Sunday, July 27, 2014

Thomas Friedman and The March of Folly


Thomas Friedman is a fraud and a crank and an example of the kind of intelligentsia that was able to capture the minds of vast swaths of the German population in the 1930's.  He is as insidious as Walter Lippmann was, but less intelligent and not as skilled as Lippmann in effecting the enactment of policies in Washington.  Despite these limitations Friedman is falsely viewed as a Progressive under the aegis of his protective shield, the New York Times, a paper that itself wears the false moniker of Liberalism. While he has been wrong about the Middle East so many times, he continues to write about it and curry favor in a world of digital-age amnesiacs.

I have read his columns for years and have found him to be unstudied, sloppy, irrational and ambitious all at once.  He is the kind of writer who has been able to earn policy credentials where none are deserved.  This has been demonstrated to anyone who has a memory of his various predictions, which have sold many books with their jingoistic novelties, but have been used to support the proven folly of neoconservative war policies.  He is never held to account as evidenced by his prominent position with the NYT and network television and the publisher-driven schedule of his Charlie Rose Show appearances, which have, no doubt, driven the sale of his books.

He has been wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan on counts too numerous to catalog here and importantly, he has never been held to account with the ranks of corporate mainstream media an unsurprising, but troubling fact.  He has been wrong about Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt but has made statements clearly intended to influence US policy and public attitudes.  Despite being proven categorically wrong - his predictions regarding Iranian elections, nuclear negotiations; his assessments of the Maliki government in Iraq, his early cheerleading for the initial US invasion - his simplistic and colorful axioms continue to capture attention.  In the sound byte media world his species is most adapted to survive. 

His cartoonist characterizations of Asia Pacific dynamics and multilateral efforts to influence North Korea could have come directly from John Bolton after a few cocktails.  Only the US and its power can be used to move the world in the right direction and those who fail to see this are simply naive, particularly anti-war activists, whom he treats with particular scorn, even after their opposition to illegal wars has been vindicated.  The Friedman foreign policy view often can be reduced to a principle which holds that multilateral peacemaking amongst democratic nations has no legitimacy unless the US is the leader with its physical dominance and the threat of force at the fore and other allied participants simply acting as followers. 

The feelings from the thinking Left with regard to Mr. Friedman are now mutual.  Alternet.org has written well on this subject and here, in my modest way, I am simply piling on.  But pile on we must.  With Friedman’s most recent columns on Syria and their sweeping and sloppy generalizations in the interest of more, not less US militarism, I am upgrading my view from criticism and scorn to utter contempt.  His appearances on Charlie Rose, well scripted to create the softer edges of what is, at its core, Hobbesian Neoconservatism and American Exceptionalist thinking, cannot obscure this most reckless sort of punditry and dangerous folly. 

When the book of this era is written Friedman will have earned himself a place for history that I liken to those identified by the historian Barbara Tuchman in her work The March of Folly, which notes the influence of public elites beating the drums of war from far behind the lines. We can hope that the growth of independent journalism will eventually bring the downfall of this errant dilettante.

Perhaps George Orwell took the best aim at Friedman’s ilk in Homage to Catalonia:  “One of the most horrible features of war is that all of the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Channeling

This is great stuff.  I am now channeling Hannibal in ancient Punic-Berber language, but sometimes Polybius enters the picture and argues with me in Latin.  Trying to obtain a permit to keep an elephant on the property.

http://www.alternet.org/belief/ramtha-new-age-cult-leader-unleashes-drunken-racist-homophobic-rants-large-following

Friday, July 11, 2014

Shameless Empire

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-heilbrunn-u-s--germany-relations-20140711-story.html

Most of the press has let this go - no surprise - despite the fact that it is a disaster and a threat to stability in foreign policy.  Clinton will be the same.  The GOP candidate will be the same.  All they want to do is focus on "Benghazi", etc.  Not one inquiry into this.

When my FB account was compromised, I was able to see that my server sessions were running through Herndon, VA, instead of Montgomery, NY (most people don't know that you can check this).  Odd, right?  I thought so, since Booz Allen, the largest private contractor for NSA surveillance is headquartered there.  They have been tracking political dissidents for years.  Could it be a coincidence?  Sure, but probability does not favor that conclusion.

You would think that Obama and the elites would be embarrassed and want to change the foreign surveillance policy with regard to close allies.  No.  They have refused to even agree to stop doing it.  Why should ANYONE trust us?  From a political perspective, one of Edward Snowden's major contributions has been to uncover the grandiose hypocrisy of Obama.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why Math is Important

I can recall from my high school days this repeated question, proffered by yours truly and many of my peers: “Why is math so important anyway?  What am I going to use Algebra and Trig for if I am not going into Engineering?”

The answer usually came packaged in a readied quip that informed us we would need the math to get a job after we graduated from school.  Through a lifetime of continuing education, I have come to a much more profound and urgent answer to this question: we need math skill in order to survive individually and collectively as a species and to maintain a functioning and meaningful democracy. 

This reasoning can be applied to all areas of society but there are certain of them that warrant critical and urgent attention.

