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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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August 29, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraq and Exit Strategies

Public dialogue about the war has shifted. The right wing is organizing anti-Cindy demonstrations – the kind of thing they normally don't worry about since, after all, their side is in power.

The constitutional deadlock in Iraq has deprived the Bush administration of cheap propaganda points for the time being.

Andrew Krepinevich has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, based on lengthy discussions with military officers, calling for the United States to completely change its strategy in Iraq and implicitly admitting the insanity of the endless search-and-destroy missions that constitute the military's actual role there.

Craig Smith, in Sunday's New York Times, finally discovered the entirely untold but crucially important story of U.S. unwillingness to arm the so-called Iraqi army it's creating. Somehow, the plan, we are told, is to devolve fighting to Iraqi forces, even though simultaneously we make sure those forces are not really armed to fight effectively. The reason, of course, is not those forces' much-remarked-on lack of training, but the fact that the United States can't trust them because it has no friends in Iraq.

Amid this new atmosphere of intense desperation to salvage America's imperial mission in Iraq, there is a sudden proliferation of "exit strategies" from various corners. Some of them are hopelessly muddled; others are attempts to perform political tasks that the antiwar movement should be highly wary of.

Juan Cole's 10-point exit strategy, presented on Democracy Now, involves a continuation of the war by other means – instead of using ground forces, the United States offers close air support to the massively human-rights-violating Iraqi security forces it has created. This, like Krepinevich's article, is effectively a suggestion about how to win the war, in the guise of an exit strategy. Such strategies will look very good to progressive but pusillanimous Democrats who are not up to the task of admitting that the United States cannot win in Iraq.

Tom Hayden has put forward a plan, supported by some peace groups, that involves appointing a U.S. peace envoy who negotiates with all Iraqi factions, including the insurgents. Unfortunately, negotiations, especially by this administration, will simply involve attempts to win by coercion what it hasn't been able to win by outright force.

I don't entirely dismiss talk about "exit strategies." I believe the primary task right now is to put some flesh on "Out Now," the consensus position of the antiwar movement, and develop it as a credible position; currently, most people don't think it is. But people will be putting forward exit strategies, and it will be important to judge them.

Some criteria by which an exit plan should be judged:

What is its target audience? Bush and his coterie should not be the targets. They will withdraw further and further into their bunker as all forces turn against them, refusing to back down from their goals even as they flail wildly in a tactical sense. Nixon didn't give up on winning the Vietnam War until April 30, 1975; Bush makes Nixon look reasonable. The targets are dissident elements of the elite, in particular cowardly progressive Democrats, national security analysts who see that the occupation is imperiling U.S. interests but still think withdrawal might be worse, and non-right-wing media opinionmakers and journalists who to date have believed themselves to be far cleverer than the antiwar movement.
Second, what is it trying to salvage? Dreams of American imperial hegemony in the Middle East are not worth salvaging. Prospects for liberal democracy in Iraq have been seriously vitiated by the conduct of the occupation -- if and when it comes, it will be as a result of long hard struggle by Iraqis and not some clever exit plan. Even salvaging American face is not a goal the antiwar movement need get behind. In my earlier ruminations, I identified one legitimate goal – somehow arranging things so that U.S. withdrawal does not hand a huge victory to Zarqawi and global jihadi forces. Second, salvaging at least the possibility of stable oil production and export is something the world, and all Iraqis, can agree is worthwhile.

I do believe the antiwar movement will and should get involved in the discussion of withdrawal and how to do it. But all plans must be judged primarily by the politics they embody; the ones we've seen so far do not stack up well.

Posted at 10:21 am

August 22, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Our Heart of Darkness

Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, is a remarkable piece of revisionist history. Spending the last ten years studying the Mau-Mau uprising and the British counterinsurgency campaign, poring through old British colonial records and supplementing her research with extensive interviews of hundreds of Kenyan survivors, she has completely overturned the conventional, widely-accepted story of horrific Mau-Mau savagery and civilized British restraint.

Even the old official figures hardly support the widespread feeling that the Mau-Mau was among the most barbaric uprisings of the 20th century. Officially, the Mau-Mau killed fewer than 100 British, and 1800 collaborators, while the British killed 11,000 of them and detained 80,000 in prison camps.

The truth, however, is far different. Among Elkins’ first discoveries was that, although, like the Germans, the British kept extensive files on their activities, most of them had been destroyed decades ago. The pattern of destruction, she says, is that “any ministry … that deal with the unsavory side of detention was pretty well emptied of its files, whereas those that ostensibly addressed detainee reform, or Britain’s civilizing mission, were left fairly intact.”

