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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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April 28, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Blame the Wogs

In a country apparently torn apart by recriminations over the Iraq war, it’s heartening that there is at least one thing we can all apparently agree upon: blame the wogs.

Unless you count well-fed suburbanites hoarding rice from Sam’s Club and Costco while the world is starving, there is scarcely a phenomenon more contemptible than the ridiculous ease with which Americans of all stripes blame the Iraqis for the troubles that we brought upon them.

These sentiments are expressed by the truly despicable, like Clintonista Rahm Emanuel, who had the gall, while calling for the Iraqi government to shoulder more of the financial burden of the counterinsurgency, to say, "We've put about $45 billion into Iraq's reconstruction . . . and they have not spent their own resources...They have got to have some skin in the game."

Leave to one side the fact that the United States only started serious spending on reconstruction when it became a matter of counterinsurgency, rather than simple humanitarianism, the fact that morally the United States owes Iraq far more, and the fact that one reason the Iraqi government doesn’t spend more of its own budget is that the war and occupation destroyed Iraq’s state capacity and it has not regenerated since, thus making it physically impossible to spend the bulk of its current windfall oil revenues in a socially useful way.

What kind of moral cretinism is required to suggest that the Iraqis, who have lost maybe 300,000, maybe 1.2 million, had 2 million flee the country and many more internally displaced, seen their social fabric wrecked and their food rations cut, to the point that there is scarcely a single family in the country that has not seen tragedy, need to have “some skin in the game?”

It is a cretinism shared almost equally by some of the best and the worst in our society.

In Barack Obama’s Sunday interview with the odious Chris Wallace, when Wallace idiotically hectored him to say that as president he would give up his political decisionmaking power to the generals on the ground in Iraq, Obama correctly refused to make any such absurd commitment, but he did it thus: “what I will not do is continue to let the Iraqi government off the hook and allow them to put our foreign policy on ice while they dither about making decisions about how they are going to cooperate with each other.”

Patrick Murphy, the only Iraq veteran in Congress, said on the Colbert Report, “Stephen, the troops are heroes; they're doin' a great job, but it's the Iraqis that aren't working.”

Jon Stewart, who to his credit is one of the few public figures to have resisted this trend, most notably with a segment a couple of years ago called “Theya Culpa,” recently picked on a different set of Wogs. When Aram Roston was on the show, talking about his new biography of Ahmed Chalabi, Stewart tried to suggest that Iran wanted the war, so it fed Dick Cheney incorrect information through Chalabi, thus trapping poor America into a war it didn’t want.

Oddly, it is right-wing ideologues – not the racist Limbaugh types but some of the true-believer supporters of the surge -- who are the best on this, just as it is right-wingers who say that Arabs are ready for democracy and “liberals” who say they aren’t. Of course, the right-wing masses are the ones who blame Iraq for 9/11 and whose motto is “Exterminate the brutes!,” so the difference is just on the surface.

It is true that Iraqis bear some of the blame for the violence and chaos their country descended into – even though the overwhelming majority didn’t ask for this war. But it is truly disgusting to see comfortable people who haven’t the faintest idea of how to try to reconstruct a society that has been wrecked, to contend with the invasion of foreign extremists, to deal with a military occupation, and to do it all in a country already severely weakened and strained by three decades of totalitarian dictatorship and two of war and sanctions tut-tut over the Iraqis’ inability to turn things around.

Five years into a war that is by some indices the least popular in American history (a recent Gallup poll showing 63% who thought the war was a mistake topped the all-time high for the Vietnam War of 61%), the country is still resolutely endeavoring to learn nothing from this war. What better way than to blame the victims for the destruction visited on them?

Posted at 10:17 am

April 21, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Capitalism and the Global Food Crisis

In Haiti, the poor are eating mud pies, concoctions of mud, oil, and sugar, the only way some of them can now afford to deal with what they call “Clorox hunger,” a feeling of starvation so intense it makes you feel as if your innards are being eaten away by bleach. Across the world, from Haiti to Cameroon to Egypt to Bangladesh to Indonesia, rising grain prices have sparked food riots and social unrest.

In the past year, the price of wheat rose 150%, before retreating somewhat in the past few months so that it’s only up 80%; the price of corn rose 50%. Most remarkably, the price of rice has risen 141% since January.

Reportage and commentary has identified the factors going into this catastrophic price rise: a drought in Australia, the rising price of oil, growing demand for meat in India and China, and the sudden craze for biofuels.

For the most part, they have neglected to identify the underlying enabling factor – capitalism.

It is the genius of capitalism to take a good idea – use plants’ ability to fix solar power in order to create fuel that can replace the dwindling reserves of oil – and twist and torture it until it leads to crisis. Although, to be fair, some credit must also be given to the freakish inertia of the American political system and the massive stupidity it helps to produce in politicians and legislators.

