Friday, December 13, 2002

"Beautiful beautiful beautiful truth
Don't leave because I can't see you"
- The Proclaimers

Thursday, December 12, 2002


Your question was something like this: reasonable people can disagree on the question of whether or not to go to war against Iraq, but why do "antis" like me often seem to have a bias or "torque" against our own government on these questions? That's a really important question at this moment, because dismissive treatments of views like mine are so commonplace in our pro-war-torqued media.

I'm going to tell you why suspicion of government is good in principle; why our own government's record makes a critical stance especially suitable; why Bush II in particular shouldn't be overly trusted; why the US move to unilateralism is dangerous and stupid; why the Iraq policy in particular is consistently self-defeating; why arguments for acting out of compassion for Saddam's victims are baloney; why containment can work; and finally what we should do. By now you must be regretting having asked! Too late!

In what follows, I'm not even going address the reasons why I think a war against Iraq is a bad idea and why the justifications for it are false; that's a whole other essay. Before I get started, though, I must say that with respect to the Iraq obsession, my whole argument against it can begin and end with the comparison with North Korea, another member of Bush's "axis of evil." North Korea is an order of magnitude beyond Iraq in deception, noncompliance and threat, so I ask you, where's the consistency? If pre-emption is your bag, you'll agree that we should be planning to bring the war to Pyongyang ASAP. This comparison shows beyond doubt that our administration is not acting out of principle, but out of other motives. We ought to question those motives until we get an answer that satisfies.

Suspicion of government is good in principle

People like me grumble. Are we just malcontents, misfits, misanthropes, and tellers of tall tales? Or are we people who really care, who really hope, and who are acting out of love-our-country patriotism as we see it?

It is our democratic duty to regard our leaders and their power with healthy suspicion. The framers wanted us to maintain such an attitude. It's we the people -- we own the government. We have a right to take an active interest in whether or not it does the right thing. If our judgment is that our government's has done or is doing the wrong thing, our patriotism demands that we speak out.

With respect to US foreign policy, I understand that these things are endlessly complex, and that in today's world even the most admirable leaders have to choose lesser evils. We cannot come out smelling like a rose every time.

But I am wary. My suspicion comes from a lifetime of observing choices and strategies and saying, "I wouldn't have done that. Why did they have to do that, in my name?" For our nation's highs are nearly matched by our lows. I am prepared to believe in the myth that we are the indispensable nation, the beacon of democracy, freedom and hope. I also know from the start that that myth must always be footnoted by two world-class genocides right here at home -- slavery and the destruction of the indigenous nations. Now we hold the indomitable global power - I think we have to keep asking ourselves, how much have we changed since those days? Obviously a lot, but have we as a nation ever examined our external relationships with the painful scrutiny of, say, the civil rights movement here at home? It's prudent to always look at the actions of our government both with great, hopeful optimism that we'll do better than any great power that preceded us, and with suspicion that we may not. If I'm going to believe in the myth, I have to hold us to a high standard, and I will experience genuine disappointment and even outrage when we fail.

Our own government's record makes a critical stance especially suitable

With respect to foreign policy, let's look at some historical precedent. Forgive me for ranging far afield and sounding like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, but I do believe that one can only understand the current propaganda for war in the larger context.

Before Pearl Harbor happened, President Roosevelt knew from intelligence that Japan was going to attack. But he did not issue any alert to his armed forces. He wanted the attack to happen.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the Vietnam War, was put forward in response to an alleged attack on a US warship by Vietnam. President Johnson knew the story was a lie. The alleged attack actually never occurred. But the lie paved the way for war.

It's not just our pretexts for going to war that can be troubling. If we are to understand the implications of our actions, especially as global opinion increasingly turns against us, we have to grasp the history that foreigners understand far more tangibly than we do. In particular, the way we manipulate other countries for "regime change" is disquieting. Consider:

Iran, 1950s: the head of state wanted to nationalize the oil industry, so the CIA overthrew him and installed the Shah, a maniacal creep. Motivation: our access to their oilfields. End result: Islamic revolution.

Guatemala, 1950s: democratically-elected leader Arbenz wanted to buy back land from the American firm that owned so much of the country, United Fruit Co. (Ironically, he wanted to buy back the land at the valuation that United Fruit put on it for tax purposes). So the CIA toppled him and installed a military dictatorship. Motivation: our access to their food. End results: 3 decades of war, hundreds of thousands of peasants dead.