These are the current, central facts of American foreign policy; not opinion, not a slant, not a partisan critique, just bare reality:

War:
Radical Insurgents have just overrun the city of Tikrit and are headed toward Baghdad.
701 civilians have been killed in Iraq this month.
To date, approximately 188,000 people have died violent deaths in the Iraq war, with an estimated 134,000 innocent civilian deaths.
The Iraq war has cost US taxpayers more than...please pause and think about this...two Trillion dollars in direct cost.  This does not include interest on the war debt, which is calculated to add another four trillion dollars over the next four decades.

Significantly, this does not include the cost of the Afghanistan war, which the Brown University Study Group on War Costs estimates to be between $3.2 - $4 Trillion in direct cost, with civilian deaths estimated at 21,000 and total violent deaths at 225,000.  Here is the numeric value of the direct cost of our two recent wars, without interest: $6,000,000,000,000.  Put another way that is one billion taken six thousand times, or six times ten to the power of twelve. 

For last year, the total annual budget for the Food Stamp program (SNAP) was $74.6 billion, this during an historic period of record unemployment.  That is 1.2% of the direct cost of the two wars, without their required interest payments.  The program, which 47 million Americans rely on, was just cut by Congress.

Halliburton has been awarded $39.5 billion in Iraq war and "post-war" contracts.

Other companies, such as Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics. Raytheon, United Technologies, BAE, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have earned hundreds of billions of dollars in war profiteering.  The top three US Defense contractors' revenues represents 1% of the entire US $10 Trillion GPD and each are listed on the Fortune Most Admired Companies list.  Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing are the largest arms producers in the world.  The term “war profiteering” can and should be understood grammatically and empirically as non-political as well as political since making private profit on war is, in fact, profiteering.  This language needs to move into the mainstream narrative by virtue of its objective, factual nature.

Regarding the largely ignored moral calculus, Richard Clarke, Chairman of the Counter Terrorism Security Group under President G.W. Bush has stated his view that President Bush and others are guilty of war crimes.

One of my favorite books, one that should be required reading in all high schools and continuing education programs is Innumeracy, by John Allen Poulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University.  Poulos explicates the problem of the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy in our society and our great difficulty with grasping numbers and absolute value at grand scale.  We seem to literally lose the ability to count and to assess proportion and therefore meaning and value at great orders of magnitude.  I think in some ways, this has made it easier for us to be hoodwinked into accepting the media narrative on wars, war debt and casualties, Global Warming and rates of change relative to time with a shrug of the shoulders and a "let's just move on" attitude.  We can't just move on: we need to stop and critically assess what has happened, understand it and respond. 

The cartoonish presentation of anti-war activists as a "Leftist" or "radical" is part of the media narrative.  This has to be challenged, as does US Defense policy, on rational and empirical grounds.  We are cutting food stamps and support programs for the poor.  Elites are negotiating major trade agreements in secret, without Congressional or citizen involvement.  We have the highest prison population on earth.  We have made access to higher education (where we can learn how to think analytically and critically) more difficult with skyrocketing costs and crushing student debt.  US college tuition and fees have increased 1,120% since 1978, while other successful modern democracies offer free, higher education.  These disparities are themselves radical but are not portrayed as such in popular media.

The Defense sector has contributed nearly $11,000,000 in PAC contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone.  This is split at roughly 60% to the GOP and 40% to Democrats and does not include millions in direct political contributions to individual campaigns.

Corporations are people.

We are committing passive suicide.  It’s in the numbers. 

I dedicate this post to my high school math tutor, Michael Ferris.









http://www.stanford.edu/class/e297a/U.S.%20Defense%20Industry%20and%20Arms%20Sales.htm

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Life, Newton and Clam Sauce

Today June 7th, 2014 is a Saturday and it is my fifty sixth birthday.  My wife and children were generous and gave me space to plan my own day with whatever I wanted to do, save being on time for a dinner reservation for Kathy and me at our favorite restaurant.  Not a bad deal.

I planned to take a 45-mile ride on my bicycle through the nearby Shawangunk Mountains and do some hard elevation riding.  It is my view that there are fewer places on earth more beautiful and well suited for cycling and I enjoyed every instant of it.  When I am on the bike and “in the cockpit” I feel like I am 25-years-oId and am always ready to embrace this sensory math with gusto.

Before the ride, we had some unexpected company, people I love and was glad to see, so I stayed for a visit.  I got a late start and was concerned about our dinner reservation, but set off on my venture.  The solo ride went well despite the extra poundage I carry, winter pounds that seem more difficult to lose with each new spring.

 As I climbed above the famous Hairpin Turn near New Paltz, New York I was trying to calculate the additional force/energy required to carry my weight and how much faster I would be if I lost the extra pounds.  This is a form of self-inflicted mental punishment for aging athletes while we suck air into our lungs in order to keep peddling without stopping.  It seems to work.

My wife, being the great planner she is moved the reservation out just in case, so when I got home I was able to shower and quickly dress and we were on our way.

