Thursday, March 31, 2011

CIA works to overthrow Qaddafi, now and 35 years ago

So Obama has signed a "finding" sending our spooks to do something about that Libyan dictator, according to Reuters. The New York Times has more.

WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels battling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials.

Apparently we've been there and done that before. Early this month Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air interviewed a couple of retired CIA agents. One of them told a story from 35 years ago.

Mr. BAER: ... Terry, this was in the mid-'80s. I was assigned to Khartoum, Sudan, and I was told to take care of these people that were going to get rid of Gadhafi.

And I didn't know much about them. I'd just gotten to Khartoum, and it was one morning about 4 that there was pounding at my door, and my door was kicked down.

And it was these Libyans. They had beards and robes, and they were carrying Kalashnikovs, and they rushed into my apartment, said, Save us, Gadhafi's going to come murder us.

What had just happened was that their arms depot in Khartoum had been overrun. A couple Milan missiles were taken. So while we were figuring out what to do with these people, how to protect them, I sat with them all night, and what I realized by the morning was that the Reagan administration, which was behind this, was supporting the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

And these people described to me how they had tried to kill Gadhafi in 1984 at Aziziya barracks and that none of this was coordinated with the CIA, but what happened was that one morning they woke up and their leader said that he had been visited by Allah and now was the time to kill Gadhafi.

And they commandeered four or five trash trucks and were going to ram them through his front gate. They were so excited they jumped out of the trucks before they were through the gate and there was a battle in Tripoli, and most of them were killed.

And you know, it was funny because there's always been this accusation that we've supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and I'm sitting there listening to this. This conversation's all in Arabic, by the way, and I said: Oh my God, we are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

These are the same groups that are fighting and are in Benghazi right now and that are fighting Gadhafi. You know, this is 30 years later.

GROSS: Did you think that the coup was going to succeed then? I guess it had already failed by the time you got... yeah.

Mr. BAER: You know, I just found the Libyan exiles to be totally unreliable. We could never get any good intelligence out of them. They were - they were mystics as well. They used to boil pages from the Quran, you know, boil ink off and then drink it for inspiration. I mean it was that kind of, you know, weirdness that just wasn't good for - we had no idea whether they could even get to Gadhafi or the rest of it, and this was all politically driven by the White House.

My emphasis. Apparently high risk gambles on a Libyan coup are nothing new. Maybe somebody in this White House should have talked with some old hands before jumping into this particular frying pan.

Four photojournalists' Afghanistan


The other day I found myself in San Francisco City Hall with time to kill. I remembered that my friend SFMike had written up an exhibit of photos from the Afghanistan war. Fortunately for me, the show is still on exhibit in the basement corridors. They will be up until May 13.

The four photographers, James Lee, Eros Hoagland, Teru Kuwayama, and Lynsey Addario, have all trekked with US, other NATO, and Afghan National Army troops. But these are not battle photos, but photos of life, even if life among armed forces. There's a lot of praying, some eating, and a surprising numbers of photos of troops sleeping. In a war zone, grabbing a nap must sometimes be a blessed escape. Many of the images are arresting; most broaden what we can know of that faraway place and those ever-s0-different people.

This photo by Teru Kuwayama especially grabbed me, reminding me of Greg Mortenson's framing story of the Kyrgyz horsemen who invited him to build a school in the Wakhan corridor.
Addario was recently captured, abused and finally released by Gaddafi's force in Libya along with three male New York Times journalists. She has responded to comments about their account of their ordeal in the Lens blog:

[They ask] “How dare a woman go to a war zone?” and “How could The New York Times let a woman go to the war zone?”

To me, that’s grossly offensive. This is my life, and I make my own decisions.

If a woman wants to be a war photographer, she should. It’s important. Women offer a different perspective. We have access to women on a different level than men have, just as male photographers have a different relationship with the men they’re covering.

In the Muslim world, most of my male colleagues can’t enter private homes. They can’t hang out with very conservative Muslim families. I have always been able to. It’s not easy to get the right to photograph in a house, but at least I have one foot in the door. I’ve always found it a great advantage, being a woman.

She goes on to describe receiving hospitality in war-torn lands as well as assistance from fixers and drivers, finding a grudging acceptance from male photojournalists and sharing hazards in the midst of the chaotic Libyan battlefield. It's all worth reading.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Find the nuclear power plant nearest you

Greenpeace has a cool new tool that enables residents of the US (and Canada) to visualize just how close we live to a possible meltdown. Just plug in your location or zip code and up pops a map showing the distance to the nearest plant and the area that regulators have designated as an "emergency planning" zone in case of accident. Click further on "details" and you can read how many people operators project an accident might kill. Really.

Looking at the map of the whole country (above) it is noticeable that most plants are in the east, the southeast and midwest. The far west has so far been relatively abstemious about building these accidents waiting to happen. Considering that the left coast is honey-combed with known earthquake faults, that's sane of us.

Warming Wednesdays: California renewable energy standards pass legislature

Sometimes we win something. The Union of Concerned Scientists says "pass the bubbly!"

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

California lawmakers have approved a bill that would create the most ambitious renewable energy standards in the nation, giving utilities less than 10 years to receive one-third of their power from wind, solar and other alternative sources....

The bill's author, Democratic Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, says it maintains California's place as a national leader in clean energy, provides environmental benefits and will create jobs. He says the legislation also protects ratepayers from excessive costs.

Apparently we can count on Governor Jerry Brown to sign the bill. I'm currently reading Mark Hertsgaard's HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (more in a subsequent post) and was pleased to learn that Brown got the state on the right track on climate issues when he was in the same job back in the 1970s.

California's electricity consumption today is roughly the same as thirty years ago, even as the state's population and economy have grown tremendously.

I didn't know that. Thanks Jerry.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Recall campaign in Wisconsin

This is too good not to post right away. If you want to help the Progressive Campaign Committee keep it on the air, donate here.