First, capitalism requires that biofuel profit somebody, or it won’t be produced. Second, the combination of capitalism and the corrupt interest-driven politics of American agriculture dictate that those profited be a politically important constituency. The combination of the disproportionate importance of the Iowa caucus and the stranglehold that agrobusiness has over domestic policy formation on agriculture has led to the United States coming up with the most insane possible approach to biofuels – price supports for corn, the growing of which in this country involves massive use of oil directly and of petrochemical fertilizers. With easy profits to hand, corporations maximize production instead of minimizing waste, so that we end up paying subsidies to corporations to use up more oil.

At this point, one quarter of corn production in the United States goes to biofuel. Consider now the effects on the rest of the world. The United States has labored, especially in the last few decades, to create a world market in everything. NAFTA, which had nothing whatsoever to do with deindustrialization in Ohio, has eviscerated Mexican corn production and made the country dependent on imports of previously cheap American corn. Now, however, the Mexican consumer has to compete for that corn with oil companies that are effectively government-subsidized; it’s no surprise who wins.

Haiti, similarly, used to produce its own rice, but the structural adjustment imposed on it in the mid-1990’s by the United States as a condition for allowing Aristide to return and for an end to the military reign of terror, made it a significant consumer of U.S. agrobusiness rice. Biofuel subsidies create incentives to produce corn instead of rice or wheat; this helps drive up the price of rice and wheat.

Finally, consider this: the market processes of setting a price where supply equals demand don’t have to be linear. If overall grain supply for food decreases by 10%, that doesn’t mean the price goes up by 10%. Depending on the shape of the demand curve, it could change by any amount. In a market made extremely tight by the various factors cited above, a small push from the change in biofuels policy created massive price rises, further helped along by speculation, just like tech stocks in the late 90’s or tulips in 17th-century Holland – just, this time, those speculators are literally feeding off of corpses.

Third World countries have finally responded, with price supports and bans on export of foodgrains. The World Food Program wants $500 million to deal with the immediate crisis. As of last week, though, its emergency appeal for $96 million for Haiti had netted only about $12 million. And do remember, when you see U.S. food aid reported, that 65% of that money is overhead and transportation costs, because of the corrupt, interest-driven requirement that food aid be produced in the United States; it’s a solution that’s part of the problem.

This crisis is undoubtedly a harbinger of worse to come if we don’t make systemic change; we may yet look back on the creation of a world market for food as among the most calamitous consequences of a century that saw more violence than any in world history.

Posted at 10:18 am.

April 14, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- No More Magic Obama

Hillary Clinton has finally done it. She has dragged Barack Obama into the mud and made sure that at least some of it will stick to him.

The shine is off Obama’s candidacy. He’s not magic anymore. Even if he becomes president, as still seems quite likely, he may never regain that remarkable ability somehow to bring out the better angels of human nature even from those who you would have sworn had bludgeoned said angels to death years ago.

Even though our politics differ greatly, I must say that I regret this. Yes, there were times it was annoying to watch him floating always a few inches above the ground, the living embodiment of the painless, effortless catharsis that so many white liberals wanted. But he frequently went beyond this to deliver actual insight.

After Obama’s remarkable speech, which did more to clear the air on race than any speech I’ve heard in decades, I said to myself, “It’s not just that he’s electable where people more openly to the left are not. There are some ways in which he’s better for the country.” Amazingly, the speech had plenty for you and me and simultaneously was, except for the right wing, universally praised in the media. This, even though he effectively equated black anger over racism with white working class anger over loss of economic stability; though any pollster could have told him this would anger whites, he stuck to it and it worked.

Time and again, Obama has created trouble for himself by acting like a thinking human being, rather than mindlessly parroting his talking points like politicians are supposed to do, yet the trouble has never stuck. Witness his unguarded remarks about Ronald Reagan, which provided such easy fodder for Clinton’s patented “misrepresent, oversimplify to roughly kindergarten level, attack” schema.

This time is different. He may well weather the damage he has done himself, but it will be in the politicians’ traditional way of moving on and hoping people forget.

One difference is that, unlike the remarks about Reagan, this time there is no deep insight or important analysis in his remarks. His remarks, about the working-class whites he is having trouble appealing to, “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. … And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” are true, but are a staple of economic populists like Thomas Frank or Jim Hightower, or, even, once upon a time, Bill Clinton.

More important, they’re just a half-truth. This is not for the utterly stupid reasons that Clinton and many mainstream media commentators have brought up – for example, that people just like to hunt. Obama wasn’t talking about why they have guns but why they cling to guns as a litmus-test political issue, even though nobody has ever tried to take away their hunting rifles. Mentioning religion was a misstep – although it is always the “heart of a heartless world,” it is too broad for his analysis. For the rest, he was spot-on in identifying the complex of beliefs that go together and in suggesting that those beliefs come to the fore and become dramatically more virulent because of the deindustrialization of the heartland.