Il Cenàcolo in the town of Newburgh, New York is one of those rare restaurants that people, common and famous, will travel many miles to in order to enjoy the exquisite food and wonderful dining experience it consistently offers.  Tonight I decided to break from my vegan diet and splurge, ordering spaghetti and clams in white clam sauce, along with an organic salad.  Not a special and nothing fancy, but something I seemed to be craving.  Such a meal can be messy, so I delicately tucked the corner of my linen napkin into the front of my lime green, button-down Polo shirt.  This is my version of thinking ahead.

The meal was splendid and Kathy and I got to relax and enjoy the food and each other’s company.  Not a drop of clam sauce got on my shirt and after spooning some of the remaining sauce into my mouth I removed the napkin.

Kathy continued on slowly with her meal and then decided she’d had enough, but invited me to try her Rigatoni Manzo. The Manzo is a house special with a delicious Bolognese sauce.  Reaching across, I lifted two rigatoni with a generous lump of sauce above her plate. My hand and the Manzo then began the short lateral journey to my plate. 

Most accidents and sports injuries happen during the deceleration phase of motion.  This is a fact I am acutely aware of.  However, there are sensual moments when our instinctive awareness of Newtonian physics leaves us and desire becomes the overwhelming force.  This is life, isn’t it?

In a cinematic moment that seemed to last forever, I was able to sit back as an observer and watch the two pieces of manzo-laden rigatoni make their vertical descent from my overloaded fork toward the placid pond of clam sauce resting in my concave dinner plate.  It was the special moment when time slows down and one can realize they are about to experience a sensational event.

I think the great Ernie Kovacs could have planned this sequence for everyone in the restaurant to see.  I would like to say that in the brief moments of gravity observation I thought about an estimated mass-times-acceleration equaling a certain force and then the likely dispersal pattern of the delicious liquid medium that awaited this pending collision, but no such exercise occurred.

What I was able to muster was this.

“Oh shit!”

The clam sauce received the rigatoni in a way that would not disappoint the most avid calamity watcher.  The splatter pattern was amazingly even as predicted by transient ballistic flow in Fluid Mechanics.  My lime green shirt became the primary recipient of the droplet array, starting at the collar and working its way down, proportionately, to the middle of my shirt and both sleeves.

Looking up from the moistened and now fragrant shirt, my gaze passed over the useless napkin, lying in a lump next to the plate, then at eye level to other dinner guests in front of us and then to each side as they politely dropped their own gazes in what seemed tender acts of mercy.

“You better use your napkin and put some sparkling water on that right away.”

“You’re right.”

Normally one uses this instant cleaning method in a discrete way, when there are one or more spots to attend to.  I began, furiously dipping the corner of my napkin into the Italian sparkling water and dabbing it onto the numerous spots on my shirt as Kathy directed me to additional locations that I couldn’t see for what seemed like five minutes.  At the moment we determined that I was done, my pressed shirt, rather than having spots of clam sauce all over it was now completely drenched with over-priced San Pellegrino.  It looked as though I had just come in out of the rain.

Looking up again I could now see everyone in the restaurant watching on in apparent horror at my petty act of barbarism.  Truthfully, I shared their revulsion…. for a moment.

With dessert yet to be ordered, but my tableside laundry finished, destiny left only one more thing to do.  Thank God for spontaneity.

On the down beat, my dear wife and I burst into laughter, harmonizing heaves and giggles for several minutes, unable to stop as we leaned over the table and fell back in our seats repeatedly, tears rolling down our cheeks.  In passive periphery, I could see other patrons taking in the entertainment in good cheer, but I didn’t care anymore as I was simply taken up in our moment of joy in innocuous life.  It was a day to remember.

Sometimes joyous life comes in wonderful little accidents.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Summers on Piketty: take a chunk of salt

So, Larry Summers has weighed in on Thomas Piketty's Landmark work "Capital in the Twenty First Century."    Predictably, Summers disagrees with Piketty's prescriptive ideas for the future, but clearly accepts and does not challenge his scholarship. Summers is a deacon of the neo-liberal deregulated "free" market model. I put "free" in quotation marks, because we have to remember NAFTA (reminder: millions of campesinos forced out of their own market by US government-subsidized corn) and also the structure that was put in place to allow untenable leverage in the finance sector with taxpayers underwriting all of the risk.

Ironically, it is Summers' policies (along with Robert Rubin), which brought the end of Glass-Steagall and the reckless deregulation that put in place the structure which may have accelerated the financial collapse of 2008.  These were policies directly informed by Summer's underlying beliefs about economics and policy.  Dissenting economists were dismissed.  His hubris comes out here with complete pomp, assumed efficacy and the reassertion of his prescribed and elitist, top-down "management" of the economy.  He actually refers to his fellow Americans as "a surly middle class."

Summers seems to be locked into the idea of what he considers "feasible" steps, prima facie excluding the notion of any radical changes being made to a system that is patently broken.  When reading criticism from someone who has been so wrong in the past with his own "feasible" policies - the same policies that created so much economic and social destruction - we should take a big chunk of salt.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/thomas-piketty-is-right-about-the-past-and-wrong-about-the-future/370994/

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Mother's Day

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Mother: a word that carries the essence of our conception of nurturing, connectedness, love.  From our own language, we believe it is the direct descendent of the Proto-Germanic mōdor.

Linguists have commented on its affinity in nascent language to the bilabial nasal sound of “mama,” a word that hews even closer to these deep conceptions.

