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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
3. Ignore them as much as possible while expressing opposition to the
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Strange Bedfellows -- Annan
and the Bush Administration
Here's an interesting chronology of events:
October 30. Kofi Annan sends a
letter to the
the United States, Britain, and Iraq warning against an assault on
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.
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
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
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.
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).