Chile, 1970s: democratically-elected Allende wants to nationalize mining operations run by the American firm ITT, so Henry Kissinger and the CIA arrange to have Allende killed and replaced with the military dictator Pinochet. Motivation: our access to their mines. End result: cruel repressive dictatorship kills thousands of its own citizens. US opts out of International Criminal Court in 2001 to protect the architect of these crimes, Henry Kissinger.

This is just a sprinkling of the history of "regime change." Examples like this abound. Look at Venezuela right now. The US administration has made it very clear they want Chavez out. Over and over the media reports on efforts to depose Chavez, but no one can lay a charge against Chavez except vague references to his "dictatorial tendencies." Since when is it democratic to remove a twice-elected guy in mid-term without any actual charges of him doing anything illegal? A dirty game is in process. Venezuela, notably, is the US's third-largest oil supplier.

What is the likelihood that President Bush is now hiding some very big lie concerning war for regime change in Iraq? Given the history, will you grant me there's maybe a 25% chance? Shouldn't that give one pause?

Bush II in particular shouldn't be overly trusted

Let's begin with a laundry list of reasons why I am disappointed with the international leadership of George W. Bush. The pattern tells me to keep this guy at arm's length, and that figures into my decision whether or not to support him in his war plans.

- Backing out of the ABM treaty
- Ridiculing, demeaning, and hobbling the UN
- Rejection of the International Criminal Court
- Diplomacy bluntly backed by threats of violent force -- not a model for a better world
- Decision to shift US foreign policy to pre-emptive force
- Insane obsession with national missile defense
- Shift to first use of nuclear weapons and development of battlefield nuclear weapons ("bunker busters")
- Fanatically fueling a totally unsustainable consumption of hydrocarbons
- Backing out of the Kyoto global warming accords
- Wildly hypocritical (opportunistically anti-free-trade) massive agricultural subsidies which kill the livelihoods of poor farmers all over the globe
- Schizophrenically refusing to sacrifice sovereignty to institutions like the UN and International Criminal Court but more than happy to hand over sovereignty to the WTO - huh?
- Rejection of the land mines treaty - appalling
- Rejection of the biological weapons treaty!

My opinion: if we'd chosen the opposite tack in each of these cases, we'd live in something a little closer to earthly paradise today.

Now let's consider the 9/11 history. Congress and the new commission set up to investigate the 9/11 will undoubtedly find differently, but to me the evidence points beyond mere incompetence by intelligence agencies. There is reason to probe further the indications that the Bush administration failed to act -- or even impeded further action - on available intelligence. Don't even get me started on the question of how it is possible that air force jets could not have been scrambled to meet the second twin towers plane (oops! I'm trying to avoid sounding like a conspiracy theorist!) Anyway, fathom this:

When George W. Bush started his first oil venture in Texas, one of his key financial backers was Osama bin Laden's father.

The former president, George Bush Sr., has been involved in the management of bin Laden's father's investments for years at the company at which he currently serves on the board, the Carlisle Group.

The wedding of financial interests between the Bush and bin Laden families is among the most important business relationships the Bush family has, contributing to the Bushes' personal global reach in oil markets.

George W. Bush was briefed several weeks before the September 11th attacks that Osama bin Laden was imminently initiating hijackings of American airliners.

In the days following the September 11th attacks, there were no airplanes at all flying in American skies. Except for one: a private jet which picked up members of the bin Laden family scattered throughout the United States and flew them all home to Saudi Arabia, without questioning by the FBI or CIA.

So I wonder, when George W. Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," what is to distinguish him from an Arabian warlord of old, in a blood feud with his own first cousin? Frankly, it appears to me that throughout that entire affair, Bush conducted himself first as a private citizen with key personal and family financial interests to protect, and only second as an American President representing and guiding his nation.

Okay, time to take a deep breath. . . Now. On to a look at Bush and his team.

I don't know about you, but I took the Iran-contra conspiracy very seriously. In global-political terms, it was more important blot on the US government than Watergate. So does it help me to trust the present administration that it has now hired John Poindexter and Elliot Abrams, both of whom committed high crimes and had to be pardoned? Wow!

How about Henry Kissinger being appointed to head the commission to inquire into errors made by the US government in allowing September 11th to happen? It should be understood that this appointment is first and foremost a signal by Bush -- to markets, to Congress, to foreign diplomats and heads-of-state, and to those Americans who have the perception to get it -- that no important secrets regarding this affair will be revealed for another 25 years, and no one of any importance in the US government will be held accountable for anything. The signal works this way: there's good reason to believe that Henry Kissinger ought to be tried as a war criminal for his role in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and Indonesia. The US refused to join the International Criminal Court in large part to protect Kissinger and the US policies which he represents. To appoint him to head this commission is a statement that says our secrets will be protected, the truth will not matter in this case.

