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Weekly Commentary — Sarah Palin and the Crazy Right

2009 November 23
by rahul

Sarah Palin’s “auto”-biography is really boring. Having a mere twenty minutes to spare, I only got a chance to read about a quarter of it, but that was enough for me.

The exigencies of expending 400 pages on the non-events of what was until mid-2008 a non-life are not pleasant to imagine; it’s quite obvious that the book was published early because, unlike most political memoirs, there was no need to sift through a mass of facts, anecdotes and musings to refine out a coherent story — all that was need was to add in lots of junior-high prose describing the Alaskan landscape and to recapitulate well-known events from the presidential campaign.

The book is full of distortions and outright lies — the AP put 11 fact-checkers on the story (as Markos Moulitsas pointed out, it might have been nice if they did this for the Iraq WMD story). There is also a lot of cheap score-settling, showcasing Palin’s by-now legendary vindictive, backbiting personality. But the dominant thread is simply the fact that she is a non-entity, with nothing discernible behind the moose-shooting leg-showing façade.

There seem to be sharp disagreements over whether she can be safely dismissed. Frank Rich says she is here to stay as a phenomenon because she taps into something deep in the American soul, a sentiment shared by Maureen Dowd. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, one of her greatest fans, locates her in a hallowed lineage of hard-nosed American “populism,” following in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Ronald Reagan, ending his bizarre piece with an injunction to Palin to oppose the crucifixion of America on the “cross of Goldman Sachs.”

My sense, though, among the more explicitly partisan liberals, is that they are salivating at the thought of a Palin presidential campaign, expecting an easy win for the Democrats. It is true that key bloggers like Moulitsas and Matthew Yglesias do frequently express concern for the descent of the Republican Party into insanity and extremism. Some of that is schadenfreude expressed as concern, and some of it is based on the idea that the country needs a two-party system, that implosion of the Republicans because they have stopped representing Americans will in the long run be bad for the polity.

I come down on the side of concern myself, but not for the same reasons. I don’t think the extremization of the Republican Party has any chance of leading to its disintegration. The institutional strength of the two-party system and the emotional resonance of the liberal-conservative divide are too great. The last real challenge to the two-party system was in the late 19th century with, in fact, William Jennings Bryan. The end of the Vietnam War and the impeachment of Richard Nixon wrecked the Republican Party; in 1975 and 1976, its demise was already being celebrated in some quarters. Yet, four years later, a Republican was elected president and an era of Republican political dominance was ushered in; it still has not ended.

My guess now is that, no matter how far the Republican Party goes, they will lose very little more of their support. You can already see Obama losing popularity, even though most of what he has done is at least partly in the interest of the lower and middle classes and even though the only prescriptions Republicans have are utter nonsense (or stalking horses for insurance companies, like the call to let them sell insurance policies across state lines, thus freeing them to pick the state with the least onerous regulatory requirements).

This analysis is, I think, especially true with a foreign black Muslim Kenyan in the White House. Although Obama’s victory was indeed a victory for a certain post-racial America (which is very different from an America that has dealt with the injustice of race and racism), there is a large chunk of the country that is not ready to be dragged into the 21st century — or the 20th.

The latest trope in this unsavory group is a bumper sticker saying “Pray for Obama — Psalm 109:8.” In the King James Bible (if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me), this reads, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” The psalm continues with imprecations against his fatherless children and his widow. The expression of these charming sentiments coincides with a huge rise in death threats against the president, which, along with an increase in related incidents, apparently threatens to overwhelm the Secret Service.

Obviously, a presidential campaign espousing this sort of hatred will get nowhere fast; just as obviously, a non-entity like Palin would be nowhere without it.

Weekly Commentary — Nidal Malik Hasan as a Rorschach Test

2009 November 16
by rahul

Like all good current events, Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s recent shooting spree at Fort Hood, wherein he killed 13 people and wounded over 40, has functioned as a political Rorschach test.

For the right, the blob resolves very easily; indeed, this particular incident was unnecessary. Muslims are scary and can’t be trusted. Hasan was part of a massive “terrorist” ring planning assaults on the U.S. military from within. Joe Lieberman, always one of the stalwarts of anti-Arab paranoia and fundamentalist anti-Islamism, plans to hold hearings designed to ferret out said plots.

A further obvious lesson is that the pinkos and peaceniks running the U.S. military are caught up in “political correctness;” no longer just about keeping white boys on elite college campuses from having good clean fun, now it has a body count.

Interestingly, of all the mainstream commentators, only Frank Rich had the wit to point out the bizarre contradiction at the heart of the “war on terror” for the past six years at least; the very people who jump to support our various expeditions into the Muslim world and excoriate opponents for not wanting to help Muslims and not believing that Muslims are capable of democracy themselves rabidly hate Muslims. It’s apparently not polite to say, but it’s quite obviously true.

