Archive for ‘USA’ Category
When in graduate school I was exposed to the writings of dependency and post-colonial theorists, people like Samir Amin, Barrington Moore, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Cardoso and Faletto, and a host of other neo-Gramscians and Euro Marxists. Following Lenin’s theory of imperialism, these various schools of thought all concurred that there was a structural basis for US imperialism, and that this in turn led to what Dwight Eisenhower (of all people) called a “military-industrial complex” that continually pushed for war in order to develop, test and apply new technologies in pursuit of profit, with follow-on benefits eventually accrued by the civilian market as well. None of these theorists believed in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy promotion that the US used, and uses, to justify its military activities abroad.
For Marxists, US imperialism is not about liberation but about exploitation of other people’s natural and human resources for US gain. It is about oil in Iraq and natural gas and mineral rights in Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, coupled with the geo-strategic imperative to keep rival powers from encroaching on US economic interests in these areas. It is why the US declared the Monroe Doctrine that until recently made Latin America its exclusive sphere of interest (a status quo now under seige from Chinese investment), and it is why the US continues to spend more money on defense than the next eight countries combined (including Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany). Most importantly, in this view, the structural imperative is why the US is a war-mongering nation that uses–and in fact needs–wars to propel its economy and maintain its preeminence in the global arena.
Being US-born but raised in Latin America, I had, and have, mixed emotions about this perspective. On the one hand I see the validity of the argument, which is elegant in its simplicity of explanantion but also reductionist to a fault. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that a majority of Americans would accept the premise that the US is an imperialist war-mongering nation driven by corporate interest, and that if they were presented with evidence to that effect a majority would vote to end the cycle of war-for-profit that Eisenhower warned about.
The inability of most Americans to see US military activities in the structuralist light may be a tribute to the myth-making propoganda of the US educational and media systems, but the truth is that they simply see what the US does abroad as part of its natural responsibilities as the world’s (yet) superpower and policeman. In other words, if no other country is going to step in and put out fires, then it is up to the US to do so. That is what the US public believes, although it has been shown time and again that they have little patience for staying in protracted conflicts that do not appear to directly impinge on core national values or security.
Over the past few months, as I have contemplated and written about Afghanistan, I have found myself returning to this theme: is the US a war-mongering country? In recent correspondence with journalist Jon Stephenson, whose work as one of the few serious independent NZ-based journalists I admire, he brought up the subject of wars of necessity and discretionary wars. The former are fought in pursuit of core national interests; the latter are fought for reasons of political, diplomatic or economic want, not need.
This does not mean that the latter are always illegitimate. As I mentioned in the earlier post about the “Responsibility to Protect,” sometimes more than national interest has to be considered in committing troops to conflict. But the overall picture should be clear. Some wars are justifiable due to imposed necessity; other wars are not.
This is where the US begins to show its colors. It appears that it has conflated the two types of war, under the banner of promoting “freedom” and “democracy” abroad, in order to satisfy its broad structural needs and the specific demands of the perpetual motion machine known as the military-industrial complex exemplified by the likes of Raytheon, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Haliberton, McDonald Douglas and other conglomerates.
But even as I pondered the implications of this theoretical overlap between the two types of war in the US mindset, I found myself (perhaps due to some lingering loyalty to my place of brith) still unable to accept the fact that the US is indeed a war-mongering imperialist power. I decided to research the history of US military adventures abroad so as to get a better idea of their scope over time. I was pretty sure that in one way or another the US has been in a state of semi-constant conflict since 1989. I do know that it is the only country on earth that has an array of military bases spanning the world, to include every continent including Antartica, remote island chains and atolls, and non-publicised detachments engaged in covert action. I know that the US has five aircraft carrier battle groups (which include submarines, destoyers, frigates and tenders as well as the air wings on the carrier), of which three are deployed at any one time, and that no other country has a single one such battle group. The point should be clear–the US position in world affairs does in fact ride on the back of an immense military machine (as opposed to moral authority or diplomatic leadership).
