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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 28, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Of Katrina, Macacas, and Race

As the one-year anniversary of the Katrina disaster approaches, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the things it hasn’t changed.

I won’t go over the reconstruction that hasn’t happened, the preparation of New Orleans to withstand future hurricanes that didn’t occur, the nonexistent new environmental consciousness, the renewed attention to problems of poverty that hasn’t been given, and the political reform of unresponsive local, state, and federal governments that has not been implemented would take too much time.

I’ll just focus on the grappling with issues of race and racial ideology that hasn’t happened.

After a great deal of noise in the first few days of widespread TV coverage of the disaster about the dark heart of American racial inequality and how our attitudes would be forever changed, things went back to a status quo so unchanged it was as if a race of telepathic superbeings had erased all memory of Katrina.

Perhaps the first indication was a September 8 poll by Pew showing that, when asked if the government's response would have been quicker had most victims been white, only 17% of whites said "Yes," as opposed to 66% of blacks. Only 32% of whites said the disaster shows racial inequality is still a major problem, compared with 71% of blacks.

When rapper Kanye West said that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, a patently obvious statement, liberal commentators rushed to attack him. Almost nobody even considered talking about how little white society as a whole cares about black people, even as compared with the modest high points of the late 1860’s and the 1970’s.

That lack of caring is, of course, the primary reason that there has been no advance in racial understanding since then. But there are also important secondary reasons.

One that I identified in the immediate aftermath was the lack of any lexicon to use to address the situation of race any more, a lack made painfully obvious when one by one African-American political leaders, provided a unique opportunity to address that nation on TV, found themselves unable to say anything meaningful let alone anything that might reach a predominantly white audience.

A widespread leftist understanding of structural racism as a phenomenon independent of though linked with crude attitudinal racism has not been communicated in a way that can relate to the intellectual culture of classical liberalism, let alone the extremely individualist variety of said liberalism that prevails in the United States.

Just as disturbing is the lack of understanding, even in the middle of a globe-spanning “war on terror,” of xenophobia and denigration of other nationalities as racism. At the time, it manifested in the Black Congressional Caucus’s absurd plea not to call the victims of Katrina refugees.

A more recent case in point is the flap over Senator George Allen’s use of the word “macaca” to refer to S.R. Sidarth, a young Indian-American staffer of his Democratic opponent’s campaign who had been following him around and videotaping him. The controversy over this has been almost entirely unilluminating and has deeply missed the point. I for one do not think it likely that Allen was using an obscure racial slur originally used by French settlers North Africa to refer to the natives of the area. Nor do I think Allen was calling the young man a macaque, a species not mentioned in the Bible and thus probably unknown to the Neanderthal senator.

But what he was doing was menacing, ugly, and racist. He identified Sidarth as a natural target for humor and disdain as a foreigner who had no right to be there. “Macaca” was his ignorant parody of a generic “furrin” Indian name, designed to sound funny to the ear of the ignorant American, a species much in abundance at Allen campaign rallies. His “Welcome to America” added an element of menace and a clear injunction to the man to stay in his natural place.

Though this was racist, it could not have been done to a black person; they are not identified by the average white as foreign. His use of a young person of Indian descent was anachronistic; American-born Indians are now quite common. But that wasn’t the problem; the problem was using a nonwhite foreigner as a natural target for such verbal aggression.

There is no clear way in mainstream public discourse in the United States to communicate the racism of this kind of incident, which less august figures than senators engage in every day. In the long run, we may decide that the greatest tragedy of the intellectual non-response to Katrina is that it has not enlarged our racial lexicon.

Posted at 10:52 am

August 21, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Hizbullah's Victory, Part 2

Last week, in an assessment of the Israel-Lebanon war, I proclaimed Hizbullah the victor. The entire political world, from right to left and marginal to mainstream, seems to concur in this analysis; the cover of this week’s Economist says, “Nasrallah wins the war.” The other half of this assessment is being mentioned much less often; another victory like this might well be their undoing.

Israel wreaked enormous havoc on Lebanon, dropping more tonnage of bombs than it did during the 1982 invasion. The death toll has mounted to over 1300; 15,000 families were deprived of their homes; an oil slick the size of that created by the Exxon Valdez imperils the coastal environment; and over $5 billion of infrastructure damage will set back heavily a country that had just managed to rebuild from the damage of past warfare.

Initial anger at Hizbullah among many in Lebanon for seemingly provoking the Israeli attack faded quickly when the scope of the attack made it clear that the attack was pre-planned and used Hizbullah’s capture of Israeli soldiers merely as a trigger and an excuse. A widely quoted poll conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information found 87% of respondents saying they supported Hizbullah’s resistance to Israel.