For the status-quo defenders of ponderous military bureaucracy, which apparently includes all militant liberals now, the lesson is that there is no lesson. The military’s expansive tolerance and respect for diversity are good things, and Major Hasan’s unfortunate emotional problems have nothing to do with his religion.

For some fervent opponents of the war, I suppose, the incident is a lesson that some incipient groundswell of Muslims is out there, ready to kill our soldiers and drown our empire in blood, and that we should cease to occupy Muslim countries or we will be destroyed.

There are other lessons one might just as easily choose to learn. Instead of the danger of Muslims in the military, one might consider the danger of the casual abuse and prejudice within the military; perhaps the all-too-common practice of soldiers cheerfully referring to people like Hasan as “ragheads” and “hajis” is actually not such a good idea.

Or one might consider how this incident manifests the severe problems with the provision of psychiatric care within the military; how was it that a man who was clearly in serious need of it himself ended up being charged with providing it to others?

One might even choose to learn the lesson that Hasan himself suggested, at the end of a rambling and semi-coherent PowerPoint presentation with 50 slides that he delivered in 2007 to a mystified group of Army doctors expecting a medical presentation — a presentation that, by the way, was a cry for help that only a complete blockhead could have failed to notice. The last slide contained a single recommendation: allow Muslim soldiers to become conscientious objectors and/or leave the military if they felt too much conflict with the idea of fighting against fellow Muslims. In retrospect, at least, it is hard to argue with this one.

Personally, the main lesson I see, which is, I suppose, partly in line with that of the military brass, is that it’s actually quite amazing how little of a problem Muslim soldiers have been. There have been two incidents of fratricide, that of Hasan Akbar near the beginning of the Iraq war, and this one, and only a handful of cases of conscientious objection or noncooperation.

While the military bureaucracy obviously failed miserably in dealing with Major Hasan, the complacency of the brass is well justified. Muslim soldiers and intelligence agents are a major asset in the prosecution of the “war on terror;” incidents like these are acceptable losses for a militarily sound program. It is quite obvious that these incidents are no more disconnected from the religion and/or ethnicity of the two men in question than membership in AIPAC or the NAACP is, but still they only add up to a minor cost; 13 American soldiers is the number being killed in a week in Afghanistan.

American Muslims, furthermore, have essentially posed no threat, either of terrorist attacks, or even of significant political resistance to the war on terror. They are not only less cohesive than Muslim communities in many European countries, they are apparently much more apolitical. Although there is a great deal of simmering  resentment at the reflexive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice of much of the country, it doesn’t seem to translate into any kind of action.

Naturally, of course, the right wing wants to take one of the few things that America does right and fix it.

Weekly Commentary — Reflections on the Fall

2009 November 9
by rahul

The Bengalis, my mother’s people, have a saying: “Anyone who isn’t a Communist at twenty has no heart. Anyone who still is a Communist at forty has no brain.” Unpleasantly redolent of the complacency of age, of the status quo, and of capitalism as it is, it is still worth considering.

I was twenty when the Berlin Wall fell.

I was in the middle of a brief flirtation with anarchism at the time, brought on by my first reading of Chomsky. Like many young leftists, I found it liberating. “Actually existing” communism had produced societies that were nightmares of stultification; the Warsaw Pact countries had no trace of romance or revolution to leaven the image of dull gray lives led by dull gray people, made that way by a dull gray system.

At the time, we were mystified by the anger and despair of the older generation; to us, it betokened a kind of totemic identification with societies and systems because of past connections and reflexive verbal associations with terms like “socialism” and “collective.”

Surely, these countries had no more to do with “real” socialism than Stalin did with “real” Bolshevism — or the Holocaust and the Inquisition with “real” Christianity? The dethroning of Erich Honecker or Todor Zhivkov didn’t change the inherent evils of capitalism and imperialism or the importance of a real alternative.

No sooner were such thoughts formulated, of course, than they were drowned in a welter of Western triumphalism. In some ways, perhaps the older generation was wiser; they saw that, rather than a blow for human freedom, the fall of communism would be a loss for one side and a victory for the other. Many of them even realized that the dissociation of “actual” socialism from “real” socialism — that Platonic ideal form — was a little too facile.

We have now lived through twenty years — my entire adult life — of a world with, as Margaret Thatcher correctly pointed out, no alternatives. We have seen the results. The monstrous tragedies of communism that billions lived through became for the United States nothing more than retrospective justification for its own crimes and follies and cheap fodder for a new global offensive, this one unchecked by the existence of another pole, ideological, political, or military.

