had served under him during WWII. The general view of the Pentagon brass at the time was that the only President deserving of the title would be a former general, and it was that attitude which was at the core of the disdain for civilian control of the military. When Kennedy entered office, he also inherited Eisenhower's military leadership, and the Joint Chiefs' office, along with its high command, was at the time a rat's nest of Birchers and right-wing extremists.

It's at this point that using Kennedy as an example to explain Obama falls well short. Kennedy could figure out what was going on and did. After a sufficient number of warnings, Kennedy relieved Gen. Edwin Walker of his European command, and transferred Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer (who was on Eisenhower's staff in WWII and to whom Eisenhower entrusted the Joint Chiefs chairmanship) to NATO, to get him out of the Joint Chiefs' office. In what may be the best account yet of the Cuban missile crisis, Michael Dobbs makes clear in his One Minute to Midnight that it was Kennedy alone--against the advice of his staff and even, initially, that of his brother, Robert--who resisted the continuing demands of the military to escalate the situation to all-out war.

Kennedy also knew that he had to win the public's approval on his handling of the military without getting into the gory details (such as proposals from the Pentagon like Operation Northwoods), and to that end, he convinced Eisenhower that the situation inside the Pentagon was, indeed, serious, and enlisted Eisenhower to appear on television--as much in his capacity as the old general as ex_President--to affirm the need for civilian control of the military, and Kennedy himself embarked upon a series of speeches across the country on the dangers of extremism of all stripes (something Obama has been loathe to do for fear of being charged with incivility toward the batshit right wing). Finally, it was Kennedy, in Oct., 1963, who signed an executive order establishing the orderly withdrawal of the military he had sent to Vietnam.

Johnson's relationship to the military was more complicated. It was not that he mistrusted the military from the start but was insufficiently knowledgeable to stop them, as Goodman implies. Johnson, first of all, mistrusted the Kennedys, so he was inclined to discount decisions made by them. It might have been for that reason that he rescinded Kennedy's withdrawal order just a few days after Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson was also, in private, frequently heard to say that he was not going to be the first President to lose a war--most of those around Johnson in the early months of his Presidency understood that Johnson and his notably large ego were heavily invested in war success. And then, even though Johnson was said to be fully cognizant that the circumstances in the Gulf of Tonkin were not as advertised, he put a lot of political weight behind the war resolution that was the basis for a dramatic escalation of the war. Early on, it seems, Johnson wanted that war just as much as did the military. In that time period, Johnson and the military were acting cooperatively, rather than adversarily. It was not until the tremendous influx of soldiers and increased bombing failed to diminish the determination of the North Vietnamese that Johnson began to question the motives of the military and the information it and the CIA were providing him, and began to realize that he had been politically undone not only by the military, but by his own ambitions, as well.

As for Reagan and Bush I being in the thrall of the military, as Goodman suggests, I wonder about that, too. Bush I saw considerable utility in using the military for domestic political purposes (at any rate, there's nothing at all to suggest that he had been helplessly pulled along by events precipitated by the military), and Reagan did, as well, to the extent that he saw anything clearly. Grenada was simply an ass-covering exercise, hastily implemented, to divert attention from the disaster in Lebanon, using a few Cuban workers as the anti-communist bugbear to whip up public support (anyone remember the silly, transparent use of intelligence photos of the Grenadan airport runway to hearken back to the days of the Cuban missile crisis?).

What does all this--or Goodman's analogies--have to do with Obama's performance to date, or with his dismissal of Gen. McChrystal from his Afghanistan command? Obama's a unique individual who came to office with his own set of preconceptions. Saying though, that Obama suffers from the same ignorance of the military as Kennedy or Johnson doesn't quite fit, though. Kennedy and Johnson both did have prior experience with the military, as both served during WWII (and Kennedy, in combat), although that experience was not on the same order as Eisenhower's. The implication is that more military experience enables a President to successfully resist the imprecations of the military, and, as the above certainly suggests, that's not entirely true, if only by one pertinent example which Mel Goodman doesn't mention: Jimmy Carter. Carter, absent Eisenhower, had more time in the military than any 20th century President, and yet, the military and the intelligence services not only bridled against the changes he tried to impose, some of them actively worked to successfully undermine his chances for a second term, even though Carter had called for a notable increase in defense spending toward the end of his term. (And, as Consortium News has recently written, there may even have been members of his own National Security Council spying on him and reporting to the Reagan campaign.)

