The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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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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December 27, 2004

Thinking Beyond the Comfort Zone -- Polls

Here's my latest radio commentary for Uprising:

To me, there’s only one good thing that can come out of the shattering defeat we all suffered on November 2. That is a recognition that so badly have the left, the antiwar movement, progressives of any stripe failed that we must change the way we do things in its entirety. And so I continue beyond the comfort zone.

One change: the left must come to terms with American public opinion, and, in particular, with polls. Too often people confuse the descriptive with the normative; if a poll says, for example, that a majority of Americans favor continuing the occupation of Iraq (as all recent polls do), activists want to contest the results. The most common way is to contest the methodology: “How can a poll of 1000 people represent the views of 300 million?” Curiously, when polls go the other way, activists often take them as absolute signs that the people are with them.

Much poll skepticism is unwarranted. The claim that polls accurately represent public opinion is based on two things. First, an assumption that the population is being randomly sampled. Second, simple mathematical analysis. If , say you have polled 1000 people, randomly selected, 19 times out of 20, you will get within 3% of the numbers you would get if you had asked the whole country. In fact, polls do have systematic errors, like the fact that they don’t usually reach people without phones, and those can throw off results by a few percent; but there’s really no chance that polls, as currently conducted, significantly misrepresent the answers of the entire country to the particular set of questions asked.

This is not the same as the views of the entire country, since obviously a great deal depends on how questions are phrased, which questions are asked and which aren’t. This is why you should always read the original questions when looking at poll results.

Given all of those caveats, it’s still true that understanding and interpreting poll results is more useful to an activist than denying them. Let me share with you results of the Communications Omnibus Survey, funded by the Media and Society Research Group at Cornell. It first came to my attention because of an AP story reporting that in this poll, 44% of respondents favored some form of restriction of civil liberties for Muslims.

The poll actually contains some even more amazing results. Only 63% of respondents felt that people should be allowed to criticize government policies in times of war or crisis, and only 60% felt that people should be allowed to protest. 33% believed the media should not cover protests and 31% that it shouldn’t report criticisms. These numbers fly in the face of any comfortable suppositions about Americans and their respect for individual freedom or for informed policy debate in a democracy. Not much over half of people even believe they should be legally allowed, let alone engaged in.

Other striking statistics: Although 70% favored, somewhat or strongly, the so-called “war on terrorism,” only 42% believe its primary purpose is protecting the United States from attack. 22%, more than one in five people, believe the primary purpose is controlling Middle East oil. Most interesting, of that 22%, 43% still favored the war on terrorism – with a margin of error of close to 8%.

Since those 22% are likely to be of the more oppositional sort of people, it’s entirely plausible that even if the whole American public knew that control of Middle East oil and U.S. imperial hegemony is the primary reason, half or more might still support the “war on terrorism.”

That’s the kind of thing you need to know when you’re doing activism with an eye toward mass mobilization and major policy victories, like, say, ending the occupation. There’s no need to pander to that kind of opinion, but you should be aware of its existence and it should inform your strategies.

We need more information like this; in fact, one of our most crying needs on the left is to fund and design our own polls and focus groups. Liberal organizations like MoveOn do this, but it’s in the service of the Democratic Party; we need to do it in service of a genuine left agenda.

Posted at 11:17 am
December 21, 2004

More on the Iraqi Resistance

The Boston Globe recently ran a pretty good op-ed, titled "Why elections won't quell Iraq resistance," by Molly Bingham, a photographer who spent about nine or ten months in Iraq researching the resistance. She focuses on dispelling what she considers to be four myths about the resistance:
  • The resistance only began after months of America "botching" the occupation.
  • The resistance in Iraq is made up of Ba'athi dead enders, regime loyalists, common criminals, Islamic extremists, and driven by a vast number of foreigners with contacts to Al Qaeda.
  • The Iraqi resistance is a monolithic, tightly organized structure with a leadership that can be obliterated and a fixed number of fighters who can be eliminated.
  • Nationwide elections will provide Iraq with a legitimate government, and the violence in the country will subside significantly.
As she points out, for example, of 15 fighters that she talked to in depth, all but three had decided to join the resistance within days of the April 9 fall of Saddam. This is not indicative of the overall percentages; these were all people in Aadhamiyah, the most pro-Saddam area of Baghdad. It is indicative of the early phase of the resistance, which emerged in the summer of 2003. Most interesting was her claim that only one of them was on active military duty; this certainly suggests a different picture than was painted in those early days.