But he, along with Frank and Hightower and the rest, are wrong to suggest that the one causes the other. No, the “antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment” is a form of white identity politics and cannot be attacked simply by suggesting that you will go to Washington and fight the corporations. It thrives on economically driven resentment, but its roots are far deeper and go to the heart of people’s self-image; part of the reason many of the targets of this analysis rightly feel that it is condescending is that they know these ideas go deeper in them. Of course, even the old magic Obama could not have accomplished the miracle of going further on white identity politics than the few oblique remarks in his race speech and surviving politically.

Fortunately for him, Hillary Clinton’s maladroitness in telling a bunch of bitter people to wear smiley-face buttons she’s handing out may leave this one a wash; in the future, we will see a much more careful Obama. The nation’s political dialogue will be the poorer for it.

Posted at 10:49 am.

April 7, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Reflections on the "Surge"

The “surge” was always a strange animal, neither fish nor fowl. Predicated on the axioms of counterinsurgency theory, which stresses the need to spend years and to expend effort to keep pacified the areas you have just pacified, it promised massive results in “six to nine months” or perhaps a year and a half at most, results which would somehow remain even when the surge was over. Sold as “creating space” for Iraqi political reconciliation by decreasing violence, it for the first time made the U.S. military a necessary part of Iraq’s political infrastructure, thus obviating any incentive for Iraqis to deal with each other rather than try to manipulate the Americans for their own benefit – an effect exacerbated by the fact that key elements of the new strategy involved taking sides in Iraqi internal politics in a more open, aggressive and sustained manner than before.

The United States has managed, in a bizarre sort of alchemy, to transmute the Shi’a-Sunni conflict into, at least in part, a Shi’a-Shi’a conflict and a Sunni-Sunni conflict – and, most crucial for the American political scene, to transmute the anti-occupation insurgency largely into a pro-American anti-Shi’ite militia.

In part, these “successes,” if you wish to characterize them that way, are the product of prior failures. It was the widespread breakdown in security, starting not with the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006 but actually perhaps a year earlier, that led to the unnamed Battle of Baghdad, waged with white-hot intensity from 2006 through mid-2007. According to congressional testimony from Stephen Biddle, perhaps the most astute analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Sunnis conclusively lost that battle. It was the first time the Sunni have lost a military engagement with the Shi’a and served as a wakeup call to many Sunnis who foolishly and arrogantly believed that a U.S. withdrawal would mean their certain victory over the Shi’a in the internecine clashes to follow. This, combined with the increasingly oppressive actions of al Qaeda in Iraq, which showed itself unable to protect the Sunnis from the Shi’a, led to an allegiance shift of the Sunnis, as soon as the United States showed that it was ready to be a credible player in Iraqi internal politics.

Simultaneously, the widespread fighting and ethnic cleansing, which went along, as it always does, with increasing access to resources from extortion and smuggling, served to further disorganize the already ragtag Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr. Local commanders popped up who ruled their areas with relative autonomy; no longer dependent on the centralized Sadrist collection of tithes, they could also get away with doing as they pleased.

According to recent congressional testimony of Nir Rosen, the best and at time only non-Iraqi fully unembedded investigative reporter in Iraq, it was partly to deal with this increasing fractionation and factionalization that Sadr called for a freeze on violent activities; the other reason was presumably fear that the heightened U.S. presence in Baghdad would lead to more open clashes with U.S. troops, something the Sadrists are poorly equipped to withstand. Sadr called that freeze in August 2007, the same month that the surge went from being a failure to being a success.

Perhaps the only unambiguous success of the surge strategy has been essentially forcing AQI out of al-Anbar province, although Anbar’s good news has been bad news for Nineveh province and its capital of Mosul. Even here, it is a success enabled only by the phenomenal failure that led to AQI’s incredibly high level of control in Anbar in 2006, something not at all to be expected for a group whose ideologies and ways of acting were so foreign to the populace.

Iraq has come back somewhat from its nadir of violence and there is reason to hope, even with the recent highly destructive assault on the Sadrists which may have claimed 700 lives, that it will not slip back to that level again. But it is worth understanding what U.S. procedures have been involved in that process and what alternatives that might have been as effective have been foreclosed.

In particular, without the United States pushing him hard, it’s difficult to imagine that Maliki would present the Sadrists with the absurd Hobson’s choice of disarming – and thus possibly being decimated and certainly losing their electoral base – or being excluded from the elections. It is not simply that the surge has failed to create political reconciliation; it has in fact set the stage for a whole new series of political conflicts.

Posted at 10:44 am.
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