This war-forged solidarity will be ripped to shreds the moment it is perceived that adventurist action by Hizbullah leads to another Israeli attack of similar scope. At the same time, however, Israel has obviously interpreted the terms of the ceasefire as license for it to conduct whatever kind of operation it feels like; it has already violated the ceasefire seriously with a stunningly inept Special Forces raid that Hizbullah’s alert and disciplined fighters repelled with ease. Only Israel’s overwhelming technological superiority enabled it to extricate its forces without major losses.

Given this situation, Hizbullah’s military wing must now remain in a posture of permanent vigilance, with its fists always doubled, watching for Israeli punches yet never able to punch first itself. It has also lost a tremendous amount of military equipment, which it will be at pains to replace. At the same time, its civilian wing is exerting itself all out in order to repair damage and help the vast number of victims of the war. Although it has access to significant sources of funding (many of them Lebanese), this combination will exert a major strain on the organization.

With the new challenges, however, come new opportunities – as long as the correct lessons are learned. Hizbullah and the Palestinians must not let this military victory go to their heads. As revolutionary theorists from Mao to Eqbal Ahmad emphasized, the true power of any kind of popular resistance, from Palestine to Vietnam, lies in legitimacy and public support, not in force of arms.

In some ways, Hizbullah understands this well. A remarkable example uncovered by the Washington Post’s invaluable Anthony Shadid: “In Dibin, a shopkeeper, … recounted how he had fled the town at the war's start. In the month that followed, Hezbollah fighters took food from his shop -- …. When he returned, more than 30 receipts were waiting for him, and he was paid in full, more than $1,000.”

Although Hizbullah has declared victory in somewhat bombastic terms, it remains well-positioned to exercise the kind of humility needed for it to take advantage of the new political climate in Lebanon created by the war.

Although Hizbullah and Hamas have both taken very seriously the question of legitimacy with regard to the populations of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, they have not managed to communicate effectively either with the international community or with the Israeli public. Both of these are indispensable components of any attempt to rein in Israel and end the occupation. The Israeli public does not have to love Arabs or even seriously scale back the astonishing level of anti-Arab racism; it does have to see past the obfuscation of its own political leaders to imagine a resolution that it can live with, attained by negotiations with an enemy it can respect.

With the spell of Israeli invincibility shattered, the time has never been riper for the resistance to shift the locus of the struggle away from military, where it still cannot compete, to politics and legitimacy. Hamas, after years locked in a failed and immoral strategy of indiscriminate suicide bombings, made a very serious attempt to do so first by instituting a unilateral moratorium on terrorist attacks and second by using the legitimacy of democratic elections and indicating a new willingness, through moderate leaders like Ismail Haniyeh, to deal with Israel and to redefine its stances.

That approach was strangled at birth by a U.S.-initiated offensive with the rest of the world standing by indifferent. That often happens with first attempts. That’s no reason not to try again.

If these organizations were to drop the “Death to Israel” language, renew a commitment not to attack even when provoked (up to a point), and most important make their case to the world in a universalist language of human rights and democracy without any of the standard nods toward Islamist irredentism, they might well find many more willing to listen to them. It won’t be easy; tentative efforts in that direction, for example when Ismail Haniyeh said he would talk about recognizing Israel when Israel declared its borders, tend to get ignored by the rest of the world. But now, with the emergence of an Arab military counterweight to Israel, it will be easier than it was before. Sadly, these groups have been dealing with an enemy that only listens to and makes deals with those who have power; compare Israel’s carrying out of its 1978 Camp David commitments to Egypt with its total lack or respect for its Oslo commitments to the Palestinians.

The same confluence of changed circumstances and changed approach would also make it much easier to marshal genuine, rather than rhetorical, support from an international community that has long let its sympathy for the Palestinians be stymied by U.S. pressure and European ambivalence.

An interesting historical parallel is the 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale. The Angolan MPLA with the help of Cuban expeditionary forces beat back an attack by UNITA and the South African Defense Forces, a victory that led in short order to the independence of Namibia from South African colonial domination. The victory shattered the myth of white South African military supremacy over black Africans and gave a shot in the arm to the ANC in South Africa. At the same time, it was a wake-up call to the South African elite, who realized that part of the reason they lost the battle was the international arms embargo and their growing isolation by the world.

Cuito Cuanavale was one of the biggest death-blows to apartheid. Although a military victory, it helped lead, in a mere six years, to a remarkably pacific settlement and the emergence of a free South Africa. The settlement was far from perfect, but anti-colonial struggles never really win what they deserve.

In the current case, the parallel would be that Hizbullah’s victory would start off a chain of events leading to the end of the occupation of Palestine and a retreat from Israel’s belligerent stance in the region as a whole. This eventuality is nearly unimaginable. One of the reasons, as has been mentioned numerous times, is of course that Hamas and Fatah are not the ANC. Another, which has gotten much less attention, is that the ruling class of Israel, whether represented by Labor, Likud, or Kadima, is not even up to the standard of Pieter Botha and F.W. de Klerk.

