Saturday, February 28, 2009

Stay in Afghanistan: No, we can't

Photo: Afghan family in poppy field. Credit: Canadian Army

According to the New York Times, President Obama declared "the beginning of the end" of the U.S. war on Iraq yesterday.

"Let me say this as plainly as I can," Mr. Obama said. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

He added: "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. ..."

That's darned unequivocal and, I for one, expect to work to hold him to it.

It's Afghanistan we've got to worry about. Our shiny new President seems poised to leap into that fire. We all -- people who care about peace, about the victims of war, and about the well-being of this country -- need to do what we can to discourage him.

The last couple of posts here have been aimed at just that end. So okay, we don't think Obama should throw the U.S. further into the Afghanistan quagmire -- but what should he do?

Fortunately the folks at Peace Action West have laid out some ideas about what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan. I'm reproducing them below in abbreviated form with my comments. The Peace Action West parts are in bold; the rest is me. If we want peace, we need a grip on these issues.

1. Replace the "Global War on Terror" framework with a counterterrorism strategy based on proven methods. Terrorists are criminals, not armies at war with the United States ... Yes, yes, yes. The Bush administration inflated a real threat from a bunch of fanatical thugs into an excuse to seize unchecked power domestically and globally. If this country is to function at all benevolently for its citizens and the world, we need to roll that back and re-establish the rule of law. This won't be easy, The Obama administration has already shown itself wobbly about limiting executive law-breaking -- part of the peace movement's job is to keep demanding that they stop inflating threats to shield themselves from scrutiny.

2. Focus resources on policing and intelligence. Well, maybe. This is what a law enforcement response to terrorist criminals would suggest. It might even help, though it didn't stop the dirty bomb making guy in Maine the other day. Far too much of the state's "intelligence" operation has consisted of building up its ability to use technical means to spy on all of us all the time. Snooping has become easy and cheap. We need better police work -- and we also need strong checks against abuses.

3. Engage in robust diplomacy with stakeholders in the region. That one is a no-brainer. The U.S. will not be in Afghanistan forever; Iran, Pakistan, India and the Central Asian states will be dealing with whatever remains long after we're gone. They have far more stake than we do. Get used to it.

4. Support negotiations with elements of the Taliban. ... As Gates noted in October of 2008, "At the end of the day, that's how most wars end..." It would be more truthful to state this as "negotiate with the forces that have power on the ground, not those you wish had power." And that is the resurgent Taliban. There are many reasons for the Taliban's return: support from Pakistani security forces, the unwillingness of NATO allies to get their troops killed in America's war, Afghan disgust with the corruption in Hamid Karzai's U.S.-supported government, and above all, ongoing abuses and killings by foreign occupation troops. Do we really think we'd cozy up to a power that bombed our residences and invaded our homes? Human beings don't work that way. The Taliban have offered themselves as a lesser evil and backed the offer with the violence to prove their capacity. By becoming the alternative to occupation, they've restored their legitimacy, however little we (and many Afghans) like that. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

5. Strengthen and deploy non-military aid and engagement. All well and good, though harder to achieve in practice than to prescribe. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world: life expectancy is 45; only 30 percent of people over 15 are literate (less than 15 percent among women); armies have been fighting over it continuously for 30 years. At the moment, not much is getting done because aid workers (foreign and Afghan) end up dead all too often. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, there have been a series of exposes showing that aid projects wasted most of the available money on highly paid consultants. Donor countries have also failed to live up to their promises. Meanwhile Afghan-initiated and run projects have been slighted, or so their sponsors claim.

The elephant in the living room that nobody wants to take on is that the best-functioning aspect of the Afghan economy is the opium trade. Poor farmers will do what they must to earn a living; the Taliban profits from enormous flows of off-the-books cash floating through the drug trade; Afghan government officials are too well-paid-off or too frightened to interfere; the NATO and U.S. forces once treated drug eradication as a sideshow and then threaten to adopt heavy handed measures sure to stir support for insurgency. UN Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa recently reported on

surveys conducted among farmers. Their results suggest that poverty and hopes of financial gain are the main motivators for farmers who took up poppy growing.

Fear of eradication was cited by less than 1 percent of the farmers who had stopped growing poppy. More than half said they quit out of respect for the government ban or edicts issued by local elders. More than a quarter of those farmers who have not cultivated poppy say they do not do it because it is seen as un-Islamic. Yet a mere 1 percent of those who had given up poppy farming cited Islam as a reason.

Costa today suggested that the government was losing the fight against drugs on more fronts than the southern provinces. He said that for the first time since 2004, domestic opium prices were again converging across the country, indicating drug shipments can move around freely. Opium costs the same in the south and the 13 northern provinces where poppy is no longer cultivated.

Ever since the U.S. went charging into Afghanistan, outsider voices have been suggesting there is really only one solution to the drug problem: Buy the poppy crop. Obama may be a miracle worker, but I doubt he can sell the U.S. public on that simple expedient, probably the most plausible first step toward getting Afghans onto a more sustainable economic path. Meanwhile, the U.S military says it "won't take direct action against the narcotics trade."

6. Reduce the US military footprint in Afghanistan with the goal of complete withdrawal of US troops. Blunt military force is ineffective in eradicating terrorist groups; it merely causes them to relocate. Yes, that should be object for the Obama administration. Just because our previous rulers stuck him with this mess doesn't mean he should perpetuate it. The object is U.S. withdrawal. Obama shows signs of understanding that:

"My goal is to get US troops home as quickly as possible without leaving a situation that allows for potential terrorist attacks against the United States," Obama said.

