Sunday, November 22, 2015

Can the Broken Thing Fix Itself? Terrorism in the World of Neoliberalism

Americans are given, from time to time, an inside look at what kind of thinking dominates the inner circles of our foreign policy establishment. The locus of this esteemed discourse can often be found at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank whose policy positions are often conflated by corporate media with those of the US State Department. Anyone who has followed the COFR will realize that the conflation is not necessarily inaccurate. Richard Haas, the Council's president for more than a decade; a former State Department official and advisor to Colin Powell, can be seen on Sunday TV talk shows where Washington insiders give their thoughtful views on the foreign policy crises of the day. While modest criticism of official US policy may be found in these exchanges, Haas will never deviate very far from the positions taken by the State Department. 

Haas's thinking has been consistent for years and is underpinned by the policy theory of neoliberalism as articulated by Joseph Nye, political scientist, distinguished professor and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics and several other works, which articulate what Nye understands to be the necessities of American leadership in the world. Nye has also served as a board member of the COFR.  

At the heart of Nye's thinking is the notion that the expansion and liberalization of world markets will bring democratization to underdeveloped areas of the world, thereby spreading normative behaviors that comport with the rules of a colossal US-centered economic and political system, provided that such participation is seen as attractive to potential new comers. At the center of this system is the US dollar as reserve currency, with Wall Street and the City of London acting as financial recycling mechanisms and the IMF serving as the enforcer of doctrinal standards for new entrants and financially struggling mendicant countries who have entered the club but for various reasons struggle to stay in, often at the cost of their own sovereignty (Greece is a recent example).  

Part and parcel to the continued expansion of this world order is the control and regulation of oil and gas markets with both economic and military power. The necessity of this last formulation has been largely unwritten but has been clearly embedded in absolute terms within US foreign policy for decades. The Iraq war, which Haas supported, has been its magnum opus.

To his great credit, Nye in 2004 offered a clear picture of the limitations of US power with regard to abating the tide of Wahhabi terrorism through military means. In Soft Power he makes a comparison of Britain's failure to extend it's political and moral influence to US supporters of the IRA during The Troubles: funds continued to flow to the IRA from the US and Britain failed in its war against it. He offered a prescient view of this problem in the Middle East:

"This is similar to the problem the U.S. now faces with Saudi support and financing of Wahhabi clerics who preach intolerance and hatred for the West and for other Muslim sects, and who now evangelize their noxious creed throughout the Muslim world. The War on Terror is to a significant extent a war against this Wahhabi creed - although it increasingly involves many Muslims who are not of that sect. It is a war that the U.S. can powerfully influence, but it is a civil war within the Muslim world. Moderate Muslims are the only ones who can defeat this Wahhabi creed and the various other Muslim militants." (Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004).

What is missing from Nye's cogent analysis is a frame of reference that allows us to look critically at US state-directed economic policy toward energy extraction that places access to oil above human rights and actual democratization. The US is not alone in managing the dangerous contradictions embedded in such an imperative: China has learned to master the art well and Russia, through state control, has helped drive the trend forward by aggressively attempting to co opt a larger portion of the supply side of the equation in emerging markets.  

One might be forgiven for failing to address the contradiction that the "free market" requires massive state interventions in order to maintain energy supplies without regard to human rights and democratic development, when ideology is based on the foundation of neoliberalism. But we must look beyond these inadequate formulations. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies as determined by the IMF has been met with resistance in many parts of the world and most recently in the United States with the leaking of chapters from the secretly negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. The TPP is emblematic of the "normative behavior" that is required to spread neoliberal policies: avoiding plebiscite while developing extralegal contracts between trade representatives (countries) and multi-national corporations without parliamentary procedure, congressional input or debate. In short, normative behavior means acting on major policy decisions that affect civil society at large, but without its involvement and without transparency. This is nowhere more clear than in US policy toward oil extraction in the middle east. 

It is not a simple matter of the US needing oil for its domestic economy: domestic oil drilling and gas extraction has changed this equation, with the US becoming significantly less reliant on Saudi oil.  Rather, it is that the continued flow of oil from the Middle East is necessary for Europe and other parts of the world, where major world economies purchase oil in petrodollars. These dollars need to be invested in secure instruments and at scale, for several reasons. Wall Street, with the City of London as surrogate, keeps its dollar funnel open to the world, creating a financial dynamo that has driven financial market expansion to dizzying heights.  

While some see the US Empire in decline, the fact is that the US maintains the reserve currency of the world and the Fed and US Treasury are adept at maintaining this financial hegemony through monetary policy.  Panitch and Gindin, in The Making of Global Capitalism, (Verso Books, 2012) have superbly documented this long and successful history. 