As a friend remarked the other day, progressives are taking back the streets from the Teabaggers. This is our natural terrain.

The Decider-in-Chief speaks

We all probably heard something that fit our predispositions, listening to the President speak about his Libyan war tonight. My predisposition is simple: I've nearly reached retirement age. In my lifetime, no U.S. war has lived up to the moral billing offered by its supporters. Most -- Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan -- have been dreadful, immoral quagmires. The few brief ones (think Grenada, Panama) have been shameful atrocities built on lies. I'm hard to sell on wars.

In truth, the President sounded like his predecessor speaking tonight -- the one who said told us baldly, "I am the Decider." Here's Obama:

I made it clear that Gaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power. ...

I ordered warships ...

I refused to let [a potential massacre] happen ...

I authorized military action ...

And as President, I refused to wait ....

... I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.

As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe. And no decision weighs on me more than when to deploy our men and women in uniform. I have made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally...

Being Commander-in-Chief ("CoC" in military speak -- "Cock of the walk" I usually hear) seems to have this effect on an incumbent president.

Historically, though we usually look back with fond pride on my parents generation's war, on World War II, some decider has just about always plunged the country into wars without the consent or enthusiasm of much of the population.

President James K. Polk led the country off to conquer much of Mexico; in response, Henry David Thoreau famously refused to pay his taxes and much of the Northeast was in near revolt. When President William McKinley coveted Cuba and the Philippines from the decaying Spanish empire, it took the best efforts of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, the Fox News of that day, to whip up a war frenzy.

President Woodrow Wilson's 1917 war in Europe was so unpopular that the government preemptively outlawed speaking against it and imprisoned several thousand people for that crime. Even in the case of the "good" WWII, there was a quite widespread conspiracy theory that President Franklin Roosevelt allowed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to bring the US into the war on Hitler and Hirohito.

We don't easily rush to war if we actually deliberate about it. It takes the work of a decider to move a fractious democratic nation to war. We have such a one; he announced it tonight.

Let us hope this war is brief; that minimal numbers of people are killed; and that the hopes of Libyans for a freer, safer, better life are realized. I'd like to believe this war would be different, that everything would work out as the current Decider claims it will. I can distrust the likelihood of good outcomes and still hope.

But nothing in my lifetime or knowledge of past U.S. wars suggests that good will come of this adventure.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Isolation correlations

I picked up this interesting graphic from Paul Krugman who picked it up from Richard Florida. It certainly confirms most of my prejudices: states with lower numbers of people who are equipped to venture out of the United States do run to Republicanism and other variants of Know-Nothingism. They also, mostly, have smaller proportions of in-migrants, immigrants.

The only slight surprises to me on the map are New Mexico and Michigan. Border states are places, nowadays, where we NEED passports. Neither of these are places where the adjacent country seems truly in the category of "foreign."

There was a time when I didn't have a passport. In those days, you didn't need one to go to Canada or Mexico and I did. These days, we think borders are VERY important. Odd, since information from and about other places, including visual information, is so much more accessible than in that earlier time.

It's a big world and I'm glad to have traveled a little of it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The making of saints

This woman displays a six year old paper poster honoring the Salvadoran bishop, Monsignor Oscar Romero, while walking in a Mission district procession highlighting the plight of immigrants yesterday. Obviously the figure of the bishop, martyred by right wing death squads in 1980, is very meaningful to her.
Yesterday we attended a bilingual, interfaith religious service held at Mission Dolores marking the killing of Bishop Romero thirty one years ago. The organizers were advocates for a just US immigration policy. As is the nature of such events, where many traditions must be given their moment, it was a little long, a little disjointed, and occasionally very moving. The most poignant moment was the lighting of candles to the memory of a litany of Central American and Mexican martyrs.
When you think about it, this memorial is slightly incongruous. All these people (except Bishop Ruiz, but his long life was lived in the same hard terrain) were killed for their devotion to the needs and dignity of very poor people. Their choice to live for the poor put them in the crosshairs of rich oligarchs who lived off their oppressed populations. But all of them also, would have named the systematic greed, the structural exploitation, that emanates from us, from the hypocritical national colossus to the north, as the enforcer of their local elites' crimes.

During the martyrs' lives, the United States was feeding off the blood of peoples to the south. Yet today their memory and martyrdoms are invoked by people from Central America and Mexico in their quest to stay in the United States, in the belly of the beast, in the context of a stupid and heartless immigration system. Enabling people to move to the United States and become "Americans" was absolutely not what these martyrs were about.

And yet, their lives and deaths in devotion to unspeakable truths make them figures with power for people who need any hope they can get. The historical specificity of their witness becomes blurred amid the needs of today. For those who remember the history, this can be distressing. The United States still has its boot on the neck of poor Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans.

But the people are making the saints they need. Plasticity, the capacity to take many shapes, is perhaps a feature of sainthood. The Vatican sanctification process (which may have some difficulty digesting Archbishop Romero) is one avenue to sainthood. But in all times, people find their own figures to represent higher truths in a heartless landscape.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: big birds of Golden Gate Park

The great blue herons are in the trees again this season on an island by the boathouse at Stow Lake.

Their perch is about 300 feet from the lake shore path, so it takes luck and the right light to catch a glimpse.

Given the soaking weather all week, it seems not surprising this one looks a little bedraggled. Or perhaps that's just a young heron. Any ideas?

Friday, March 25, 2011

An abrasive, too little visible, history

City College professor Judith Stein's Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies is a tremendously thought provoking effort to explain how the United States traded world industrial supremacy in the 1950s for our current finance-dominated economy. But I am going to have a hard time writing about it. Maybe that's the story I need to plumb.

As with many books I write about here, I read Pivotal Decade as an audiobook. Before I write about audiobooks, I usually get ahold of a print copy so I can offer quotations. But the San Francisco Public Library had never heard of this one. Nor had the academic library I can access through my connections. So then I looked for online chapters or major reviews; perhaps they would include long quotations I could use to anchor my reflections. Google turned up hardly anything.