Right emphasis -- now we need progress toward that goal.

7. Develop a comprehensive plan for cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism and development. Peace Action West is certainly on the right track here, though I'd amend: first make sure there is a viable Pakistan. The place is in serious danger of becoming (more of) a failed state -- with nukes. There's lots for people in the United States for people to learn about Pakistan, its government, its democracy activists and its insecurities. The current practice of shooting up locations within Pakistan where we think there are terrorists is sowing great potential hatreds and dangers. But that's another essay.

Meanwhile: Stay in Afghanistan: No, we can't!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Stop digging

This a guest post from Max Elbaum of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras. Max writes a regular "Month in Review"; you can sign up to receive these by email at the WT/TdG website. This contribution is only a fraction of the current month's wide-ranging survey of wars and rumors of wars.

Tom Andrews, Director of Win Without War, responded this way to Barack Obama's Feb. 17 announcement that he was ordering 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan:

"The first principle for someone who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging."


The cautious statement that accompanied Obama's announcement was tacit admission that the administration knows it is starting from below ground. The President acknowledged that "new strategic goals" were needed. He stressed that this deployment (of fewer troops than U.S. generals requested) "did not pre-determine" the outcome of the comprehensive review of Afghanistan policy now underway. This leaves an opening for antiwar and progressive activists to galvanize the pressure needed not just to head off further military escalation, but to reverse course altogether and start the process of the U.S. getting out.

The hole dug by decades (not just eight years) of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is so deep that even pro-war generals admit there is "no military solution" to the conflict. From the antiwar side, Katrina van den Heuvel, an initiator of the important new Get Afghanistan Right initiative, bluntly states the issue:

"Escalating the occupation of Afghanistan will bleed us of the resources needed for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies, and negate the positive consequences of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world. Escalation will not secure a better future for the Afghan people or increase U.S. security."

Along with Get Afghanistan Right a wide spectrum of peace advocates are moving to raise the level of public education about, and protest against, Washington's so-called "good war." U.S. policy in Afghanistan will now join the contention over policy toward Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and the bloated military budget on the front-burner of antiwar activism.

Occupation fuels insurgency

There is a blunter way to state the fact that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict: Every bullet, soldier and bomb the U.S. sends to Afghanistan only makes things worse.

Ask the Afghan people themselves. A comprehensive poll by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD German TV released Feb. 9 showed the dramatic shift in Afghan opinion that has accompanied the up tick in U.S. military activity (especially air attacks) since 2005:

The number of Afghans who say their country is headed in the right direction has dropped from 77 percent to 40
percent. In 2005, 68 percent of Afghans credited the U.S. with a good performance; today's figure is 32 percent. More than 75 percent of Afghans say U.S./NATO air strikes are "unacceptable" due to civilian casualties. These figures almost certainly overstate backing for the U.S., due to the sections of the country surveyed by pollsters and the very fact that it was a Western consortium conducting the poll. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, operating in Afghanistan, drew out the essential point:

"The international coalition is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time.''

But even this doesn't go far enough: It is foreign military action and occupation that spurs heightened Afghan support for the Taliban-led insurgency. This is why opposition to the U.S. military presence has nothing to do with prettifying, excusing or supporting the reactionary views and practices of the Taliban, just as veteran anti-imperialist Tariq Ali explained in his book "The Clash of Fundamentalisms." Ali added just this month:

"My views have not changed... I have just recently written of the previous Taliban regime as a 'malignant social order'... the massive increase in support for the new version of the Taliban is the result of the war and occupation..."

Ali calls for a focus on diplomacy aimed at national reconciliation and a coalition government in Afghanistan, backed by "a regional solution that involves Iran, Russia, China and India as well as, of course, Pakistan." He points out the danger not just to Afghanistan but to nuclear-armed Pakistan if this is not done:

"The war will become uncontrollable and cause further havoc in that country and Pakistan. Already the chaos in the region has emboldened religious extremists in the Frontier province and religious warlords have reduced Swat to a fiefdom. Here it must be said that the decision of the Pakistan state to abandon its legitimate monopoly of violence and permit armed gangs to burn down schools and assault women is astonishing. A state that is incapable of protecting its citizens against violence either local or external is doomed to collapse. In fact the events in Swat could not have occurred had the governments of the country not colluded with some of these groups, using them to pressure Washington in different ways."

A faction in the Obama administration actually agrees with Ali on the eventual goal. This faction realizes that establishing a stable pro-U.S. client government in Kabul is a pipedream, and even that fighting the Al Qaeda terrorist network is more a political than a military task. Thus the new (and welcome) stress from Washington on "scaled-back" goals, the end of flag-waving bluster, and even the quiet retirement of the loaded phrase "war on terror." Still, most of this faction clings to the notion that the U.S. must and can "negotiate from strength" - and therefore must escalate its military presence in Afghanistan as well as drone missile strikes and special forces operations in Pakistan.

The key: commitment to withdraw

The very opposite is the case. The key to obtaining the kind of settlement projected by every reality-based observer of Afghanistan is to put an unconditional commitment to total U.S. and foreign withdrawal front and center. At that point the Taliban's appeal narrows to its fundamentalist platform; the group no longer would be able to win support on the grounds that it is the only effective force defending Afghan self-determination.

No one should wear rose-colored glasses. Even if all this was accomplished tomorrow, life in Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to be very difficult for years to come. Plenty of damage will be done by reactionary, theocratic and terrorist elements. A hole dug largely by decades of Western support for dictators, funding for reactionary terrorists under the banner of fighting communism, and imperial exploitation and intervention cannot be removed quickly or easily.