Perhaps we have gained enough distance to evaluate the brief interlude that was the history of communism. It is true we still have China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea with us, and a lot of noise from Hugo Chavez, but the term of communism as a living idea in the world began in 1871 with the Paris Commune and ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

What can we say about it? It is true, of course, that the history of communism was one continually thwarted by imperialist reaction and bloodshed, by the machinations of unscrupulous, power-hungry intellectuals, and by the rise of a bloodless bureaucratic elite, who played no part in the revolutions but took for themselves the best of what their societies produced.

There are deeper truths, though. Michael Albert connects the evils of actually existing communism to the rise of what he calls “coordinatorism,” the ideology of a new class defined ideologically by their role in dictating to society what it should do rather than economically by their role in production.

I don’t think this goes deep enough. It has long been a staple of the conservative critique of communism that the very existence of a utopian ideology of social transformation itself inevitably leads to catastrophe. The mass killings of the 20th century lend a great deal of credence to this notion. It is not just Nazism and Communism; the postwar creators of the American empire, who evolved an ideological worldview that James Peck has termed “visionary globalism,” shared the same problem in lesser degree.

The other critique, that communism removed self-interest and thus initiative, certainly did not apply to the builders of the system. Those revolutionaries, dictators, apparatchiks, and political entrepreneurs were engaged in a tremendous act of will. They shook the pillars of Heaven and tried to force the pace of history, all the while proclaiming that they were in the service of historical inevitability.

They weren’t all, or even mostly, evil or purely self-serving. What united them, though — the ones that survived or succeeded — was a shared belief that they must use whatever degree of ruthlessness was required to achieve the dictates of history.

There is a new left in the world, that wishes to disavow any connection with that history of heroism, sacrifice, folly, and destruction, that wishes not to impose a cost on anyone — and much of which also doesn’t wish to bear any.

How will it avoid the mistakes of the past and also avoid the comfort and moral safety of powerlessness? How will it unite the head and the heart — without forgetting the hand?

Weekly Commentary — Uncomprehending Sanctimony and the War on Terror

2009 November 2
by rahul

I’m beginning to think maybe Condoleezza Rice wasn’t such a bad secretary of state. Those who thought that the Bush administration had a monopoly on uncomprehending sanctimony, meaningless and condescending expressions of concern, and blaming others for one’s own faults in foreign relations need only look at what the media has been labeling Hillary Clinton’s recent “charm offensive;” well, the term is half right.

She hectors Pakistanis about the prevalence of poverty and the lack of development. How does a country that consistently ranks in the bottom 20% of rich nations in foreign aid as a percentage of GDP have the face to talk about development? How much more so in Pakistan, whose pattern of massive inequality, feudal social relations, corruption, and autocracy owes so much to consistent reflexive U.S. support for a string of military dictatorships going back almost to the beginning of the Cold War?

Even worse, she hectors Pakistanis about their lack of enthusiasm for America’s war. In a meeting with newspaper editors, she said, “Al-Qaida has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002…I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.” Remarkably, she made these comments while admitting that she doesn’t really know what the situation is. She then followed this up while talking to students at Government College University in Lahore by extending the accusation to the entire population of Pakistan; why exactly a poor peasant in the tribal areas would want to become a footsoldier in her war is apparently not something she considers worth thinking about.

Although the English-language Pakistani press at least treated her with restraint, it’s hard to imagine too many Pakistanis who didn’t feel the insult. After all, the war in Pakistan, which has claimed several thousands lives, is entirely the fallout from America’s war in Afghanistan. In 2001, militant groups in Pakistan concentrated their actions on Kashmir, and Islamist parties were as significant in elections as the Green Party in the United States. All of that changed when the United States decided first to prosecute the war, and then to let everyone they were pursuing cross the border into Pakistan while they hared off to Iraq.

Those who wish to justify this by saying that it was Pakistan’s policies, like support of the Taliban, that led to 9/11 are simply cutting the timeline at an arbitrary but convenient point. Draw it further back to U.S. support for the virulent dictatorship of Ziaul Haq and its callous support of the Afghan mujaheddin purely for the purpose of bleeding the Soviet Union, with no concern for the effects on Afghanistan and the region, and the point stands.

The same American incomprehension that anyone else could have valid concerns shines through most clearly in an exchange Clinton had with a woman who condemned the CIA drone strikes as extrajudicial executions and then asked whether they did not constitute terrorism just as surely as the car bombings that have taken such a big toll on Pakistan lately. Apparently, Clinton was as well-prepared to answer that as Madeleine Albright was to answer Lesley Stahl’s question about the deaths of Iraqi children due to the sanctions, and presumably for the same reason — such things are not allowed to trouble the beautiful minds of imperial elite when making their imperial dispositions.