I think it's fairly clear that she's right about these myths. Regarding the second, as she says, although Ba'athists, etc., are to be found in the resistance, quite probably the significant majority of fighters are "ordinary" Iraqis who had no clear affiliations before the occupation began.

As I've written already, I disagree with her somewhat about the effect of the Fallujah assault, although there's a real need to put various different pieces of that analysis together to get a comprehensive picture.

If you're looking for amusement, you could check this out: One of my readers posted my latest radio commentary on a bulletin board about the Iraq war hosted in Russia (it seems to be a lineal descendant of a website that got very famous when it posted ridiculous military reports during the initial invasion of Iraq, all of which suggested that the United States was suffering far more in the way of losses than it was, supposedly based on Russian military intelligence). You can read the comments in response here.

Posted at 2:27 pm
December 20, 2004

Thinking Beyond the Comfort Zone: Failures of the Iraqi Resistance

Here's my latest commentary for Uprising Radio:

Here’s the second of my series on Thinking Beyond the Comfort Zone. The first evaluated the latest assault on Fallujah as a victory for the United States. Here I’ll analyze one of the reasons for that victory -- the politics of the Iraqi resistance.

There are several attitudes toward the resistance that one finds among the antiwar left:

1. Reject them and express support for marginal secular “civil society” groups that oppose the occupation.
2. Express unconditional adulation for them as opponents of U.S. imperialism.
3. Ignore them as much as possible while expressing opposition to the occupation.

The third option seems most common. But hiding our heads in the sand hardly helps to create an informed left that understands the world in order to change it.

It’s long been my evaluation that most of the Iraqi armed resistance has virtually no political program. Parts of it are extremely Islamist and so have an agenda of beating wine-sellers and forcing women, whether Muslim or not, to wear the hijab; parts of it, seemingly foreign in inspiration but only partly foreign in composition, have the goal of killing Shi’a. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has the stated goal of introducing an Islamic theocracy. Most of the resistance has the goal of driving the foreign occupiers out; other parts have the goal of keeping them bogged down in Iraq. Clearly, those whose primary goal is sectarian war of Shi’a against Sunni are helping the occupation, since the growing gulf between the two communities is the primary political asset the occupiers have.

But beyond these basic elements, there is no larger program. Gerard Chaliand, chronicler of revolutionary guerrilla movements around the world, wrote of the Afghan mujaheddin in 1980 that they were the only guerrillas he had seen with no social programs – no village chicken cooperative, no literacy program, etc. The Iraqi resistance is the same, very much unlike Hamas or Hezbollah.

Ever since the events of April, it’s been my analysis that the best strategy for the U.S. military to defeat the resistance is not to fight them. When reacting to a U.S. assault, they occasionally gain a clear political purpose, but when the assault is over that purpose is quickly lost.

Such a way of thinking is so utterly foreign to the U.S. military that there was no way it would be adopted consciously. But it was adopted in Fallujah by accident. After the failure of the April assault, the Bush administration wanted to wait until after the elections– and so we saw six months of the Islamic Republic of Fallujah. During this time, many people grew heartily tired of the dictatorial ways of much of the resistance.

Most of all, the natives got to see that being ruled by the mujaheddin, even though the majority were also indigenous to the town, did nothing for them. They didn’t want the November assault, but they did desert the town in droves; very much unlike April, the majority of Fallujans did not identify with the resistance.

Another great failure of the Sunni-based resistance is that it has not unequivocally condemned the massive sectarian anti-Shi’a violence being done by groups like Zarqawi’s, the latest incident being bombings in the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala killing over 60.

Any guerrilla war of a Third World people against a First World military force is primarily a political battle. Right now in Iraq, due in part to its massive political deficiencies, the resistance cannot win. Whether the United States can win is still an open question.