In fact the only major discussion I could find of Pivotal Decade was part of survey of volumes about the 1970s by Rick Perlstein, the perceptive author of Nixonland. He's remarkably friendly to Stein considering his work is among histories she disses, but the descriptions he chooses to characterize her writing are might strong. Here are a few:

[She is a] distinguished historian of American industry... [but also] a historian of thunderous judgments ...

... Her rage gets in the way of the story she claims she wants to tell and takes it in another direction, one bearing the futile geriatric aroma of baby boomer ideological scores being settled. ...

... it is forty years later, and one hopes tempers have cooled. Stein's has not, and so her account of the Democrats' failed responses to the political and economic crises of the 1970s ends up being not false but not particularly useful, burying what is sharp and original under what is derivative, reductionist and sour.

... Her account of the 1972 presidential campaign full of cheap shots. ... her account is jumbled by a lack of contextual empathy for a historical actor's partial view of his or her times.

... with an ahistorical gracelessness, Stein seeks to court-martial [1970s Democrats]..

Perlstein is actually appreciative of Stein's dissection of the economic realities of the 1970s -- but he's mightily put off by her abrasive argumentation and has substantive critiques of what she missed.

I get that. And I probably should share his ire, since I've one of those Sixties people who mostly prioritized the righting of race, gender and sexual orientation wrongs ahead of concern about the deteriorating prospects of the industrial working class. But actually I got a lot out of Stein's history and I garnered two insights from this difficult book that I know will stay with me.
  • The people in power in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, regardless of party, opted for economic policies that served the needs of the Cold War and more generally of imperial hegemony when the alternative could have been to build on postwar global economic pre-eminence to create a different source of national strength. Empire founded on military might trumped all -- and I would argue still does, though things are getting iffy around the edges.
  • Democrats simply had no prescription or vision for national economic well-being once US superiority waned in the 1970s. They still don't; hence Obama flails in mini-battles with Republicans out to score for their wealthy sponsors. Without a believable social democratic vision, we get to oscillate between more cruel and more gentle expropriation of the nation by the plutocrats.
Evidently, Judith Stein pissed too many people off to get the sort of consideration I think this book deserves. Perlstein is very fair and smart; hardly anyone else has been.

Do us all a favor ... ask your library for Pivotal Decade.

Snapshot of my city

Here's the demographic profile of San Francisco County (county boundaries are the same as the city's), grabbed from the New York Times interactive map of the 2010 census information.

Lots to think about.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Good news for a change

The Obama administration has reversed itself and will allow a prominent critic of the Afghanistan war into the country.

A prominent Afghan feminist and war critic was granted a visa to enter the United States on Thursday - by the same State Department office that turned her down last week - and belatedly started on a speaking tour that is scheduled to wind up in San Francisco.

The case of Malalai Joya is the latest of several in which the Obama administration, after at first refusing entry, has allowed a visit by a foreigner who has criticized policies of the United States or its allies.

The administration "does not engage in the practice of ideological exclusion," the State Department's legal adviser, Harold Koh, said in a letter in December to the American Civil Liberties.

President George W. Bush's administration "repeatedly used immigration laws as a means of censoring political and academic debate inside the United States," Jaffer said. "There certainly has been a very positive shift on this set of issues."

This principled woman will speak in San Francisco both Sunday evening April 9 (details here) and the following Tuesday at the University of San Francisco, 5:00 pm, Fromm, Maraschi Room.

New York Times puts a thumb on the inequality scale

This teaser for a recent "Room for Debate" feature on the topic Rising Wealth Inequality: Should We Care? pisses me off.

Who says a negative response to rising wealth inequality signals "envy" of the wealthy?

Speaking for myself, I hate inequality because I believe a grasping insistence by rich people who want to hoard their surplus is destroying the potential for all of us to live decent lives together. I don't covet their stuff; I just think they ought to share. They benefit from this society -- give back, already. Yeah -- it's that old maxim "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" that keeps a civilized society going.

The Times feature itself isn't as bad as the teaser. it takes off from Michael Norton and Dan Ariely's social science finding that most of us don't realize how very unequal wealth distribution is in this country and want it to be far more equal. ( See their graph below; click for larger image.) They wonder, why aren't we out their with our pitchforks?

That's easy to understand though few of the contributors to this series mention the main reason: our mass media almost never mention the extraordinary gap between the very rich and the rest of us. (When they do, the allusion is strictly tangential.) Individuals are encouraged to think that, if they aren't finding jobs or getting an education, it's their own fault, not the fault of a society that has lost track of its responsibility to its members.

So I guess this Room for Debate is progress, even if some headline writer gave it an absurd, dismissive appearance.

Rainbow over Berkeley

rainbow over berkeley.jpg
We're having wild, wet weather this week, but also this.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: is the Libya bombing about blocking climate change migration?

A Libyan rebel sits on the back of a pick up truck (AFP/Patrick Baz)

A warmer planet means more drought, more desertification -- and less land area suitable for human life. More poor people contribute to environmental degradation as they strip drying land bare. Humans became the dominant species on the globe because we move on when our home patch turns on us. A warming world with rising seas is going to push humans to move. A lot of humans.

According a 2009 report in The Economist,

... the International Organisation for Migration thinks there will be 200 million climate-change migrants by 2050, when the world’s population is set to peak at 9 billion. Others put the total at 700 million.

The article takes up the question whether people gradually pushed out of their current habitats must be treated as refugees by more fortunate populations. A few islanders displaced by higher ocean levels may be welcomed, but there's a tendency among rich populations to envision invading dark and dangerous hordes. Here in the US, we still look to the oceans to protect us, but Europeans look south at Africa and worry that they'll be swamped.

The Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) sets the current Libyan campaign by France, Britain and the United States in the context of those fears.

