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.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Wetlands of Wisdom

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This morning, amid cell phone text alerts of serious flash flooding, Holley and I began our ride to Cornwall’s Outdoor Discovery Center for her camp counselor assignment.  Our route traversed Montgomery, Coldenham, Rock Tavern, New Windsor and Cornwall.  This is one of the most beautiful corridors in Orange County, NY and home to numerous rich and bio-diverse marshes and wetlands.

I slowed down to look at the wetland of North Drury Lane. The steady “inhalation” of water there immediately struck me; how the extended marsh is perfectly and complexly configured by nature to handle massive amounts of rain with ease.  Trying to do a bit of calculation of what four inches of rain amounts to in a basin as large as the Stewart Buffer Zone I had to laugh a little at the thought of a “flash flood.”  The hydrologic flows and the natural expansion and accommodation made by the hydric soil, hydrophytes and natural earthen contours offer an amazing look into the inland freshwater ecosystems that we have working for us every day.

On my way home I had to stop in the driving rain and just sit and look as deeply as I could into these amazing freshwater wonders.  It became apparent to me that these complex systems work, in part, because of their collaborative plant and animal biodiversity.  No one species dominates the other, save the exotic loosestrife along outer ditches and roadways.  Advantages and disadvantages are traded back and forth with the tendency toward robustness and diversity: in short, a successful affirmation of life.

If we can recognize our own earthbound animal biology, I think we can also look to the marshes and wetlands for wisdom.