In contrast, things we may not conjure when we think of Mother - the human maternal caregiver or the archetype of Mother Nature - are the notions of violence, aggressiveness, selfishness or solitary survival.  Rather, we recognize our love and appreciation of Her and how essential She is to our deepest, sustaining emotions and impulses, those that place us closest to our own compassion.

On Mother’s Day we can contemplate some as we reciprocate original love and outwardly vindicate the deep human bonds that sustained us from our first breath.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Monday, March 3, 2014

...................................................Wake


I’m sorry I’m late; it’s such a bad habit
and my mother always said “you’ll be late for
your own funeral” but here I am and really wanted
to see you and say something, but you’ll not be speaking
and I won’t either from this line as I can hear the din of chatter
start to form in meaningful hushes and I count the limited variety
of spoken condolence and wonder if the repetition patterns occur in odd or
even numbers and how many primes there might be if I waited long enough and…
“yes, we schooled together I am so sorry for your loss…yes he was too
young…you must be ….” hey buddy what are you doing there in that box?
Maybe I should kneel and do the sign of the cross and make believe
I’m saying the Hail Mary but I know you knew I never would
and neither would you so we both know its OK but I am
really going to miss you and I am just thinking about
our time together as my thoughts are what I
have now and I think I hate the way they
 combed your hair like you were
ready for first communion.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

La convivencia y el amor

Standing shoulder-close moving subliminal, syncopated
from that mutual command – you wash and I’ll dry….
sharing the steamy hot water and reaching across
with the drying towel as the next pan goes to strainer
you said that Kind of Blue was OK and we let the Cool fly
through us with the little drip-drip making its way from
the washboard to sink while you knew that the soup needed
tomato paste and could I run to the store por favor
oh yes, but your Spanish is better than mine love…

so in a bluesy sounding way you handed over
the last plate and we knew that we were good and
ready for the next steamy go-round.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Drone

There, I find you in uncertain ablaut relation
To Old High German roots
With a vowel perhaps, deflecting you over time

From some base pipe in a bag of wind to a more modern
Tuning of strings,
Monotonous, unrelated to martial endeavors.

Such an odd contortion of the mapping mind horizon
Pattern-matching its way through history: Homo.
We'll look up in blighted wonder at your unvarying,

With the silent, projected and dutifully embarrassing means
Of aspirational empire servicing its selfsame survival…
You, known only from the periphery, virtual and iconic

Deftly moving, directed, a meta-force,
The meticulous and unscrupulous
Voyeur, now mastering the stolen heavens,

Malevolent in a universe void of judges,
Finding your home

In the gray matter of imagination destroyed.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twilight

On our return from a 3:15AM run to the airport, Paulette and I stopped at the historic State Line Diner for breakfast.  Only two other patrons were there.  We worked through our grogginess, though my very early, strong coffee had given me an advantage.

As we headed north through the Ramapo Mountains during twilight and under a full moon, we quietly took in the monochromatic experience passing before us: mountains, snow-covered trees, drifts, rock ledges and unwinding, sparsely trafficked highway.

Paulette is interested in light, as an artist, but also as a student of natural phenomena.  We are two peas in a pod.  We discussed the white light wavelength scattering of the twilight period in our place and time in space: 41 degrees North Latitude between 6AM and 6:30AM in mid-February.  We waited in anticipation for our retinas to receive the coming change as predicted by the emergence of red, orange and yellow wavelengths entering the atmosphere.  Gable walls of farmhouses, painted white, suddenly emitted bright peach-colored hues and tree trunks, which had just looked like black lead pencil drawings on white paper took on deep brown and complex orange shadings, each acting as a new light source itself.

Today’s agenda includes preparations for repainting Paulette’s bedroom, something she has been painstakingly planning.  I think this morning’s introduction, dominated by the power of light phenomena couldn’t have been better timed.  Life is beautiful.


Monday, October 7, 2013

It's Like Summer (In memory of John M., an angel of the streets)


Breath. I can still see my breath. This sidewalk is cold. Nobody comes down here during the long dark days of winter. I’m alone, but yes, I am alone and I can be alone.

Breath. I can see my breath.

Sleep. I’ll go to sleep again.

My arm is still warm. I never lose that warmth in my arm after it starts with the first sting, a warm flow after my little poke that doesn’t bother me anymore. Just a little one and then....warmth. It stays, it lingers; my arm about the elbow stays warm and then I sleep. Go back to sleep....

Oh, it’s like summer and I am just here to rest. No one will bother me. Cops took my CD player yesterday, said I couldn’t have owned such a thing – I must have stolen it. In our house we would say “he stold it.” My sisters, sweet flowers -­‐ I wonder where they are? When it’s like summertime I think about them and I feel warm, but the sidewalk is cold. I’m gonna guess what time it is.

 No, I’ll sleep.

I want to pick up my spoon. It’s frozen to the sidewalk. I saw a rat come out one day and give my spoon a good licking. He fell asleep; we slept, but when I awoke, the birds were picking at him. I should pick up my spoon. There, in my mind I am picking up my spoon. That’s good enough.

