Escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the essential component of Barack Obama’s new, improved “war on terror.” Current plans are to ramp up to a presence of 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and diplomatic efforts to increase the size of the NATO force are constantly underway.
This new offensive comes at a time when the American public is sick of far-away countries, the spending of imaginary funds on helping poor, benighted Muslims, and even of the continued absence of American troops; somehow, many have convinced themselves that they care about this even when they have no friends or family in the armed forces. As a result, even this goodest of all good wars has minimal support; indeed, a USA Today poll earlier this year found 42% of Americans saying that the Afghanistan war was a mistake.
Although elite opinion is much more unified in support of Obama’s escalation, there are cracks in this facade as well. If nothing else, Stanley McChrystal’s repeated emphasis on the fact that a solution in Afghanistan will have to be political more than military is an indirect reflection of these cracks; by the time this had become the dominant theme in public remarks about Vietnam, everyone knew the United States was losing.
Thus the need for a new propaganda offensive. Peter Bergen’s widely-discussed essay “Winning the Good War” in the latest issue of the liberal Washington Monthly is a case in point.
It’s structured as a refutation of the argument that Afghanistan will be Obama’s Vietnam. First, he says, this is not a replay of the Soviets in Afghanistan — they were brutal and hamhanded, resistance was much more widespread, and there was a fairly important outside power aiding that resistance.
Second, he says, Afghanistan is actually far more governable than Iraq, and violence even now is lower. Also, Afghans support the presence of international forces, while Iraqis opposed it.
Third, Afghanistan has been a unified nation for longer than the United States, and Afghans have a strong sense of nationalism — for some reason, this augurs well for the occupation.
Fourth, it’s not like Vietnam because the NLF was much larger and better armed than the neo-Taliban is — see argument above.
Fifth, withdrawal can’t be the answer because we tried it before and the result was disaster.
And, finally, more troops will decrease civilian casualties, not increase them, because it will enable us to cut down on bombing raids.
Most of his facts are accurate and some of the arguments he tries to refute are really silly — if only I had a dime for every idiot column claiming that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires for 2500 years and that it will wreck the United States too.
It’s also true that poll results show a significant majority of Afghans in support of the presence of U.S. and NATO forces. And that Afghanistan is nothing like Vietnam.
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see that Bergen is caught up in the same blindness as say Thomas Friedman in 2005 regarding Iraq — and untold liberal intellectuals in every counterinsurgency since the beginning of recorded history.
Here’s a different reading of some of the same facts. The fact that in a recent ABC poll, 63% of Afghan respondents supported the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan while only 8% supported that of the neo-Taliban is a welcome indication that the 8-year occupation has not yet done irreparable damage — and indicates an opportunity to move the policy in a very different direction than that of counterinsurgency.
That lack of irreparable damage does not mean that the United States has done much good — indeed, 63% thought the US had done a “fair” or “poor” job and a slight majority has an unfavorable opinion of the US.
Furthermore, 18% favored escalation with 44% opposing, and an overwhelming 77% said the use of air strikes was “unacceptable.” Hamid Karzai has also repeatedly gone on record opposing U.S. escalation and favoring attempts at a negotiated settlement.
Although there has been a flurry of stories about a new “kinder, gentler” approach in Afghanistan, the truth is that air strikes will remain a major component of the counterinsurgency and that whenever the Taliban is able to inflict significant casualties on American troops “force protection” will trump other considerations. The likelihood of doing further damage is great. The chance that some good will be done seems minuscule; I see in Washington neither the ability nor the political will to come up with and implement a strategy for a political solution.
Robert McNamara slipped away peacefully last week, leaving life with none of the turmoil he brought to the lives of so many others. Even at the end, a nation that could forgive the criminal Richard Nixon and the obtuse Gerald Ford couldn’t quite do the same for the deeply reflective McNamara. Perhaps it was because of his reputation for icy logic, perhaps because of his habit of crying in public. More likely, it was because, instead of stonewalling history and morality, he actually expressed doubts and regrets about his past actions – such sins as he committed should not be compounded by repentance.
And yet I shed no tear for him.
He was among the last of a now dead breed of public servant: men of great integrity and exquisite morality whose rectitude remained unharmed through all the death and destruction they brought to other nations, who entered public service with no thought for public aggrandizement and maintained that selflessness as they enjoyed the multifarious perquisites of power in America.
Yeah, I really disliked him.