Bush's fondness for Kissinger's brand of secrecy is particularly galling in light of the remarkably soft-pedaled scandal of what Bush know and kept secret while Congress was voting to give him an unprecedented free hand to make war against Iraq. I am referring to Bush's knowledge that North Korea had recently been caught breaking its solemn pact not to continue developing its nuclear weapons program (which is far in advance of Iraq's). Bush held that knowledge back from the voting Congress and from all Americans, in order to advance a vote every bit as significant as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. I call that a lie. I think the only reason Congress doesn't is because they were duped so thoroughly on the eve of an election, and they didn't want to admit their own irrelevance.

The US move to unilateralism/"pre-emption" is dangerous and stupid

In World War II, 40 million (?) civilians were killed. In the wake of that catastrophe, an attempt was made to forge a system that would restrain the bloodthirstier passions of our human nature, at least insofar as governments indulge in them. Out of a series of conventions and agreements, the United Nations and a framework of international law were born.

Always unwieldly, far from perfect but subject to refinement over time, this system functioned reasonably well to promote peace for half a century. Bloody, even genocidal conflicts still arose repeatedly on almost every continent, it is true; and the powerful were still often able to get away with murder; but some limits on war existed for the first time.

Under this semi-stable international order, unprovoked aggression of one sovereign nation against another came to be considered generally unacceptable, and was likely to be reacted against by a unified international community. Crimes against humanity were in some cases prosecuted after the fact. Those who would commit war schemes at least had to weigh their actions against the possibility of such consequences. And no one power was so dominant that it could entirely ignore such consequences.

Then the Cold War ended, and our nation found itself in possession of unprecedented, unstoppable power. What to do with this power? Some dreamed of our becoming a nation such as the world had never seen: a nation which would use its predominance to promote disarmament across the globe, to begin to dismantle the machines of war, to actively build an ever-stronger framework of international law enforcement against war crimes, genocide and terror. In short, a nation which would use its power to forge a fruitful peace for a new millennium.

Others dreamed of a new kind of global dominance, in which America's word would be law; in which the United States would be subject to no constraint; in which foreigners would get in line or get out of the way; in which the affront to sovereignty known as "international law" would be either swept aside or used as a prop for further strategic aims, depending on circumstances.

For ten years, neither dream gained any ground, as U.S. leaders, unsure what to do, bumbled ahead, avoiding any bold moves.

And then, September 11th happened. The day which, we are fond to say, changed everything. The War on Terror was joined against an enemy whose actions could not be justified on any terms. But that nascent war, significant as it is, is not really what changed. What has changed is this: the moment of opportunity had arrived for those who had quietly nurtured the dream of unrestrained global dominance.

Thus we have Charles Krauthammer in Time Magazine:

"America is no mere international citizen; it is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will."

And we have a historic shift in US foreign policy. From now on, and for the first time, the US deems it acceptable to attack other nations without being provoked - "pre-emption." It's hard to understate how breathtaking a change that is. Of course we have pursued that policy in covert and underhanded ways at least a dozen times in recent decades, but if you asked presidents from Washington down to Reagan if they thought it was a good idea to make pre-emption our official stated policy, they'd all say no! That's the policy of an empire, not the policy of the shining beacon of freedom and democracy.

And of course, we have the plan for war against Iraq. The mechanisms of fear are running full throttle. The voices of the many Americans, who want nothing to do with this war, have been consistently minimized by the media and ignored by our leaders. The voices of other nations have been ignored. Both parties in Congress have rushed to enact this new vision with as little debate as possible.

And so now we stand on the brink of a new world for the 21st century. From here forward, America's message to the world is this: Welcome the law of the jungle. Do not try to follow our lead. You will do what we tell you to do.

The Iraq policy in particular is consistently self-defeating

It is well known that we "made" Saddam, arming him in the 1980s, even helping him with chemical weapons capacity. Note that it was Donald Rumsfeld himself who went to Baghdad back then to buddy-buddy with his good friend Saddam. It is well known that we didn't make a peep when he gassed his own people, because he was our friend at that time. We were aware of it, and our silence indicated our acceptance that what he was doing was okay. It is not a viable piece of evidence in our arsenal of complaints against him today - it's more like a carton of old milk in our foreign-policy refrigerator, well past its due date.