Is Obama at a distinct disadvantage by having no military experience whatsoever? I think not. Much more depends upon the values and ideals one brings to the office, along with the ability to discern foul political motive from national necessity. Obama's great flaw was to believe Bush II's bullshit about the war in Afghanistan. The drama of 9/11 blinded him--as it did so many others--to the simple fact that a crime had been committed, one which did not require military intervention anywhere, and which Bush the Younger used to accomplish a vast increase in Executive power, power which Obama is now extremely reluctant to relinquish. It's misleading, I think, to suggest that the military is the prime mover in the events since 9/11, simply because the military's power has been expanded in direct proportion to that of the Executive. The younger Bush had military experience, too (of course, his experience was mostly in figuring out how to shirk responsibility, experience he used to advantage all his life), but, his intent was to use the military for political purposes even more than the military might have been inclined to use him to its own ends. Thus, it's reasonable to say, I think, that the younger Bush and his cohort used the circumstances and the military to further their own political ends. (Perhaps, in this context, one ought to remember that those in the military with warnings or misgivings about the Bushies' military misadventures were summarily cashiered.)

Obama has willingly walked into a situation where the Executive and its military and its intelligence services have cooperated, in symbiotic fashion, to further the power of each other, all of which translates into an enormous increase in the raw power of the President. No President willingly gives up power (the lesson of Watergate and Nixon's certain impeachment is precisely that), and Obama's no exception to that rule. It might be unsettling to admit such, but that might be a more powerful influence on Obama's behavior in office than is his ignorance of how the military operates.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Just a little musing on the economy and...

... the problem of sustainability.

Even though we try not to act as if energy is a severe long-term problem, it is. The math is there, and it's not pretty. Even with the exploitation of fields that promise to be environmental nightmares (as offshore drilling above the Arctic Circle is certain to be, and as deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has proven to be), demand only has to increase slightly over current levels to make oil scarcer and scarcer, and, for practical purposes, effectively gone in three or four decades.

A very large part of the problem, of course, is the ostrich syndrome--stick yer head in the sand if the threat won't go away, but, the other part of it is a complete dependency on the so-called "free market."

First off, the "free market" isn't free. Where markets go is highly dependent upon how government seeds and feeds which markets--through outright grants and subsidies--but also in how it treats different industries with regard to tax policy (which encompasses everything from equipment depreciation to outright tax reductions not available to all industries and businesses, such as the oil depletion allowance), and much of that is tied to a macroeconomic philosophy that demands steady and predictable growth of the economy as measured by gross domestic product.

At this point, we don't even know how to measure economic activity that's genuinely productive. The classic conundrum between common sense and economic theory can be seen by the example of a guy getting drunk, smashing his car into a bridge abutment and spending a year either in the hospital or convalescing, and out of work. He consumed large quantities of beer beforehand, so, that's a GDP plus. He's totaled his car, so, eventually, he'll need another one, and that's a GDP plus. The bridge abutment is damaged, so, for the sake of public safety, it will have to be repaired. That's an economic plus, too. Maybe some economist will come along and calculate that the cost of protecting the bridge abutment is less than its repair, and might save lives, as well, so legislation is introduced to protect all bridge abutments with some gizmo, and that will stimulate gizmo production, which is also an economic plus. In the meanwhile, a tow truck and driver were needed to cart off the mechanical remains, a junk yard gets the pieces really cheap and gets to resell what's salvageable, the guy is hauled off to the hospital in an ambulance, where he spends considerable time being put back together, which uses hospital supplies, helps amortize some very expensive equipment, and employs dozens of people in a rather high-rent sector of the economy, as well as justifying the jobs of insurance clerks and actuaries. All those things are seen as adding to the GDP, but, looking at it from the lens of actual productivity, it's a complete waste of time and resources. The only thing that gets subtracted from the GDP is his loss of productivity--the time he spends out of work, and the loss of profit from the insurance company (which isn't entirely a GDP loss, because the insurance company raises everyone's rates to make up for what's paid out for his care). Overall, it's a net gain to the economy that he gets drunk one night and nearly pile-drivers himself. If he had died, much of that GDP gain would still be there, and, as well, the florists would see a dividend, as would the funeral home operator, and, if he has family and friends at a distance, the airlines benefit, too, and so would the aggregate GDP.