Actually, unlike me, a few of his critics, even those who remained unmoved by the publication of In Retrospect, his memoir of his involvement in Vietnam War policy, did finally forgive him for his mea culpa in Errol Morris’ much-acclaimed film, The Fog of War.
After all, how often does one hear such a thing from a government official who has not been committing sexual peccadilloes or embezzling money? When Richard Clarke began his public testimony before the 9/11 Commission with an apology for failing in his duty to help prevent the attacks, for most of the political class his words just didn’t compute. How could the concept of apology even apply?
How remarkable, then, that McNamara apologized for his role in the butchery of 3 million or more Vietnamese, when for so many years the country’s stance has been that the only ones who should apologize for it are the Vietnamese who so heartlessly rent our society and the protesters who were so indecorous in their outcries against injustice.
Except, of course, that he didn’t.
I watched Errol Morris’s fascinating and inexplicable film a few years ago and came away annoyed in equal parts at McNamara and at Morris. Why would a liberal filmmaker interviewing a man so intimately involved with the atrocity that was the Vietnam War structure his film as a serious of ethical and practical pronouncements from on high, with the war criminal as the guru on the mountaintop and the rest of us as the earnest seekers for his wisdom?
The way that McNamara so blithely and naturally fell into the role as if it was what God had intended for him all along says all you need to know about his supposed repentance.
But it’s also all there in black and white in his book, In Retrospect, right on the first page of the preface. The reason he finally came forward in 1995, so long after his words could have made a difference? He had “grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.”
To translate: he wrote the book to combat one of the key components of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” – the collapse of the unthinking tendency to believe our political leaders were men of great integrity and ability and that our institutions were designed for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I hold no brief for rampant cynicism, but surely it is better than the unthinking conformity of McNamara’s salad days, for which he had such great nostalgia?
The most remarkable and revealing thing of all is that he thought that his description of his thoughts and actions at several crucial junctures in the war would work against this cynicism, perhaps that his example would inspire other future public servants.
In his memoirs, you will see many references to “mistakes” he made, none to crimes he was involved in committing. He waxes eloquent about his support for civil rights and his desperate fears that “someone would be hurt” when racist southern whites attacked Freedom Riders; the idea that people would be hurt by the decisions he and his colleagues so bloodlessly made about Vietnam do no enter into it.
The most striking moment in Fog of War is when McNamara, aghast at the horror of it, says to a Vietnamese counterpart more or less “We killed three or four million of you. How could you make us do that? How can you go to sleep at night with that on your conscience?”
He went to his death, I am sure, blaming an intransigent world for its refusal to accept his grand moral vision.
I understand only too well the perversity of those who are always on the outside. Alienated from a system of power that they see as fundamentally oppressive, skeptical of a flow of information that seems largely to serve the imperatives of that system, it is only too natural for them to reflexively doubt the true along with the false and to reflexively oppose the good along with the bad.
Understandable as this pathology may be, it is something that must be overcome if one is to be serious about making change in a complex, stable society like the United States.
A vocal segment of the left has jumped to the conclusion that the United States backs the military coup in Honduras, perhaps the most striking example being an op-ed in the Guardian by Mark Weisbrot. With key facts outdated almost by the time it hit the Web, the title was dramatically changed from “Does the US back the Honduran coup?” to an acknowledgment that in fact the United States was on the right side here.
With some notable exceptions, there was little mention by the left of what a remarkable development this was. During the Cold War, of course, we never saw a right-wing military coup we didn’t like. More recently, the United States supported and was likely involved in the 2002 coup in Venezuela and largely organized the 2004 coup in Haiti.
In the 1990s, the United States was at least nominally opposed to the coup in Haiti, although it was very slow to take serious measures and it made restoration of Aristide conditional on his agreement to a series of humiliating conditions. The U.S. did immediately and strongly oppose Fujimori’s 1992 autogolpe in Peru and Serrano’s copycat autogolpe in Guatemala in 1993.
The Honduras coup is quite different, however. The United States has always had a strained relationship with the most militaristic elements in Haiti, which have felt free to use anti-American rhetoric when it suited them. A militaristic right-wing president’s coup against himself, likewise, is likely to lead to his being too independent and less controllable – legions of State Department bureaucrats have occupied themselves with reining in dictators we support who have proved themselves unreliable.
