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, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

The recent election of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress in the history of the United States and an African-American to boot, must have seemed like manna from heaven to the Bible-thumping bigots of the right wing, who I hesitate to term Neanderthals out of respect for all prehistoric species and sub-species.

The ultimate focus for the hysterical fear of moral contagion that is the fundamental shared characteristic of those who still support Bush’s “war on terror”– and for the hysterical fear-mongering that naturally accompanies it – Ellison has been a constant staple of right-wing talk radio. He also had the rare honor of being interrogated by CNN Headline News’s troglodytic Glenn Beck, in a none-too-coherent rant, about whether being a Muslim, a Democrat, and an opponent of the Iraq war meant that he was “in league with our enemies.”

The latest is Virginia Representative Virgil Goode’s targeting of Ellison for his expressed desire to use the Koran at his swearing-in ceremony. Although Representatives are actually sworn in en masse in a purely secular ceremony, many choose to have private ceremonies afterward, with their favorite religious books on hand.

Something about this threatens Mr. Goode, much, I imagine, as the prospect of gay marriage threatens his own family harmony – I won’t speculate how – and he has chosen to make Mr. Ellison his whipping boy. Most recently, in a widely circulated letter to constituents, he writes, “When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

Condemnation of this absurd position has not been slow in coming from mainstream quarters, including the unsigned editorials of major newspapers – although, curiously, only a few have mentioned that Mr. Goode, instead of focusing so much on the Koran, should take a look at the U.S. Constitution, Article VI of which expressly forbids any “religious test” for public office.

Of particular interest was Rep.-elect Ellison’s response. After pointing out that he was not an immigrant but could, in fact, trace his American ancestors to 1742, and that he was going to concentrate on enacting legislation, since that’s what he was elected to do, he said, “I'm looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him.”

The statement may just be a reflection of Ellison’s personal magnanimity and, if so, more power to him, although I imagine the prospect of dinner at the Goode household is something that would make even Sidney Poitier shudder.

But I have trouble seeing it that way. It sounds like a response dictated by the fear of making himself even more of a target and by the sense that he is the sympathetic figure now but that could change in the minds of ordinary white Christians if he counterattacks too aggressively.

I don’t want to criticize Ellison. He seems like a very decent fellow, with positions on Iraq, immigration, abortion, and other key issues that are as far left as progressive Democrats in Congress go. And the burden of standing up on these issues should not be left on the shoulders of the one Muslim Congressperson.

But this kind of response is going to have to change. As the right wing subsides on Iraq, religion-baiting, race-baiting, and immigrant-baiting is going to be the political agenda for the new year. There is a lot to work with. In a recent Gallup poll, 39% of those surveyed said Muslims, even American citizens, should have to carry special identification. When Washington radio host Jerry Klein suggested, as a test, that Muslims in the United States be required to get crescent-shaped tattoos or wear armbands, he got many calls supporting him – and a few suggesting he wasn’t going far enough, that concentration camps were needed.

The new, improved Democratic Party, with its rhetoric of blaming Iraqis for the problems of the occupation, of nativism, of being stronger on national security than the Republicans, and of being truer patriots, is not well positioned to fight against a serious campaign to whip up xenophobic racism. Somebody needs to step into the gap.

Posted at 10:39 am.

December 18, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Kucinich for President?

Winter approaches and a young politician’s fancy turns to thoughts of the 2008 presidential campaign. Among the announced candidates is antiwar favorite Dennis Kucinich.

I have nothing against Kucinich. He’s one of the most progressive Congresspeople and a genuinely decent, honest person who seems to have no trace of the personal corruption so endemic to politicians. Overall, his values and political stances seem highly compatible with the transformative left agenda that so many believe in quietly.

I disagree with him on some issues. On trade, I want a fair international order with binding rules that apply to everybody – rules that embody values very different from those in the WTO – while Kucinich wants an essentially anarchic world order where the United States strong-arms other countries through bilateral trade pacts. A position he shares with George W. Bush -- back when Bush had positions on issues other than “freedom.”