Reconstructing that history, she finds that, in fact, the British detained or confined, at one time or another, about 1.5 million people, nearly all of the Kikuyu, the tribe that took the Mau-Mau oath. British colonial policy, though it made the occasional nod toward bringing the light of Christianity to the heathen, was comprised of enforced starvation, squalor, and disease, forced labor, routine torture, castration, rape, and murder and savage beatings both by deliberate policy and at the whim of settlers who enforced a reign of terror. Elkins believes, although nobody will ever know for certain, that many tens of thousands and quite likely hundreds of thousands were killed by the British; certainly, if one includes the collateral effects of disease and starvation, the higher numbers are quite likely.

The cruelty and savagery, the sheer despair visited on 1.5 million people, most of whom never even picked up a weapon, takes hundreds of pages really to do them justice; it’s not possible to do that here.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole sordid affair is the constant description of the Mau-Mau as representing some sort of elemental evil. Their oaths of resistance, accompanied by traditional Kikuyu rituals, were routinely described as subhuman degradation on a scale that poor civilized Westerners could not even fathom.

The colonial secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, wrote, “The Mau Mau oath is the most bestial, filthy and nauseating incantation which perverted minds can ever have brewed … [I have never felt] the forces of evil to be so near and so strong as in Mau Mau. … As I wrote memoranda or instruction, I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page – the horned shadow of the Devil himself.”

And this was a man who knew as well as any what the British were doing to the Mau Mau.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Denunciation of perceived enemies in terms that draw more from Christian demonology and visceral fears of moral contagion than from rational analysis, while we simultaneously inflict on them far worse damage than they do on us – sounds familiar, no?

The Israeli occupation of Palestine is one obvious parallel. Readers of the New York Times could on Sunday see an op-ed by Elie Weisel decrying the Palestinians’ lack of sympathy for the suffering of the Jewish settlers in Gaza. It is hard even to communicate how disgusting this is. But what’s really important is not the extreme moral bankruptcy of Weisel but his uncritical acceptance as some sort of universal spokesman for the moral conscience of humanity – and, conversely, the Mau-Mau'ing of the Palestinians.

Another is the so-called “war on terrorism.” No decent person could do anything but condemn the nihilistic and cruel London bombings, but there was something truly nauseating about the chorus of calls for Muslims and Islamic societies to admit their evils coming from people who would never dream of understanding the evils of Britain or the West.

One of the imperatives for the antiwar movement right now is to use the failed occupation of Iraq to shake the blind faith in the moral supremacy of the West in general and the United States in particular that is shared even by most critics of the war.

Audio file

Posted at 10:41 am

August 15, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraq Withdrawal, Part 5

Today is the beginning of the Gaza withdrawal. It is the 58th anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan. And it is the 60th anniversary of "V-J Day."

Iraq commentary:

Last week, I wrote about elite fears that a precipitous withdrawal would inflame worldwide jihadi sentiment. This issue must be addressed head-on, not ignored or brushed aside with glib, unconvincing slogans.

Actually, the Gordian knot of Iraq, insofar as political violence is concerned, is composed of three distinct strands: the American occupation and the resistance to that; the burgeoning sectarian conflict between Sunni Arab, Shi'a Arab, and Kurd; and the actions of a small number of fanatical extremist Sunnis who target all Shi'a as infidels and collaborators.

Ordinarily, that third group, representing only a handful of fanatics, would not loom particularly large in the Iraqi polity. It is the peculiar dynamics of war, foreign-imposed anarchy, and easy availability of high explosives that gives this group an effect out of all proportion to its constituency; it has killed 2700 Iraqis in the last three months and disrupted life immeasurably.

What few outside the antiwar movement seem to realize, and what elite dissidents must be told, is that the U.S. presence is the very factor that takes these three strands and tangles them into the seemingly indecipherable knot that is Iraq today.

Neither of the three ethnic groups really has the power to control the others completely; in the absence of U.S. troops, they would be forced to compromise, instead of perpetually jockeying for greater power and greater influence with the United States. Even a superficially democratic process like elections becomes, in this context, simply an ethnic census; similarly for the formation of the constitution. Even worse are the U.S.-supported activities of groups like the Wolf Brigade, constantly alleged to target people on a sectarian basis.

More important still, it is the U.S. presence that jams the legitimate military resistance together with the extremist terrorists.

Sunday's Washington Post had a very instructive story. In Ramadi, a town much like Fallujah, 3,000 Shiites live among about 200,000 Sunnis. Recently, Zarqawi followers posted warnings that all Shi'a had to leave within 48 hours or suffer the consequences. Members of the Dulaym, the largest clan in the province and a key source of resistance to the U.S. military, established protective cordons around Shiite homes and the Jaish-i-Mohammed, a resistance group, engaged in pitched battles with Zarqawi followers, killing at least five.