My research was an eye-opener. Ahough I am not a fan of Wikipedia being used as a scholarly source (and in fact mark down students who use it as such), I have decided that in this case it summarises the issue pretty concisely. Could it be that the Marxists are right? If so, is this status quo unbreakable in a world in which rising powers may see reason to challenge the US position in global society? What are the implications of these potential challenges given the historical record?
On the other hand, is it plausible that this history of intervention is strictly driven by economic interest and military-corporate collusion? Is it not possible that altruistic motives are sometimes at play when the US uses force abroad? After all, many if not most of the cited interventions involved evacuations of civilians from conflict zones and involvement in foreign conflicts for apparent humanitarian reasons devoid of economic interest.
I wonder what the US public would make of this history if they knew enough about it, and how future justifications for war would square with this track record? Could it be possible that the Obama administration will return to the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of discretion as a benchmark for foreign military intervention, thereby breaking with the military-industrial complex and its need for perpetual war?
Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.
In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen. Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the president’s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, “socialist” health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.
The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship, and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values. Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.
The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-“big government” sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.
The irony is that the Right’s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters. Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections.
Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice. The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.
Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-style rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.
There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive. A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Crist’s presence.
Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.
The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh). In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero “mosque” (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).
Nor has the “provocation” argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.
In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.
The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad. That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.
Then there is the final implication: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.
It has been a busy year for travel. I was in OZ in January (pleasure), NZ in Feb-March (business and pleasure), Greece in April-May (business and pleasure), OZ again in June (pleasure) and am now headed to the US for five weeks (business and pleasure). My daughter is getting married (to a Republican!) and I have work to do on the Florida house, plus will vote in the state Democratic primary (where everything from dogcatcher to Senator is in play) and scout out opportunities for the political risk/market intelligence/strategic analysis consulting firm I have just re-started (I used to do this sort of consulting before moving to NZ, then switched into a media expert commentary focus, but now need to get back into the bigger game because I have been locked out of NZ and OZ academia as a result of well-known events). I am going to try and base the consultancy in SG and NZ with a Australasian-Latin American focus given my past experience and networks in the latter region. If things go to plan it will be the first dedicated political risk/market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy based in and focused on NZ’s relations with the Pacific Rim. However, the US offers more opportunity for a range of work along the lines in which I have some expertise, so I am going to use the trip to visit with old colleagues and work on any networking opportunities that may arise.
Depending on how things go I will likely do some more traveling before the end of the year. My partner would prefer that I not take assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which I find understandable. So I suggested to her that I will instead focus on Yemen and Somalia as possible work sites. You can imagine her reaction. All joking aside, there are plenty of places in which my background and experience could be of help to potential clients (both public and private), so I will try to use the US trip as a springboard to work that will allow me to return to NZ and at worst divide my time between there and SG (my partner still has the full time university job in SG and there is no point in her giving it up until such a time as there are academic openings for her back in NZ or OZ).
Put another way: I may no longer be able to work in academia, but that does not mean that a lifetime accumulation of research and analytic skills need go to waste. Plus, I am not good at being idle or a “kept” man. Hence I need to find intellectually stimulating work that will allow me to contribute to society, with my personal ethics and values being the guide as to what sort of work I accept or reject. The US trip is the first step towards doing so.
All of which is to say that I may be a bit quiet for the next week or so. I will try to post about events in the US as I see them in the build up to the mid-term elections in November. Things have gotten very strained in terms of political debate in that country but it is hard to judge what really is the public mood without living there. The wedding and related visits with friends and family should provide a good cross-section and sounding board on how people feel about Obama, the economy, foreign affairs in general and the wars in particular, and contemporary social issues often overlooked in the foreign press or export news industry. With any luck that will provide material for posts. Otherwise I shall work on my open water swimming, which has been neglected since I moved to SG because, to put it mildly, the locals waters are not exactly the cleanest on earth. Since the Florida place is 50 meters from the beach and the water there has not been affected by the Gulf oil spill (it is on the Atlantic side), it will be a nice opportunity to regain some of my surf swimming skills with a view towards using them in NZ once I finally make it back there.
