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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 27, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- The Real Iraq-Vietnam Analogy

It’s not very interesting to take apart the latest bizarre rhetorical gambit from the White House – analogizing Iraq to Vietnam in order, strangely, to argue against withdrawal, on the grounds that allegedly premature withdrawal in 1975 led to bloodbaths in Vietnam and Cambodia and that the same thing could happen in Iraq.

There was, of course, no bloodbath in Vietnam after the North Vietnamese victory – or if you want to term the reprisals after an utterly wrenching 25-year conflict so, then they constituted a bloodbath on the order of the carnage wrought by the United States in perhaps a month of the war. They were also of a similar order to the executions of an estimated 10,000 collaborators and suspected collaborators in France after its liberation in World War 2 – and the Nazi occupation of France was nothing compared to the U.S. occupation of Vietnam, even if you include the killing of close to 100,000 French Jews.

The bloodbath in Cambodia, of course, had nothing to do with U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and a great deal to do with the savage bombing in the first half of the 1970’s that probably killed several hundred thousand Cambodians and drove many others into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.

And indeed it was not the wonderful West but the Vietnamese haters of freedom who liberated the Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide. In fact, afterward, because of our vicious refusal to forgive Vietnam for the wrongs we had done it, we supported the Khmer Rouge. That last, somehow, in all the moral posturing of cruise-missile liberals, we never quite hear. It’s as if we constantly justified our own aggression by invoking the evil of the Nazis and the spectre of Munich even though we worked with Nazis and even helped them into positions of power after the genocide they committed – oh, wait, we did that too.

What’s particularly strange about the argument is that the case for a bloodbath in Iraq after the U.S. leaves is far stronger than the nonexistent case for a bloodbath that didn’t happen in Vietnam. After all, there’s already a bloodbath in Iraq.

Anyway, refutations of Bush’s absurd argument have been pouring in from journalists, historians, and virtually anyone with functioning brain-cells and a laptop.

Although for the most part they are ably done, soberly and sensibly reasoned, reading them my first reaction is to say that I agree with Bush: Iraq is almost exactly the same as Vietnam, in one crucial way that all the commentariat have missed – and that Bush epitomizes in his own person.

With Vietnam, we struggled hard and mostly successfully as a nation to make sure we didn’t learn the true lessons of the war. And with Iraq, we are on track to the same achievement, although this time it seems the path will be much easier.

This is a similarity that George Bush, a man who seemingly has never learned anything from anything or anyone in his entire life, is well positioned to appreciate.

It is true that the mainstream of the intelligentsia did learn some things from Vietnam and some even from Iraq. For example, I have recently found out that we know now that Vietnam was not, in fact, a central front in the cold war – much as we apparently learned that Iraq is not the central front in the war on terror.

What this means I cannot imagine. Maybe the cold war and the war on terror are actually ethereal entities, abstract Platonic Forms that are not to be sullied by contact with reality.

Perhaps we could have learned instead that the cold war and the war on terror were not just mis-executed but misconceived?

We have apparently learned, from both of these wars, that America’s legendary good intentions are apparently not enough to ensure a good outcome.

Perhaps we could have learned instead that it’s very easy to assume you have good intentions, but that, on close examination, it often turns out that you really don’t?

Although respectable opinion will have nothing to do with Bush’s analogy, the fact that he could even dream of making it, what to speak of the fact that almost all of the refutations were based on pragmatic rather than moral arguments, speaks to a continuing moral idiocy with regard to Vietnam – and a lot of other things -- that spreads far beyond the revolting right wing.

And Bush the moral idiot was not wrong about that.

Posted at 5:10 am

August 20, 2007

More Sturm und Drang with Iran

The Bush administration keeps upping the ante with Iran. The latest development is new claims that, in addition to merely providing Shi’a militias with weapons (in particular, Explosively Formed Penetrators, a highly effective kind of IED), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards actually have 50 of their members inside Iraq, training militiamen; simultaneously, there’s a move to officially declare the Revolutionary Guards terrorist organization. Other members of the State Department’s list are at least officially non-state actors; the Revolutionary Guards are part of the Iranian military.

A wide array of insiders and experts expects at least some military action against Iran. Personally, I still don’t believe it will happen, though at times attempting a prediction seems like an exercise in abnormal psychology. Even massive airstrikes can’t really be expected to accomplish anything beyond provoking a nationalistic rally round the flag reaction from the Iranian people. Then again, Bush’s recent rhetoric toward the Iranian people shows a complete lack of understanding of them and of anything else; it would be laughable, if there weren’t the threat of violence behind it.