They also put out statements saying Zarqawi had strayed "from the line of true resistance against occupation."

This kind of divergence must be encouraged. But it is and will remain very rare under occupation. Indeed, this same Jaish-i-Mohammed was present back in June for negotiations with the U.S. military. When the various groups present were asked to sever ties with Zarqawi, their response was, "we will never abandon any Muslim who has come to our country to help us defend it." This is the logic that will continue to animate most of the resistance, even as it deplores the killing of Iraqis by small groups.

This brings us the deeper point that the continued U.S. presence is what continues to give the conflict, not just in Iraq but worldwide, its religious character. No pronouncements from Bush about how "Islam is a religion of peace" will change or even affect that dynamic. If U.S. forces withdraw, there will still be the Sunni-Shi'a conflict, but that one has nothing like the widespread popular legitimacy of the Christian-Muslim conflict and will find it difficult or impossible to sustain itself outside the minds of Wahhabis like Zarqawi.

According to Robert Pape, whose book Dying to Win contains results of a comprehensive study of suicide bombing campaigns over the past quarter century, such campaigns occur almost exclusively in a context of foreign occupation by forces of a different religion; removal of the American cancer from the Iraqi body politic will, if his conclusions hold true, have the near-immediate benefit of eliminating the peculiarly frightening prospect of suicide terrorism.

In any case, the long and short of it is that Iraqi forces, however constituted, are far more able to deal with the global jihadi/al-Qaeda faction in their countries than the Americans are. It is a struggle that does not require F-15's and 2000-pound GPS-guided bombs, but rather moral clarity and moral legitimacy, two things the U.S. presence in Iraq cannot possibly summon up in the foreseeable future.

These ideas are what dissident elites need in order to realize that the best thing for America right now is to figure out how to lose as gracefully, rather than as destructively, as possible.

Posted at 10:51 am

August 9, 2005

Nagasaki Day

We've just been through the 60th anniversaries of two of the most indelible crimes against humanity in our history. One doesn't wish to let such a portentous anniversary pass without comment, although generally there is the problem that it's difficult to find something new to say.

This year, however, things are a little different. I have mentioned before that Gar Alperovitz's book The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and the Architecture of an American Myth is the key source to read in order to begin to understand an issue almost irretrievably clouded by decades of U.S. state propaganda.

Alperovitz seeks to show, partly by looking at transcripts of Japanese diplomatic communiques interecepted by the United States under an operation code-named MAGIC, that the United States was well aware that Japan was in dire straits and seeking desperately for any sort of negotiated settlement with the United States that would preserve the emperor's position.

There's a lot more in the book, for example the creation of the Hiroshima myth, the story that the bomb saved countless lives. Alperovitz traces the evolution of the myth, documenting the way that the number of lives saved soared as the political imperatives became clearer.

Undoubtedly, the majority of his work stands and will stand any test of time. Recently, however, some scholarship has brought into doubt the question of just how ready Japan was to surrender and how much the United States could have known about it.

Richard Frank, writing in the Weekly Standard (not a publication I usually give much credence to), says that more recently (mid-90's) declassified MAGIC transcripts of Japanese military communiques paint a very different story. While diplomats may have been flailing for a peaceful solution, the military command apparently was rather intransigently preparing to beat back an invasion and showed no sign of incipient surrender under any terms.

From a different angle, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa (see article by Frank Brodhead), combing through Japanese, American, and Soviet archives, has come to the conclusion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki played almost no role in the Japanese surrender decision, which was dictated virtually entirely by the Soviet declaration of war on August 8.

This seems very plausible. After all, the Japanese ruling class might have expected that the Americans would hang a few of them, subjugate the class to U.S. strategic interests, and for the most part prop the rest of them up in power so as to rule Japan with relative ease -- after making sure they had been properly brought to heel, of course. On the other hand, they could expect the Soviets to liquidate them entirely. This, of course, is precisely the difference between the American treatment of the Nazis and the Soviet treatment.

So what do we make of all this? Does the incredible intransigence of the Japanese military command and its lack of concern for civilian lives exonerate the United States?

This reminds me a great deal of an argument that always got thrown at us regarding Saddam and the sanctions on Iraq. First, we need to kill children because Saddam is intransigent and won't cooperate fully with weapons inspections and killing children is the only way to make him cooperate. Second, Saddam is hard-hearted and doesn't care about the children killed, so it's not our fault that they've died.