For those who may be interested, I am interviewed on the TVNZ news analysis show fronted by Russell Brown, Media 7, tonight on the subject of wikileaks. Although only parts of the interview will be aired, Russell will put the entire conversation up on the Media 7 web site (or perhaps on Public Address). The discussants on tonight’s taping are Selwyn Manning from the independent news aggregator Scoop and investigative reporter Jon Stephenson (who is the most knowledgeable Kiwi journalist when it comes to Afghanistan). There is some serious brain power between them. Both are hard news gathers who eschew the official spin, both are very critical thinkers about issues of public policy, both have taken on both the government and mainstream media versions of important news, and both know how to string a few paragraphs together (which is more than can be said for many in the so-called journalism fraternity). In other words, the offer great value in terms of insight and analysis, which is what I believe was Russell’s hope when conceiving the show. Hence, I commend it to you if you are not already familiar with it.
Wikileaks has scored another major coup with its publication of more than 90,000 official and previously classified documents on the Afghan conflict. I am of two minds on its doing so. On the one hand I see it as a valuable instrument of accountability, both as instrument for holding the people directly responsible to account as well as a future deterrent to others who might engage in unlawful acts or cover-ups during wartime. On the other hand, publication of the document clearly jeopardises the national security of the US as well as the ISAF mission, and does so on several levels. The bottom line is that it gives the Taleban, al-Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) and other rogue states very valuable insight into US military operations and intelligence gathering efforts. Depending on where one stands in the ideological divide, that can be very good or very bad news. I believe that in this regard it is bad news.
In publishing this classified information Wikileaks has made itself an enemy of the state in the US. In the measure that it uncovers other state secrets, it could well become an international pariah, at least among the Western states that is its main focus. This is ironic. Although Wikileaks has complained about harassment from US security agencies, it has not (yet) suffered direct retribution for its actions. But imagine if it published extremely sensitive classified military documents from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or even Israel. We can safely assume, given these country’s past records on breaches of and threats to national security, that the Wikileaks community would have very good reason to fear for their lives. In fact, there may be two reasons why Wikileaks does not publish on these states: 1) the amount of secrecy in them is far superior to that of the US and other Western countries; 2) Wikileaks is afraid to do so for fear of mortal retaliation. Put another way, Wikileaks targets the US not only because of its concern about US military misdeeds, because it knows that it can get away with it due to the more benign nature of democratic regimes (to include the US) when it comes to confronting non-violent security threats.
That raises an item of note. Wikileaks is successful because it has people within the US and other Western security agencies leaking classified information to it. This is, of course, a crime, since public dissemination of classified information without official authorisation is outlawed in all states. For example, I am bound by an oath I signed in the 1990s to not divulge, release or comment directly on the classified issues that I worked on during my stint in the Pentagon, and after 25 years have passed must request permission from the agencies I worked with before attempting to do so. The penalities for breaching this contract are long federal prison terms. Similar laws bind people working in security agencies throughout the world. Thus any leak of classified material is by definition a crime against the state.
Yet in Western democracies people of conscience or feeling remorse regularly turn to the media as well as public watchdogs and government accountability agencies to reveal classified information that provides evidence of official wrong-doing. In fact, many consider it to be a public duty for them to do so. In addition, the size of security agencies often makes hermetic secrecy impossible. The US has 1.5 million people with top secret clearances. From my experience in the Pentagon and elsewhere, individuals often take home, either deliberately or (more often) inadvertently, classified work papers that are part of their normal desk load and which do not have the strict records controls of documents classified as Secret Compartmentalised Information (SCI) or higher. Between the two types of mishandling–deliberate leaks and misadvertent transfer–the US security apparatus is a huge porous sieve. The fact that a single US Army private provided the documentation (and video) on the Iraq helicopter assault on journalists and the Afghan war dossier proves just how far down the chain of command sensitive information flows. Imagine if it were a colonel or general who decided to pass along his secure file cabinet worth of documents! In fact, I am surprised that it was someone so far down the totem pole who managed to get so much information out of the system and into Wikileaks’ hands.