In France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, immigration from Africa is a white-hot potato, not only because (as in the US) native-born Europeans resent competition from low-wage labor, but also because white Europeans fear their liberal laws and post-Christian culture will be overrun by unruly, yet doctrinaire Muslims. The EU has spent billions of euros to assuage this fear, both on tightened border security and on the “Euro-Med” family of socio-economic development programs, which are intended to lessen the poverty and despair propelling migrants northward.

In the 2000s, the concern with stanching the North African migrant flow was augmented by worries about transmigration -- the movement of black Africans across the Sahel and Sahara, through North Africa and then into Europe. Qaddafi’s Libya, along with Morocco, Algeria and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, became an increasingly watchful sentinel along the byways of transmigration, as the local press stoked anxiety about black Africans, unable to reach the promised land, settling in the Arab-Berber spaces en route.

A scantly governed Libya, wracked by revolt and starved of revenue by external sanctions, would be unable to block transmigration, even as it produced its own stream of refugees. The southern-tier EU states cannot abide a “Somalia,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the scenario of non-intervention, across the Mediterranean. ...

The entire analysis is worth a read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Medicine looks at realities of sex and gender

Our HMO was bringing its records up to date and asked for some basic data.

I think they asked the right question, though not one that would have turned up on a form in the past. Doctors need to know accurately the sex of their patients in order to practice their science. But sex and gender are not simple or binary.

An Australian medical school, Monash Universtiy, concisely explains where the question as phrased by Kaiser Permanente is coming from:

Sex = male and female

Gender = masculine and feminine

So in essence:

Sex refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs.

Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.

The Kaiser questionnaire also asks for "other." Some people are "other," born with some variation of the biological characteristics of both sexes. These folks are frequently termed intersex. Since societies have usually enforced pretty rigid gender dichotomies between what we assume are binary sexes, many intersex people have been altered, as babies, to appear more "normal." Medicine needs to know our actual biological characteristics, to the extent we can provide the answers.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bombing other peoples' countries doesn't come cheap

The "allied" intervention in Libya may or may not serve the aspirations of Libyans. Presumably, since this is some kind of coalition effort, the United States taxpayer won't be on the hook for all the costs.

But those costs aren't small. Andrew Exum has an estimate for the first day.

A Tomahawk Missile cost $569,000 in FY99, so if my calculations are correct, they cost a little over $736,000 today assuming they are the same make and model. The United States fired 110 missiles yesterday, which adds up to a cost of around $81 million. That's twice the size of the annual budget of USIP, which the House of Representatives wants to de-fund, and is about 33 times the amount of money National Public Radio receives in grants each year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which the House of Representatives also wants to de-fund in the name of austerity measures.

How long will it be before Republicans and some Dems start telling us we have to cut Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit that is being inflated by the Libyan adventure?

Just asking.

Obama the gambler

When Barack Obama was elected, I knew I wasn't going to like everything he did. But I took comfort from the confidence that, finally, after 8 anxious years, I wouldn't have to wake up to NPR telling me about the latest country the US had bombed. This guy was too smart to take the country breezily into unsupported and unsupportable wars.

Oops. Here we go again. The Libyan adventure may prove to be a blow for emerging international civilization -- or just the beginning of yet another bloody stalemate that devolves into a seemingly inescapable quagmire. Time will tell. Our careful, cautious President throws dice.

He also adopted what Andrew Sullivan has rightly called a "Shut up and leave it to us" posture. No Congressional discussions (not that the current bunch have shown themselves capable of serous deliberation); no effort even to sell this adventure to the people. There's contempt in the President's stance both for constitutionally mandated process and for democratic politics itself. He's betting this can be done and over before most of us become engaged with what is happening.

This seems a rather cavalier high stakes bet with human lives to me.
The good news this morning is that four New York Times journalists captured last week by Colonel Qaddafi's forces have been released. Two of them are people whose work I was following because it gave me some flavor of the Libyan fighting.

Anthony Shadid reported extensively from Iraq for the Washington Post; he's gone on to travel the Arab world for the Times. His picture of the Libyan rebels in this March 13 dispatch is the most close-up description I've seen of folks we've now gone to war for.

... the front at Ras Lanuf is the most militarized version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands wrote a script of opposition and street theater that brought down a strongman everyone thought would die in office. The fighting here feels less like combat in the conventional sense and more like another form of frustrated protest.

Some vehicles bear the inscription Joint Security Committee, but nothing is all that coordinated across a landscape that seems anarchic and lacking in leadership. Fighters don leather jackets from Turkey, Desert Fox-style goggles, ski masks, cowboy hats and World War II-era British waistcoats.

Slogans are scrawled in the street just miles from the fighting. “Muammar is a dog,” one reads. A man who bicycled for three days from Darnah, far to the east, became a local celebrity at the front. Free food is offered, as it was in the canteens in Tahrir, and fighters rummaged through donated clothes. “These are American jeans!” one shouted.

Young men revel in the novelty of having no one to tell them not to play with guns. “God is great!” rings out whenever a volley of bullets is fired into the air.

Go read it all as you wonder what Obama has gotten the country into.

As someone who has tried to photograph strange and chaotic scenes myself, I have been in awe of the stark yet sometimes beautiful pictures of desert combat from the Libyan fighting. Before he was captured, Times photographer Tyler Hicks was interviewed about the extraordinary images he was filing.

No one realized that this was going to escalate in the way it has, given how things happened in some other Arab countries. No one really thought this was going to become such a war, fought on open ground.

One unusual thing is the access we have to frontline fighting. Despite what a lot of people think, when you go to a war zone, there are a lot of formalities and difficulties to reach the fighting. You can get into a country but to get to where the conflict is happening can be very difficult. This is a very rare situation: complete access to a war, from the opposition side. ...

Conflict is very difficult to capture in a still photograph. Once you take away the sound and the motion, when you’re trying to capture that feeling and that atmosphere, it’s very difficult to translate — what it feels like to be there, the confusion and gunfire and bombs and all these things that envelop you in battle. To take a single photograph of that is a challenge.

Did you do it today?

I always try.