But prognostication is not my subject today. Neither is speculation about what Iran is actually doing in Iraq or the evidence for administration claims. In the case of Iraqi WMD, it was clear even before the war that similar claims were nonsense; you could start with common sense, go to reports of past UN weapons inspections, and conclude with the utter lack of findings from renewed inspections. Here, there’s just no evidence except the claims of the military, which have, of course, no credibility; although there’s no reason to take their word for anything, there’s also no basis on which to say that they’re wrong.

Personally, I would consider it miraculous if Iran was not interfering in Iraq, although I imagine they’re choosing the mode of interfering carefully. They cooperated with the United States after 9/11, sharing information and helping to bring down the Taliban; their reward was to be included in the “axis of evil.” They have legitimate interests in the fate of Iraq and especially of its Shi’a, and longstanding ties to pretty much all of the key political components of the Iraqi government, both Shi’a and Kurdish.

What I want to do is question the facile assumption that if U.S. government claims are true they constitute a casus belli.

First of all, of course, if the Revolutionary Guards are helping militias fight the U.S. military in Iraq, there is no stretch of the imagination by which this is terrorism, any more than any of the insurgency’s action against military targets.

Second, opportunistically stirring the pot once a country has foolishly committed itself to a military occupation is common practice. During the Algerian Revolution, Tunisia gave aid and sanctuary to the FLN, allowing it to develop and train an army there, but even the French, bloody as their counterinsurgency in Algeria was, never declared Tunisia a belligerent.

In 1979, the United States took its opportunity to meddle in Afghanistan, provoking a Soviet invasion. Then, over the course of the 1980’s, it dramatically increased its role, arming, training, and practically creating some of the mujaheddin militias that fought the Soviet Army, committed acts of sabotage and terrorism, and then tore the country apart after the Soviets left.

By the logic being displayed now with respect to Iran, it would have been perfectly legitimate for the Soviet Union to start bombing the United States. And U.S. meddling in Afghanistan then, unlike putative Iranian meddling in Iraq now, was wholly irresponsible and apolitical; they saw a chance to “kill Russians” and they took it, without the slightest thought for the consequence to Afghanistan. In contrast, Iran is backing the forces that make up the same Iraqi government the US purports to support, with the political aim of achieving long-term stability.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States provided funding, military equipment, and up-to-date operational intelligence to each side (though far more in total to Iraq); presumably, those were acts of war too and Iran and Iraq would both have been justified in bombing us?

It’s very unlikely that the Bush administration will assemble its so-called “evidence” and call in say Robert Gates to give the UN a dog-and-pony show like Colin Powell did; even if they do, there’s no reason to support war. One of the concomitants of a long-term occupation of a country is that you make yourself vulnerable to meddling from its neighbors; deal with it.

Posted at 10:47 am

August 15, 2007

Indian Independence

Today's the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. It is also, tragically, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the largest refugee movement in history and of the Partition riots.

Well over 10 million people in Punjab and Bengal (the vast majority in Punjab) had to flee their homes and get to the other side of the line that had just been drawn through India -- Muslims going to the new country of Pakistan and Hindus going to what was left of India.

An atmosphere of sectarian hatred and violence had been whipped up by groups like the Hindu fascist RSS and the Muslim League, even well prior to the Partition. Added to the local incentives of people who saw an opportunity to steal others' land and property, it erupted in horrendous massacres, with Hindus and Sikhs pitted against Muslims. Often, people killed people who had been their neighbors for their whole lives.

Fuelled by a vicious cycle of revenge, exacerbated by an unusually brutal monsoon season, and spread far from the border by waves of refugees who had already suffered losses, the riots may have killed 500,000 people or even more.

The British, who had ruled in one way or another for 190 years, stood by and watched without lifting a finger. Their haste to be out of India, the casual drawing of borders without attention to what was actually on the ground, and a "if we have to give up India we don't give a shit what happens to it" mentality is largely responsible for the severity of the massacres, if not perhaps for the outbreak of violence per se.

Their colonial policies of divide et impera, of course, had much to do with sowing the seeds of the violence in the first place.