And really, Saddam's using those weapons wasn't such an outrageous decision given that his patron the United States owns by far the world's most massive and advanced stocks of missile-deployable chemical weapons - and still, a decade and a half later, refuses to sign the treaty banning them (although we are slowly, privately disposing of them, or at least claiming to).

Anyway, let's move ahead to the US position on Iraq in recent years. The Clinton administration established a policy in 1998 that no matter what Iraq does, the sanctions will not be lifted until there is a regime change in Iraq. UN resolutions be damned. Add to that the incontrovertible fact that UNSCOM weapons inspectors were spying for the US and Israel. If you're a petty dictator, how do you respond to that? You tell yourself, they will never lift sanctions on me, and they've got spies in my most sensitive sites wearing the soiled symbol of the UN. Is it a surprise that he thumbs his nose at us when he gets the chance, ducks when he has to? Those aren't the actions of a madman; they're quite rational.

Then Bush comes in and rams through a titanic shift in US foreign policy, claiming the never-before-taken right to attack foreign nations without provocation. Incentive to cooperate?

Arguments for acting out of compassion for Saddam's victims are baloney

Moving on, what about all the very-bad-things the butcher of Baghdad has done to his poor people? Shouldn't we remove him for his sins? I'm totally unmoved by that argument. I gave up on being moved about our humanitarian mission to prevent dictators from causing human misery and death abroad after our taking a pass on interventions against Mobutu-Zaire, Milosovic-Yugoslavia, Suharto-Indonesia, Saddam-in-the-1980s, the apartheid government-South Africa, Pinochet-Chile, Pol Pot-Cambodia, the Hutus (or was that Tutsis?)-Rwanda...

I mean, really, why do ethnic cleansing, killing your own people, prosecuting wars against your neighbors, being a nasty tyrant, fiddling with weapons of mass destruction all of a sudden matter so much now? It's commonplace. And if I felt responsible for the fate of these poor helpless Iraqis, how can I not be losing sleep over starving, dying, barely human North Koreans? A moral lesson: you cannot be selective in your empathy to strangers. Either you've got empathy or you don't. Truly, that kind of inconsistency is driven by propaganda designed to whip up passions. It's not a consistent moral stance.

Madeline Albright was asked in 1998, if half a million children die because of the sanctions, is that worth it? She said, yes, I believe that would be worth it. I ask you this. Where was our compassionate heart for the Iraqi people then? If we are motivated to go to war to help these poor people, can we then accept that we might bear a fraction of responsibility for the way they have suffered and died, maintaining for all these years a stale killing regime that we know cannot work?

I know where I stand. I'm being facetious about my own lack of compassion. I've been concerned about the suffering of Iraqis for quite a long time. About three years ago, I attended a lunch presentation by an Iraqi exile who was advocating very strongly for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq, on the grounds they sanctions were causing unconscionable suffering and death among Iraqi citizens who bore no responsibility for their government's catastrophic choices. Now, this man despised Saddam. But he realized that the sanctions will never budge Saddam from his perch, any more than the blockade stopped Fidel. It strengthened him, just as the sanctions have shored up Saddam's power. As such, they were and are counterproductive and a disgrace. I have advocated to end the sanctions since that lunch, AND I fully understand how culpable and dangerous Saddam is. There are other ways of dealing with him.

Containment can work

Reading Kenneth Pollack's view that a war to bring about regime change is regrettably necessary within a couple of years, I'm reminded of my own history with this subject. In 1990, in my final semester in college, as we hurled toward Gulf War I (which started weeks after I graduated), I devised a 4-credit course for myself, no classes, just writing a research paper analyzing the blunders of Reagan/Bush in creating the monster called Saddam.

Reading Pollack's argumentation, what takes me back to those days is its heartlessness. I've been reading that kind of foreign affairs analysis for many years, because it's very richly informative, but that entire mode and milieu of discourse will never deliver us to the kind of world that I want to see. It's realpolitik, it's realist - but it's heartless. He says, one well-placed nuclear blast taking out the Saudi oil supplies would cause a global depression. Gee, I'm sorry to hear that. It's not that the things Pollack says are untrue. It's that if all our leaders are mired in that sort of mindscape and have no imagination to climb out of the realist box, we're all condemned to live out our miserable lives with them in that box. They do not deserve the inordinate power they wield. "Heart" is an odd criterion - I guess I picked it up studying theology. But there is no heart in the foreign policy establishment that sustains a Madeline Albright or a Henry Kissinger. Their thinking is the obstacle, not the solution. It's Babylon.