In order for resistance to the occupation to have any chance, it must first renounce sectarian violence and pointless terrorism like kidnapping and killing random foreigners, in order to build some basis for Iraqi unity. Second, it must recognize that the current struggle has no way to involve the ordinary Iraqi; indeed, most Shi’a are now being told by Sistani that the best way to oppose the occupation is to vote in the election. Mass action, like the gatherings that broke through the barricades around Fallujah in April or the protest last February that forced the United States to agree to elections, are an essential component of a serious strategy to end the occupation.

Posted at 9:42 am
December 19, 2004

Houston, We Have a Problem

One of the stranger dramas of the past year seems now to have played out in full. I've written before about the Russian government's targeting of Yukos, the oil and gas giant, and in particular the seeming plans for re-nationalization of one of its major operations, Yukanskneftegaz.

The plan was to have Yukanskneftegaz sold in a special invitation-only auction to the state-owned Gazprom for $8.6 billion, apparently far below the market price. Instead, reports the Financial Times, a mystery company, Baikal Finance, which was registered only a few weeks ago, won with a bid of $9.3 billion. Presumably this signals a pure statist-crony-capitalist reacquisition, by a group of people with the right political connections, as opposed to a more genuine renationalization. It's hard to know what else it might be -- there's no way a highly interventionist Russian state would allow such an important strategic asset to be sold off to a random front group.

Gazprom never made a bid.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recent drama was an odd attempt from the United States to exercise the kind of "soft power" of which some critics of the Bush administration are so enamored.

On Thursday, Judge Letitia Clark of a bankruptcy court in Houston, Texas, put a temporary hold on the auction. To those of us who are still naive about the new world order, this would seem bizarre in the extreme -- some judge in Houston keeping the Russian government from auctioning a Russian company seized because of failure to pay taxes to the Russian government. The reasoning apparently is that the seizure and auction would harm U.S. investors -- as, of course, might any change in legislation by a sovereign government.

Well, this ruling was ignored by the Russian government, but the power of the United States hardly ends there. As a result of that ruling, a consortium of Western banks, including Deutsche Bank, ABN Amro, BNP Paribas, and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, froze some $10-13 billion that it had lent Gazprom for its bid.

I don't know whether this has anything to do with Gazprom's not bidding -- as I mention above, the circumstances of Baikal Finance seem fishy in the extreme -- but it's entirely possible.

This is a level beyond messing with another country's laws because of, say, WTO regulations. Those are based at least on a country's being signatory to a treaty. This is based purely on a U.S. court's absurd arrogation to itself of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Posted at 8:34 pm
December 18, 2004

Sunny Days Ahead

The front page of today's issue of Milliyet, one of Turkey's biggest dailies, contains one of those historical ironies in which the 21st century is so rich. The main topic is the talks on the next stage in Turkey's decades-long quest to join the European Union. Right at the top, it says "Türkiye, uzun inci yolda tarihinin en önemli eşiğini aşti. Ve Avrupa Birliği kapıları açıldı." Which means, "Turkey has crossed the most important threshold in its long, narrow path. And the doors to the European Union have opened."

Now, this is, to say the least, a bit of an exaggeration. Turkey faces more opposition to even the thought of eventual membership than all other prospective members combined have to their actual admission.

But what caught my attention was the phrase right below this on the front page -- "Güzel günler göreceğiz çocuklar. Günesli günler göreceğiz." This just means, "We will see beautiful days, children. We'll see sunny days." But what's interesting is that, as any literate Turk knows, these words were written by Nazim Hikmet, universally acknowledged as the most important modern Turkish poet.

Nazim Hikmet was also a lifelong communist and revolutionary. In 1938, the Turkish state sentenced him to prison for 28 years for anti-fascist activities (his second jail term), and he was released in 1950 after an international campaign to free him.

Hikmet was writing these words about what he and so many others thought would be the creation of a new and better world, not about Turkey's entering the EU.