Posted at 11:05 am

August 14, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Hizbullah's Victory, Part 1

As we begin to hope that the smoking rubble of Lebanon will finally be left to cool, undisturbed by further Israeli bombs, here is a preliminary assessment of the war and of prospects for the future in its wake.

The most obvious conclusion is that Hizbullah won. Over 1000 Lebanese were undoubtedly killed; we may never know the full toll. The vast majority were civilians. About 30 Israeli civilians were killed, along with at least 109 Israeli soldiers. Although it’s hard to know how accurate Israeli body-count claims are, even if we accept their high figures for Hizbullah fighters killed, the ratio is not impressive. Relatively poorly armed and usually outnumbered popular resistance forces never achieve a 1:1 ratio against high-tech, heavily weaponized colonialist and neo-colonialist forces. Even at Dienbienphu, unquestionably the greatest military victory for anti-colonialist forces in history, Vietnamese fatalities were four times those of the French.

Hizbullah did not allow the IDF to achieve a single one of whatever strategic goals it may have had, even firing off 250 of its wildly inaccurate rockets the day before the cease-fire was to take effect. Ceaseless IAF bombing could not even force its TV station, al-Manar, off the air. Throughout the conflict, its command-and-control seemingly functioned at least as well as that of the Israelis’ and its troop morale remained higher. The IDF high command’s original strategic plan was that the Lebanese would greet Israeli bombs as liberators and turn against Hizbullah; after that collapsed, they seemed to lose focus, repeatedly sending unprepared and unmotivated reservists into southern Lebanon on ill-conceived or undefined missions.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 seems to confirm that assessment. Because John Bolton is the true head of the U.N., the language is outrageously slanted toward Israel, putting responsibility for starting the fight on Hizbullah, talking about release of Israeli prisoners but not of Lebanese, and calling on Hizbullah to stop all fighting while requiring only that Israel cease offensive operations; since Israel believes that everything up to and including shelling Lebanese hospitals is defensive, this does not constrain Israel in any way – and it will surely continue its casual border violations, air-strikes, shooting of shepherds, covert operations, and assassinations. The resolution also effectively allows the Israelis to set their own timetable for withdrawal from southern Lebanon; those familiar with the Oslo process know that it is perilous to let Israel set its own timetable.

Still, the main goal of the United States and even of Israel, the insertion of a new international armed force, staffed heavily by NATO countries, with a mandate to fight a counterinsurgency against Hizbullah, has not been achieved. There won’t even be a new peacekeeping force; the resolution authorizes only an increase in the size of the existing force, UNIFIL. Unless the United States engineers a total changing of the command structure and composition of UNIFIL, this is a huge blow. UNIFIL has been ignored, treated with contempt, and fired on repeatedly by Israel for almost 30 years now; it’s unlikely in the extreme that it will cooperate in using armed force to achieve Israeli objectives n Lebanon. Although the resolution significantly broadens UNIFIL’s mandate, since it remains under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, regarding peacekeeping, rather Chapter VII, which regulates armed conflict, it’s likely that UNIFIL’s commanders will still interpret their mandate narrowly.

Although the moderation of these goals owes in part to the resistance of the Arab governments, mediated through Jacques Chirac, it owes mainly to all parties’ recognition of the fact that Hizbullah cannot be beaten so easily and that they have no desire to waste their lives trying to do what the IDF failed at. Although the resolution repeats earlier calls for the disarmament of “all militias,” meaning Hizbullah, it’s hard to imagine that anyone takes this seriously. It’s rare that victorious armies allow themselves to be disarmed.

In political terms, the same dynamic holds. Hassan Nasrallah has emerged as the greatest Arab hero since Nasser; sales of Nasrallah posters in Palestine have eclipsed traditional favorites like Che, Fidel, Yasser Arafat, and Jesus. In Lebanon, the government is attempting to reassert its authority, but it now confronts a general situation of dual power and dual legitimacy. The government holds some legitimacy because it was elected (although Lebanese elections are not quite democratic; through the sectarian power-sharing accord, they give each Christian effectively one and a half times the vote of each Muslim – and the Shi’a, the largest group now, are not allowed to hold either of the important executive positions, President or Prime Minister); on the other hand, the government cannot defend the country’s borders and didn’t even try during this war. Hizbullah’s claim to be the defenders of Lebanon is now vindicated; this is the basis of the opinion poll showing 87% of Lebanese support Hizbullah now.

On the flip side, Israel is a loser in many ways. The Olmert-Peretz government has shown its inhumanity and its incompetence as stunningly as the Bush administration in Iraq; unlike the Bush administration, it is much more likely to collapse, necessitating a political realignment.