Basically, Pollack's big picture argument boils down to a rejection of a policy of containment, forcing a choice between a straw-man version of classic Cold-War-style deterrence and intervention in the form of war for regime change. I think he's wrong about possibilities of containment.

We can essentially contain Iraq as we did the Soviet Union while Stalin killed millions of his own people. Look at it; we're all sorry that so many innocent Russians had to die, but nobody says the blood is on our hands for that. That's the way of the world. And if you think I'm being callous, then, as I've already noted, we should have intervened in Rwanda and Yugoslavia and North Korea and much of sub-Saharan Africa. The fact is, a dead Iraqi five-year-old is not worth any more than any other dead five-year-old. Lift the sanctions and continue even cursory weapons inspections, backed by the constant threat of retaliation for violations.

What we should do

For too long, we have coddled antidemocratic dictators - we arm them, we encourage them to repress their people, we make them rich and powerful. Then, if they go off the rails from our strategic perspective, we decide that we must kill them. What I would prefer is that we:

a) not give so much support to undemocratic dictators
b) fully support the International Criminal Court, and when a dictator goes sour, charge him with crimes against humanity. In the short term, that may sound ineffective against very large risks, but in the long term its the only way to change the behavior of leaders before they get out of control, and the only way to counteract them without reinforcing the law of the jungle.
c) if the leader gets totally out of control, meaning he actually, tangibly starts killing people in a more outrageous manner than that which we tolerate elsewhere every day, then we intervene and take him out.

I am a campaigner against suffering. I absolutely believe that we should work to alleviate suffering in the world, but we should do so strategically and consistently. Thus, we tackle first that suffering over which we can exercise the most control and have the biggest impact - and where we can be shown to hold relatively more responsibility. That's why I campaign for debt cancellation for the poorest nations. How could anyone support a bloody, extremely volatile/high stakes and expensive war on humanitarian grounds and deny the very easy, cheap step of alleviating poverty-driven death in Africa? In both cases we're talking about people whose suffering is caused by the fact that they have zero control over the errors of their unaccountable governments.

We can intervene in a way that forces the transformation of these governments, if only we have the will and the heart to do it. In this way we begin to transform the world for the better, bit by bit, incrementally, though our demonstrated commitment to ending suffering. On a parallel track, we can contain and pester rogues like Saddam, let them know that the Criminal Court lies ahead for them, and in time there will be less of their kind. We can wait. We need patience and a long-term commitment if we are to lead the way to a better, safer world.

And that brings me to the question of "War is never the answer." I recently heard someone say, "An unprovoked war is a crime against humanity." That sounds like a fair standard in the case of Iraq invading Kuwait. Why not in the case of the US invading Iraq now? I respect people's belief that war is necessary in certain circumstances. I will never question the fact that without America's warriors from day one, we wouldn't be here today. I am proud of my father and uncle and grandfather for fighting in World War II. But I give equal respect to pacifists who see the power in Gandhi and King. I think that since the end of World War II (the second "war to end all wars"), pacifism by Americans has been an equally legitimate position. It does not imply, let the world go to hell; rather it says, let's take a risk for a better world. If enough of us believe, a better way of peace is possible.

I say lift the sanctions and maintain cursory weapons inspections of Iraq after the current round is finished. Bomb their facilities if things start to look too suspicious. And move on. Yes, it is a risk. Worst case scenario, Iraq's regime somehow secretly gets a single nuke, and against all realistic expectation actually uses it to blow up a city. The regime is itself then destroyed forthwith. Life would go on. We blew up two Japanese cities with nukes, and life still goes on. The world would learn a lesson. No, I don't want it to happen. The point is, I'm willing to take that risk because I think the odds of it happening are actually well below 100 to one, and we may need to take these risks while we universalize the principles and practice of peace, disarmament, and justice if we are to model a better world and lead the way to it. The only reason we are as far behind the 8-ball as we are now is because we have utterly failed to lead the world out of nuclear chaos. Even after India and Pakistan went nuclear, we don't take disarmament seriously. We can't seriously blame people like Saddam and Osama entirely for the fact that this is an increasingly nuclear-dangerous world. People follow the leader: proliferation was always inevitable as long as we dissed disarmament. Trying to bomb our way out of the problem will only intensify the risk.

In conclusion

Well, there you have it. I've been a student of this stuff for years, and I really believe that my torque is based on an even-handed analysis of our government's real behavior on the ground. That, and what I believe are fair standards for justice and right relationships. I thirst for the fulfillment of the myth of American leadership, and I'll hold our leaders' feet to the fire until I see it actualized.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Today's Rumi:

But that shadow has been serving you!
What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.