In 1973, when Henry Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize, the singer and songwriter Tom Lehrer proclaimed the death of irony. In particular, he said that political satire had become obsolete, an idea that, I must say, has occurred to me once or twice over the last three plus years.

But Lehrer was wrong about the death of irony, as anybody who has seen this "war on terrorism," sold to us by liberals as a crusade for democracy, secularism, and the values of the Enlightenment, that has involved wholesale abandonment of international law, massive bombing of civilian areas, declarations that doctors are circulating enemy propaganda if they tally casualties, fervidly revivalist religious ceremonies in prelude to invasions, sadistic and pornographic torture, and so much more, carried out by the very elements of our society that have entirely rejected the Enlightenment, democracy, and secularism.

When Che Guevara is being used to sell Smirnoff vodka, why not use Nazim Hikmet to sell integration into the EU?

Posted at 7:45 pm
December 16, 2004

The Mote in Thine Own Eye

A propos of the U.N. Oil for Food scandal so conveniently being investigated right now when the United States needs Kofi Annan's support (and needs everyone to forget about the obvious fact that there should be a full international investigation into the Fallujah massacre), here's a thought:

You know how the right wing is always portraying the "U.N." (meaning, presumably, the U.N. Secretariat) as a corrupt, unaccountable bureaucracy and then by extension touting the U.S. government as the only legitimate international authority?

Well, let's do a little comparison. After 9/11, nobody in the U.S. government (yes, NOBODY) has been fired for negligence, incompetence, or even to show that "business as usual" would not be tolerated any more. For a year, the Bush administration resisted even appointing a commission to investigate failures that went into the attacks, and did only when it was forced to by mounting public pressure led by families of 9/11 victims. And then, it denied the commission access to crucial information, underfunded it dramatically, tried to withhold witnesses, attempted to prevent an extension so that it could finish its investigation, and generally did everything possible to torpedo the commission.

After the August 19, 2003, bombing of the headquarters of the U.N.'s Iraq mission, which killed 22 people including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, Kofi Annan started an investigation and appointed a commission in November of that year, that came out with a report in March 2004. On the basis of that report, Annan fired security chief Tun Myat, demoted assistant secretary-general Ramiro Lopes de Silva and transferred him to a job with no security-related component, and charged Paul Aghadjanian and Pa Momodou Sinyan with misconduct and brought them before a disciplinary panel. All of this even though it was the United States as the occupying power that was primarily responsible for providing security.

After the initial claims about U.N. complicity in Iraq's attempts to manipulate the Oil for Food system surfaced, Annan moved quickly to appoint a panel to investigate the claims, headed by Paul Volcker, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Reagan and likely to have his primary allegiance to the U.S. government and not to the U.N. secretariat. If charges are substantiated, there's little doubt that guilty people will face serious consequences.

Now, in its administration of Iraq, the CPA was involved in corruption and misallocation of Iraqi revenues on a scale far greater than any U.N. officials could have dreamed of. The International Advisory and Monitoring Board for Iraq, created by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483, did an audit in which it found numerous "control weaknesses" from accounting procedures to contracts awarded with insufficient competition to, ominously, a lack of metering of Iraqi oil production (so we'll never know how much oil might have been skimmed off the top for other purposes than being deposited in the Development Fund for Iraq). Misappropriation and misallocation of Iraq's money by the CPA runs into the billions of dollars. And this is on top of the fact that the CPA repeatedly used Iraq's oil revenues to award contracts to U.S. firms that should have been paid for out of the U.S. congressional allocation (see here and here).

Some of the smaller crimes are being investigated internally, although there's virtually no news coverage of this. But nobody high up in the CPA has been charged with any crime related to this massive defrauding of the Iraqi people.

It is actually true that the U.N. bureaucracy is fairly corrupt and unaccountable. But it can't even hope to match the U.S. military-industrial complex in that.

Posted at 11:48 am
December 14, 2004

Joy Gordon on U.N. Oil-for-Food 'Scandal'

Joy Gordon, author of the best article on the remarkably punitive way in which the United States administered the Oil for Food program (Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction), has written another excellent article on the current largely right-wing-generated Oil for Food scandal.