Newburgh is really something. This east end is my home. Some want to escape from here, but why would I escape? This place never changes. Think of that. How many places can you live where things never change? 

I’ll eat tomorrow, no need to eat now. Father Jim will be there tomorrow. “Don’t you go smoking that Crack again dear friend!” No Father, I won’t smoke that crack, I don’t even have a pipe and it keeps me awake. And I’m a sleeper.

It’s black now. People don’t really know what night is unless they sleep down here. They don’t know how beautiful the river is down here. In the winter I see it like no one else ‘cept maybe Sir Henry from his perch on the Half Moon. I’m kinda like him, Sir Henry. He was looking for the great passage and happened on to this river, but later got cozy way up north and then his crew left him. He knew the winter and being alone and cold. Poor Henry didn’t have a spoon.

It’s slower now. Things slow down...boy this is slow. I should say goodnight fella, you fella.

Slower....

Breath? I don’t see my breath. Is that the dark?

No breath. No.

Kevin Swanwick, October 3, 2013 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Truth and the Logic of War

"I mean, we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important." - President, Barack Obama, September 4, 2013.

With regard to Syria, there are definitive reasons for the US taking on the task of attacking another sovereign nation in violation of the UN Charter and with or without congressional authorization or a majority of the American public’s support.

But they may not be the ones you are thinking of.

To fully understand what is at play, it is necessary to largely ignore the US corporate media rabble, which continues to echo State Department and White House repetitions of the official, carefully tailored line of reasoning and moralizing without serious analysis or critique of the quite obvious underlying logic.

The US is not simply attacking Syria because chemical weapons were used and “1,429 civilians and 426 children” died, though this is the assumed, legitimate pretext.

 So what is it?

In May 2013, Carla del Ponte acting in her capacity as inspector for the UN High Commissioner on Human rights published a report suggesting that rebel forces had used Sarin. The report was not conclusive, but the testimonial evidence remains as part of the public record on the issue and makes the picture unclear as to who, what and when regarding chemical weapons use, prior to the August 21st events in East Ghouta.

What is happening in Syria is a war; a complex war and perhaps a number of simultaneous wars at once. “Civil war” seems to be an understatement. Nonetheless, it is a war with two primary opposing sides: one having multiple competing factions and the other being the current Syrian government.

Each side has allies. On the rebel side are the Saudi Arabian and US funding and intelligence operations along with various factions, including al Qaeda affiliated jihadists - Jabhat al Nusra is one - and on the side of the Assad regime and its army are Iran and Russia supplying arms, funds and intelligence, with Hezbollah playing an assisting combat role.

The US knew of the May reports and dismissed them. The Russians called for further investigation. The dismissal meant that the use of chemical weapons would be, for the time, accepted; at least accepted to the extent that military action was not publicly contemplated as a response.

Once a single incident, East Ghouta, emerged and it seemed likely that a military unit of the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the calls for military strikes began. Despite the fact that the origin of the intelligence reports remained a muddled affair, the pace quickened and within hours, not days, the Obama Administration began making its case for immediate, US military strikes. Options had been drafted by the Joint Chiefs and were discussed in press briefings.

What seems to have not been anticipated was the public resistance to military action, not just in the US, but also in European nations and NATO. The British House of Commons no-vote after Prime Minister David Cameron’s impassioned plea there seemed to come as a jolt to the administration and the pace slowed.

Accentuating the point, John Kerry, front man for the administration, was caught metaphorically leaning off of the curb, thinking he was stepping down on terra firma then suddenly flailing his arms to not fall down when it was announced that, after all, the president would seek a vote in Congress.

Problematically, the US intelligence report is lacking in details, is not completely consistent with even the French and British intelligence reports on the same incident and has not been verified to be independent and conducted by certified experts. John Kerry, in his Colin Powell moment, went on record with an exact number of casualties: 1,429 dead, including 426 children. Nowhere else can these numbers be found. The French intelligence report released on September 2, indicates a number of 281 fatalities, while British intelligence reported “at least 350,” still less than a quarter of the number stated by the US. These inconsistencies and others throw the US version of events into question. The burden of proof is high as it should be. The WMD fiasco of the Iraq invasion has the American public and the world at large skeptical about US intelligence assessments and intentions.

For democracy to have meaning, an act of war must at a minimum, have public support. The proposed attack on Syria fails in this most important respect. Since international law is being disregarded, one assumes there must at least be allied support for such an action to provide some democratic justification but here the project fails as well. The British public opposes an attack and the British House of Commons voted it down. The French Prime Minister says he supports an attack (on the part of the US, not France), but sixty seven percent of the French public opposes such an action. The polling numbers are consistent throughout Europe and NATO.

For the US to commit an illegal act of war under such circumstances repeats the most dangerous precedent we can imagine: an empire disregards domestic and world opinion and with absolutely no legal standing under any domestic or international legal framework commits an act of war on a sovereign nation.

The harsh reality is this: the US opposes the Assad regime - regional ally of Iran - and this, not chemical weapons use is the reason for a US attack. It is not the number dead or even the method of killing; it is who is doing a certain kind of killing that is causing action. We are attacking the side we oppose, while showing a strange lack of curiosity about the terror, war crimes, beheadings, cannibalism, torture and probable chemical weapons use perpetrated by the other. The world sees the double standard.