The pro-war/pro-occupation right uses the prospect of "bad things ahead" to justify continued intervention, meanwhile bombarding the U.S. public with misinformation about the real history of the region, the actual roots of terrorism, and racist steroetypes and myths about Arabs and Muslims.

From 2001 up until 2008 the right's perspective held enough sway to keep most of the public either supportive of Washington's Middle East wars or at least unwilling to register determined protest. But last year it proved inadequate to win the Presidential election for the Neocons. The issue now is whether those tired arguments can be further isolated and public anger roused to the point of saying a big loud "Enough!" ...

There's much more in Max's monthly letter. Sign up to get these informative communications at War Times/Tiempo de Guerras.

Rethink Afghanistan

We certainly hope the new administration is thinking before it leaps head first into another quagmire. This video from the Brave New Foundation[11:46] goes a long way toward asking the right questions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday in the Mission

People emerging from the 24th St. BART (subway) station in San Francisco this evening found themselves in the midst of what for some may have been a strange religious observance. Folks from the Episcopal South of Market Area Ministry wandered the plaza wearing black cassocks, offering to impose ashes on the foreheads of the willing.

There were quite a few takers. Some people found the event totally familiar and participated quite eagerly.

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." The ancient formula marks the beginning of the 40 day long Christian penitential season of Lent.

Some passersby wanted more of an explanation.

Musicians provided a background drum beat.

Volunteers handed out a card to anyone who wanted more.

I was happy to get smudged.

Some of my neighbors

It's raining hard this morning.

We need the rain. I hope this guy is inside somewhere.

That couch is going to be soggy.

I'm not sure there are really more street sleepers in these days, but I think there might be. Undoubtedly, the social service bureaucracy that struggles to deal with them is shrinking as budget cuts hit the city. Two hundred thirty-six city workers were laid off Friday.

President Obama tried to give us a sense that he's got a plan in his speech last night. Damn he's good at that "hope" shtick! Yes, that helps some. Think how we'd feel if it were that other guy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Of humans in black robes

I wasn't aware of Jeffrey Toobin until the night last June when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination -- and John McCain delivered one of the most inept political performances ever, speaking in front of a green wall to what appeared to be a tiny number of retired white people in Louisiana. McCain was off-key, unable to read the teleprompter, generally pathetic. On CNN, Anderson Cooper asked a panel of analysts what they thought. The one identified as Toobin was beside himself:

What about that McCain speech? That was awful. That was pathetic. He looked awful, he was cata .... That was one of the worst speeches that I've seen him give.


Such flabbergasted authenticity on cable TV made the guy a stand out for me, so I decided to find out what he had written.

Apparently I'd been skimming his legal articles for years. He's a legal writer for the New Yorker. And Jeffrey Toobin is also the author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, a gossipy story of the Rehnquist era (roughly 1971-2007). The book is great fun. Toobin has collected lots of humanizing anecdotes about these justices, some of the most powerful of our rulers, yet also the most insulated from public scrutiny. Apparently there are human beings under those black robes: intelligent yes, but also often vain, sometimes curious, frequently prickly.

Toobin is good at explaining the cases this judicial menagerie ruled on. He not only makes the legal issues intelligible, he also excels at providing the context that influenced decisions. For example, we still have (so far) some affirmative action in higher education because, in cases from Michigan, the military filed briefs supporting the practice -- and the case was decided when military prestige was at its height in the days just after the Iraq invasion. He suspects those arguments might have lost a lot of force after Iraq turned into a quagmire. Similarly, he suggests that in 2003 when the court reversed its own merely 17-year-old decision that homosexuals had no right to private sexual conduct, justices simply had come to have a more cosmopolitan (and contemporary) understanding of sexual orientation through exposure to the culture of their law clerks.

In preparing to write about The Nine, I was surprised that a couple of reviews I encountered were dismissive of Toobin's book, charging him essentially with cozying up to his Justice sources and therefore going easy on them. I'd prefer to name his descriptions of the considerable foibles of the justices simply "kind." We don't usually remember that people with the power that Supreme Court justices wield are nonetheless also simply human. Toobin seems to consistently remember this and it informs this otherwise dry legal story.

In retrospect, this quality of Toobin's writing points up what I sensed that night last June when I watched the guy react to McCain: this is not someone who routinely trashes people. He really was astonished by the feeble McCain we all saw but few commentators who would need continued access and credibility would dare to call out.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Don't try beating up on queens!

A Lebanese friend points to this first ever gay rights demonstration in Beirut.

Check out the video [ad may play first; 1:38]:

Nice to see the feminists were there. When things are tough, we sometimes know we have to stick together.

H/t Queer Arabs Blog.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gay marriage:
Perhaps a leap into a field of ordinariness?

In a very thought provoking essay, [pdf] the theologian James Alison makes an observation that strikes me as useful in thinking about the state of LGBT issues in the United States. (Alison's subject is how Roman Catholics, especially gay ones, are to live and thrive during the tenure of a Pope who seems bent on returning their tradition to pre-Vatican II authoritarian obscurantism within a Church which resists recognizing their full humanity; I am seizing on a fraction of his argument.) I offer what follows, wrenched from its context, as a lens that seems extremely useful for grappling with the ferment on gay issues since our loss on Prop. 8 in California.

I wonder whether our pain threshold isn't getting much lower, and that, ironically enough, the greater the pain we feel concerning the various blows we receive, the less the actual damage they are doing to us. ...