It was posted on the Web about a month ago (and is in the December 6 issue of The Nation), but I somehow missed it when it came out.

Gordon on the kickbacks:
The much-vaunted kickbacks on import contracts also turn out to be not quite as advertised. Saddam, the claim goes, inflated the price of import contracts by 5 to 10 percent, then received the difference in cash from the contractors. Thousands of contracts, stretching over years, were involved; how could the UN have been so incompetent as not to notice? In fact, prices inflated by only 5 or 10 percent were difficult to detect precisely because the amounts were so small and often within the normal range of market prices. But when pricing irregularities were large enough that they might have indicated kickbacks, the UN staff did notice. On more than seventy occasions, the staff brought these to the attention of the 661 Committee, the Security Council body charged with implementing the sanctions. On no occasion did the United States block or delay the contracts to prevent the kickbacks from occurring. Although the United States, citing security concerns, blocked billions of dollars of humanitarian contracts--$5 billion were on hold as of July 2002--it never took action to stop kickbacks, even when they were obvious and well documented.
Thanks to Prairie Weather for the tip.

 Posted at 5:43 pm
December 14, 2004

A Different Sort of Spanish Republican

The Times reports that, according to Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero, before leaving office in April the Aznar administration erased all records related to the Madrid bombings:
"There was not a single paper, not a single piece of data in computer form or on paper, absolutely nothing in the executive offices of the presidency because there was a massive erasing," he said during more than 14 hours of testimony before the parliamentary commission investigating the attacks.
The erasure was performed by a private company, because of course corporations always perform tasks better than the government, and the bill for 1200 euros was left behind.

Of course, we already know that the Aznar government engaged in a massive campaign to lie about the attacks and place the blame on ETA rather than an Islamist jihadi group, even when the idea was ludicrous from the beginning to anyone familiar with ETA's MO and that of al-Qaeda-like groups.

What is interesting about both of these things is the following. Aznar's Popular Party seems to be just like the Republican Party of Bush the Younger in the way it deviates from business as usual. Instead of the standard thinking along the lines of "We face a threat from terrorists, so we should make sure our successors have access to all the information we have, even if they are across the aisle from us," instead they think of the other side as being just as much of an enemy as the terrorists. And thus the other side become just as much a target in the information war that was declared at the same time as the "war on terrorism."

Posted at 1:39 pm
December 13, 2004

Global Warming, the Kyoto Protocol, and Hope for the Future

Here is today's radio commentary for Uprising Radio:

For once, I’m going to talk about good news, in an unexpected area. Most American progressive activists seem to have given up any hope on global warming. The Christian apocalypticism we see working through every day’s events, especially since 9/11, is mirrored on the left by an environmental apocalypticism. Many seem to assume that whatever political battles we might fight in the short term, in 30 or 40 or 100 years the jig will be up for the planet and for humanity. And so, partly because of that, there is remarkably little political activism on this issue of paramount importance.

Of course, global warming is an overwhelming threat and fully addressing it would require transformation of the entire planet’s industrial base and mode of energy production. And some of the damage that has already been done and that will accumulate over the next few decades will be difficult or impossible to undo.

And, in fact, the United States is in complete denial over this issue, to the point that global warming through human-produced carbon emissions is generally presented, in the mainstream media, as a debatable hypothesis, and on Fox News as left-wing hysteria. The current administration’s plan on global warming has included denying it exists, censoring sections dealing with the threat out of government reports, and even shamelessly promulgating a fatuous new standard – that what should be measured is not carbon emissions but carbon emission divided by GNP, as if the planet cares about our artificial conventions about the value of various pieces of paper.

But there is political hope on this issue, and a great deal of it, precisely because, contrary to how it sometimes seems, the United States is not the whole world. Delegates from over 190 countries have gathered in Buenos Aires to celebrate the enactment of the Kyoto Protocol. Ratified by 130 countries and international blocs, its recent ratification by Russia pushed it over the threshold so that it will go into effect on February 16, 2005.