Most people would think that's a pretty crazy system, but, still, each and every one of those activities does move money around, does keep people employed, etc. By traditional standards, it's all economic activity. And yet, it's all based on the general destruction or depletion of resources, which, in our system, requires extracting more resources to replace those destroyed--and that's the problem with GDP growth vs. sustainability.

Even if one could somehow magically eliminate this sort of economic waste from society, growth is still necessary to maintain employment as long as the population continues to rise. More people means more cars (in the absence of some radically-transformed transportation system), more housing, literally, more of everything, from food to diapers to clothes to medicine to water to steel and aluminum and plastic, to even energy.

Leaving that up to the markets to provide ensures that resource depletion will continue at a rapid rate, because under our current system, extraction of natural resources is much cheaper than recycling, mostly because the external costs of doing so are absorbed by society and government--either in destruction of the commons or in taxpayer-funding of environmental damage (the polluter no longer pays the full cost of pollution, if it ever has), or in reduced life span and quality of life, or in taxes to pay for the military to effectively seize and control global resources for the benefit of our multinational corporations which depend upon our consumption for their profits, and even then, most of that damage associated with resource depletion is added to the GDP as economic activity.

This doesn't even address another fundamental problem--that, traditionally, 70% of all economic activity in the U.S. is consumer-driven--without maintaining that level of consumption of all available goods, the economy would promptly collapse, and very likely, the global economy with it. Where we once could make sensible economic predictions based upon the percentage of excess manufacturing capacity in this country, we no longer can--supply lines have grown so long now that U.S. firms are dependent in very big ways on manufacturing capacity outside our borders, and that must be factored into the equation. I suspect that even small drops in consumption in this country can result in big changes in global excess capacity, given the way businesses operate today. That a substantial quantity of that 70% was fueled by debt necessitated by the increasingly unequal distribution of income only makes the problem worse.

Anyone making the case today for a sustainable economy runs up against a huge wall made up of the following three big bricks--the system as it is now, the government's perceptions of the problems it faces, and public perceptions. Everything the government is now doing is directed toward achieving a status quo that was and is unsustainable for dozens of reasons, but which is definable and known and quantifiable--and politically safe. Anyone looking at the government's actions over the last two years can see that most of its resources have been directed at insulating the financial sector from its own bad behavior entirely for the sake of returning that sector to stability, because the dominant economic wisdom is that Wall Street and its wealthy patrons drive the country's economic engine. There are myriad ways in which this is no longer true, but, the conventional wisdom prevails.

Second, the status quo of the present system is unsustainable, both in terms of the level of consumption, the means to satisfy that consumption, and the ways in which that consumption is financed.

Last, and probably most profound in its effects, the public perceives any attempt at sustainability as detrimental to its welfare and its status. Every aspect of sustainability is perceived by the public as diminishing its standard of living. Telling anyone that they will have to do with less is political poison--the Carter Effect writ large. Of course, this resistance to change is cultivated by the very system itself, through a modern and psychologically powerful advertising system that plays upon everyone's subconscious desires, along with an equally powerful commercial media which reinforces the advertising upon which it depends for revenues. One can see how dramatic those influences are by how much of consumer consumption has been financed through debt, rather than savings.