Whereas I had imagined that one 'felt' things and then could talk about them, it actually seems to me to be closer to the mark, closer to a fact of observation, that it's when they start to be talked about, that then they can be felt. Socialised talking makes the feeling possible. And as they can be felt, so they can be sympathised with easily by healthy people of all walks and stripes.

And that's what I've noticed over these last months: how the fact that the pain not only can be talked about, but that it seems obvious to talk about it, and other people, who aren't gay at all, clearly regard it as normal and sane to talk about it. All that feels like something of a seismic shift, a quantum leap into a field of ordinariness, of being part of ordinary human discourse, that I wasn’t used to before. A sense of being recognised into the normal human world.

I think this is exactly what many of us are experiencing in the wake of the Prop. 8 debacle -- and this really is a new world we're living in. A critical mass of straight people, including many who are not immediate family and friends, seem to join us in feeling, quite passionately, that we've been kicked in the teeth and that is not okay. Their recognition has changed our consciousness. No wonder a gay movement seems in full flower for the first time in 15 years.

I heard a terrific example of this recognition in a speech by Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society at the Equality Summit, a monster post-Prop. 8 community debriefing in Los Angeles last month. Eva is both brave and honest, so she told us:

One of the things I want to say to you as a Black Christian is that many of us felt really, really bad that night [Nov. 4]. We felt the LGBT community had been betrayed -- we felt horrible. ...

Then I hear that people are blaming it [passage of Prop. 8] on Black folks. ... I was driving out of my driveway and I saw two guys who appeared to be gay, whatever that means, and they shot me a dirty look, and I went "oh, no, all gay people are going to hate all Black people." ... It felt really bad. And I was going around all over town and when I saw someone I thought was gay I was sort of smiling ... I was thinking "I didn't do it, I didn't do it.."

I'm not joking, I'm serious, it felt bad. All of a sudden I understood how progressive white people might feel around Black folks when some crazy [racist] shit goes down and you're thinking "I didn't do that!" For the first time I felt for like a nano-second what it might be like to be white...

The entire Paterson speech is available on this rather long video.

This sort of recognition which, in turn, fuels our assertiveness, from which follows more recognition as LGBT people come out and engage, has set up a feedback loop that has changed the terrain on which same-sex marriage is being discussed.

President Obama has consistently been a little tin-earred when it comes to gay folks. He actually admits as much in The Audacity of Hope, reporting how, in 2004, a lesbian constituent moved him to re-examine some very unexamined, conventional Christian prejudices.

She told me that she had been hurt by my remarks; she felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people.

I felt bad and told her so in a return call. As I spoke to her I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people -- people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ's message than those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided ...

Still, he obviously doesn't hear from us enough or he wouldn't have wandered into the Donnie McClurkin flap. The inauguration invitation to Rick Warren is more explicable as an instance of his determination to be president of all the people including the wackjobs -- but I don't think the Obama people really wanted two weeks of discussion of Pastor Rick on the verge of taking office. They do not yet get that the baselines are moving on gay issues in ways that were unimaginable five years ago. And they don't quite get that we have become both more pained by what were once conventional slights and more likely to pitch a fit rather than sulk in silence or accept crumbs.

The Atlantic Magazine's Washington commentator Marc Ambinder
thinks many politicians are out of sync with gay people's new ordinariness:

... the terrain on gay rights has been shifting so fast that most politicians in the middle have been caught out in the cold -- both moderate Republicans who find their "progressiveness" on gay issues is no longer so compelling to LGBT voters, and moderate Democrats who find themselves on the wrong side of a signal civil rights issue.

(To that end, Obama will be probably be the last Democratic presidential nominee to oppose same-sex marriage.)

I think Ambinder is correct. We are becoming ordinary.

We are living in exponential times

Sometimes my head whirls. [4:58]

H/t Telling Secrets.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A God strategy

I had high hopes for The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America by David Domke and Kevin Coe. Certainly we all need a better understanding of how politicians profit from waving their religious faith before voters. Unfortunately, this slim volume contributed less to my understanding than I'd hoped. I think the authors, political science academics, have overestimated the value of rather simple-minded quantitative analysis of speeches and other political effluvia for references to God. Proving the obvious -- that politicians play on voters' faith attachments -- is not particularly instructive.

Still, they make some interesting observations. I don't think I'm misrepresenting them when I pull out this as representative of their insights:

The Golden Rule
The God strategy requires walking a fine line. Politicians must signal to devout religious believers that they share and appreciate these citizens' faith, but do so without pushing away religious moderates or secular-minded voters, the latter of whom are particularly important for Democrats. Hence the golden rule of today's U.S. politics: exhibit faith, but don't be too strident or nakedly partisan in doing so. Deviation from this rule in either direction leads to precarious electoral territory. Politicians who veer left and send few religious signals, send the wrong ones, or send none at all often are unable to attract significant support among the many Americans whose faith is important to them. ... The God strategy's raison d'etre may be the rise of religious conservatives as a political force, but the success of this approach hinges just as much on religious moderates. If a Democrat attracts them, or a Republican holds them, that candidate wins. Whoever fails to woo them delivers a concession speech.

Now you could almost certainly say the same thing about who wins on just about any left-right axis you choose, say for example butter vs. guns or individual liberty and privacy vs. national security. But this version of the axis has been at the fore because most of us attribute some of the most grotesque recent episodes in our politics -- such as the Bush administration undercutting scientific research and the insistence on sticking tubes into the inert Terry Schiavo -- to the religious version of the axis.