The pace of drone strikes has considerably increased under Obama; in the past 10 months, there have been already 30% more than last year. According to a recent study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation, since 2006 drone strikes have killed 750 to 1000 people, of whom they estimate two-thirds were militants and one-third civilians. An initial tally by Pakistani journalist Amir Mir estimated much higher civilian casualties, but his method seemed to be to assume that anyone who was not a named “high-value target” was a civilian. Of those deaths, half of them have come in 2009.

Had Clinton been better prepared, she would have known the conventional U.S. answer — civilians killed in drone bombings are “collateral damage;” the U.S. is attacking valid military targets. Of course, the same could be said of many of the suicide car bombings carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban.

The latest Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan has created 250,000 refugees and set off a series of retaliatory bombings in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore, and across the country that have killed over 300 people. Just from the timing of recent suicide bombings, it’s clear that they are happening because of Pakistani military offensives; most of them would likely not happen otherwise.

Unlike George Bush, Barack Obama is capable of understanding these things if he wants to. He just seems to perceive little need to do so.

Weekly Commentary — Afghanistan — Delusions about Democracy

2009 October 26
by rahul

After two months of delays in vote-counting, wrangling, fraud investigations, and fevered consultations that make even the American elections look like a paragon of modernist efficiency, plans are finally in place for a runoff election in Afghanistan, to be held on November 7. Although President Hamid Karzai got almost 55% of the votes in the initial tally from the August election, an election audit carried out under the aegis of the U.N. found widespread fraud. Hundreds of thousands of votes were disqualified, bringing Karzai’s share of the vote down to 48%; although his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, also benefited from fraudulent votes, the vast majority of the fraud was carried out on behalf of Karzai.

Over here, we have been subject to two months of commentary about the great importance of clean elections to the American counterinsurgency effort. The Afghans must perceive their government to be legitimate; otherwise, there is no way to control the growth of the neo-Taliban. A fraudulent election undermines that legitimacy. This whole stream of commentary grows out of the earlier trope of blaming American failures in Afghanistan on the corruption of the Karzai government; statements that success requires that the Americans pressure Karzai into somehow eliminating corruption abound, at least inside the beltway.

Although the ability of pundits, the chattering classes, and specialized military analysts in the United States to figure out what is relevant to understanding the dynamics of the protracted occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly increased over the past several years, the discourse still retains a hallucinatory quality.

At a superficial level, the current approach is self-contradictory. As Julia Mahlejd writes on the blog, Afghans must be perplexed at the conclusion that Karzai and Abdullah benefited from widespread fraud and that the remedy is to let them have a runoff election. Especially with Karzai, where the scale of the fraud strongly suggests his own complicity, this is a reward for criminality; why not disqualify such candidates and have a runoff between the ones who are clean?

Add to that the fact that turnout in the runoff is expected to be even below the anemic 30% of the August elections, and that some additional polling booths in the war-torn areas, where most of the fraud emanated from, are going to be closed. How is an election supposed to provide legitimacy among a population that won’t actually get a chance to vote and many of whom won’t even know about the election?

More deeply, what is the source of this belief, suddenly emerging in time for the elections, that making a mark on a ballot is of such fundamental significance to the average Afghan? Afghanistan no doubt has its liberal-minded citizens of the world to whom democracy is an abstract virtue of surpassing importance, perhaps even those who believe that marking a ballot to choose who will be the head of a state with no power, no revenue, and no commitment to the welfare of the people involves some realization of that abstract virtue, but such people are few and far between and likely doing little or nothing to support the neo-Taliban insurgency.

On the other hand, consider the weakness of democracy as a principle of legitimation even in the United States, where the population has been steeped in talk about it for over 200 years. When widespread fraud (the illegal disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters), followed by a risibly inconsistent Supreme Court decision won Bush the 2000 election in Florida, opinions on the matter divided almost entirely along partisan lines. If you wanted Bush to win, you were for the final verdict; if you wanted Gore to win, you were against. Where was the mass of people to whom democracy itself mattered so much? Now, consider how much experience Afghans have with the rhetoric and practice of democracy — none, except for a few years of rhetorical bombast from Bush administration officials — and ask yourself how much the concept means to them.

It is true, of course, that the corruption and general ineffectuality of the Kabul government are a real problem for the counterinsurgents. But no one is asking why it is that the United States always seems to end up backing corrupt governments with no interest in the people’s welfare — and why it is that at least some of their foes, like the NLF in South Vietnam and apparently at least some of the neo-Taliban groups — are better able to provide security and governance than our allies.