Here's one of his photos. Go read the whole article.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Virtual internment

Veena Dubal (left) and Julia Harumi Mass are civil liberties lawyers (with the Asian Law Caucus and the ACLU of Northern California respectively) who assist individuals who experience themeselves as violated by our government. These days, these people are usually Muslims, or persons of Arab or Middle Eastern or South Asians origin -- or people who appear to someone with authority to belong to one of those categories. Ten years after 9/11 and the replacement of George W. with a constitutional lawyer, FBI surveillance of communities and widespread harassment of perceived "dangerous" people at airports and borders continues and may be increasing.

About 20 people attended a workshop yesterday at the ACLU-NC annual conference in Sacramento to share stories and concerns.

Some points that came out during the workshop:
  • FBI agents are commonly and aggressively questioning Muslims in homes and workplaces and infiltrating Muslim places of worship. They have been known to ask people such questions as "who is particularly religious here?" -- implicitly equating religiosity with terrorist sympathies.
  • As has been true so often in US history, much of the fear and hatred US Muslims encounter arises from widespread unfamiliarity with their faith and customs. An interesting new internet project creates a space for non-Muslims to tell stories that break through this incomprehension: check out My Best Friend is Muslim. Can such a site -- one that uses the same tactics for lowering anxieties that "coming out" has for LGBT folks -- serve to demystify members of the world's second largest religion? I suspect yes, especially among a younger generation with more exposure to an increasingly diverse population.
  • A rift has opened in the experiences of members of the target groups after 9/11. Ms. Dubal described herself as going along, confidently thinking of herself as a member of an advancing "model minority," when the shock suddenly dropped her into the category of a suspicious person. A young man from Orange County reminded us that he was in middle school when the terrorist attack happened; he's grown up being bullied and accused. This is not to say there is no threat to older people in the target groups; only two weeks ago, two elderly turbaned Sikh gentlemen were shot in Sacramento while on their afternoon walk. Law enforcement is looking into this as a hate crime.
  • In Northern California, at least among people conscious about civil liberties, US internment of loyal Japanese citizens during World War II is not a forgotten tale of panicked popular hysteria. Ms. Mass mentioned that her mother had been interned in a camp in Wyoming. Ms. Dubal reported that something clicked for her when one of her clients described life in the post 9/11 US as a "virtual internment." In the Muslim and other target communities, people fear they can't Google certain subjects, don't dare to even discuss US foreign policy, even fear what they should allow themselves to think about. There's an ever present fear that an unguarded mental musing might trigger investigation and harassment.
Ten years on from 9/11, it is time for our big, powerful country to get a grip. This isn't rational vigilance; it is unreasoning fear that sometimes shades over into hate and even violence.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: the Andes from above

No, this photo is not mine. A friend flew from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile last week and snapped this out the window.


US government is censoring who you are allowed to hear

Thanks to a blog post from Peace Action West's Rebecca Griffin, I've just learned that the US government is preventing Malalai Joya from entering this country to promote the paperback release of her book, A Woman among Warlords. Joya is a women’s rights activist and former member of the Afghan parliament who speaks out against the oppression of women by the Taliban, the corruption of the Karzai government and against the continuing US war in her country.

According to the US nonprofit group Afghan Women's Mission when she went into the US embassy to get her visa, she was told she was refused entry because she was "unemployed" and "lives underground." Those "reasons' aren't completely false: Joya has survived five assassination attempts. She keeps her head down. Most of us would under that kind of threat.

Visa denials to keep people in this country from hearing critical voices from abroad are nothing new. The George W. Bush administration kept many internationally prominent Islamic scholars out of the United States, most notably the Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan who had been appointed a professor at Notre Dame. Apparently we were supposed to remain comfortably ignorant, certain that all Muslims were primitive cave dwellers with terrorist intentions. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton got around to lifting the ban on Ramadan in 2010, six years after he was supposed to take up the job.

During the 1980s, when the US government was paying and training insurgents fighting Nicaragua's popularly elected socialist government, getting visas to the US for Nicaraguans to tell their side of the story was always dicey. Poets, educators, priests -- all had trouble visiting the US. Within Nicaragua, the national government kept US embassy personnel from visiting war zones; why should they let people they assumed were hostile spooks loose among their defenses? The US retaliated by declaring the entire West Coast off limits to Nicaraguan diplomats housed in Washington; Nicaraguan solidarity activists joked we were living "in a war zone." But the impediments and ban had real consequences, making it hard to make authentic stories from a covert war audible to the public which was paying for it. And that was the U.S. government's point: they didn't want us to know what they were doing in our name.

Apparently the current State Department doesn't want people in this country to hear from a distinctive Afghan voice -- a woman's voice at that -- opposing our war in Afghanistan. Several Congress members are pushing for a reversal of the denial of Joya's visa.

Now that we live in age of YouTube, visa deniers have a harder time keeping us from hearing people they wish they could silence. Here's a clip of Malalai Joya taking on some folks who are a lot more dangerous than the average US consular flunky. At Afghanistan's Constitutional Assembly nearly a decade ago, she denounced war lords who intended to keep their power by becoming politicians under the newly imposed regime. Her daring act was electrifying; the response was ugly.

This Afghan doesn't scare easily.

Full disclosure: I had a tiny role in obtaining space at my church for Joya's San Francisco appearance planned for April 9.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Japanese really do use different metaphors

At least so I think. Here's a cartoon for children explaining what is happening at the damaged nuclear plants.

All I can say is, I don't think I'd like to be a little girl in Japan. But if this communicates to kids, that has to be good. I can't fathom the levels of anxiety, not to mention actual deprivation, that survivors of the last week's quake and tsunami must be experiencing.

H/t Salon.

Afghanistan war demonstrates limits of US power

Reaching out

Afghanistan is where the US military's shiny new counter-insurgency doctrine -- COIN in military-speak -- was supposed to show its stuff. Journalist Nir Rosen brings what he learned in Iraq to bear on that war in Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World.