So the question of US credibility is indeed on the line. In America it is placed only in the context of our president’s willingness to act militarily against a dictator who may have crossed a “red line” he set. This is a political dilemma for the president, but not a valid legal or moral principle. In the rest of the world the question is only relevant to the extent that he acts unilaterally and illegally against popular will and with sketchy evidence, thereby repeating within a single decade another reckless act of American Empire.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Please tell us the truth; we can handle it.

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” – Barack Obama, December 20, 2007


To be fair, the president in his Rose Garden speech today did say that he had asked for a post-recess vote in the Congress on US military action in Syria.  It is a certainty that he would not have made such a statement without having previously obtained the support of Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor and Nancy Pelosi in the House and Senators Reid and McConnell in the Senate.  With Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the dynamic duo of hawkish military policy and the keepers of the Pentagon’s Senate-guaranteed largesse backing him all the way, it seems a sure bet for the president.  The statements from the House leaders subsequent to today’s Rose Garden address came across as non-belligerent and seem to support this likely outcome, though these days no one can be sure what will come out of the US House of Representatives.

Surely Rand Paul, some Tea Party Congressman and a small but principled group of progressive legislators will make a proper stand, but this is likely to be overwhelmed by replays of Secretary of State Kerry’s impassioned speech of yesterday, which focused on the moral abomination of chemical weapon use and the 1,400+ victims of the August 21st attack in East Ghouta.  The Secretary’s arguments were passionate, focused and consistent, but were incomplete and certain other facts, like Israeli’s use of white phosphorous in concentrated populated areas during its illegal bombing and invasion of Gaza in 2008 have gone unnoticed or are forgotten.  It is even likely that most Americans are unaware that white phosphorous is, under the UN Weapons Convention, a banned chemical when used in offensive weapons.

Citizens of the Middle East will also remember that the US military used the same ghastly chemical in offensive munitions during the campaign of Fallujah in 2003, but these are now off of the public radar in the West.

In a case of poignant imagery that echoes the photo-op of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein shaking hands, Kerry’s demonization of Assad seems awkward when viewed next to the photograph of him, and his lovely wife, having a quiet and cozy dinner with President Assad and his glamorous investment-banker wife in 2009.

Nevertheless, despite the complex and contradictory preconditions for this next American military expedition, the president also made it clear that he does not need congressional approval to authorize and carry out a military strike.  This contradiction may seem shocking to some of his supporters, but it is as American as apple pie and is reminiscent of the Woodrow Wilson who campaigned on a non-interventionist platform, only to change positions shortly after his election and work tirelessly through an impressive propaganda machine and the help of Walter Lippmann, to place America smack in the middle of World War I, one of the most hideous human catastrophes in history.

So, contradictions aside, what is the actual justification for illegal military strikes in Syria?  The US government's public position is this: We (Obama) said if you use chemical weapons, we will act against you with force.  We need to do this to send a message to the world and all other dictators that the use of these weapons is verboten.

Sounds reasonable enough if one believes that the US is divinely deputized to act as the world's policeman.

What underlies the decision seems more nasty and complex: tens of thousands are being murdered and a number of the rebel groups are Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists and are interested only in battling Hezbollah, terrorizing civilian populations and weakening Syrian forces to create destabilization. There are actually several wars going on at once. The radical alliances are mixed and are connected to proxy powers in the region; each trying to fund a battle that they believe serves their interests.  A diplomatic pact with the Russians, the Turks and the US that uses multiple modes of diplomacy and economic sanctions and incentives to save lives has been disregarded by the US (and possibly Russia), because the US will not cooperate with Assad.

Why?  Because Assad and by extension Russia, are the main allies of Iran in the region.  This for the US, which has taken a war-only posture with Iran, is unacceptable, because Israel has insisted that there must be regime change in Iran.  This position has hefty political support in the US Congress and is also shared by neo-cons and others in some foreign policy think tanks.  This thinking can be correctly identified as a direct manifestation of the twenty first century credo of American Exceptionalism.

Away from home and in the theater of battle, the Trans-Arabian pipeline is a factor as well, with very big money tied to it.  The Sydney Morning Herald on August 27, published this leaked story of a direct meeting between Saudi Prince Bandar and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The Saudi's, who have been trying very hard to topple Assad, had offered the Russians a deal that would guarantee a de facto contract alliance with Russia and OPEC in return for backing off support to the Assad regime.  The deal would set oil at a per barrel price-minimum with the ability to systematically raise prices in a structured and extended, cooperative monopoly.  Further, the Saudi's would guarantee security for the Russian’s Tartus Naval base on the Syrian coast, after the Assad regime fell.  This hard-nosed negotiation was purportedly mixed with some threats as well, including the possibility of Chechen terrorist attacks at the Moscow games.  Clearly the Saudi's, US allies, are in control of some nasty business and have been for some time.  If true as reported, these were ugly, but honest conversations.