Weekly Commentary — Eight Years In

2009 October 19
by rahul

It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that in the past two months the old reflexive notion that Afghanistan was the unquestionable good war has disintegrated. There had been growing criticism around the margins, but it was only late this summer that a full-fledged public debate erupted. It is undoubtedly a testament to the great virtues of our open democratic society, with its free and active political discussion, that such a debate has broken out a mere eight years into the war.

It is unfortunately something of a surreal debate. The battle lines are drawn between those who believe we must help the Afghans, sacrifice for them, and build them a modern state in order to assure our own security and those who say we should let the Afghans go hang because they are not very relevant to our security.

Stanley McChrystal brought the simmering debate to a boil with his strenuous advocacy of a profound reorientation away from killing insurgents toward “protecting” Afghans and toward serious restrictions on U.S. military rules of engagement, together with a serious emphasis on state-building and the provision of security and other government services. For a number of military people who had already been extremely suspicious of the turn toward what they call the “counterinsurgency” approach, this was the last straw; either the proper role or the capabilities of the American soldier were being dramatically misconceived, with the result that the United States would be drawn further into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

This only intensified with McChrystal’s call for an additional 40,000 troops to be sent, which would bring the U.S. contingent to 108,000 and the total international forces to near 150,000.

The other side ranges from status-quo centrists like Joe Biden, who wants to keep the number at 68,000 but step up drone strikes and anti-insurgent Special Forces raids, to people like George Will at the margins who want to withdraw ground forces entirely but continue to administer death from above.

The debate has distressingly little to do with the good of the Afghan people, although it is constantly used as a rhetorical device, especially by the McChrystal side. For those who take it seriously, it might be a good idea to evaluate the effect of the last eight years on the wellbeing of Afghans.

As far as I am able to determine, the only thing in the plus column, besides the odd highway and school, is the end of official, aboveground Taliban rule over the bulk of the country. This is not a small achievement; it’s very different from the case of Iraq, because it’s quite possible that the government/anarchy that replaced Saddam’s government was actually worse for the people. In the case of Afghanistan, that’s not true; the Taliban provided very few of the services of a state, other than public order, and their restrictions on people’s lives were much more far-reaching.

Still, that has to be balanced against perhaps 10,000 civilians directly killed and 10 or 15,000 indirectly killed through the cutoff of aid during the 2001 war and 25-30,000 fighters killed. No one has good estimates of these numbers and there is no Les Roberts-style survey of Afghan households that I know of, but these can’t be too far off. Say, 50,000 Afghans are dead because of this war, and close to 1500 members of the international force, including almost 900 Americans.

I don’t know how to weigh those considerations against each other, but what is clear is that the negatives are steadily increasing. The Taliban is more powerful now than at any time since late 2001. How many more will have to be killed to prop up the weak, corrupt government installed by the United States? And will it be worth the price?

Those who favor a full-on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan justify it with reference to Iraq. The “surge” saved Iraq, and maybe something like it can save Afghanistan.

As military men and as proponents of good Western-style technocratic thinking, they are very poorly equipped to understand the central point of the Iraq counterinsurgency: the secret of America’s success was its failure. Many of them might well concede that if they had waged a brutal campaign and killed 500,000 to 1 million people, they would probably have broken the back of any insurgency this side of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front. Well, the fact that all of those people died, and the bulk of them not at the hands of the United States but in internecine warfare, just made it easier.

A similar failure may well be the prerequisite to “success” in Afghanistan. But don’t expect to hear this point of view on CNN.

Weekly Commentary — Stanley McChrystal — the Petraeus’s Petraeus

2009 October 19
by rahul

The must-read article of the week is definitely Dexter Filkins’s profile of Stanley McChrystal in the New York Times magazine.

One must be careful reading Filkins. He is a very good reporter and an intelligent, insightful person – his profile of Ahmad Chalabi is still the one and only source I’ve seen that gave me any insight into what he could possibly have been thinking in his mad quest to become the new king of Iraq (like so many exiles, he had ignored the passage of time in his country, in particular the collapse of the old feudal order).

There’s only one problem – his attitude toward the U.S. military and their mission, whatever exactly it might be, is roughly akin to that of a typical teenage girl toward the Jonas brothers. His first portrait of Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman made him out to be a great hero of the brave new world being created in Iraq; Sassaman, who was later forced out of the military because of the coverup of the murder of an Iraqi boy (he wasn’t involved in the murder), was in actuality a brutal overlord and a strong believer in putting the fear of God into the natives. When Filkins went into Fallujah during the second assault in November 2004, he was stunningly incurious about the possible use of chemical warfare by U.S. forces.