If we are a culture demanding instant gratification, sophisticated, psychologically manipulative advertising and easily available credit have made us that way--we weren't of that mind always. As importantly, at precisely the time when a generation suddenly began to question the wisdom of an economic system which depended upon planned obsolescence, manufacturing which encouraged disposal rather than repair, a spendthrift energy policy and fighting wars around the world to secure natural resources at the highest possible profit margin, that's when the right-wing industrialists and financiers began to fight back--funding reactionary think tanks, consolidating news media and entertainment outlets, cultivating public opinion and spending ever more heavily on political campaigns and lobbying. One can see that accumulated power in operation today--even though oil is getting scarcer and prices are going up, even though burning oil and coal are intimately linked to anthropogenic global warming (which will have effects on the food chain, the costs of recovering from natural disaster, availability of fresh water and societal costs due to vast human migrations in relatively short periods of time)--and that power is directed primarily toward convincing the public that maintaining the status quo is of primary importance.

Damned difficult to overcome that. If society collapses because of that determination to maintain the status quo (which is intimately linked with the continuing disproportionate distribution of income and wealth), yes, then the public will demand that the status quo be abandoned. How that happens is anyone's guess. The economic turmoil of Germany in the `20s led to the ascension of the Nazis, who promised to create order out of chaos. To think that the United States, because of some ill-defended principles of democracy, is immune to fascism is to deny what's happening at this moment. More to the point, if we are unable or unwilling to make the changes in the status quo now which will enable a different, more sustainable society and economy, we may well not have the energy resources to make new energy sources. It seems almost silly to have to say that, but, if we expend our dominant energy sources before we have new ones in place, we will have no energy to enable that transition, no matter our level of desperation.

So much of this problem is a distinctive characteristic of our political system. We're more or less unable to consistently maintain necessary policies over many political administrations, and yet, we require exactly that ability to sustain research and development and re-industrialization over generations. There's a tremendous hatred on the part of the right toward anything that smacks of central planning, in part because it is perceived as antithetical to free enterprise and inhibitory of profit, and in part because of the horrible examples set by the Soviet Union, even though the Second World War could not have been won in anything like the time it actually took without some rather widespread central planning to coordinate the utilization of both resources and industrial capacity.

And yet, the multinationals that have a stranglehold on energy production and distribution in this country aren't about to give up an ounce of their current power or profitability for the greater good--especially if that entails some long-term effort. They are doing everything they can to preserve their hegemony over energy, even though that's completely antithetical to sustainability. If they can't own it and the distribution system for it, they don't want it and will fight it (because, as the early railroads demonstrated, if one controls distribution, one effectively controls all pricing).

All this points to a need for some serious changes in how we allocate resources and how we function as a society. I don't have any firm answers on how to do these things, if only because I recognize just how much resistance to change exists in our society, regardless of the reasons for that resistance. However, if we simply strive for a return--in the midst of economic calamity--to the status quo as a means of relieving that economic calamity, we're deluding ourselves. We're simply postponing the inevitable, and as a consequence, will make the inevitable come more suddenly and more dramatically, most likely at the expense of our general welfare and of democracy itself.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Maybe we have gone...

... through the looking glass. The establishment press is, well, happily willing to tie themselves up in order to make it easier for unscrupulous administrations to have their way with the Fourth Estate.

However, it's not just about the press repeating what the government says. It's also about the way that the government--from the President on down--abuses our common language, which only then is repeated ad nauseum by our wholesome folks in the news media connected to satellite dishes and the country's printing presses.

George Orwell wrote in his "Politics and the English Language" that flowery, obfuscatory phrases were always used by politicians to, as Orwell put it simply and succinctly, "defend the indefensible." It is this intentional retreat from plain language that Orwell saw as a deliberate means of obscuring truth, and now, over sixty years after his essay was published, the practice in the United States government is both a high art and an arcane science.

