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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 26, 2005

Weekly Commentary -- Evo Morales

470 years is a long time to wait. Through massacre, genocide, slavery, revolution, counter-revolution, and a staggering 188 military coups, in one of which the United States, working with Klaus Barbie the Nazi, helped install perhaps the only government in world history run by drug traffickers, Bolivia has had no indigenous head of state since Pizarro conquered the Incan Empire.

Until now. On January 22, Evo Morales will be installed as president of Bolivia, after winning an unprecedented 54% of the vote (55-60% of Bolivia’s population is indigenous).

Morales enters as not just any old elected president but the most prominent leader of a large, organized, militant movement of the indigenous. The rank and file members of this movement clearly believe that, at long last, their time in the sun has come. They are, at least for the moment, unwilling to tolerate excuses from the white economic elite, claims of multinational corporations that existing contracts must be honored, or complaints from the United States.

A great deal will hinge on which direction Morales moves as he comes under the extraordinary pressures that will be trying to tear him apart – will he go the road of Lula, accommodating more than is necessary and at times repressing the very people who got him elected or the road of Chavez, still performing an extraordinary balancing act while continuing to move things forward.

Even in the best-case scenario, Morales will have a hell of a balancing act to try to pull off. Unlike Venezuela, currently financing massive social programs both in country and throughout the hemisphere with fistfuls of oil money, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with per capita income of about $960 a year; many of the indigenous majority subsist on less than $1 a day. Political power is increasingly flowing to the indigenous -- Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party is estimated to have obtained roughly half the seats in legislative elections, and that power will be buttressed by the ever-present readiness of tin miners and small coca farmers to take to the streets for militant action – but economic power is almost entirely out of their hands.

The United States will exert economic pressure on Morales, in part through the $150 million per year it spends on coca eradication programs, and in part through plans for a potential $590 million in aid over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Account.

Even if Morales tries to enforce the law passed in May raising natural gas royalties from 32% to 50%, he will likely have serious trouble from several multinational companies, including ones from Britain, France, and Spain, as well as Brazil’s state-owned Petrobras. Nationalization, which has become a minimum demand of the new movement, will multiply that trouble significantly, as well as possibly triggering various forms of international condemnation and almost certainly a complete shutdown in foreign investment.

Morales will be pulled to moderate his reforms, in order to navigate the difficult international situation and also to keep together the electoral grouping that brought him to power; at the same time, popular organizations like the United Farm Workers Union of Bolivia will be pushing him to go further. It’s even possible that Morales may get everything wrong, going far enough to trigger a short-term economic crisis but not far enough to keep this revolutionary movement together.

Making a revolution in the modern age, while preserving the peace internally, preserving democracy, and surviving sanctions from international capital, is extraordinarily difficult.

So far, Morales has been difficult to pin down. In an interview with al-Jazeera shortly after being elected, he called the war on Iraq “state terrorism” and President Bush a terrorist. He has several times said that existing gas contracts with foreign companies are illegitimate and therefore null and void; at the same time, he has promised that those companies will not be expropriated. Like Chavez, he will need time to build a stable base of power from which to make greater changes.

It is very much in the interest of the world that he gets that time and that he continues to move forward. Although Bolivia lacks the global leverage of Venezuela, having another head of state add his voice to that of Chavez, calling for an end to U.S. imperialism and a movement toward democratic socialism, will be of incalculable importance.

Posted at 10:48 am

December 19, 2005

Commentary -- It's Good to be the King -- Bush and FISA

This is going to come as quite a surprise, but apparently President Bush has flagrantly violated the law of the land. Before your eyes glaze over and your brain starts to turn off, let me assure you, you actually haven’t heard this one before. This one is a little bit different.

In 2002, Bush signed an Executive Order allowing the National Security Agency to wiretap certain people in the United States who are communicating with someone abroad without obtaining a warrant from a court. Since then, he’s renewed this authorization 36 times, and presumably thousands of people in America have been spied on in this manner.