A problem with such purportedly liberalizing policies is that they not only disregard popular will and democratic process, but also undermine national sovereignty.  Who managed the 2008 financial crisis? It was not the president and it was not the US Congress: it was unelected officials at the Fed and the Treasury. Who manages trade policy?  TPP makes it clear: Multinational corporations and trade representatives determine national economic and trade policy that directly affects the lives of millions of unsuspecting and unrepresented people. This is quite the opposite of democracy and in practice represents the kind of soft fascism that Ralph Nader has described in his more recent work. Nye and Haas are not the creators of this extralegal superstructure, which has existed in some form since the establishment of Bretton Woods in 1944, but they are its current intellectual water boys.

It is in this context that we should understand the recent communiqués coming from the COFR, which is now publicly weighing in on the current crisis that is on most people's minds: Paris and the recent terrorist attacks carried out by members or affiliates of ISIS, the composite terror organization that was given birth by the extended and disastrous Iraq war.  

In her November 20th column in Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks, the distinguished law professor at Georgetown University, offers her input to the prestigious journal in an article that uses the internet pop-up ad format of "10 things you didn't know about..." to give the public a dose of reality on the limits of US power with regard to ending international terrorism. To uncover the narrowness within which current policy thinking is apparently being made, it is necessary to follow the answer-by-number format that Ms. Brooks offers in Reader's Digest format: 

1. No one can keep the bad guys out. This statement has little value and seems to serve as a way to obscure questioning of the underlying causes of conflict, as if to say "get used to it, there is nothing we can do to stop it."  Tactically speaking, the US, in fact, has very strong border screening processes: but what about the massive increase in numbers of very young, uneducated "bad guys" that are swelling the ranks of ISIS?

2. The threat is already inside. True for the EU.  France has its own problematic legacy with the Maghreb and dispossession and lack of assimilation of Muslim peoples. The screening processes are also not as good as we have in the US. Ironically, in the US, the "inside" threat has come mostly from white, right-winger "Christians" and though this has been statistically born out, it is ignored by corporate media and apparently by Ms. Brooks.
3. More surveillance won't rid us of terrorism. It would be odd for this writer to defend the Surveillance State, but even the most rogue operators of it, like James Clapper, have never suggested it would end terrorism.  To the extent that it is used to support drone warfare with its insufferable collateral damage, we can even see how the Surveillance State contributes to terrorist recruitment.

4. Defeating ISIS won't make terrorism go away. This is a veritable straw man. A germane question regarding the rise of ISIS and its related variants pertains to how the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq has spread Sunni-Shia civil war to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. That ISIS exists now and what to do about it is another topic that involves the hard work of multilateral and sustained negotiations, not simply US-led military force. If the Sunnis of Iraq were not disenfranchised, perhaps the Iraqi people could defeat the ISIS insurgency within their own borders.  Current policy gives no indication that the US is seriously trying to bring power sharing and democratization about.  
5. Terrorism still remains a minor threat, statistically speaking. Well, not if you consider the bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza, Yemen, Southern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, South Sudan and many other places where the thing categorized as "war" has created dispossession, suffering and death on a massive scale. Earlier this year, Boko Haram murdered 2,000 civilians in Baga, northern Nigeria, but no alarm or coloring of Facebook profiles with the Nigerian flag was forthcoming. "Terror" is seen from the eyes of the victim and its asymmetrical form is over determined by theses ongoing conflicts. One version of terror is the bombing and killing of unsuspecting civilians by drone attack. "A minor threat, statistically speaking."
6.  Meanwhile poorly planned Western action could make things worse. Well, this is redundant, isn't it?

7. Terrorism is a problem to be managed. Here we see a vision proffered from within the most opaque and narrow blinders.  This also seems to be the view of the COFR at large, whose frame of reference is calibrated by the assumed necessity of promoting and extending neoliberal capitalism and IMF policy to every corner of the earth while making the assumption that its negative effects - terrorism among them - simply need to be "managed." This is statism at its most arrogant. This viewpoint precludes its advocates from stepping outside of the neoliberalismo worldview and offering a critical analysis of the whole paradigm. To wit: since changing US-centered economic and concomitant military policy is impossible, lets not even discuss alternative means for bringing an end to the causal forces that underlie terrorist movements.

9. To do this, however, we need to move beyond the political posturing that characterizes most public debates about counterterrorism, and instead speak honestly about the costs and benefits of different approaches.  And of course, this is elaborated with "we need to be hardheaded." The focus is then put on investing more in counterterrorism research, while avoiding deeper questions regarding the effects of American foreign policy in the name of "freedom." This is of course, similar to the Netanyahu world view: we are morally right and we need to manage the discontent and strife that arises from our policies by any means necessary, twisting international law to conform to those means, because our aims are just. This allows no room for deeper reflection on the underlying contradictions of state-sponsored neoliberal economic policy and its manifestation in globalization. This kind of selective exceptionalism is exactly what needs to be challenged and reconsidered.