The Honduran military, on the other hand, is well-organized and disciplined, with very close institutional ties to the U.S. military. They removed from power a semi-Chavista president who was embarked on an attempt to alter the constitution in a way that was, at least according to the Honduran Supreme Court, itself illegal. Any past U.S. administration would likely equivocate, explain that there were issues in the conduct of both sides, and suggest mutual concessions. This time, after a day or two to figure out what it was doing, the administration unequivocally stated that Zelaya was president and should be returned to power. It’s true that Zelaya has said he now won’t try to change the constitution, but we don’t know whether that is due to U.S. pressure or not.
Furthermore, the U.S. military immediately ceased contact with the Honduran military and the administration is studying whether to call this a military coup, which would require cessation of most aid to Honduras.
Obama has been criticized for not taking the lead and not issuing ultimata to the coup government. I believe that this is in part a deliberate decision to defer to the OAS and Latin American governments and to suggest that we no longer want to be the overbearing policeman barking orders to everyone. Of course, this is possible because Honduras doesn’t matter to any current conception of U.S. strategic interests, but it is a welcome change.
For the rest, the Obama administration clearly doesn’t want to jeopardize its ties with the Honduran military through any sort of precipitate action. Given the extreme polarization between the international community and the Honduran political elite on this issue, it’s an open question whether an isolating move like that would cause capitulation or would simply harden the stance of the coup plotters. In Obama’s position, I would be cautious too.
The unrelenting sameness of the war on terror, punctuated now and then by some controversy over torture or by assertions of independence by the Iraqi government, has led many on the left to believe that nothing has changed despite everything. On the contrary, I think there is a greater potential openness in the shaping of national security doctrine than there has been in over 20 years, but we will need an entirely different approach to realize those possibilities.
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This article was published in the Texas Observer on April 12, 2001. When I wrote about how Enron created “billions of dollars in equity out of thin air,” I had no idea of the extent of it.
For six years in a row Fortune magazine has voted Enron, the Houston-based natural gas and power company, the most innovative corporation in the United States. With the world’s largest online trading site, last year Enron traded tens of billions of dollars of natural gas contracts; the corporation’s total revenues exceeded 100 billion dollars. Enron assiduously cultivates its corporate image, donating Enron Field to the grateful sports fans of Houston and operating charities like the PGE-Enron Foundation, which gives hundreds of thousands annually to worthy and non-controversial causes in Oregon.
Lulled by corporate spin, Americans have largely ignored the process by which, in one decade, this tiny company metastasized into a global giant–62nd on the Forbes Global 500 list last year and moving up. Although innovation is certainly part of the story, far more significant are old-fashioned corporate practices such as influence-peddling and human-rights violations.
Enron’s exploits in the presidential campaign, ably chronicled in The Observer, include donating $555,000 in soft money for the Republican Party and allowing candidate George W. Bush the use of Enron corporate jets. According to a study by the Los Angeles Times, Enron and associates gave nearly $400,000 to Bush’s two gubernatorial campaigns, nearly one third of total corporate contributions. Rewards for this generosity include Bush’s introduction of the 1995 Environmental Health and Safety Audit Privilege Act, the most industry-friendly of the nation’s 12 polluter immunity acts, written largely by an industry representative. Under the terms of the act, polluters that make private, internal audits are virtually exempted from complying with pollution regulations. Audits are then treated as privileged information, unavailable to litigants in civil or even criminal cases. Enron has frequently filed for protection under the act. Similarly, in 1996, Bush derailed legislative efforts to tackle the problems caused by companies that had been grandfathered in under the 1971 Texas Clean Air Act. The net result is that Houston’s air quality is now the worst in the nation, and every major metro area in Texas is slated to move into noncompliance with federal air-quality norms.
Enron’s international dealings, however, are not as well known here. Enron’s power plant and natural gas operations involve more than 30 countries, and frequently involve allegations of bribery, coercion, and human-rights violations. After the Gulf War, Enron hired former Secretary of State James Baker to lobby Kuwait for the contract to rebuild the Shuaiba power plant. Enron got the contract, even though a German firm underbid it by almost half. In 1995, Enron used then-National Security adviser Anthony Lake and the U.S. Embassy to coerce Mozambique into granting them a contract to develop the lucrative Pande natural gas fields. Pratap Chatterjee of Corporate Watch reports that according to Mozambique’s natural resources minister, “There were outright threats to withhold [U.S. Agency for International] development funds if we didn’t sign, and sign soon. [U.S.] diplomats, especially [the deputy chief of the Embassy], pressured me to sign a deal that was not good for Mozambique. It was as if he was working for Enron.”