And his book The Forever War is a remarkable accomplishment: an acute observation and depiction of the reality of Iraq that actually makes it harder for the reader to understand and evaluate the occupation. His masterful evocation of the depravity to which so many Iraqis descended is not leavened by any useful explanation of the role the United States played in this descent, let alone by any understanding of these terrible acts as the acts of human beings not so different from us.

That said, I believe the general tenor of his reporting on McChrystal. Apparently, he is the Petraeus’s Petraeus; not only has he gone far further than anyone before in the “kinder, gentler” approach to counterinsurgency than any previous American commander anywhere, he can run faster than Petraeus as well.

Filkins recounts a striking incident. A U.S. foot patrol is attacked by a remote-control-detonated bomb. Although no one is seriously injured, the SOP in the past would have been to kick down everyone’s doors and raid their homes, yelling incomprehensibly at the residents. Even after the changes of 2005-2007, the response would have been quite forceful. Now, the soldiers ask for five men from the village to come forward, and plead with them for any information, which, unsurprisingly, they don’t get.

Perhaps even more striking is the meeting where McChrystal hassles a fellow general for gliding too comfortably past an airstrike that killed civilians.

Although these represent striking departures from business as usual, even under the “counterinsurgency paradigm,” in other ways McChrystal is no different from others. Filkins documents a ludicrous series of exchanges between McChrystal and “ordinary Afghans,” where he goes up to them and without preamble says “What do you need?” Some say security, some say development. It is utterly superficial and means nothing.

We have seen laudatory embedded reporting right from the beginning of the so-called “war on terror,” of course. This is credible, where earlier reporting wasn’t, for two reasons. First, the Obama administration is a conventional modernist rationalist bunch, not thoroughgoing postmodernists like Bush and friends; they understand that there must be some loose consonance between the words and deeds if credibility is to be maintained. Second, whereas “kinder, gentler” actions were earlier conceived as concessions to the laws of war or more often as fodder for PR to American audiences, significant parts of the U.S. military have bought into the idea that “kinder, gentler” is more militarily effective in counterinsurgencies. Mere humanitarian considerations could not have forced such profound changes in the mode of operation so quickly.

Whether this perception is accurate or not is far from clear. It depends on many things, including the strategy of the insurgency. While the changes McChrystal is attempting are very welcome (unlike the 40,000 additional troops he wants), there are two potential problems. First, it is hard to believe that he will be able to remake the basic attitudes, approaches, and inclinations of American solders to such a great degree. Second, it is impossible to believe that the military will hold to such changes in tactics if they prove unsuccessful.

And make no mistake; McChrystal has made himself so vulnerable not just by contradicting Obama but by articulating a vision of a war where the United States has nothing to gain, gives selflessly, and refrains from using violence even in situations where Americans are threatened. Such articulations are welcome and even necessary when they are propaganda for militarism; when they are actually sincere, they make all the important people very uncomfortable.

Weekly Commentary — Not Even Worthy of Satire — Obama’s Peace Prize

2009 October 9
by rahul

At first, I thought it was a joke. “Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize.” Then I realized it wasn’t really funny. At least when Henry Kissinger won the prize, the Nobel Committee was striking a blow for surrealism and irony. This one was just power-worship – and a pathetic, needy, clinging form of it, at that.

The only thing I can say in favor of the decision is that it’s the one thing that could have made the International Olympic Committee look good; although the IOC may have the moral stature of the Nevada Gaming Commission, at least it didn’t allow itself to be overawed by the merest contact with the aura of the Chosen One.

Obama is, of course, not a big-time war criminal like Henry Kissinger, but there’s always hope; this award comes just as Obama is on the cusp of a decision regarding escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Since he took office just nine short months ago, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have seen dramatic escalations in violence, some of it directly at his behest.

Of course, the Nobel Committee is happy that Bush is gone; so is everybody else in the world. But giving Obama the prize just for not being Bush seems excessive; why not just give it to all six plus billion of us? After all, if “you” can be TIME’s Person of the Year, why can’t “you” be a Nobel Peace laureate as well?

The citation is weak tea, indeed. He is awarded the prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy,” especially his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” In other words, he gave a few speeches. He even traveled all the way to Egypt to give one of them. Even if they were the most remarkable things in the world, they are hardly evidence of any sustained or strenuous effort, let alone of success in advancing any agenda.

Some coverage has suggested that the recent passage of Security Council Resolution 1887 against nuclear proliferation was a landmark achievement for peace. In truth, it’s utterly meaningless. It is not a Chapter VII resolution, meaning that it has no teeth. Almost the entire part dealing with general nuclear disarmament is “reaffirming” other agreements, like the Nonproliferation Treaty. It calls for everyone to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – any bets on whether the new Nobel laureate will even try to bring it up in the Senate?