Since he really makes an effort to report at least in part from all sides, he did attempt to embed with the Taliban. You can read about Rosen's slightly over the top adventure at the link.

But more important, watching and talking with the US military in Iraq prepared him to observe COIN in action in Afghanistan. He wasn't having any of it.

... Both Washington and the military came to believe that COIN just might be the magic formula in Afghanistan. While ignoring the right lessons from Iraq such as the use of community outposts, there was much talk of bribing Afghan tribes, which misunderstood why Sunnis stopped resisting in Iraq [they had lost the civil war] and gave way too much importance to tribalism in Afghan society. The Americans were unable to grasp that material benefits were not the only thing that could motivate people. ...

The American military and policy establishments were institutionally incapable of doing COIN. They lacked the curiosity to understand other cultures and the empathy to understand what motivated other people. In the military in particular, Afghans were still viewed as "hajjis."

Alternative viewpoints were not considered. Many journalists failed to understand that when you're with the military you're changing your selection bias. By showing up with the white guys with guns, you are eliminating all the people who don't want to talk to the military or talking to those who have an interest in engaging the foreign occupier. Regular people won't relate to you in a natural or honest way. For the U.S. military, seeing something from a reporter's or Afghan's perspective is an exception. Even the media were perceived as the enemy. Military officers had been talking for a long time about being good at complex operations, providing aid while engaging in military operations, but they still made it up as they went and hoped that the previous unit had learned something.

... COIN inevitably required military action against a major segment of the Afghan population, and in doing so it undermined the project of state building and national consensus that the international community was simultaneously involved in.

With the arrival of Obama in the White House and his various strategy reviews, the military seemed to internalize the fallacy that they could have a new start in Afghanistan, a do-over. But that's not how the world works.

... past American actions have consequences. Opinions were already formed. The Taliban were·gaining power thanks to American actions and alliances. Warlords were empowered by the Americans. No justice was sought for victims. The government and police were corrupt. The president stole the elections. The message was that there was no justice, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity had set in. Afghans who had been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies were unlikely to become smitten by them merely because of some aid they received.

And the aid was relatively small compared with other international projects, like Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor. The Americans thought that by building roads they could win over opinion. But roads are just as useful for insurgents as they are for occupiers. The Americans had failed to convince Afghans that they should like them or want them to stay, and they certainly had not been convinced that Karzai's government has legitimacy. You can't win hearts and minds with aid work when you are an occupying force.

...With Petraeus, Obama had appointed the one general with the clout to ask for more troops and more time, but also the one sufficiently respected by all parties to be able to declare Afghanistan a lost cause. The Americans had won in Afghanistan when it was merely a punishment campaign. Once they lingered following the flight of bin Laden they began to flounder. And when they turned it into a war against the Taliban, an indigenous movement, they lost.

Rosen seems to believe that the only way Afghanistan can end for the United States would be to declare victory (regardless of whatever on the ground reality exists) and get out. Petraeus would have to respect to pull that off -- but instead he was in Washington this week talking up a dubious record of "success."
This is the second of two posts about Rosen's Aftermath. A post on his view of Iraq is here.

Photo from US Army Flickr feed. Caption: Staff Sgt. Christopher Herndon of 623rd Engineer Company, Task Force Gridley, Nebraska Army National Guard, hands out wooden toys to village children in Paktika Province, Afghanistan on March 9. Photo by Staff Sgt. Anna Rutherford.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No fly zone over Libya; end or beginning?

Over at DailyKos, the excellent Meteor Blades, who knows something about Libya since he has family there, responds to UN approval for a no-fly zone and maybe much more with the words:

The endgame begins.

I hope he's right and that we are not seeing the beginning of something unexpectedly long and mistaken.

I am not trusting; the US security establishment is involved. How could I be trusting? I can't offhand think of any military engagement these people got right in my lifetime and the more recent ones have been getting stupider, not smarter. The other day, Tom Ricks, an experienced journalist chronicling military matters who has supported imposition of a no fly zone, admitted that the list of proponents who were urging one gave him pause. It included:

Stephen E. Biegun, William Inboden, Danielle Pletka, Bruce Pitcairn Jackson, John Podhoretz, Ellen Bork, Ash Jain, Randy Scheunemann, Paul Bremer, Robert Kagan, Gary J. Schmitt, Scott Carpenter, David Kramer, Dan Senor, Elizabeth Cheney, Irina Krasovskaya, William Taft, Eliot Cohen, William Kristol, Marc Thiessen, Seth Cropsey, Tod Lindberg, Daniel Twining, Thomas Donnelly, Ann Marlowe, Ken Weinstein, Michele Dunne, Cliff May, Leon Wieseltier, Eric Edelman, Joshua Muravchik, Rich Williamson, Jamie Fly, Michael O'Hanlon, Damon Wilson, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Martin Peretz

No -- I don't know who they all are either. But every name I do recognize was a fan of the discredited Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld adventure in Iraq. With friends like these, it becomes close to impossible to believe this no fly zone we've just bought into will end well.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) spent the last week at an al-Jazeera forum in Qatar talking with journalists from all over the Arab world. He had previously supported a no fly zone. But he came away with a new perspective.

While Arab public opinion should not be the sole consideration in shaping American decisions on this difficult question, Americans also should not fool themselves into thinking that an American military intervention will command long-term popular Arab support. Every Arab opinion leader and Libyan representative I spoke with at the conference told me that "American military intervention is absolutely unacceptable." Their support for a No Fly Zone rapidly evaporates when discussion turns to American bombing campaigns. This tracks with what I see in the Arab media and the public conversation. As urgently as they want the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people, The U.S. would be better served focusing on rapid moves toward non-military means of supporting the Libyan opposition.