Despite the carnage and despite the fact that India is a desperately poor nation with almost nothing like a social safety net for the poor, India is still like paradise if compared with India under the British. At the time of independence, the life expectancy in India was 22 -- lower than it had been 100 years previously. Perhaps 30 million Indians died in famines under British rule -- orders of magnitude more than under Mughal rule before. Plus, Indians were treated as subhuman by arrogant foreigners.

So, despite it all, today is a day for celebration.

Interestingly, a few of the more erudite of the commentariat (like Slate's Fred Kaplan) have recently rediscovered the Partition and used it in the ongoing war to explain why we must stay in Iraq.

The reasoning is pretty straightforward. The British left India precipitously and the natives slaughtered each other; if the Americans leave Iraq precipitously, the natives will slaughter each other.

Interestingly, the Partition analogy doesn't come up when people discuss, say, partitioning Iraq. Perhaps this is because partitioning Iraq is still in the imperial mode of Doing Something to Exert Power, while withdrawal is not, and thus, unlike withdrawal, need not be criticized by invoking apocalyptic scenarios?

Similarly, no one mentions that India is better off, Partition and all, without the British.

India in 1947 and Iraq in 2007 could not be more different in almost every way, and it's not clear what this analogy is supposed to elucidate. Perhaps the biggest difference to me is that the Partition could have been done better, whereas I see little reason to believe this in the case of Iraq.

"Pacifying" parts of Iraq is meaningless, because it simply reflects a local shift in the balance of power, which will shift in a different direction once again when U.S. military units leave the area. "Standing up" the Iraqi army, far from being meaningless, is probably counterproductive, because it simply involves arming and training the actors in the ongoing civil war.

It is foolish to pretend that rapid U.S. withdrawal might not lead to an increase in violence; it is equally foolish to suggest, with or without spurious historical analogies, that keeping the U.S. there amounts to anything more than kicking the can down the road, while the death count climbs.

Posted at 4:05 pm

August 13, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Thoughts on Impeachment, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, commenting on impeachment, I pointed out two stumbling blocks in the way: one with regard to evidence and the other politics.

The massive scope of Bush’s crimes actually makes evidence harder to find; there is no prospect of finding semen stains or tapes of Bush discussing paying hush money. Having surveyed some of the books out there making the case for impeachment, at this point I think the legal case is weak; the supporting documentation they adduce includes things like the famed Downing Street memo, which would never hold up in a normal legal proceeding, especially when Richard Dearlove, on the stand, would presumably “clarify” the points into nonexistence. As prosecutor’s briefs, these books would certainly be good enough to indict a black man seen in the vicinity of a crime, but they could be a lot better done. I’d like to see a much more careful exegesis of legal culpability, especially on issues, like torture and wiretapping, where there is more of a “paper trail.”

As John Nichols points out in his book “The Genius of Impeachment,” however, impeachment/conviction is not a legal proceeding and was not seen as such by the founders. The majority of them were worried that the president might become a new king and saw impeachment as a major political way for the Congress to prevent this from happening. In fact, in the case of Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee established that the legal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard did not apply.

So, politically speaking, why are the Democrats not going forward? A month ago, Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report suggested in his commentary for Uprising that the reason is that the Democrats’ corporate masters don’t want stability to be imperiled by political upheavals and have so ordered their slaves.

Such explanations are common on the left; people often believe that greater insight is gained by tracing decisions to their putative economic roots. Sometimes, this is the case; but such explanations equally often obfuscate the matter. Tracing the Iraq war, as some have done, to a global crisis of capital accumulation just makes one ask, “Why Iraq? Why only after 9/11? Why an occupation instead of keeping the Ba’ath government in power with a favored general at the head? Since the crisis hasn’t been solved, does that mean we’ll be invading somewhere every year? And most important, what exactly was the mechanism that translated the one into the other?”

Corporate America didn’t keep the Republicans from impeaching Clinton over nothing; are the Republicans less beholden to corporate overlords than the Democrats? The economy did just fine too. This time around, there are probably plenty of CEOs and big stockholders who would be happy to see Bush impeached; and the rest are probably much more worried about the subprime mortgage crash than impeachment.

The explanation is the Democrats’ political calculations. They firmly believe they will get the presidency in 2009 and they won’t do anything to upset that; as John Conyers told a group of activists, that is more important to them even than ending the war.

Furthermore, even though impeachment is a political process, conviction boils down to two choices: either you control two-thirds of the Senate (and incidentally have public opinion with you) and you just do it, or you have such convincing “smoking guns” that enough of the opposition party is so scared of a public backlash that they break ranks.