For the rest, the resolution is a thinly-veiled warning to Iran, with language watered down far enough that it could get by Russia.

The committee also cites the “more constructive role” the United States is now playing on climate change; perhaps Khrushchev should have gotten the prize for the “more constructive role” of the Soviet state with respect to the gulag. Or, for that matter, Obama could have gotten it for his “more constructive role” in, apparently, ending America’s brief flirtation with legalized torture. Going from being a major obstructionist on climate change to being a minor obstructionist is hardly worthy of this sort of recognition.

Anticipating the obvious objections, Thorboern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, stressed that the award was given for work already done by Obama, but there were several hints that the prize was given as an inducement for future actions.

If so, the Norwegians are making a big mistake. Although Obama is the most remarkable person to occupy the White House in a long time, some of his moral failings have become very apparent. Foremost among them is a tendency toward complacency and a type of moral narcissism, conflating the admittedly inspiring trajectory of his life with actual achievement in changing the world for the better (this became particularly tiresome late in the campaign). Indeed, so focused is he on how wonderful it is that he could have achieved what he did that he generally seems to have very little room for anger on behalf of the dispossessed – however he conceives them. Robert Kennedy obviously never thought much about Vietnamese peasants burned out of their houses, but he was passionately indignant about the plight of the poor in Appalachia.

This prize will just exacerbate his worst tendencies. How easy it will be for him to conclude that winning the Nobel Peace Prize actually constitutes genuine accomplishment in working for peace. Given that even the small steps he has taken, like mentioning the suffering of the Palestinians in his Cairo address, were flashes in the pan, without any actual sustained effort to back them up, how much less likely is he to start making real efforts now?

Weekly Commentary — A Plague of Jeffersonian Democrats

2009 August 24
by rahul

Over the past eight years, how many times have you seen or read some condescending blowhard ignoramus snigger about the foolishness of expecting to find any “Jeffersonian democrats” in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the entire Arab world? I don’t think most of us can count that high.

In all that time, I have waited in vain to see a single interviewer, opponent, interlocutor of any kind point out that if any of these people had the faintest idea of what a Jeffersonian democrat is, they would know that there are absolutely none in the United States – with one exception I’ll come to.

Let’s just leave aside the fact that a “Jeffersonian democrat” would spend his career in political office working to increase the sway of slavery, as Jefferson did (see Garry Wills’s book Negro President). Beyond that, not only was Jefferson anti-corporate, he was, at least philosophically, radically anti-statist. He believed that a nation should change its form of government every nineteen years, once a generation. Any broad social compact of the kind required to create a state, he thought, could not be expected to bind future generations.

Imagine any of the standard TV or print bloviators supporting a radical turnover of media pundits every 19 years, or of the structure of corporate gravy trains and fat speaking fees, let alone of entire forms of government.

Jefferson recognized that periodic revolution might well lead to periodic violence, but, as he wrote in a letter, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

This quote has finally resurfaced in the national political dialogue because of its invocation by some of the nutcases who have been carrying guns to Obama speeches and appearances at healthcare “town hall meetings.” Indeed, all along, the only socially significant group of Jeffersonian democrats in America has been the lunatic fringe of the radical right/libertarians.

One of the biggest problems of Iraq and Afghanistan has been that they’ve had so many of this type of “Jeffersonian democrat.” Although at least in those countries the authorities try to stop people like that.

There is a difference between carrying an AR-15 outside the convention center where the president is speaking and driving a car full of explosives into a crowded marketplace and detonating it, but the gulf is not as wide as one would like to think. As Frank Rich has pointed out, right-wing nutcases driven by core beliefs of the radical right, like anti-abortion zealotry, belief that Obama was born in Kenya, and generalized belief that the agents of state authority are jackbooted fascist thugs trying to take away your freedom (except when they legitimately use force to keep inner-city blacks in their place) have been involved in a number of incidents of murder – a guard at the Holocaust Museum, an anti-abortion doctor, three policemen.

Nothing that these gun-toting lunatics might do should come as a surprise – guns, violent fanaticism, a president perceived as a foreign agent trying to bring about America’s downfall, rhetorical exhortations from prominent right-wingers including Republican politicians, and extreme permissiveness from those same jackbooted agents of state repression constitute an extremely volatile mix.

Even in a country where all right-wing lunacy is taken incredibly seriously by all the powers-that-be, where there is no limit to the paranoid delusions that large parts of the country feed on, this latest development has surprised me. Under George Bush, unarmed antiwar demonstrators with nonviolence actually frequently written into their codes of conduct were placed in pens, often far away from any site they were trying to picket; the carrying of placards and the wearing of T-shirts by people in favor of peace was criminalized; and the FBI and local police often infiltrated antiwar groups. If such protesters had carried guns outside a presidential appearance, Bush could have had them run over with tanks and there would have been no peep of protest out of the punditocracy.