Domke and Coe show that politicians use the tactic of "narrowcasting" to walk the tightrope between showing allegiance to religious concerns and scaring off moderates and the secular fraction of the population. That is, they send signals to conservative religious people that are invisible or little noticed by others, such as visiting evangelical colleges or declaring "a day of prayer."

For religious citizens, these communications and activities can be crucial signals that do much to establish the religious bona fides of the political leaders behind them. ... Targeted, under-the-radar messages denote who is part of the club. It's like a secret handshake, writ large and electoral: politicians who narrowcast religious cues are assigned considerable credibility by voters in the targeted constituency.

I do have to say that I, and probably millions like me who value a religious faith, resent being verbally linked to folks whose faith requires such secret signals from political actors. But that's another problem.

The Domke-Coe book came out before the 2008 cycle. I'm sure they'd observe that the Obama campaign largely followed their golden rule for attracting conservative Christians without scaring off others, even though Obama improved his fraction of the white evangelical vote only marginally, if at all, over Kerry in 2004.

I think it is worth considering whether perhaps contemporary intense, engaged political chatter on the internet is reducing the value of narrowcasting. It used to be that politicians could dog-whistle their more controversial constituencies with relative impunity: the mainstream was never going to know (or at least report) they'd been signaling to the fringes. No more. Rightwing theocrats instantly call out the slightest deviations from their guys on their core issues like abortion and gay rights while the left blogosphere howls as when Democrats make conciliatory gestures to Christianists such as Obama fronting the homophobic singer-preacher Donnie McClurkin in southern primaries. (The Rick Warren episode at the inauguration was something else, not narrowcasting, but in all probability a serious instance of tone-deafness.) On both ends of the spectrum, channels between activists and more mainstream media outlets are opening up; what was hidden is more frequently spotlighted.

Domke and Coe's "God Strategy" can't operate underground any more. Their book is successfully descriptive of an era, but an era that I think, and hope, is coming to an end. Politicians and religious constituencies are being forced to be more honest with the nation at large. This should lead to debate over the ground level policy implications of what were just throw-away cues to niche constituencies. That has to be good -- such policy debate is the ground on which a multi-faith, legally secular democracy should make choices.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Good news on the international front

Back in December, in response to President Obama's hurtful choice to include anti-gay Pastor Rick Warren in the inauguration, I suggested that the new administration could easily show its concern for LGBT people by reversing one of Bush's many shameful policies. That same week, the Bush government put the U.S. on the side of Islamic theocracies and the Vatican by refusing to sign on to a United Nations declaration urging decriminalization of homosexuality.

It seems now Obama has done just that. At a Geneva United Nations commission meeting, the U.S. recently joined the European Union and South American countries in naming discrimination against gays as human rights violations, according to UN Dispatch.


H/t to Obsidian Wings.

The lesson of the California budget


Today the New York Times draws this lesson from California's protracted failure and final success at passing a budget for these times:

... economists say this budget foreshadows the difficult choices that other state legislatures will soon face as the national economy worsens.

I'm sure that's true.

But that is not the most important lesson from the California experience. This state would have had a budget months ago if we had not embedded a viciously anti-democratic procedural requirement into our legislative process. Because of a two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget, a small minority of Republican legislators who don't give a rat's ass about the common good could hold the state, its elected legislative majority and its Republican governor hostage for months while hawking their voodoo economic nonsense.

The lesson of California is: don't hamstring your legislative process by giving a minority veto power.

Now isn't there a legislative body in Washington where a majority of votes won't get a bill passed ... I think remember something like that...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Black History Month

I'm no one to disagree with Morgan Freeman, but I do. The YouTube clip is short. And it is sort of fun to see Mike Wallace flummoxed. [:55]

When asked "how do we get rid of racism?" Freeman says "Stop talking about it!"

No -- that's not how it works. We reduce racism when we raise our consciousness about how systems of racial power infect every aspect of our lives. Black History Month may be trite, tacky, and irritating to Black People. Maybe White Supremacy History Month would be preferable.

I was delighted to see that Eric Holder, Obama's Attorney General agrees. Here's what he said to an audience of Justice Department employees.

[He] urged employees yesterday to take advantage of Black History Month to begin a dialogue about race, labeling the United States a "nation of cowards" for not discussing the country's checkered history openly. ...

Holder told employees that the level of social interaction among people of different races is "bleak" and that it in many ways does not "differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago."

Demographic changes that within decades will result in no single racial majority only underscore the need for openness and, in some cases, confrontation on issues that separate people, Holder said.

He added: "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about racial matters that continue to divide us."

Washington Post
February 19, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why (did) do they do it?

Canadian Maher Arar

In the early days when revelations about the Bush regime's sabotage of the rule of law leaked out -- the Abu Ghraib photos, Jose Padilla's due process-free imprisonment, the "extraordinary" renditions for torture -- it was hard not to ask: why are they doing this? Besides being obvious violations of historic legal norms, these acts were also self-evidently counterproductive even in the most utilitarian calculus. If you want to make law-eschewing terrorists, act like one yourself. But that's what the Bush-Cheney regime did.

Eventually it became clear that, despite claims about protecting us from terrorists, they did it because they could. Cheney, Addington, Yoo et al. had an axe to grind: they wanted to prove that a U.S. President could get away with being an absolute monarch if he wanted. And they did.

It remained unclear how much Bush ever absorbed their monarchical ideal. These days, apparently Dick Cheney is distressed that his pet king didn't get around to pardoning his loyal henchman.