Now, the NSA is already allowed, in a relatively unrestricted way, to obtain intercepts of electronic communications from everybody else in the world; it is also allowed to do this to Americans, in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It’s just that the Justice Department needs to go to a special court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in order to get a warrant. To get such a warrant, Justice need not meet convention probable cause standards that would be required in criminal cases. The FISC approves the vast majority of requests. If the situation is an emergency, the wiretap can be kept in place for up to 72 hours before getting a warrant. Indeed, it’s difficult if not impossible to make the case that this executive order is necessary in order to thwart potential terrorist attacks.

There are two ways in which this latest revelation is somewhat different from previous ones.

First, in their open, gung-ho defense of this decision, the administration is somewhere between Nixon’s constant assertion of extreme executive privilege and resurrecting the divine right of kings. Not only can they give no specific justification of the need for indefinitely extended warrantless searches, they can give no real argument about how Bush can simply order a federal agency to commit acts in gross violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and thus of U.S. statute. There are some vague claims about how Congress’s authorization of the use of force on September 14, 2001 is the basis for this authority, but it’s rather hard to read into that document a statement that Bush has the right to set aside any existing legislation by executive decree in the fight against terrorism.

So, in fact, the essence of the argument is that the president, by virtue of his office, can decide whether he believes a law passed by Congress is unconstitutional or not and if it is he can direct agents of the government to violate it. This is equivalent to saying that the president is above the law and is empowered to rule by decree. As Russ Feingold suggested, we have to decide whether we have a president or a king.

Second, Bush has openly admitted to doing this. The administration lied and as much as it could about Iraq’s WMD, but has never admitted anything about it.

When somebody asked me recently whether, in the light of Bush’s increasing unpopularity and increasing perceptions of his dishonesty, there was any chance of impeachment, my answer was no. Crucial to making the case against Nixon for Watergate was his practice of taping Oval Office conversations. The release of those tapes, plus the unexplained 18-minute absence in one of them, was necessary to build the impeachment consensus.

In the case of the much smaller crimes for which Bill Clinton was impeached, again, there was direct physical evidence and he was forced to admit to them.

In Bush’s case, while inferentially there’s been not just a smoking gun but a whole smoking arsenal, there’s been nothing quite as concrete – too much has remained a matter of interpretation, possible to explain or spin away. That’s starting to change.

At the same time, it’s been revealed that the Pentagon frequently spies on antiwar groups; also, under guise of passing an anti-torture bill, Congress has just effectively approved use of testimony obtained by torture to help keep detainees locked up. The outlines of a police state are starting to emerge.

So far, opposition to this particular aspect of what Bush likes to call the advance of freedom has aroused little public opposition, if only because the people directly affected are marginalized groups that no one cares about. That could change if we see the list of people the NSA has spied on.

Posted at 10:45 am

December 12, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Rapid Climate Change

Unless you’ve seen the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” chances are you haven’t heard of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation. That’s an omission that must be remedied.

The NATC is a tremendous system of ocean currents that bring cold water south from the polar areas and bring warm tropical water up north. The Gulf Stream, which is responsible for the relatively mild climate of the UK and northwestern Europe, notwithstanding their very high latitudes, is one piece of the NATC.

The circulation is driven by the sinking of cold, salty polar waters, which are denser than average. It has long been conjectured that global warming, by melting the polar icecaps, could weaken or disrupt this process – fresh polar meltwater lowers the density of the salty waters, thus slowing their sinking.

A new scientific study, published in the December 1 issue of Nature, has found that the so-called Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, an index of the strength of the forces driving the NATC, slowed by almost a third between 1957 and 2004, with nearly all of that change coming between 1992 and 2004.

Another recent study suggests that there is a 45% chance this circulation will collapse completely in this century – a chance that drops only to 25% even if the most stringent measures possible within the limits of a free-market economy are taken immediately.

Why does this matter? Well, “The Day After Tomorrow” is heavily fictionalized, but the basics of the scenario presented there were correct. During the Younger Dryas, a period roughly 12-11,000 years ago, the NATC was disrupted, lowering average summer temperatures in New England by 5-7 degrees in a few decades.

It may seem odd that global warming could lead to severe cooling in the North Atlantic, but the extra heat gets redistributed in tropical areas, further exacerbating their global warming problem.