These people, by contrast, are treated with kid gloves and subjected to constant official recognitions of their inalienable right to carry guns to potentially volatile political gatherings.

While our public discourse descends into medieval barbarism, one aspect of modernity is standing strong. According to an excellent article in the LA Times, the final “better than nothing even though it won’t contain a public option” healthcare bill that passes will likely be centered around government subsidies for health insurance companies to expand their client base and softening of requirements so that their profits on those policies can be even higher – in other words, it will be an unprecedented bonanza for those companies.

Weekly Commentary — Death Panels and the Paranoid Style

2009 August 18
by rahul

It’s an amazing, made-in-America story. A Republican representative, now senator, from Georgia no less slips an innocuous provision in a draft health-care bill giving patients the right to coverage for counseling regarding hospices and other end-of-life issues — a need many face at some point in their lives — and ignites a firestorm of political craziness that makes the hysteria over the nonexistent “war on Christmas” look like a paragon of logic and reason.

The gap between an attempt to make sure that people are treated with respect and kindness when they are in extremis and “death panels” that the government sets up to adjudicate whether people who are old, sick, disabled, or unable to work are sufficiently useful to society to warrant health-care or whether they should instead be turned into Soylent Green and fed to the burgeoning proletarian masses would seem to be a large one, yet elisions like this are the stock-in-trade of Republican operatives in our benighted era.

As an article in the New York Times points out, the source of this nuttiness is not some fringe conspiracist but some of the mainstream conservative players that defeated Bill Clinton’s health-care reform in 1993, including the editorial board of the Washington Times and Betsy McCaughey, famous critic of the previous bill and former lieutenant governor of New York.

It starts simply, with some dedicated staffer scouring a government bill for language that can be mocked and derided, twisted and distorted, or used as the launch-pad for insane flights of fancy. It has the same provenance as the idiot jibes about money for “volcano monitoring” (who could be so stupid as to want to know when a town might be covered in lava?), with the added fillip of the hard-core paranoia that characterizes the right.

When the woman who, inexplicably, was a heartbeat away from being a heartbeat away from the presidency took up the cause, it went national. Some commentators are already treating it as a political victory for the right and are predicting the demise of the public option.

Along the way, we’ve seen threatening mobs at town hall meetings, people carrying guns to presidential addresses, and swastikas painted outside the offices of congressmen. Strangely, since this is America, those swastikas are not statements of belief by the right-wing lynch mob but rather statements about the putative beliefs of the congressman (a Blue Dog Democrat, as it happens). Never mind the fact that it is precisely the people who might believe in a crazy notion like death panels who are susceptible to beliefs like perhaps that the Jews control society — and, indeed, they are the lineal descendants of people who did and do.

The Washington Times, whose owner Sun-Myung Moon of the Unification Church was once a member of the World Anti-communist League, a rogue’s gallery of former Nazi and Ustashi, Romainian fascists, Franco-supporters, and right-wing Latin American dictators, has twice compared this proposal to offer counseling to people facing death to the Nazi T4 Aktion program of euthanasia for the disabled, retarded, and chronically ill.

As journalist and historian Rick Perlstein points out in a Washington Post op-ed, this kind of craziness is not new — it’s as American as apple pie. When Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in 1961, after all, he didn’t have Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to draw from. At the time he wrote it, the John Birch Society had a widely distributed pamphlet showing irrefutably that Dwight Eisenhower was an agent of the Soviet Union, continuing earlier Republican analyses of FDR and Truman. Today’s Birthers, who claim that Obama was born in Kenya, get their name from the Birchers of yesteryear.

Says Perlstein, JFK, a warmonger who campaigned against Nixon on the laughable claim that the Soviet Union was ahead of us in nuclear missile technology and who dramatically increased the military budget when in office, was accused of wanting to disarm the United States because he was moving toward ICBM’s and away from long-range bombers. And let us not forget Nixon and McCarthy, who found Communists under every tree.

The difference, says Perlstein, is that these claims were not afforded serious attention by the three nightly news broadcasts. Walter Cronkite never addressed whether or not Eisenhower had been a Communist. He is right. There was a patrician consensus about notions like “fact” and “reality” — which included a fair amount of self-delusion of its own, incidentally (see Vietnam) — and the opinions of the canaille were not allowed to intrude, no matter how many of them there might be at the gates.

With the impending demise of the newspaper, the last vestiges of that world are disappearing. I am not sanguine about what will take its place.