The law of unintended consequences has been at work as a countervailing factor in US foreign policy for decades as was seen in the US-sponsored rise of the Shah and the subsequent Iranian Revolution; in the Viet Nam War that was followed by the Khmer Rouge and in the Iraq War, which has unleashed the worst strife in the Middle East in modern times.

Do the American people really need a list of "get used to it" points from our leading foreign policy think tank?

We can do much better.

See Rosa Brooks's full column in Foreign Policy, here:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Carnival

The GOP sucks and the Democrats too
They’ll stubbornly reek, like poop on your shoe.

Like Barnum and Bailey they do aim to please
With great legends and myths to set minds at ease

While their sponsors craft messages short of sublime
And “The American People” is put to rhyme

A play is constructed in the theater of fear
To keep us all distracted from that which is dear.

So the tale it is crafted that deficits loom
‘Cause some people are lazy and just too jejune

To understand freedom and the need for more war
So that those markets can grow and all will have more

And every four years, that odd circus hits our town
When a primary emerges to select the right clown

So hustings are taken with great dash and much dare
To make popular base instincts that should be rare.

And we will follow along without much ado
As nothing can abide to make us think anew

While everything is war and culture a zoo
The heart of the matter as always is true

And it lies within reach if we can look through the glass
Else Democracy dies and is a thing of the past.

Look deeper we must to put a kink in the chain
And let’s read not the drivel, but rather Tom Paine.

KS – November 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis, Politics and the Blessed Peacemakers

While a number of strident public critics in corporate media and Washington politics have suggested that Pope Francis should stay out of politics and stop criticizing various US policies, it is rather impossible to separate the moral admonitions of the Pope from politics.  Politics determines policy and policy reflects the morality of societies.  The pontiff's harshest criticism seems reserved for capitalism, as it actually exists.  He does not favor a political party.  We often speak of capitalism as if it exists according to the romanticized and now distorted images co opted from the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, men who wrote centuries ago and at a time when corporations as we know them did not exist and when British and European “trade” activity was based on mercantilism, artisanal entrepreneurs and tradesmen. When Smith referred to the coincidentally benevolent “silent hand” effecting mutual benefit amongst citizens, he was referring to these kinds of individuals and not large mega corporations, which did not exist in his time except for the likes of the East India Company of which he was harshly critical for its monopolistic power and brutal tactics in foreign lands.  Many “conservatives” like to quote Adam Smith but in a way that makes it apparent that they haven’t actually read his work, or have done so selectively.

What the Pope seems to understand at a fundamental level is that the thing we call capitalism today is anything but the world envisioned by Smith, or that the “market” is in any way free and therefore benevolent or benign, by intent or otherwise.  When trade agreements are negotiated in secret, out of public and even congressional view, how can we justly call this free trade?  Free for whom?  When the three largest arms producers in the world are US companies and virtually all of their profits are attributable to US taxpayers, how is this free market capitalism?  When these arms are sold to brutal regimes, like the one in Egypt, in power by virtue of coup d’états, or Saudi Arabia, an extremist fiefdom promoting Wahhabism and genocide against Shia’s, how can this be seen by the Pope as anything other than government sponsored brutality? 

The Catholic Church, despite the story of Galileo, has a rather decent record on the embrace of science in the modern era and this Pope recognizes the urgency that overwhelming scientific evidence has brought to bear with regard to global warming and climate change.   When fossil fuel companies dominate energy markets, are given massive taxpayer subsidies and licenses to drill on public lands, driving ever more CO2 into our only atmosphere, how is this rational public policy? How does this serve the public trust and how is it remotely based on free market economics?  

When the US surrounds Iran, a country with military technology based on the Shah era, with 14 military bases and supplies massive arms to its most bitter enemies, the Saudis (and Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain), who have promoted Wahhabi and Salafist extremism intent on wiping out Shia Islam, how is this furthering democracy, peace and brotherhood? How is it rational and peace-seeking on the part of the US when all of the non-aligned nations of the world and the P5+1 countries support the Iranian Multilateral Nuclear agreement and accept the IAEA’s assessments (and the US Intelligence Estimate) and findings, but the US Congress and influential “hawks” wish to scuttle it, raising the specter of war?

The Pope is from Latin America and knows its history well.  A question he might ask: why is it that the US Congress and leading presidential candidates propose building gargantuan border walls and the undertaking of massive deportations of illegal immigrants, many of whom were refugees fleeing from Honduras where a democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup in 2009?  How is it that the Latin American countries, the European Union and the UN condemned the coup, but the US didn’t and went even further and embraced the new military dictatorship, which then undertook a violent campaign of oppression, driving farmers off of working land and creating a massive refugee crisis, landing thousands at our southern border? 