But, somewhat surprisingly, power was passed on to Obama's successor regime on January 20. And today Charlie Savage has published an extensive catalogue of instances in which the Obama folks have hung on to Bush's lawless policies. Apparently at least some of the new folks like the authoritarian state:
  • Elena Kagan, Obama's nominee for Solicitor General, thinks holding people without any legal process is just fine;
  • Leon Panetta at the CIA doesn't endorse waterboarding -- but he envisions asking for authority to go beyond "approved" interrogation techniques. We've seen where that leads.
  • Panetta thinks passing on suspected terrorists to other countries to hold and perhaps abuse without any legal process is just fine too.
  • And where some of these abuses might see the light in court proceedings, the Obama government has threatened the Brits if they open up torture stories and stopped our own federal judiciary from proceeding by a claim that "state secrets" would be revealed.
There is a pattern here.

So I have to ask again, why are they doing this? Besides inertia and protecting individuals that some people know who did some pretty bad things under Bush, what motivates Obama to continue the Bush policies?

An early guess on a factor that I'm sure contributes to these policies: today Obama is in Ottawa, Canada. Canada has come clean on the case of Maher Arar, one of its citizens who its police wrongly fingered to U.S. authorities as a terrorism suspect. The U.S. promptly shipped Arar off to be tortured in Syria for nine months. A Canadian inquiry determined that Arar was guilty of nothing (except Middle Eastern origins of course) and that led to the Canadian government paying Arar millions of dollars of compensation.

If Obama were to really reverse the Bush torture regime, our country too would be paying victims additional millions. The New York Times editorialized today in favor of such a gesture to Arar.

Do they do it because they don't want a flood of cases revealing abuse, cases that will cost a lot of money? Seems likely. How depressing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A cow's life

This splendid animal was living a very "natural" life indeed in the Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge.

An email from the Greener Choices program of the Consumers Union alerted me to a new US Department of Agriculture (USDA) voluntary labeling standard that allows producers to call their meat "naturally raised."

There's a big gap between what "naturally raised" means to the USDA and what it means to most of us. The government agency means no growth hormones, animal byproducts or antibiotics in the animal's feed. CU polled meat buyers and learned we agreed -- but many of us assumed it meant many additional conditions, including that the animal had been raised in a natural environment, was not cloned, and had access to the outdoors. Not so.

It isn't only consumers who don't like the new standard. The Animal Welfare Institute reported:

...many ranchers, farmers, and others testified in public meetings in 2006 and 2007 that the ability of animals to range freely, eat diets natural to their species, and engage in natural behaviors are essential aspects of a "naturally raised" claim.

The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyon, Nebraska added:

The standard ... will enable large-scale feedlots that don't use antibiotics or hormones to qualify for a USDA label that says their product is "naturally raised." We have seen some of the feedlots (have some right here in our home state) that would fit this category, and we have to say, there isn't anything natural about that.

Reading a bit on this led me to a fascinating article about Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin was born autistic. She sees the world differently than most of us; for her, thoughts are a series of pictures. She has used the possibilities her different cognition offers to visualize how animals picture and react to their environments. Something like one third to one half of the slaughter facilities in the country use her designs. Isn't it a contradiction to use her understanding of animals to design the places where they are killed? She explains:

Her answer is as clear and logical as her thinking. Everything dies eventually, she says, but we humans owe the animals we eat a good life while they're here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

US Army soliders set out on a patrol in Paktika province, along the Afghan-Pakistan border, in 2008.

Under the headline "Obama slows troop boost decision," Politico reports:

President Barack Obama is refusing to be rushed into his first decision to send troops into combat, an early sign he may be more independent-minded than U.S. military leaders expected.

The new president's methodical decision-making offers an early insight into how the new commander in chief will approach the war in Afghanistan and has surprised some Pentagon officials, who had predicted repeatedly in the past two weeks that Obama would decide within days on additional forces, only to find the White House taking more time.

Well good. We should all be glad he's going to think carefully before jumping in deeper.

It's probably worthwhile for all of us to take a mental step back and think about why Obama would even be contemplating sending troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. moved in to overthrow the Afghan Taliban government in October 2001. Most in the U.S.,
though not all, applauded. The on-the-ground forces were mostly from the pre-existing Northern Alliance, a grouping made up of many non-Pashtun speaking militias led by warlords who got their start in the U.S. backed war against the Soviet occupation that ended in 1989. The war's aim, aside from extracting revenge from somebody for the attacks of 9/11, was to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and to replace the Taliban with a democratic government.

U.S. forces, small in numbers and dependent on Afghan allies, failed at the first objective. A façade of democratic government was created with the elevation of Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. Some regional elections followed. But Karzai never controlled much beyond the capital, Kabul; the sadistic warlords of the Northern Alliance maintained their military fiefdoms; Karzai's government proved rapaciously corrupt; and the Afghan peasantry reverted to reliance on the cash crop of previous eras, opium poppies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. dashed off to invade Iraq. NATO allies were dragged in to take up what they were promised would be a nation-building mission but which proved to be a shooting war. Afghans were miserable enough under Karzai that some welcomed back the Taliban who had continued to enjoy safe haven in and funding from Pakistan.

In short, Afghanistan is FUBAR (fucked up beyond all repair) in U.S. Army slang. The best account of all this I know of is Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos. Rashid's book is a lament for what might have been, the opportunities lost in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of U.S. arrogance and incompetence.