Once again, the extreme dependence of Israel on the United States in order to play its role as a regional hegemon has been highlighted. Israel can defend itself if threatened; its hundreds of nuclear missiles, if nothing else, assure that. But it cannot go committing aggression against other countries without heavy U.S. support. First, it doesn’t have a large enough population to occupy any sizeable amount of land in a sovereign nation with a hostile population. Second, in a modern war like the one against Lebanon, with the kind of rules of engagement that modern idea of legitimacy require, Israel cannot fight for more than a few weeks without getting massive resupplies of precision munitions from the United States. Israel seems to want to be the Prussia of the Middle East, but Prussia manufactured its own arms. This is in addition, of course, to the good offices of the United States in running diplomatic interference, making sure Russia doesn’t cut off oil supplies to Israel, etc.

Perhaps most important, the mystique of Israeli supremacy has been shattered. This has potentially profound repercussions from Palestine to Washington. Indeed, numerous hawks, including some neoconservatives have written hectoring op-eds telling the Israelis that their importance to the United States is predicated on the idea that they are a military asset, and that they might just be tossed aside if they fail to deliver. The threats are ridiculously overblown, of course; it’s hard to imagine what could prompt Congress to cut off military aid to Israel. Still, they indicate the potentiality of a new mood in Washington.

It’s important, however, that this not be overblown. Israel still has overpowering military superiority and the steadfast support of the empire. If it chooses to learn purely militaristic lessons from this tactical defeat, it can quite easily equip itself to do better next time. In the next segment, I’ll look at prospects for the future, what should come out of this, and what is likely to.

Posted at 10:48 am

August 7, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Lamont and Democracy

On Tuesday, Connecticut Democrats will decide whether to back incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman or his upstart challenger Ned Lamont in the midterm elections. Even though Lieberman has 18 years as a senator, was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, and has faithfully served the elite of this wealthiest state of the union for much of his life, and even though Lamont has no significant political experience, polls show Lamont with a commanding lead. Although polls indicate that Lieberman would win the general election running as an independent, the negative “Joementum” generated by a primary loss may well alter those numbers.

Few issues have generated more news coverage and chatter among the chattering classes. And nothing in a long time has come close to generating this much consternation in the untouchable aristocracy known as the U.S. Senate.

On CSPAN, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said that the primary posed the question, “Can a Democrat who disagrees with his party’s position – by and large – on the war prevail in a closely fought primary? His take: “I hope that Joe does prevail. … If … not, the question will be asked for other races down the road, what impact does your position on the war have?”

Now, Durbin is not the smug, preening mandarin that Lieberman is. By Democratic senatorial standards, he’s pretty decent. And yet his comment – unthinkingly, to be sure – points up not only the stunningly undemocratic attitudes of American politicians but also the stunningly undemocratic nature of our polity.

The groundswell of opposition to Lieberman derives from his stance on the Iraq war. He’s gone the despicable Democratic leadership one better and appointed himself apologist for the Bush administration, warning Democrats that “we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” In other words, don’t criticize the administration. His defense of the occupation is even more surreal than the administration’s; in the Wall Street Journal last year, he wrote that the war was a matter of 27 million Iraqis versus “10,000 terrorists.”

The threat to Lieberman may seem normal to you, the way politics works in a democracy, but Durbin knows better and so should you. Even though he doesn’t agree with Lieberman on the war, Durbin knows subjecting senators to accountability based on their positions is a much bigger issue.

As Prof. Robert Johnson documents in an article for the History News Network, in the last 46 years only 19 incumbent senators have lost their party’s primary. Eliminate 5 who were appointed or won special elections, four who lost because of advanced age or scandals, and three who never established a party base of support, and you’re left with 7. 3 lost because of the rapidly growing conservatism of the Republican Party. Ernst Gruening lost because of his extreme radicalism (he was one of 2 senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution) and Ralph Yarborough lost because he was far too liberal for Texas and because LBJ maneuvered against him. There are only two other cases in 46 years of incumbents losing their party’s nomination because they were not left enough. In one case, the issue was Vietnam; in the other, the Clarence Thomas confirmation.

It’s well-documented and understood by political scientists that the vast majority of voters don’t vote on the issues. Often, they have little idea of how their candidate stands on the issues; in 2004, 53% of Bush voters thought he favored the International Criminal Court and 69% the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If voters did focus more on the issues, it’s doubtful that politicians would spend tens of millions of dollars on idiotic, content-less ads full of misleading sound-bites.

Lamont is no prize as a candidate. It’s not clear he really knows where he stands, although it will certainly be well to the left of Lieberman. It doesn’t matter. As Peter Urban wrote in the Connecticut Post, Bush may just have brought democracy to Connecticut. The example of Connecticut might then set off a democratic revolution throughout the United States.

Posted at 10:34 am
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