Putin is reported to have rejected the offer.  The article does not say why, but certainly it has to do with arms sales.  Russia recently renewed its weapons contracts with Syria, which makes them the largest importer of Russian arms.  The Russian arms consortium Rosoboronexport is essentially state-owned and operated. Government officials have a personal, financial stake in its outcomes.  To switch money-making industries overnight means there will be winners and losers, since the current Russian oligarchy exists as a result of inherited industry control; most were former ministers in charge of state-owned energy and energy-related industries. Being on the wrong political side in the Kremlin can have disastrous consequences as seen in the case of nouveaux billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky when he attempted to support the opposition in a 2003 Putin-guaranteed election.  Mr. Khodorkovsky is still in prison.   It may not be so easy - and surely it would take Putin time - to sort out the spoils and keep his power centers loyal.

In the mean time, the US continues observably in lock step with official Israeli and Saudi objectives. To the American public, the announcement that the Arab League supports military strikes may seem significant, but the Saudi’s, the Egyptian military and Qatar dominate the Arab League.  These governments are pro-Israel (not overtly) and anti-Iranian and are following the OPEC status quo agenda.  The US has been able to keep Egypt in line for decades with arms slush funds and ensuring a fat and happy ruling elite who monopolize major companies and most if not all, meaningful large-scale trade.  All the while the Egyptian population is degraded by a lack of worker and human rights and an unemployment rate in excess of thirteen percent.

If the United States had a real press, there could be some confidence that most people would understand the complexity, the dirtiness and the inhumanity of all of this and reckon with it.  The government sells its population short.  This is not to suggest that there is an immediate, simple and clear answer to these problems, but rather that due to their complexity and due to the degree of government corruption that exists around the world, our policies should be more transparent to the people and directly driven by US interests to the extent and only to the extent, that we can promote and execute them peacefully.

And common people matter.  After all, we are a government of the people, yes?

The predictions of elite US policy makers in times of crisis are rarely correct and the military misadventures they take us on are always more costly than projected and are made without the truth being told.  And here is the crux of the problem: the public needs to know the truth; we can handle it. Those who can't handle it being in the open are those whose entrenched financial interests will be disrupted or ended by the truth's revelation, and in this, politicians play a central role.

This is not a policy prescription; it is simply the proper exercise of democracy as intended.  Taking the paternalistic position that the public can't know because it's too risky has some truth in it, but the risk is greater to corrupt power players than it is to common citizens.  Moving to corporate fascism, upheld by a massive security state, is not acceptable and will make the problem much worse, while continuing to distort whatever meaningful remnants of popular democracy we have left.  The absence of the Fourth Estate is perhaps the great tragedy of our time.  Alternative media may take us around the bend, but the future of American democracy and the freedom of the internet remains uncertain.  How the people respond will determine our trajectory.

Congress has stopped functioning and recklessly, war powers have been ceded to the Unitary Presidency.  This time around Obama may be able to pull it off, but who knows?  Polls indicate a popular discomfort with where we are headed and the cost of this kind of foreign policy is unsustainable. Americans can engage the world with creative strengths that are not based on military dominance. Foreign governments and trading partners will play by the rules if there are incentives for them to do so, but those incentives need to be consistent with popular democratic values, not simply corporate profit objectives at any human cost.

Transparency is the key and unfortunately the latest large-scale trade agreement, the uber-globalization, multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has been negotiated in secret for several years with corporate lawyers writing the rules in an audacious act of obfuscation that makes NAFTA seem like a public worker rights bill.  Lacking any kind of plebiscite, despite the fact that the agreement affects independent farmer's agricultural rights, international labor standards and environmental laws, the agreement represents the ultimate inside deal between mega-multinational corporations and elite policy makers who have moved through the revolving door of government and business.

The geopolitical consequences of this agreement are yet to be seen, but its exclusion of China and some of its waivers, which in some cases directly contravene national sovereignty, seem to be a huge setback for democracy, transparency and true, free markets.  The Obama Administration has been redirecting naval assets to the pacific region for the last two years using a public relations strategy underpinned by the notion that Chinese naval modernization requires a countervailing force in the region despite the fact that China has not invaded or attacked another country in modern times, save its short border war with Vietnam in 1979.  The parallel development of the TPP and US Naval deployments in the Pacific can be seen rationally as an ominous sign.

If we invest in our own people-based assets, we can innovate and creatively transform markets.  This would be a program of attraction, not dominance. But that would mean promoting a form of capitalism that is based on the ideas of the oft-quoted, but rarely understood Adam Smith, who believed that the economy exists at the pleasure of the people through their industry and their grant to the government in regulating it.  It was not to exist simply for personal profits, but to serve the people of the nation and the common good and as with governing, was to be transparent.

The fateful decision regarding unilateral and illegal military strikes on a sovereign, albeit inhumane, government will not be an attack on besieged Syrian government leadership but rather individual citizens and infrastructure in spite of whichever military targets are involved.  Surely more people will die as a result and what happens next is anyone's guess.  The declared necessity for such an action has a public face and a private face as does so much else in the elite and opaque policy making of an empire.

Let's get to the truth, we can handle it.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Think again, please.

Before you accept the corporate media version of the Obama Administration’s decision landscape for what now appears to be an inevitable, illegal attack on another sovereign nation, please take another look.