So why would Obama want to throw away more U.S. lives (leaving aside for the moment those of allies and Afghans) in this futile war? Let's think of some of the motives that might be in play.
  • After seven years of dreadful imperial failure, our country hasn't quite got the revenge bug out of our systems. Some Republicans may sell Iraq as a "victory," but the U.S. people have known for several years, according to polls, that Iraq was a failure and a mistake. We haven't been thinking much about Afghanistan; maybe we can "succeed" there to compensate for failure in Iraq? Maybe we'll get lucky and kill Bin Laden?
  • President Obama may genuinely believe that there is some good that can be done by more U.S. troops in that theater. After all, our mucking around there has contributed to further exacerbating pre-existing instability in Pakistan, rendering the whole region an even more volatile, dangerous place than it was before we got there. If he has such beliefs, it seems likely that the more he concentrates on the situation, the less he'll be confident that there is a meaningful mission to define for any unfortunate grunts who get thrown into Afghanistan. Is this dawning recognition the source of his delay?
  • U.S. politics require Democrats to prove they are tough dudes. Republicans have historically done a good job of selling the notion that Democrats are wimps. So Candidate Obama loudly took on a "more troops to the right war, on to Afghanistan" posture. One of the more promising things about President Obama is that he seems to feel some deference to his campaign promises. In this case, the promise was ill-considered, but he probably believes he is bound by it, unless he can give the people a good reason to act differently.
In the end, the U.S. is going to leave Afghanistan, just as the Soviet Union had to 20 years ago. Most people here will get sick of their kids getting killed thousands of miles from home in a war that has no understandable mission or endpoint. We literally can't afford empire anymore. We will eventually comprehend this, whether slowly or rapidly.

If Obama is as smart as he sometimes seems to be, he's trying to figure out how to define an achievable, short-term mission for the Afghan war -- and he is beginning to think about how to extricate the country from this facet of George W's legacy of quagmires.

The people need to encourage him -- we've had enough of meaningless wars of empire.

UPDATE February 17: It seems that Obama has gone for 17000 more troops now -- and is still mulling the endgame. People need to let him know that there has to be one.

For more, check out Get Afghanistan Right.

Where are the US economic protests?

Chinese factory workers protest.

Yesterday the New York Times ran the headline: "Job Losses Pose a Threat to Stability Worldwide." The article focuses on the pressures that the busted worldwide economic bubble places on nations to protect their economies from global capitalism. That is, the Times defines stability as governments resisting pressure to intervene to protect local jobs from foreign competition; workers interpret interpret the same facts a race to the bottom that screws them.

Preserving globalization is not the greatest danger most people worldwide see in the current economic implosion. They are getting hammered and they want the powers that be to fix things. Der Spiegel reports from Europe:
  • France: On January 29, schools were closed, and so were railroads, banks and stock markets. Theaters, radio stations and even ski lifts were shut down temporarily. Trash receptacles were set on fire in Paris once again, and a crowd gathered on the city's famed Place de l'Opéra to sing the Internationale, the anthem of revolution.
  • Britain: workers protested at a refinery near Immingham in Lincolnshire, triggering solidarity strikes in 19 other locations in the United Kingdom.
  • Russia: dismal labor statistics have driven Communists and anti-government protesters into the streets from Pskov to Volgograd in recent days, and in Moscow members of the left-wing opposition even ventured onto Red Square. They ripped up pictures of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, until police arrested and removed them.
Forbes warns that China is seeing waves of economic protest:

In 2007, China had over 80,000 "mass incidents", up from over 60,000 in 2006, according to sociologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. That sounds like a lot. But many involve no more than dozens of participants, and are mostly peaceful. ...

China worries that crowds of disappointed job seekers could galvanise into protests or riots, especially if the economic slowdown gathers momentum. The government's biggest worries are the migrant workers moving from farms to find work in cities and industrial zones. Some 20 million of the country's 130 million migrant workers have recently lost their jobs, according to one official count.

The factory region of the far south and other industrial areas could see flare-ups of protests by unemployed workers. With idle job-seekers milling around, smaller clashes between officials or bosses and workers could escalate.

It's getting hot out there.

According to the same New York Times article, 3.6 million people in the United States have lost jobs in the last year. Where are the protests here? About the only one we heard of was Chicago workers who sat in their factory to demand severance benefits.

Some pretty random thoughts on why U.S. people aren't more vocal in demanding government help -- yet.
  • As a history professor says, protests "are rare because they violate the everyday laws of property, and for the most part American workers are law-abiding people. They occur only when workers feel morally aggrieved, when they sense that ownership has itself violated the law, when the boss has become the outlaw in their eyes and in that of the community as well." Note: we've made effective protest tactics illegal here. But should many former workers conclude that their former bosses were law-breaking scum ... watch out.
  • Maybe the laid off are protesting widely, but the media just doesn't cover them. There are damn few labor reporters left in the dying dead tree media. That trend is not limited to the States. Here's some British commentary on what is simply no longer known because of the demise of labor journalism.
  • Maybe so many U.S. workers have been suffering falling real wages for so long (since 1970), cushioned only by more two income households and unsustainable debts, that they have had the starch kicked out of them. Do they believe "resistance is futile"? Will there come a moment when they think instead "nothing left to lose"?
  • A huge fraction of the U.S. low wage work force consists of immigrants, with and without documents. Both sorts face harassment and even being simply snatched up, imprisoned, and deported, if they stick their heads up. On the other hand, our immigrant workforce often has a stronger belief in the dignity of their own labor than we see from longtime citizens these days.
  • Many of last year's layoffs hit the "FIRE" sector (finance, insurance and real estate) hardest -- these workers haven't thought of themselves as needing collective protest action and, compared to other unemployed folks, sometimes have some cushion to fall back on -- for awhile.
  • Folks are hoping in President Obama and giving him a chance. Their protest was to elect him to fix things. How long will they wait?
It's not as if the United States had no tradition of economic protest. The Depression of the 1930s saw sometimes violent
protests by veterans, farmers and factory workers. It is possible we ain't seen nothing yet.