The Pope will know well the effects of the US War on Drugs in Latin American countries.  He sees our massive demand for drugs and our poverty-generated markets for them and the criminalization of non-violent, drug-related activities in the poorest neighborhoods of the US, which has swelled our prisons, creating a new government-driven private, (but not free) market for prison management, with taxpayers bearing the cost of building the prisons and paying the tab for private contractors.  We now jail 2.5 million people, the largest number in absolute value terms in the world.  The Pope may also question why the US, unilaterally and brutally, has imposed an embargo on Cuba for over 50 years, while the rest of the world and all of Latin America has condemned it.  On this front, even large capitalist enterprises in the US have for years called for the lifting of the embargo.

For those who wish to blame the GOP for all of these tragedies – and they deserve plenty of blame – please do not allow the plank to rest in your eye and ignore the complicity of the Democrats in all of this.  These are not new problems.  They have developed over decades and across presidential administrations and congresses and the unraveling of them will not occur on our behalf by those in power whose campaign coffers are filled by powerful special interest groups.  We are, in the literal sense, living in an empire and this Pope knows it.  Private power is feeding at the public trough and our government policies, unsurprisingly, reflect these interests.

If the Pope accomplishes one thing outside of the Catholic Church proper, it may be that he opens our eyes to the human and moral consequences of our government’s policies, its misuse of its citizens money by spending 54 cents of every tax dollar on the military (that we know of), its allowance of companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple and GE to store billions of untaxed dollars abroad, the forcing of its citizens to underwrite the moral hazard of ridiculously large banks and their executive’s bonuses in the name of “liquidity,” increasing the already staggering wealth of those who make money on capital, but not of working people and the poor, its perpetual militarism, which has destabilized an entire region of the world, bringing death and suffering to millions of innocents and the creation of massive refugee crises, all the while having 25% of the world’s prison population jailed inside of its borders and over a half a million people living homeless on the streets if its great cities.

It is instructive that the Pope, when addressing today's joint session of Congress, offered these great Americans for thoughtful consideration: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

"Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade." - Pope Francis, Address to the joint session of Congress, September 24, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections of late August: 1919’s Red Summer

The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, Nebraska. 1919

Woodrow Wilson, five months into his presidency and after having run on an anti-war platform, plunged America into the great catastrophe of World War I. Different historical narratives exist regarding that decision. Wilson eventually mustered 4,800,000 US soldiers into service, 2,800,000 of them by draft, after a nationwide campaign undertaken with a new public propaganda tool, the Committee on Public Information, created by Wilson with the help of journalist George Creel.

One effect of the war was a shortage of labor in the industrial north of the United States. A great migration of southern blacks took place to the large cities of the north to fill jobs on the railroads and in factories. At the end of the war, amidst a mass demobilization of US troops and a reduction in armaments manufacturing, came unemployment. What had been a shortage of labor was now a surplus. Coincident with these events were the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had taken place in 1917, and new black civil rights activism in the US in the wake of Marcus Garvey, the 10-year-old NAACP and other organizations and the new prominence of important black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many politicians and newspapers treated activists as enemies of the state by conflating the emergent black civil rights movement with Bolshevism. The New York Times was amongst the worst offenders with a July 28, 1919 headline titled “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT; Widespread Propaganda on Foot Urging Them to Join I.W.W. and 'Left Wing' Socialists.”

At the end of the war, suspicion of an ascendant Germany was being replaced by the “red scare.” While politicians, carnival barkers and reckless newspaper media promoted this hysteria, tensions were breaking out between whites and blacks as black communities were placed in a state of siege by mob attacks on the part of jobless whites, Klan members and their sympathizers. From opened archives we know that Woodrow Wilson in private conversation, stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America,” a direct reference to men who had just served their country in the deadliest war of the modern era. (See Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer). 

It can also be noted that this was the era of the racist, pro-KKK film "Birth of a Nation" by Wilson's friend and cinematographer, D.W. Griffith. Wilson invited his cabinet and close friends to the White House for a private screening of the film.

In the summer of 1919 riots broke out with white mobs attacking blacks, but unlike past eras, many blacks resisted and fought back. Even in Washington DC, where President Wilson maintained racially segregated federal offices, violence erupted after repeated attacks on black homes, against individuals on streetcars, and in workplaces elsewhere in the city. The DC Police refused to intervene. The NAACP sent a telegram to President Wilson, condemning the attacks and urging intervention. As the attacks went unabated, riots broke out.

Lynching would go on for a number of years. The Red Scare would continue. Newspapers, the mass media of the day, would continue to carry water for those promoting hysteria and attacking the labor and civil rights movements, while brave souls of American history forged new paths.

"She says, You can’t repeat the past. I say, You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.'” - Bob Dylan, Summer Days.