Which brings up the issue of purported US government conspiracies, those about 9/11 in particular. Unfortunately, due to some writing and public commentary I have made on 9/11, I have had to deal with conspiracy theorists who believe that it was an inside job, Zionist conspiracy, controlled demolition, rockets rather than planes involved, even holograms rather than the real thing. Some of these otherwise apparently sane people truly believe that the US government conspirators orchestrated the whole thing so as to launch the war on terrorism in a quest for complete global domination. Some even see a link between the JFK assassination, the fake moon walk and 9/11.
Well, I have two things to say to these folk. First, if the “9/11 as part of a drive towards global domination” scenario is true that those plans sure as heck are not working out too well. Second, in a context is which no secrets are safe, in which leaking has become an art form, is it really possible that the US government has been able to enforce one hundred percent secrecy at all levels of operation on the planning, execution and cover-up of the supposed inside job? Is it rational to think that not a single person involved in this monumental plot, which would have involved a cast of thousands, would not have come forward by this point with direct evidence of a conspiracy? Would Wikileaks not have received something along those lines by now?
One has to hand it to the US conservative movement. They have no shame, or at least plenty of chutzpah.
They love to bark about the evils of Democrats while having no regard for the consistency of their own positions. Take the issue of corporate responsibility. Conservatives railed against the bail-outs of the Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers, arguing against the “they are to big to let fail” logic of the W. Bush and Obama administrations when these came to the financial rescue of the beleaguered giants. “Let ‘em fail” they screeched, since “the market will sort ‘em out.” Yet, when Toyota lied about the causes of sudden uncontrolled acceleration in its cars and delayed recalls while “investigating” the incidents (which resulted in over a dozen deaths and more than a hundred injuries), these same groups demanded that the US government step in to investigate and charge those responsible for everything from criminal negligence to consumer fraud. Likewise, the US right wing is now raving that the US federal government has done too little too late to respond to the BP oil spill even though–surprise surprise–the US federal government does not have the deep water capping technology available to the private oil industry, had previously deregulated that industry at its request in order to stimulate production (and profits) and was initially relying on that industry to give honest estimates of the disaster and rectify the situation based upon its own expertise and record in controlling spills of that nature. Some conservatives even demanded that the US accept offers of foreign assistance in controlling the spill, and scolded the Obama administration when it declined to do so. Fancy that, conservatives calling for foreign aid at a time of domestic crisis. Thus, when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility, US conservatives cannot make up their minds about the why, how and when of government intervention.
As far as taxation is concerned, the likes of the Tea party movement are opposed to current federal taxation rates and demand cuts across the board without considering that it is taxes that pay, as just one example, for the US military’s trillion dollar budgets and prosecution of a seemingly endless procession of wars abroad in defense of the “freedom” they so much rhetorically cherish. They appear ignorant of the fact that without taxation the US would not be able to maintain its preeminent global position, and that the current federal budget deficits originated in the W. Bush administration’s deficit spending to fuel the wars while lowering the taxation rates for corporations and high income individuals. In fact, in this regard W. Bush was emulating the champion of all American conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who massively increased defense spending and the overall size of the federal budget while lowering taxes for the upper third of the population. How is this “fiscally responsible?”
Finally, although all conservatives are self-styled “patriots” who literally wear their flags on their sleeves, bumpers and lapels, some are of the “America first” persuasion whereas others are of the “US superpower” kind. The former prefer that the US concentrate on its own affairs and limit its foreign entanglements, while the latter wants to see the US as the major player on the world stage. One view is isolationist; the other is imperialist. The two views are irreconcilable.