The deep concern for Libya is real, intense, and passionate. Arab activists and opinion leaders repeatedly warned that if Qaddafi survives it could mean the death of the Arab revolutionary moment. This is part of the wider identification across the unified Arab political space which has palpably emerged among young activists and mass publics. This includes Bahrain, by the way, where the intervention by GCC security forces against the protestors has had a comparable chilling effect even if it has received less coverage on al-Jazeera than has Libya. There is no question that most Arabs desperately want something to be done to save Libya from Qaddafi, and that this is seen as having broad and deep regional implications.

When it comes to military intervention, however, this deep identification with the Libyan protestors intersects uncomfortably with the enduring legacy of Iraq. The prospect of an American military intervention, no matter how just the cause, triggers deep suspicion. There is a vanishingly small number of Arab takers for the bizarre American conceit that the invasion of Iraq has somehow been vindicated. The invasion and occupation of Iraq remains a gaping wound in the Arab political consciousness which has barely scabbed over. Any direct American military presence in Libya would be politically catastrophic, even if requested by the Libyan opposition and given Arab League cover.

My emphasis. He came away slightly more sanguine about a UN- and Arab League-endorsed intervention by someone else's air power (who?).

If outsiders are going to get in, help the Libyan opposition, and get out, it is going to take some fancy footwork. I'd be a lot more comfortable with all this if I thought we had a President who dared resist pressure from the screamers on the right who just love projecting US military power. But we have not seen any sign we have such a President.

Whose endgame?

Photo from a demonstration in support of the Libyan opposition in San Francisco, February 26.

Remember Iraq? The US made wars there

Nir Rosen is a US journalist who has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. In Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World he explains the ethic that drove how he covered our wars:

I didn't think conflicts could be understood by studying only one side ...

Consequently Rosen didn't (usually) embed with US troops, though he certainly talked with the soldiers. But he learned much more by putting to good use what he labels his "melanin advantage."

....Although I am American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it feels like to be Iraqi than many of my colleagues. ... I inherited my Iranian father's Middle Eastern features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja's worst neighborhoods, sit in taxis and restaurants, and look like every other Iraqi. My ability to blend in also allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were another "hajji," the" gook" of the war in Iraq.

What he saw isn't pretty. The book is a 550 page chronicle of misunderstandings, ignorance, violence and futility.

For Iraqis, the US invasion brought first hope for a better life, then the humiliation of occupation by blundering and sometimes vicious foreign troops, then a civil war that formerly oppressed Shiites won and previously ascendent Sunnis lost. The invaders were never really in control of much of Iraq; how could a force that never exceeded 165000 really control a nation of 30 million? But wherever they were, they aroused opposition. A local leader described to Rosen what drove him into armed resistance.

The American occupiers, Sheikh Saad maintained, "push people to the ground and step on their heads. They arrest the relatives and wives of wanted men and hold them hostage. They are holding one hundred thousand Iraqis in their prisons. Iraqis have lost their dignity, and for this reason the resistance grows." Iraqis were incandescent over rumors that their women were being held prisoner by Americans.

The occupiers responded to the hostility of the occupied with house to house sweeps based on poor or non-existent "intelligence" (now there's a perversion of language) locking up huge numbers of mostly innocent Iraqi men. Rosen points out:

Few of the tens of thousands of Iraqis detained in the American-run gulags were ever even charged with anything. Few Americans question whether they had a right to invade a foreign country and arrest scores of its men every day on scant evidence.

Rosen, speaking the language and respecting the culture, was often able to see what troops never fathomed. He recounts a 2007 experience he had while on foot patrol in Baghdad with a US unit. This was during "the surge," driven by the new counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine that aimed to "win hearts and minds" while suppressing violence.

Children chased after the soldiers asking them for candy and teasing them. When they learned I spoke Arabic, they pointed to the pigeons that were flying above homes. They had been released by Mahdi Army lookouts. All the children liked Muqtada. "The Americans are dogs and Muqtada will defeat them," one boy said. "The Americans are donkeys and the boys who take candy from the Americans are donkeys," another boy said. "When they are here we say, 'I love you' but when they leave we say, 'Fuck you'" he told me.

The US soldiers had only the dimmest sense of what was really going on around them.

When President George W. Bush was about to leave office, he held a sort of victory press conference in the Green Zone. People in the United States wanted to pretend that the "surge" and an elected authoritarian Shiite government somehow made their war worthwhile. An Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the US potentate. Rosen knows why:

... to Iraqis and anyone else sensitive enough to view them as humans, the occupation was one million acts of violence and humiliation or one million explosives. There was nothing for Bush to be triumphal about during his farewell press conference. Even the surge had exacted a costly toll on Iraqis. Thousands more had been killed, arrested, thrown into overcrowded prisons, and rarely put on trial, their families deprived of them. The surge was not about a victory. With a cost so high, there could be no victory. COIN is still violence, and the occupation persisted, imposing violence on an entire country. As Zeidi threw his second shoe in a last desperate act of defiance, he remembered these victims and shouted, "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!"

Rosen offers a deeply uncomfortable glimpse of what empire wrought in the last decade. I know of no other recounting that comes close to the immediacy and energy of this book. And I believe he tells truths.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

At least we're not mixing nukes and war, this time

Let's think about the twin horrors of the day together for a moment.

In Japan, as the clip reports, some degree of nuclear meltdown is happening at the damaged power plants. And, perhaps even worse, hundreds of thousands of survivors of the earthquake and tsunami have had their existence literally reduced to rubble. As the social adrenaline abates, what will happen to them?

Meanwhile, the agony in Japan has pulled the world's eyes away from the revolt in the Libyan desert. As of today, it looks as though Colonel Qaddafi will succeed in taking back the rebel-held cities. We probably won't be able to see the violent retribution this dictator will visit on people who turned against him. Nor will we know for awhile whether military defeat means the popular revolt in the North African country is truly crushed or merely forced underground.

Our instinctive response to these horrors, as it is to some many others, is an anguished cry: IT ISN'T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN LIKE THIS!