Even weakening of the current will lead to rather rapid temperature changes. We’re talking about a possibility that temperatures in the UK, for example, will drop 10 degrees in the next 20 years.

This terrible threat also, paradoxically, gives reason for hope. So far, the victims of global warming (it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands die every year from it) have been primarily the poor from the Global South, who don’t count in the calculations of the globally powerful. The worst projections of short and medium-term future effects were also confined to the Global South.

This rapid climate change scenario changes all of that – we now know there is a good chance of major effects in the eastern United States and northwestern Europe, which just happen to be the seats of global power and influence. So far, although the Pentagon recognized rapid climate change as a potential national security threat, it has not really gotten attention outside of scientific circles; now, it can be used to lend a greater urgency to the whole debate on global warming.

That debate has already reached a tipping point. Lingering scientific questions have been resolved with reams of new data in the last few years. There is a growing global understanding that we are already seeing the effects of global warming – famines and droughts in the Global South, more frequent and severe hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The United States and the Bush administration, despite their most strenuous efforts, have proved unable to disrupt the Kyoto process. The recent decision at the U.N. Climate Change Convention in Montreal to make further cuts after Kyoto runs out in 2012, with decisions on those cuts to be made by 2008, was a slap in the face to the United States. With the exception of the execrable Tony Blair, who recently floated the idea of going to “voluntary” emission limits, we are completely isolated on this issue.

The next 20 years are the crucial period and, outside of the United States, everybody seems to know it. We have a genuine, though slight, chance to eliminate or mitigate some of the numerous catastrophes that lie in wait for us. All the political conditions are ripe for a real movement against climate change. We will have to take on not just rampant energy inefficiency and use of fossil fuels, but, sooner or later, the cult of growth itself. In doing so, we will have to take on some of the fundamental tenets of capitalism. It won’t be easy, but it is, for the first time, eminently possible.

Posted at 10:48 am

December 5, 2005

Radio Commentary -- U.S. Strategy in Iraq

Bush’s new “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” is, indeed, a sorry mess of bullet points. Bush’s rhetorical strategy on the war most closely resembles that of the old-fashioned American tourist in a foreign land who says “Where is the bathroom?” and then, when nobody understands, repeats it LOUDER: “You know, BATHROOM?”

And yet, notwithstanding the derision of liberals, there is a U.S. strategy in Iraq that has already had some success and may well have more.

Even though Bush has said it repeatedly, it’s still true: the strategy is to create an Iraqi security force that will fight the counterinsurgency so the United States won’t have to. Initially, Iraqi security forces wouldn’t fight. During the first assault on Fallujah in April 2004, 80% of Iraq Civil Defense Corps forces in the region deserted.

James Fallows, in important article in this month’s Atlantic, quotes Lt. Gen. David Petraeus as saying they have largely solved that problem through better training methods – and that those methods are also creating a steady flock of new recruits.

Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have made constant gibes about the supposed “lack of training” of said Iraqi forces.

In fact, both the supposedly clueful Petraeus and the sadly clueless Democrats are missing the real point, which is not training, but will. Initially, the problem was finding Iraqis who had a reason to fight other Iraqis – people would sometimes sign up for the money, but they didn’t want to fight.

In April 2004, Iraqi Arabs, Sunni and Shi’a, broadly condemned the assault on Fallujah as an immoral act of collective punishment and decried in particular the frequent shooting of women and children and other noncombatants. They saw the resistance in Fallujah as legitimate and, indeed, heroic. For that reason, many of the Iraqi security forces wouldn’t fight; others did fight, but, as I personally witnessed, did so on the other side.

Now, as Petraeus says, there is a steady stream of people who don’t just want to draw a salary but want to fight. The reason is the steadily widening sectarian divide. Although it existed even in early 2004, at that point the Iraqi insurgency was seen as a resistance to the occupation. Many Shi’a didn’t particularly sympathize with it, but they saw it as legitimate. Shortly afterward, the insurgency was repeatedly branded with the face of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in part through obsessive media coverage of particularly vicious events – beheadings on video and mass bombings of civilians – and in part, I believe, through increasing influence of Zarqawi’s extremist sectarianism on a largely apolitical Sunni insurgency.