The Democrats have none of this; they do, however, have the example of the impeachment and failed conviction of Bill Clinton, which he weathered with ease (and don’t forget that Al Gore won the next election).

Their recent capitulation on warrantless wiretapping, incidentally, seriously undercut the political imperative behind one of the key articles of impeachment.

The Democrats have no reason to budge from their position, no matter how many of their offices are occupied by activists. Unlike the Iraq war, this is an issue where the proper role of activists right now is public education and agitation – and more polls, designed to prod public opinion as much as to measure it. One and a half years is not enough time to actually build a public groundswell, push the Democrats, and get the whole process done, but building the case and the movement will at least help put limits on Hillary Clinton, a big fan of executive power.

Posted at 10:24 am

August 6, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Obama and Hiroshima

It’s that time of year again. People around the world commemorate the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by folding paper cranes or holding peace vigils; for myself, I write.

At times it has taken considerable ingenuity to connect Hiroshima to the politics of the day; this year, thanks to the Democratic presidential campaign, I could have left the job to a monkey or even a Fox News host.

Last week, Barack Obama made a bellicose speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in which he tried to defend himself against charges that he wasn’t hawkish enough by suggesting that he would radically change policy in the “war on terror” by his readiness to commit random, meaningless military strikes in Pakistan much like previous random, meaningless military strikes in Pakistan. Remember the attack on Zawahiri last year that killed over a dozen civilians?
A few days later, a reporter asked if he would be willing to use nuclear weapons against al-Qaeda and he responded, "I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance … involving civilians," then followed up by saying, "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."
Obama, for all his brightness, cleanness, and articulateness, really is unschooled in foreign policy and was clearly unprepared for the question. His initial gut response was the right answer, but he unfortunately worked his way away from it, first by adding the caveat about civilians, and then, in a gesture as cowardly as it was futile, attempting to take the entire statement back. Fortunately, a memo from his foreign policy adviser Samantha Power then locked him in and he has since avowed that initial response.

It’s sadly symptomatic of a sickness of U.S. politics, going way beyond Bush and his creepy cadres, that the answer that is obvious to anyone with a particle of sense – that the use of nuclear weapons except perhaps in the last extremity of potential annihilation or subjugation is absolutely immoral – is considered irresponsible and naïve by politicians and the foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Obama’s almost-statement apparently breaches a 40-year tradition that a responsible president should never take the nuclear option off the table even when ordering lunch.

Unfortunately, no sooner had Obama’s abortive outbreak of sanity occurred than other candidates jumped in to say a good word for insanity. He was attacked by Hillary Clinton, playing up her greater experience in picking spouses, and by Chris Dodd, who, apparently, is running for president.

It does not seem to have bothered them that their statements were on the same moral level as, say, asserting that we retain the option of rounding up small children and killing them.

One shouldn’t take this too literally. I am as certain as possible that none of these people would seriously contemplate using nuclear weapons. Indeed, even at the height of Chicken Little-ism about Bush’s nucular fantasies, I never believed that he would. Crossing that international “red line” would turn the entire world against us.

Still, it’s amazing to see that apparently the political mainstream has learned almost nothing from the past 7 years – don’t re-elect George W. Bush and don’t occupy an Arab country, but that’s it. The Democrats are going to “restore our credibility in the world” by suggesting that they might drop nuclear bombs on an ally?

Look at how ferociously Ahmadinejad of Iran has been excoriated for his ignorant, ridiculous remarks questioning the Nazi Holocaust. Had he also said he didn’t want to take the option of killing Jews off the table, perhaps his remarks would have measured up to Clinton’s and Dodd’s. Please don’t keep asking why “they” hate “us.”

Indeed, the troglodytic Tom Tancredo’s noises about attacking Mecca and Medina are frankly no more objectionable.

This sad inability to view nuclear weapons with the horror they deserve derives fundamentally from the propaganda story about Hiroshima being necessary to save millions of lives (this story conveniently forgets Nagasaki). The fact that the American public remains completely unaware of the actual history and continues to believe this cheap fabrication has and will have reverberating effects on us, the way we act in the world, and the way we are perceived.

As Gar Alperovitz says in the most resonant line from his invaluable books on the atomic bombing, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki – now – I think, have very little to do with the past. How we choose to deal with them, I believe, may have everything to do with the future.”

Posted at 10:26 am
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