But by far the worst of Enron’s international projects, arousing the most opposition, is a liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant in Maharashtra, the Western Indian province that is home to Bombay. Initiated in 1992, just as India was opening its economy to foreign investment, the project is one of the largest private industry-government contracts in the world. It calls for the payment of roughly $35 billion over 20 years to the Dabhol Power Corporation (DPC), of which Enron is the chief shareholder (Bechtel Enterprises and General Electric each have 10 percent and Maharashtra’s electricity board has 15 percent.) The first phase of the project, a 740-megawatt plant, came online in August 1999. The second and final phase (1,444 megawatts) is scheduled to come online later this year.
Almost from the start, the project has been a major focus of political contention, as journalist Abhay Mehta has superbly documented in Power Play. Originally trained at MIT as a molecular biologist, Mehta combines an encyclopedic knowledge of the power industry with a citizen’s frustration at corruption and lack of accountability on the part of government officials and corporate executives. Already in its second printing in India, Power Play paints a vivid picture of a government and a political process gone mad.
The Maharashtra project proposal had so many severe flaws that even the World Bank, notorious for its development fiascos, wouldn’t touch it. To start with, Maharashtra didn’t need the power. Although peak demand (at times of highest use) does exceed peak supply, base-load capacity (what’s needed for steady, ongoing use the day round) is more than adequate. By virtue of the way liquefied natural gas moves around the world in gigantic “trains” of specially refrigerated ships, the Dabhol plant can only be a base-load plant, thus it cannot address the peak supply shortage. Next, Enron brought virtually nothing of its own to the project, proposing to raise capital through the World Bank, U.S. Ex-Im Bank, and Indian capital markets. These funds, the World Bank noted, would also be “available to finance reasonable alternative projects.” Furthermore, Enron-generated power is incredibly expensive, costing roughly three times as much as the average of all other power used in Maharashtra, and six times as much as the inexpensive coal-fired base-load power it has displaced. Last year, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) was forced to raise power rates 20 percent across the board just to make its payments on the Dabhol plant. In sum, the Enron project is the perfect antidote to the hype about the need of Third World countries for foreign investment in “infrastructure development.” India didn’t need the project; it could have done the project better itself and it would have cost a lot less.
Last month, the MSEB stopped paying its bills to Enron entirely, saying it didn’t need the power and couldn’t afford it. In response, Enron invoked the draconian guarantees it obtained from India nearly a decade ago. As Mehta writes, “The Republic of India staked all its assets (including those abroad, save diplomatic and military) as surety for payments due to Enron by MSEB.” The central government now plans to honor that commitment, paying Enron billions for power that no one will use while half the country suffers from malnutrition.
The legal guarantees Enron obtained don’t stop there. The Indian government also waived its sovereign immunity and agreed to give English courts jurisdiction over contract disputes. Enron even has an agreement with the Maharashtra government to “indemnify and keep indemnified the company against any loss sustained or incurred by the company by reason of the invalidity, illegality or unenforceability” of the contract, known as the Power Purchase Agreement. The old extra-territoriality imposed by Western colonialism on China held Western citizens above the law. The new imperial imposition is corporate extra-territoriality.
The political process by which a nominally open and democratic society like India acquiesced to the Dabhol project is the most interesting part of Mehta’s story. On December 8, 1993, Enron and India’s government signed a Power Purchase Agreement in what, as Mehta notes, could only be called indecent haste. The project was a major issue in Maharashtra’s January 1995 legislative elections, which swept the opposition into office largely because they opposed the “suspicious Enron deal.” The new government set up a special commission whose report caused the cancellation of the project on August 3, 1995 and a flurry of behind-the-scenes dealing by Enron. Frank Wisner, then U.S. Ambassador to India, campaigned strenuously against the cancellation. Wisner, who had earlier helped Enron get a project in the Philippines when he was ambassador there, was appointed to Enron’s board of directors after he returned from India. Four days before the central government rescinded the cancellation, Enron gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
While this was occurring, the state of Maharashtra filed suit to cancel the project, contending that the Power Purchase Agreement was “violative of several statutory provisions” and was “conceived in fraud.” An Enron official once testified before a U.S. House Committee that Enron had spent $20 million on “education” for the project.