In effect, American conservatives are not the limited government champions they claim to be, nor are they consistent in their linkage of national necessities with taxation. They are divided on their views of the US role in the world. Instead they are a collection of blustering fools, economic retrogrades and illiterates, corporate toadies, religious zealots, assorted bigots, xenophobes and militarists mixed in with a minority of true libertarians and honest believers in the primacy of individual over collective rights and responsibilities. That means that even if they make major gains in the November 2010 elections, the centrifugal forces within the US conservative movement, as well as the lack of a coherent core rationale underpinning it, will prove deleterious to their chances for successful overhaul of the US political system. In fact, such a victory could well make the crisis of US politics even worse.
In the most recent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop I examine the broader context in which General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Beyond the issue of his insubordination and civilian control of the military in a democracy, the incident has brought to the surface the tensions between two competing views on how the US should prosecute counter-insurgency. One involves hearts and minds and nation-building, the other involves what I describe as a “drones and bones” approach that focuses on discrete operations against high value targets using high technology weapons and special forces. Although both are in place at the moment, there is competition between the two views with regard as to which ultimately will prove more successful at countering Islamicist threats to the West. Whether or not the ISAF mission succeeds may well depend on which perspective gains greater traction in coalition circles during the next twelve months (since the timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan begins in June-July 2011).
The uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into what looks to be the US’s worst environmental disaster. 40 days into the spill the well is still spewing 19,000 barrels (79,000 gallons) of oil per day into the deep waters 50 miles off of southern Louisiana. If ever there was an environmental event that could be called “catastrophic,” this is it. Estimates are that the oil slick (which is far more extensive in the middle layers of the Gulf than at the surface) will reach the Florida panhandle within days, the western Florida coast within weeks, and if the prevalent currents take hold it, the Florida Keys, Florida Straits, Cuba and South Florida Atlantic Coast by mid July. Estimates of when the spill will be contained range from August to December. If it is the latter, the slick could well be in New England given the flow rate of the Gulf Current. If a hurricane hits (the Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane season started on June 1), then all bets are off. Whatever happens, the economic costs of the disaster are already mind-boggling and wide-spread, which at a time when the US was just starting to emerge from a deep recession is a catastrophe all of its own.
By now everyone who follows the news knows that British Petroleum is the lessee of drilling rights in that part of the Gulf and owner of the drilling platform that exploded and collapsed with the loss of 11 lives that led to the leak. BP’s inability to staunch the flow after nearly a dozen unsuccessful attempts has been matched by the the wait and see response of the US government, which initially relied on BP assurances that the leak was not as big as is now known and that a capping solution was possible within a few weeks. Now that oil has fouled the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast lines on its way to Florida, public anger against BP and the Obama has started to boil over. A few days ago the US public was treated to the spectacle of James Carville, the well-known Clinton political advisor, ranting on national television against the Obama administration for its slow response (Carville is a Louisiana native). His rant was remarkable only because he is a loyal Democrat, since a host of Tea Party spokespeople, Republican Party figures and the baying hounds at Fox News and talk back radio have all lambasted the president for his lackadaisical approach to the crisis. A recent opinion poll shows that a quarter of those polled blame BP for the accident, a quarter blame Obama, and the rest blame both.
That is pretty rich. During the W. Bush administration regulations on off-shore drilling were relaxed and wilderness areas opened to oil exploration. Common emergency cutoff safeguards were abandoned as the GOP-controlled Congress approved policies of oil industry self-regulation. Dick Cheney chaired the White House energy task force, which was staffed by oil industry heavyweights including the infamous Ken Lay of Enron fame. Their recommendations, many of which passed into law, were that “less is more is less” when it comes to oil: the less US regulation the more domestic production. The more domestic production the less dependence of foreign oil. The entire federal regulatory and oversight apparatus charged with oil industry supervision adopted this mantra, which was spearheaded by Bush appointees whose idea of environmental protection was to make industrial polluters plant trees in the neighborhoods in which they operated or designate areas under their control as wildlife refuges.