Here are some inconvenient facts and analyses:

Firstly, it is not clear at all that the Syrian military were the sole perpetrators of sarin gas use on civilians in the Syrian conflict.  In May 2013, UN investigator Carla del Ponte reported in connection with the suspected use of sarin gas: ‘This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities’ (see the Daily Mail and Der Spiegel among others). 

This was after numerous interviews with victims and victims’ families in the neighborhoods where the attacks took place and the acquisition of forensic proof that the rockets carrying the nerve agent were launched from rebel-held areas.  This view was disputed by the US and Britain.  However, it was Ms. Del Ponte’s team who were on the ground, under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, doing first hand investigation.  Consequently, we must reasonably accept at the very least, that this is still a debatable point.  The US mainstream media seem to have forgotten these details.

Assuming that a unilateral military attack is legal, which it is not under the UN Charter and international law, is attacking one side in a conflict under the presumption of guilt a morally justifiable act when there is evidence that both sides are perpetrators of the same offense? 

Secretary of State Kerry and other State Department officials have insisted, as a matter of fact, that the Syrian government delayed on the question of UN inspection of the East Ghouta area (the alleged and recent location of nerve gas use).  In fact, the request was not delivered to the Syrians until Saturday, in person, by UN representative Angela Kane and the Syrians responded within one day with an affirmative answer.  This was confirmed by the UN.

The State Department also insists that the Syrians are destroying evidence with the continued shelling of Ghouta, but both the Syrians and UN inspectors, who observe that a ceasefire has remained intact in the area, dispute this.

Western media sources reported that UN inspections were halted by sniper fire and in many cases made the inference that the sniper fire came from Syrian troops, when in fact the inspections went ahead on schedule.  Oddly, the fact that Syrian officials were escorting the UN inspectors to the crime scene seems to have escaped US mainstream media sources.  Why would the Syrians fire on their own officials after their government approved the inspection, publicly announced it and personally escorted UN inspectors there?

There are two problems with the US rationale.

First, they insisted on allowing inspections of East Ghouta by UN inspectors, but then tried to get UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon to call off the inspections after it was clear that the Syrians would comply, thereby removing putative justification for US military action.  The public rationale for this was concern over the presumed quality of remaining evidence.  In other words, the discovery of more uncertainty would not be useful to US unilateral aims. 

Second, the US has completely disregarded the fact that some evidence exists that rebel forces had already used sarin.

After listening to C-SPAN today, it is clear that the State Department is engaged in double-speak.  While insisting that the US would act in a legal fashion, they refused to offer a legal rationale for military action, despite repeated questions from members of the press who actually appeared to be doing their job at the State Department briefing.

Some points to ponder:  If the US, once again, attacks a sovereign nation in violation of the UN Charter and international law and in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, on what basis will we be able to prevent China or Russia from doing the same anywhere in the world should they decide to do so?  How can the law only apply to others, but not the US?  How is it justifiable to take action for presumed crimes that have not yet been fully investigated by UN inspectors who, as I write, are trying to complete their legal responsibilities under international law?

Almost without exception, US unilateral military interventions in foreign conflicts have resulted in increased civilian casualties after the strikes take place.  Civilian casualties always occur, but are glossed over, as was the case with the bombing campaign in Libya.  Doctors on the ground there and Human Rights Watch, among others, reported scores of civilian deaths as a direct result of the airstrikes.  NATO left the post-strike investigation responsibilities to the transitional rebel government: in other words the very people who benefited from the bombing campaign.  They have shown no interest in undertaking an investigation and western media have dropped the story, but initial on-the-ground evidence is disturbing.

It is popular myth that President Clinton’s illegal bombing of Serbia and Kosovo reduced the level of slaughter taking place there.  But as the Wall Street Journal and an in depth study by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) revealed, mass killings increased after the bombing campaign took place.  This fact was further demonstrated with exculpatory evidence presented in the subsequent war crimes trials of Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen.

But what of the ghastly abomination taking place in Syria?  How can we stand idly by?  These questions are legitimate and urgent, but should be put in the context of our recent world history.  It is also fair to ask if this is a genuine motivation for US military involvement.  Where was US military action during the Rwandan genocide, which led to the murder of 500,000 people? 

Where was US military action when the Indonesian government, after illegally annexing East Timor, slaughtered 250,000 people using US-supplied arms and funding?

Examples abound.

What is different about these countries than say Iraq or Syria?  Are their citizens of less value?

If we have learned anything from US militarism ersatz diplomacy it is that there are always unknown and underestimated consequences.  Some immediate questions: If there are US-led bombings, will Hezbollah make true on its promise to attack Israel?  Certainly Israel will make good on its promise to retaliate with unmatched force.  What will then happen in Lebanon?  What will happen to an already refugee-strained Jordan?  In the chaos that ensues, what will come of internecine battles between Al Qaeda affiliated rebels and Hezbollah inside and outside of Syria?

What else will go wrong?


One thing we can count on is oil prices going up and the Saudi’s and Big Oil making more money.  We can also count on the big US defense contractors making a big windfall.  And you can be sure that more people will die and the Middle East will become increasingly unstable.