After that violence continued long enough, Shi’a began in early 2005 to fight back, with the result that the sectarian violence, which had been political but not personal, began to be personalized. At the same time, Iraqi-government-affiliated militias, often with training and advice from the United States, began to carry out death-squad-style killings, largely on a sectarian basis.

As a result, there are now plenty of Shi’a who join the army because they want to fight the Sunni insurgency. The emerging U.S. strategy not only depends on sectarianism but drives the sectarian dynamic further; Shi’a troops patrol and carry out operations in Sunni al-Anbar province; Kurdish peshmerga (with new uniforms) carry out operations in largely Turcoman Tall Afar.

This is far more dangerous for Iraq than the old strategy – if Iraqis hate American troops, or even Americans, the focus of that hatred could be removed by ending the occupation. If Iraqis are driven to hate each other, on a deeply personal basis, then there will be no foreseeable solution. Even partition would be no answer; multiethnic Baghdad would be in the same position as multiethnic Bosnia in the 1990’s.

The administration and the military are not willing to own up to this strategy. They trumpet the fact that some small number of Sunni Arabs has joined the army and they even raided the torture house in Baghdad run by their own ally, SCIRI. In part, this is because this de facto strategy is increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, the last thing the United States wants.

But, admit it or not, this is the way things will play out. The only slight chance to head off this dynamic is for the United States to withdraw so that no sectarian group has an overwhelming military advantage and all have an incentive to settle things through negotiation with each other.

Posted at 10:45 am

December 1, 2005

Joe Lieberman Smokes Crack

Joe Lieberman, esteemed senator from Connecticut and former vice presidential candidate, smokes crack, in large amounts and on a regular basis. I am in possession of reams of secret evidence confirming this claim, but unfortunately cannot make it public because it might reveal crucial methods and sources to America's enemies. Still, you can trust me. I'm a good guy, the kind you might like to drink a beer with.

If you insist, I will be happy to release this secret dossier (subscription required, unfortunately), carefully compiled from the pages of the top-secret Wall Street Journal.

On Tuesday, poor unfortunate Joe wrote an op-ed in the Journal that put President Bush's relentless blind Pollyannaism to shame.

Here's a good line:
In my meeting with the thoughtful prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, he declared with justifiable pride that his country now has the most open, democratic political system in the Arab world. He is right.
It's hard even to knew where to begin with that one. A country that shows torture victims' confessions on TV. A country where women don't leave the house without a hijab for fear of harassment. A country where 169 people are held and tortured in a basement by the main group in the government. A country where death squad victims turn up in the streets every day. A country where 82% of the people oppose the occupation, but it continues.

Here's more:
Progress is visible and practical. ...

There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before. All of that says the Iraqi economy is growing.
In other words, the lack of stability in Iraq, which has meant depressed oil exports, has contributed to an explosion in the price of oil. The U.S. failure in this arena is, paradoxically, propping it up.

There are millions of cell phones in part because, after two and a half years, the land lines have not been dependably fixed.

Lieberman also tries to claim success by pointing to poll results that say Iraqis on the whole expect things to be better 1 year from now. The reason for this, of course, is that they believe they've hit bottom, not that they like what has been done in the past two and a half years.

This is my favorite part:
It is a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al Qaeda foreign fighters who know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern. The terrorists are intent on stopping this by instigating a civil war to produce the chaos that will allow Iraq to replace Afghanistan as the base for their fanatical war-making. We are fighting on the side of the 27 million because the outcome of this war is critically important to the security and freedom of America.
Even Bush's much-vaunted "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" is more nuanced than this.

It classifies the insurgency into three groups, in decreasing order of size: "rejectionists" (unaffiliated Sunni Arabs who oppose the end of Sunni Arab privilege), Saddam loyalists/former regime elements, and (the smallest group) terrorist jihadis. Even Bush is admitting that not all the insurgents are terrorists, but Joe doesn't.

It's hard to find too many Republicans these days as gung-ho about the war as Joe.

Posted at 6:30 pm
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