Even though United States, in this as in so much else, is a rogue state (in 1997, under Clinton, Kyoto was unanimously rejected by the Senate), when Kyoto does go into effect it will affect U.S. corporations. Du Pont, for example, has 40% of its production and 50% of its sales outside the United States; once those are subject to Kyoto restrictions, there will be increasing incentive to retool the rest of their operations the same way. And even our country is not a complete area of darkness; California will be regulating carbon emissions from automobiles.

Not to overstate; Kyoto is a mere band-aid. It requires, for example, that the United States’ emissions in 2012 be 7% lower than its 1990 emissions; not exactly earth-shattering stuff.

The need to go much further is recognized throughout the European Union and in many Third World countries, especially China, which, for example, reduced emissions by 19% between 1997 and 2000 even while undergoing massive economic growth.

In going further, one supposed weakness is actually a strength. The protocol does not regulate the emissions of Third World countries. And, notwithstanding China’s example, those emissions are substantial, although the First World still has the lion’s share and the U.S. the lion’s share of that. There will be no solution of the global warming problem without at least taming the growth in Third World emissions.

The First World will have to make significant concessions in order to gain consent of the Third World. Those concessions should include not just transfer of green technologies but also large indemnities paid for excessive First World carbon emissions historically and for those continuing while the slow process of reduction begins.

So far, the effects of global warming have hit Third World countries – quite severely, with effects like the massive drought in southern and eastern Africa in 2002. But there are numerous scenarios, including catastrophic climate change, in which there is a credible threat of massive environmental consequences in the First World even in the medium term.

At some point soon, even U.S. politicians will be forced to recognize the threat and try to catch up with the rest of the world in addressing it – if we create the necessary pressure.

Posted at 10:58 am
December 10, 2004

Strange Bedfellows -- Annan and the Bush Administration

Here's an interesting chronology of events:
  • October 30. Kofi Annan sends a letter to the governments of the United States, Britain, and Iraq warning against an assault on Fallujah.
  • November 8. The assault on Fallujah is begun, and carried out in a way that is far beyond what Kofi Annan likely imagined -- declaring parts of the city a "free-fire" zone, effectively declaring all "military-age males" to be enemies, denying access to the Iraqi Red Crescent for weeks after the assault, and much more. Not a peep is heard out of the U.N.
  • November 26. It is learned that Kojo Annan's lawyer (Kojo is Kofi's son) has informed the Volcker panel (appointed by Kofi Annan to look into allegations that the U.N. was involved in attempts by the Iraqi government to manipulate the Oil for Food program) that he continued to receive payments from Cotecna, a Swiss firm that was involved in oversight of the OFF program, through February 2004.
  • December 1. Sen. Norm Coleman, chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has been pursuing its own parallel investigation into the same claims, writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for Annan to resign.
  • December 9. The Bush administration, through outgoing U.N. Ambassador John Danforth, issues a public statement backing Annan and saying it does not want him to resign.
Now, it's not clear how much this timing was or could be arranged. The Volcker investigation has been going on for months and Kojo Annan has been implicated from the beginning.

Still, one thing seems pretty clear to me. The threat hanging over Kofi Annan's head has been effectively used to keep him from saying anything more about Fallujah. It's not simply a matter of decrying abuses already committed; he could at least call for the Iraqi Red Crescent to be allowed back in, some more provision to be made for refugees, or some investigation to be made. But he hasn't.

The United States, which still needs Kofi Annan and the U.N. to help it pretend that the scheduled January 30 elections will mean something, is reciprocating by supporting Annan -- for now.

Posted at 4:57 pm
December 6, 2004

Radio Commentary -- The Defense Science Board and the "War on Terrorism"

Some of you may have read the stories about the Defense Science Board report on Strategic Communication, released (very quietly) on their website on the day before Thanksgiving (a traditional way to help bury a story is to put it out late on a Friday -- or a Wednesday, if the next day is Thanksgiving).

That and the two possible paths forward in the "war on terrorism" are the subject ot today's radio commentary.

I also noticed that I hadn't posted my November 15 commentary, Fallujah and the Geneva Convention, or my November 22 commentary, Democracy in Iraq.

Posted at 11:02 am
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