I believe the logic error is reasonably obvious. In the case of Japan, it's very clear that the rulers, like Saddam, were hard-hearted and militaristic, that they committed numerous crimes against humanity, and that they shared a great deal of the blame for what was done to their people.

But, just as in the case of Saddam, the United States knew that beforehand. They had incinerated over 500,000 civilians with their deadly firebomb raids, which by the summer of 1945 they were able to carry out without any resistance, and the Japanese military didn't bat an eye.

So the United States set out to kill as many civilians as possible in these attacks, even though, because of the MAGIC intercepts, they were in a good position to believe the killing of civilians would make no difference to the Japanese government. They gave no warning for the Hiroshima bombing; they did give warning about Nagasaki, one day after the bombing. Civilians had no chance to flee. The bombs were set to detonate at exactly the height above the ground that would maximize the blast devastation. Everything was done to kill as many civilians as possible. And, in the end, it may not have made one damn bit of difference in making the Japanese surrender.

I don't see that this new scholarship, important as it is, changes anything in the obvious determination that these are two of the most incandescent crimes against humanity ever committed.

Some wags like to justify the atomic bombings by pointing out the destructions of Tokyo, Dresden, etc. I've never quite understood why committing a crime makes committing another crime ok.

But it does bring up another interesting point. When I first read about the Manhattan project and the bombing of Hiroshima as a child, I didn't distinguish between the firebombings and the atomic bombing. They killed similar numbers of innocent people, so they were equally bad.

And yet, in a way, horrific crimes as the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo were, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worse. First, of course, because they started the nuclear arms race and brought us to the point where we can actually annihilate ourselves. Second, because of the radiation and lingering effects.

But there's another way, and it's hard to talk about logically. Freeman Dyson, in his autobiography Disturbing the Universe, talks about his experience. He worked as an analyst for British Bomber Command and, over the years, became completely disillusioned with what he called this "crazy game of murder." Then one day, after he was out and the war for him was over, he picked up a newspaper and saw the headline, "New Force of Nature Unleashed." He said to himself, "This is it. Childhood's end."

It's always struck me that, of all the headlines put up on August 7, that one is somehow the most profound. Even now, reading it sends a chill down my spine. To discover the most profound secrets of nature and use them to incinerate over 200,000 men, women, and children is unspeakable in some way that goes deeper than logic.

Posted at 10:11 pm

August 8, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraq Withdrawal, Part 4

Some listeners may be wondering about the sudden rise in talk of withdrawal coming from the Pentagon and the White House. Actually, according to a New York Times report about a classified Pentagon briefing session, any such plans actually consist of a rather vague suggestion that, if political and security progress of the kind wanted is made, by late spring or early summer of next year, the number of American troops might be drawn down by 20-30,000. On the other hand, if said progress is not made, which seems awfully likely, General Abizaid warns that current troop levels may remain at least throughout 2006, and perhaps longer. Substantively speaking, this is absolutely nothing new, no different from what the Pentagon has always said. The only thing different is how it's being hyped, and that presumably has to do with domestic politics, in particular the midterm elections.

Now, on to this week's topic, how to sell withdrawal to elite opinion-makers. In a nutshell, this war has turned bad from the perspective of the American empire-builders. Though many were tempted by the notion of that kind of direct control over Middle East oil, it already seems like a vanished pipe dream and the reality is a constant hemorrhaging of U.S. imperial influence and credibility, at just a time when large new counterhegemonic trends are emerging. A war that was designed to show U.S. strength to the world has instead displayed U.S. weakness.

Some members of the national security establishment foresaw this before the Iraq war even started and opposed it from the beginning. Now, virtually everyone can see it, and even the neoconservatives criticize the administration harshly.

And yet one sees no flood of foreign policy hacks coming out for immediate or rapid withdrawal from Iraq. Similarly, until recently, progressive Democrats, harshly critical of Bush's Iraq policy, were afraid to talk seriously about withdrawal; even now, the new Out of Iraq Caucus is stepping very gingerly around the issue. Why is that?

For the antiwar movement to build the kind of groundswell for withdrawal that is needed, it's important to understand this glaring absence. Even though large swathes of "important" people have given up on getting anything good out of the Iraq war, they dread the consequences of getting out. Remaining is not a nice option, but is at least a known evil compared with the unknown evil of withdrawal. Ordinarily, of course, the fate of Iraqis after the United States withdraws would hardly be a concern, just like the fate of Afghans in the early 90's when the U.S. was done with them.