While the case was proceeding, Rebecca Mark, CEO of the Enron Development Corporation, the subsidiary responsible for the Dabhol project, flew to Bombay and miraculously obtained the state government’s agreement to drop the lawsuit. They even agreed to extend the project further. But the government’s about-face did not end there. When activists then filed a public-interest lawsuit against the DPC, the state of Maharashtra recanted its own claims of bribery, and had the court suppress 1,200 pages of documents from its own aborted litigation. Having ensured the complete cooperation of central and state governments, Enron was able to survive all challenges.
As Mehta demonstrates, in dealings with India Enron showed open contempt for the entire society. At one point Enron responded to a standard request for an accounting of capital costs, with “we would advise you against auditing project costs and predetermining return on equity.” Later, company officials wrote a memo suggesting that Indian laws establishing the regulatory power of government agencies, governing prices, and requiring power plants to operate efficiently and economically were inappropriate and that Enron should not be bound by them. The memo offered a range of “solutions,” including “amending legislation.”
When asked to make public the details of the Power Purchase Agreement, Enron replied, “To a country as yet unused to the phenomenon of privatization this may be difficult to understand, but in a competitive market a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is the one document that affords companies an edge over the other players in the field…You will therefore appreciate the fact that such a document is zealously guarded by all companies.” The statement is ridiculous on its face, given the public’s right to be informed of government agreements. It reaches the height of absurdity considering that Enron was never anywhere near a competitive market; no other companies tendered bids for the Dabhol project, and the agreement was concluded in secret.
Although Mehta does a remarkable job dissecting the intricacies of power generation and business contracts, Power Play has some shortcomings. Written in a dry and technical style, it will be rough going for most readers. The book also tends to downplay the environmental and human rights issues involved in the Dabhol project. Fortunately, Human Rights Watch has produced an excellent report, available on the Internet at (http://www.hrw.org/hrw/reports/1999/enron/enron-toc.htm). The report details numerous human rights violations against protesters, including the use of excessive police force, sexual assault, and harassment by thugs. Many of these abuses were committed by security forces on the Enron payroll, so the corporation cannot claim lack of knowledge or involvement. The report concludes, “Many energy companies have invested in closed or repressive countries, arguing that their investment would help develop the local economy and thereby improve the human rights situation. But in this case, Enron has invested in a democratic country and human rights abuses there have increased. Enron hasn’t made things better for human rights, it has made things worse.” The environmental consequences of the project include serious waste heat from the plant, which endangers fish species vital to local communities, and pollution of a hitherto-pristine area of Maharashtra.
Although further disquisitions on the corporate threat to democracy, humanity, and life as we know it are rapidly becoming superfluous, we can still learn much from the case of Enron. In a world where corporations routinely write laws to suit themselves, Enron stands out because of its cavalier assumption that all laws should redound to its own benefit. In the Latin American business press, for example, Enron executive Kathy Lynn can be found blandly remarking that, “Through market presence [in Brazil] we hope to be able to influence the way the regulations are written. We have a regulatory affairs group that is active in trying to influence regulations that affect us so we are comfortable with them.”
Enron also stands out for its skill in co-opting politicians from all parts of the spectrum to do its dirty work, and for its willingness to grease the wheels of government with liberal doses of campaign cash . Perhaps most striking is the way it has grown out of nothing, combining ultramodern Internet-fueled growth with techniques rarely seen since the days of the robber barons, when anyone sufficiently ruthless and corrupt could create billions of dollars in equity out of thin air.
These new robber barons have not gone unopposed. Enron’s dealings helped to catalyze the formation of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an India-wide umbrella group comprising thousands of grassroots organizations, including several dedicated solely to shutting down the Enron project (http://www.narmada.org/NAPM/napm.html). The NAPM recently forced the U.S.-based Ogden Energy Group, which signed a contract for a hydroelectric power project during Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000, to leave the country. The recent default on payments to Enron may open space for the solution of this problem as well.
In the United States, opposition to Enron has been on a smaller scale, confined mostly to community activism in some Texas towns. But the potential for growth is tremendous, especially if done in coordination with efforts elsewhere. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new anti-corporate-globalization movement is the phenomenal growth in international solidarity linkages. Best-known are the numerous links between trade unions in the United States and those in Latin America. But in a right-to-work state like Texas, community-to-community links may be more important. The globalization of capital very often provides communities in the North and in the South with the same specific corporate enemy, giving a natural material basis for the much-called-for globalization of resistance.