Indeed, Orwell's absolutely right, and especially so in these days of Pentagon-micromanaged press coverage. It is the very fact that the press has enabled the government's introduction of these terms into the lexicon and has made continuing and unchallenged use of them that has perverted our understanding of reality. To that end, I offer a review of a few of the government's recent favorite phrases, along with translations into understandable English:

a) Collateral damage. Translation: Civilians killed because we didn't prepare carefully enough to prevent killing them, and, besides, randomly killing a few of them will scare the bejesus out of them and they'll do what we want. See: Roman Empire, better to be feared than loved.

b) Targeted killing. Translation: State-sponsored non-judicially sanctioned assassination, particularly from the air, of anyone, including American citizens, whom the President or his staff determines, without any review by the Judiciary, to be not wholly supportive of or antithetical to U.S. aims, using equipment designed to obscure personal and/or professional responsibility for those extra-judicial assassinations, especially in the many countries of the world where we have not officially declared war.

c) Enhanced interrogation techniques. Translation: torture by our own personnel of others for political purposes, in contravention of international human rights treaties. Principally used to obtain false confessions for use in military tribunals.

d) Extraordinary rendition: Translation: state-sponsored kidnapping.

e) Low-level terrorism. Translation: peaceful protest.

f) Torture: Translation: Egregious violations of international human rights treaties by countries other than ourselves.

g) Terrorism. Translation: any act, violent or non-violent, which can be utilized by us or our allies to place someone in indefinite detention and/or justify military action against other nations for economic and political purposes.

h) Defending our freedoms: Translation: Pursuing or abetting aggressive wars against countries unwilling to become our political and economic puppets.

i) Surge. Translation: the addition of more of our armed soldiers into a war of aggression and/or into a military occupation of ours to win the hearts and minds of the unwillingly occupied. See: Hopeless delusion.

j) Hearts and minds, winning: Translation: Failed Vietnam war strategy.

k) Mushroom cloud. Translation: Nuclear weapons scare tactic promulgated by us to inflate the potential threat to us of a non-nuclear country halfway around the world which does not have nuclear weapons or the means to deliver its non-existent nuclear weapons to our territory.

l) Axis of evil. Translation: A figment of the U.S. political imagination.

m) Ally. Translation: An imaginary friend whom we bribe with low- or no-cost military weapons, or any country's dictatorial leader whom we bribe with either arms or money to increase the trade revenues of our multinational corporations and/or to create an illusion of political solidarity with a people.

n) Intelligence community. Translation: Those paid by U.S. taxpayers to spy on other countries or to spy on us, or to torture both foreign and U.S. citizens, without fear of either prosecution or oversight.

o) State secrets privilege. Translation: The completely arbitrary and autocratic prevention of the exposure in open court of embarrassing and/or illegal activity on the part of our government.

p) Indefinite detention. Translation: The jailing of individuals through intemperate abrogation of human rights, civil rights and Constitutional rights to due process by Executive fiat, even if the individual has committed no crime.

q) Unlawful combatant. Translation: Any person, including American citizens, designated as such by the Executive as a means of denying that person prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions or rights to due process under criminal law. See: indefinite detention.

r) Black site. Translation: A torture chamber hidden from public scrutiny by secrecy classification.

s) Exporting democracy. Translation: The process of using military force or threat of military force to induce smaller nations to accept a commodified version of our political system as a means of creating new economic markets for U.S. multinational corporations and/or enabling neocolonial control of another nation's resources and/or the installation of puppet regimes suitable to the U.S. political and economic elite.

t) Insurgent. Translation: Any citizen of a foreign country killed by us in the process of exporting democracy.

I could go on and on, I suppose, but, that's enough for now. If one is able to strip away the euphemistic shroud concealing what is actually being done in our name, perhaps we have some hope of understanding current and recent events in a way that actually makes sense, absent the obscurantism, jingoism, nationalism and militarism which are always necessary to hide impure motives.