In this case, however, there are two concerns that make the fate of Iraqis important. One, of course, is stability of the oil supply. The other is that precipitous U.S. withdrawal would inevitably be seen by the emerging global jihadi front as a tremendous victory – like April 2004 in Fallujah, but on a far wider scale. Such victories, at least in the short term, increase recruitment and militancy, not a pleasant prospect for the potential victims of further terrorist attacks, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.

In the absence of the oil consideration, of course the constantly mentioned possibility of civil war would not matter so much to the decisionmakers, just as the many-fronted war in the Congo that killed 4 million did not – perhaps slightly more, since Iraq was a mess we created, but not enough to seriously influence strategic considerations.

Anyway, these concerns actually do have some legitimacy, as does the danger of civil war, which is now far greater than it was two years ago at the beginning of the occupation. The actual effect on jihadis of withdrawal is unclear; in the short term, victory and greater recruitment, but very likely in the longer term removal of a major grievance and a dying down of interest. It is, indeed, already clear from numerous studies recently released that Iraq is the primary recruiting issue for jihadi groups worldwide. But there are certainly no guarantees.

Bush's self-fulfilling prophecy that Iraq is the central battlefront in the "war on terror" has created a uniquely complicated situation, even by the standards of the American empire. In next week's final segment, I'll explain how to cut this Gordian knot.

Posted at 8:21 am

August 1, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraq Withdrawal, Part 3

Today I continue my ruminations on withdrawal and deficiencies of the antiwar movement. Last week, I mentioned the absence of a sufficiently strong and wide-ranging moral critique of the war.

I highlight this not out of some naïve idealism, but rather because of the specific situation with which we are faced. To the average American, Iraq appears like a quagmire where, for incomprehensible reasons some of "them" are intently engaged on blowing up others of "them," with the United States desperately (and to most, foolishly) trying to maintain order, for no discernible reason except bringing democracy, which is something "they" don't even want. That is the basis of poll numbers that indicate criticism of the government's Iraq policy.

Couple that with some dim feeling that if the United States withdraws, things will get worse, that gas already costs too much, throw in the always-present belief that United States intervention is necessary to keep the world running properly and to keep all of those barbarians from killing each other, and you have a recipe for mass confusion, reflected in polls where the number supporting some unspecified withdrawal seem to vary almost randomly.

Now subject these people to an arcane debate about whether there are enough troops, whether the troops have enough armor, how fast Iraqi security forces are being trained, whether we should withdraw sooner or later (with no time frames usually mentioned), does the war have any connection to terrorism, should the UN be involved, while in the background things keep blowing up, and you get a public that decides to concentrate on Natalie Holloway or Michael Jackson.

Note that in the mainstream debate, there is no clarity of position. Bush says we will withdraw "just as soon as the job is done" and his opponents say we should have a timetable; in the middle, people quibble about Humvee armor and security force training.

Now, drop into this an antiwar movement that is relentlessly focused on telling people what they already know. People who follow the news at all generally have a pretty good idea how many American soldiers have died. They know the war costs a lot. Those who already believe government services are a good thing may be receptive to an argument however labored it is, that the cost of the war requires cuts in social services; most Americans couldn't care less, as long as their taxes don't go up. They also know Iraq isn't going well for "us," whatever that means.

Telling people what they already know does nothing to dispel confusion.

In smaller forums, of course, we also tell the people who attend many things they don't know, starting with estimates of how many Iraqis have been killed. But all of these other things are de-emphasized and get filtered out, except for the handful that go to our teach-ins and the larger number that listen to Pacifica or read Common Dreams, Znet, and similar websites.

Even many of those people, though they have more information on what is going on, are lacking the same essential ingredient that the rest of the American people are lacking: moral clarity. Like the Vietnam war, this war is not an issue that can be left to the self-interested maneuverings of major political figures. Moral clarity is what's needed to transform confused apathetic distaste for the war into a burning desire to do something about it.

Moral clarity is what's needed to cut the Gordian knot of conflicting strategies for pacifying Iraq, Pentagon announcements of a vague desire to withdraw troops within vaguely the next year, questions about whether Arabs want democracy, and all the other nonsense that constitutes the public debate.

The planned protests on September 24-26 will be the first ones since February 15, 2003, that drop into a favorable political climate. Hollywood celebrities, liberal newspaper columnists, and progressive Congresspeople will all be poised to use those protests as a launching pad. If the ground is prepared with a moral critique that does not stop at Bush but expands to implicate 21st-century America, then the bump we get after the protests may be the beginning of a sustained shift in consciousness; otherwise, it will be just another flash in the pan.

That concludes my thoughts on reaching the people about withdrawal. Next week, I'll talk about reaching the elite.

Posted at 10:44 am
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