U.S. veterans set up camp to demand benefits in the 1930s.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Change we can enjoy

Wanda Sykes is going to headline the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on May 9.

We're not in Kansas anymore -- maybe California where Sykes married her girlfriend during the brief window when that was possible. [Not work or possibly children safe; very funny. 4:38]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A jeremiad for these times

The book jacket says Andrew Bacevich is "a conservative historian and former military officer." I'd say his newish book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism shows him to be a smart observer who cuts through a lot of bull to get to some uncomfortable truths about the contemporary U.S. He convicts our society, addicted to consumption, especially of imported oil, of a heedless profligacy. Bacevich is sure that the day of U.S. empire -- crumbling and rotten -- is over, whether our rulers and citizens know it or not. Those are some large assertions for a small volume.

Bacevich points out that this country adopted as universal truths an understanding of its own participation in World War II that was largely false (wars are winnable in some defined sense) and foolish (the U.S. is the bearer of virtue to the world). I find it useful to look at the history of my lifetime as governed by these false paradigms. We are still surprised when our wars don't fit these preconceptions. For example, even those of us who adamantly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq never anticipated that all that military might could not win some kind of "victory" in that unfortunate country. Nor would we have believed that six years later a new administration would for practical purposes be negotiating with the Iraqis about how to get out.

Bacevich denounces the national security state; for the sake of imperial hegemony, we have acquiesced in the imperial presidency.

Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation's charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes -- regardless of personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce all these rolled into one.

This volume was published before President Obama's election, but it is easy to see the new guy being slotted into the familiar roles. In this system, Congress exists merely to perpetuate "democratic" theatrics. He writes

The Congress may not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.

The failure of the Democratic Congress elected in 2006 on an antiwar mandate to do anything useful to end the Iraq war proves the point for this author (and for many of us).

But Bacevich doesn't just blame "the national security elites" -- those I usually call "our rulers." He blames the people of the United States for demanding that nothing disturb our accustomed standard of living.

The chief desire of the American people, whether they admit it or not, is that nothing should disrupt their access to [imported] goods, [imported] oil, and [imported] credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse at home (with Congress taking a leading role) and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad (largely the business of the executive branch).

Obviously, Bacevich wrote this before the financial pyramid scheme that underlay it imploded. I'm sure he wasn't surprised. Much of the book is a chronicle of the sheer incompetence that follows from official Washington's detachment from realities, especially in the author's area of professional expertise, the management, care and feeding of the military.

This is a conservative jeremiad, a prophecy of deserved doom, ringing largely true from the left end of the political spectrum as well as from the right. I highly recommend it. Alternatively, listen to or read what Bacevich has to say in an interview with Bill Moyers last August. We're not used to such blunt honesty in our politics, even in the era of "change."

Friday, February 13, 2009

No more passivity ...

More petitioning against Prop. 8 in Oakland, California yesterday. Same campaign as this one. Anyone who underestimates the energy and determination involved in this effort is making a mistake.

Talking in a trap

I'm sitting in a political meeting much of which is about "messaging." If we can just use the right "frames," we'll win, so the communications people tell us.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Republicans are wailing that President Obama is a failure. He's not being "bi-partisan." The stimulus bill is "not transparent."

Hey guys -- listen to yourselves. You are trapped, trying to argue your case on ground that President Obama laid out in front of you and convinced the public was the right playing field. He made bi-partisanship his trademark and transparency his issue. Republicans fighting on those matters have walked into a message trap. Obama wins; you are playing his game with his rules.

(This post is not a commentary on whether the Obama administration is promoting measures the country needs. I have no idea. I hope so. This is a post about political tactics. The Obama folks are doing fine on that level.)

Friday cat blogging

Mr. Louie lives in Denver. I visited him several weeks ago.

He wants to know what I've brought to his house.

He's not at all sure I belong in his territory at all.

Fortunately he has good humans who give him his diabetes shots.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On donating guns to the bad guys

Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks at an artillery piece during a ceremony of U.S. military arms donation to Afghanistan's army on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007. AP photo by Musadeq Sadeq

Oh great -- the U.S. is arming the Afghans who are shooting at our troops there. Or so it seems likely.

American military officials failed to keep complete records on about 87,000 rifles, pistols, mortars and other weapons — about one-third of all light arms the United States sent to Afghan soldiers and police officers from December 2004 to June 2008, auditors from the Government Accountability Office found. Further, American military trainers kept no reliable records on 135,000 more weapons donated by 21 countries, including Hungary, Egypt, Slovenia and Romania.

New York Times,
February 11, 2009

Where have we heard that one before? Oh yeah, just about 18 months back, in Iraq.

The Pentagon has lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, according to a new government report, raising fears that some of those weapons have fallen into the hands of insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

Washington Post
August 6, 2007

It's a misuse of the U.S. Army to send it to occupy countries that don't want us with no clear mission. Yet that's what empires do and we seem addicted to it. Then we pass out the guns to shoot our own troops with.

It would be easy to conclude we need to get out of the empire business.