The Obama administration had nothing to do with this. Its main fault lies in that, in an effort to appear centrist and “pro-business” it has allowed BP to lead the repair operation even though BP initially lied about the extent of the leak or about the fact that there had been multiple warnings from its own engineers that the well was showing signs of blowing in the weeks before the explosion. The timing of the disaster was both unfortunate and fortuitous, as, following the “less is more is less” line of thought, the Obama administration just approved new off-shore drilling rights off the lower US East Coast, a decision it may now have to review in view of the fact that, unlike the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the US Eastern Seaboard holds a majority of the population and important commercial and military ports as well as providing the jump-off point for Trans-Atlantic sea traffic. An uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster; a similiar uncontrolled oil spill off the northern coast of Florida or the coasts of Georgia, North and South Carolina would be apocalyptic.
The situation has gotten so desperate that experts are now debating the merits of the so-called “nuclear option:” a plan to detonate a nuclear explosive 15000-18000 feet under the surface so as to melt the surrounding rock into a glass-like “plug” (the wellhead itself is just a mile (3,800 feet or 1600 meters) down). This is also called the “Russian option” because Russia has reportedly used this technique to cap runaway natural gas wells (the Russians have not said anything in public to confirm or deny these stories). Trouble is, no one knows if the nuclear option will work, or what its collateral effects will be. As one Canadian blogger reportedly wrote: “What s worse than an uncontrolled deep water oil spill? A radioactive deep water oil spill.”
So the situation is grave. But in the their effort to place the blame on Obama, the Republican Party and its tea bagger/media loudmouth cohort have shown that they are craven hypocrites with no sense of fair play. In their attempts to divert attention from oil industry greed and failures onto the Obama administration, they reveal themselves as complete weasels. Take, for example, Sarah Pains claim that Obama was moving slow on the crisis because he had taken money from BP. Well, the “took the money” part is true. The Obama/Biden campaign received US 70,000 dollars from BP, which also gave US$38,000 to the McCain/Palin campaign. But the oil industry as a whole gave the McCain/Palin campaign US$ 1.3 million and the Obama/Biden campaign US$900,000. It is axiomatic in US politics that lobbying groups paper the wallets of both sides of the political spectrum, with big business and Wall Street favouring the GOP and unions, high tech and other public interest groups favouring the Democrats. Thus the claims that Obama is in BP’s pocket are refuted by a simple perusal of the public record (to be fair, Palin may not have the attention span or time to peruse the public record given that she reads “all” of the newspapers and is busy with her Fox TV Show and book tours).
Obama’s detractors are also stupid. After years of clamouring for “less government,” this motley crew of “conservative” champions of free enterprise now whine about a lack of government response to a disaster created by the very private industry that they helped free from government regulations in the first place. The Obama administration may have been slow off the mark in its response to the crisis, but that is precisely because it relied on private industry–in this case BP–to be upfront and honest about he scope of the disaster. Now that it is clear that BP was dishonest, and that this dishonesty is endemic in the oil industry when it comes to environmental safeguards, the government turns out to be the default option after all, but this time in a reactive rather than a proactive role such as what existed before Bush 43 laid waste to the federal regulations governing off-shore drilling.
Obama may rue the fact that his first two years have been consumed by problems that were not on his agenda when he came into the office. But for those salivating at the prospect of a GOP sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, the oil spill may prove to be even more problematic because no matter how they may try to spin it, it was the Republicans who set the stage for the disaster to happen. Whatever flaws his administration has, Obama gave private industry a chance to fix the problem, and it is only after BP’s repeated failures that it is now considering direct intervention in the capping efforts. So much for him being a commie, and if the Democrats have any sense of irony, then so much for a Republican landslide in November.
I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan. I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.
First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest? The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.
But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.
He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.
Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like an anchovy. Moreover, heavily weighted Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.
Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.
Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan issues such as this>>
In defending their role, Mr. Key said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.
And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.
Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?
Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are? Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.
And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R. As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.
Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.
Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”
Following President Obama’s undertaking in the State of the Union address, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Gates (US Secretary of Defense) have recommended an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing homosexuals from openly serving in the US military, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. While the arguments are not quite the same, the general position and line of rhetoric (“the troops will get over it”) was memorably presented a decade ago in The West Wing:
Update: Thanks to Hugh and Pablo (in comments) for correcting me on whose “call” it is.