But it does happen; it can. Power hungry men with enough money and guns can triumph over hope. Brilliant engineering and even the heroism of nuclear emergency workers can't ensure the safety of our attempt to harness the forces embedded in the stuff of the universe.

We will try over the next few months and years to put those insights out of our minds. That's what our ever-hopeful species does. It's not hard; there's lots of other things to concern us, from trying to help salvage lives for the injured from these events to going back to tweeting about Charlie Sheen.

But, at a minimum, let's try not to bring today's two horrors together. Nobody is talking much about this at the moment, but a year ago just about every developed exporter of nuclear technology was crowing about the possibilities of the Libyan reactor market.

The north African country already has a Russian 10 MWt research reactor, which has been operating since 1981 and is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. France, Argentina, Ukraine and Russia have all signed agreements on the peaceful use of nuclear energy with Libya since its voluntary decision to halt a clandestine uranium enrichment program and fully open itself to IAEA inspections in 2003. Canada has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the country.

The ongoing Japanese meltdown illustrates, again, that human ingenuity cannot insure against all contingencies. Neither can humans avert war and civil strife. But we can try not to mix the two hazards.

Warming Wednesdays: who will feel climate change most?

Jason Samson, a PhD candidate in McGill University’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, created this map to show where human-induced climate change will have the most notable effects by 2050.

These researchers explain this way:

... if populations continue to increase at the expected rates, those who are likely to be the most vulnerable to climate change are the people living in low-latitude, hot regions of the world, places like central South America, the Arabian Peninsula and much of Africa. In these areas, a relatively small increase in temperature will have serious consequences on a region’s ability to sustain a growing population.” ...

This contrasts with Samson’s predictions about the impact of climate change on human populations in the high-latitude more temperate zones of the world, where the temperature change is expected to be greater. Because the spread of human populations along with their activities are already more constrained by the cooler conditions in these regions, the researchers expect that climate change will have less of an impact on people living in these areas.

A little thought will reveal how this pattern will reinforce existing global inequities. The areas that have contributed least to climate change, areas where development has been least and carbon dioxide emissions relatively small, will feel the most effects. The rich countries that created and benefited from a social system based on burning cheap fossil fuels without concern for environmental costs, will be relatively less disturbed.

The rich get richer and the poor get screwed, again.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Petraeus spins; democratic decision making in trouble

Our favorite spinning general is in Washington selling the Afghanistan war: Petraeus: 'We Have To Remember Why We're There' according to the headline on the story at TPM. I think he needs new writers.

I think I know why we went into Afghanistan in 2001: somebody had to pay for the carnage of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden was there, at least so we thought. But we couldn't catch or kill the guy, possibly because Bush and Rumsfeld were into doing war on the cheap. Why we've been there ever since I have no idea. Neither Bush nor Obama has made a case for us hanging around killing Afghans after the criminals we were looking for escaped. But our troops and our allies have stuck around. Afghans don't much like this, so they pick off foreigners when they can. So far, over 1400 US troops have died there, along with 800 or so allied NATO fighters. We still don' know why.

Just last week, the President of Afghanistan asked us to go away. You may not have read it, but here's the story from Voice of America News:

Karzai Tells NATO Fight is Not in Afghanistan
...The Afghan leader said his government has shown NATO that the terrorists and militants are not in Afghanistan, but instead are hiding in neighboring Pakistan.

The French news agency quoted Mr. Karzai as saying that Afghans are a tolerant people but now "our tolerance has run out."

Guess we aren't "nation building" that fellow's government. Or if we are, we're not paying attention.

Our government is also not paying attention to its own citizens. The Washington Post reports today: Poll: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Afghan war isn’t worth fighting. But the spinning general says we'll be there for years, perhaps with a cosmetic pull back in June, but probably in force at least through 2014 if not longer.

Washington elites of both political parties are determined to keep killing Afghans and US troops as long as it takes in order to ... well, there's no ready answer to that empty blank. What most of us think about the war simply doesn't matter. They go on with these fruitless wars as long as we let them and they have no fear of suffering any time soon for their enthusiasm for sending other people to die. The notion that war is something we do together as a people is dead -- our betters decide for us who we fight and we pay in wasted treasure and in some unfortunates' blood.

This is possible largely because, as a result of popular disillusionment with the Vietnam war, the country created the "All Volunteer Force" -- a standing army of professional soldiers who had contracted to kill on orders. The reasons why people find themselves in the military are complicated -- there's no question that patriotism and idealism are part of a mix that also includes lack of civilian options and misplaced machismo. There also can be no doubt that these lingering, unpopular, inexplicable small wars would be impossible with a draftee force. If random young citizens had to go, the rest of us would be screaming bloody murder.

As it stands, democratic participation in deciding where we fight is neutered; two thirds of us can want a war ended and Washington presses blithely on.

New York Times calls out Obama over Manning conditions

It's still torture, even if done on a Democratic president's watch. Faithful defenders of the rule of law and civilized decency like Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler have been saying this persuasively since early in the current administration. I sure didn't think the New York Times would join the chorus, but today it has.

The Abuse of Private Manning
Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been imprisoned for nine months on charges of handing government files to WikiLeaks, has not even been tried let alone convicted. Yet the military has been treating him abusively, in a way that conjures creepy memories of how the Bush administration used to treat terror suspects. Inexplicably, it appears to have President Obama’s support to do so.

Private Manning is in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va. For one hour a day, he is allowed to walk around a room in shackles. He is forced to remove all his clothes every night. And every morning he is required to stand outside his cell, naked, until he passes inspection and is given his clothes back.

...Private Manning is not an enemy combatant, and there is no indication that the military is trying to extract information from him. Many military and government officials remain furious at the huge dump of classified materials to WikiLeaks. But if this treatment is someone’s way of expressing that emotion, it would be useful to revisit the presumption of innocence and the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

...President Obama, who has forcefully denounced prisoner abuse, is condoning this treatment.

New York Times, March 15. 2011

Indeed, the President has much to answer for. Or does he only answer to the Pentagon?