To be fair, Bush wants to impose better conditions for U.S. corporations and for militaristic U.S. imperialism on weaker countries, whereas Kucinich merely wants to impose “social clauses” that are protectionist in effect – which is, of course, the kind of “humanitarian imperialism” that Kucinich resolutely opposes in the military sphere. He also doesn’t seem to understand that this is impossible – the United States, beholden as it is to corporate interests and to its privileged position in the world order, cannot possibly be in the vanguard on this issue. Look to Venezuela, the G21, Mercosur, anywhere except the United States.

I also task him for not voting against the absurd congressional resolution blindly supporting Israel’s Lebanon war, whose avowed target was the civilian political supporters of Hizbullah – he voted “present,” a cowardly act for someone who wants to be a leader of the left.

Though these are important defects, Kucinich is in general very good, and, based solely on the issues, worthy of support.

Even so, if you are considering supporting him, I want to caution you.

Given the conservative-nationalistic populist refoundation of the Democratic Party, most likely Kucinich will stand out as the only even slightly anti-militarist and anti-imperialist Democratic candidate. Short of a run by Nader, Bill Moyers, or someone like that, he’ll probably also be the only worthy candidate with any public recognition.

Still, despite numerous fatuous proclamations of his, there’s absolutely no way he will win or even make a respectable showing, and so one must consider what is to be gained from supporting him.

Last time, his campaign spent $11 million -- $11 million of activist money poured down a rat-hole, in my opinion, along with a great deal of time, effort, and enthusiasm.

His campaign was intellectually deficient on foreign policy, a crippling fault. His talks were long on platitudes about peace, but short on the specifics about real issues that might have spread the left message beyond the choir. So ignorant was he regarding the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide that, in a televised debate, he said what the U.S. was doing was good, but it needed to do more – it was left to John Kerry, oddly, to expose the extent of the Bush administration’s animus toward Aristide.

Although Kucinich’s “position” on Iraq was fine, he had very little to say about it and avoided the issue in favor of expansive visions on social programs that couldn’t possibly make any difference in a political campaign defined by Iraq.

What really stood out, though, was his behavior at the Democratic Convention. Although he had maintained his candidacy in order to hang onto his delegates, loyalty to the Party trumped the antiwar cause and he capitulated to the militarism of the Democratic leadership, instructing his delegates to back down on the question of an antiwar plank in the Democratic platform -- even though an estimated 95% of all delegates to the convention were antiwar.

Even though he did speak there, he went with the flow and talked about Kerry the great war hero. Not a mention of the still-fresh Abu Ghraib/torture scandal, alluded to only by Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson

Last but hardly least, he did nothing to help build self-sustaining left organizations that could continue to exert influence after the campaign was over.

Those of you who want to work for Kucinich don’t need to rule it out right away. But make him accountable. He’s not going to win and the meaning or lack thereof of his campaign is going to be in relation to the antiwar movement. He needs to know if he runs again he’s working for us.

Posted at 9:17 am


Several readers have brought to my attention the Progressive Democrats of America and the Peace Alliance (the campaign for a Department of Peace)as activist organizations that came out of the Kucinich campaign.

I didn't mention the Dept. of Peace campaign largely because I have never been enamored of it as an idea (we already have one -- it's called the U.S. Institute of Peace and it's about as dedicated to peace as the Department of Defense is to defense) and it's something that in any case long predated the 2004 election cycle, so that it wasn't directly relevant.

On the other hand, I really should have mentioned PDA. I know of and admire some of its work and have corresponded and talked with many of the key people involved in it. I think the work done by PDA members through After Downing Street, to bring people's attention to the famous "Downing Street memo" was absolutely invaluable. I believe that they played a major role in convincing a very recalcitrant press to cover it and that that coverage in turn contributed to Bush's steep drop in the polls over the summer of 2005 (predating Katrina).

The core of PDA was people involved with the Kucinich campaign, so it was a mistake for me not to mention it.

It is still the case, however, that PDA is a small, poorly funded organization, commensurate with purely grassroots movement organizations. In fact, last I knew, its budget was considerably smaller than that of other left antiwar organizations I've worked with.

My point, which is still valid, I believe, was to focus on the lack of an organization of a scale commensurate with an $11-million insurgent presidential campaign. Although its efflorescence was short-lived, the whole "Dean for America" movement, with its bulletin boards and meet-ups and whatnot, was on a scale far dwarfing anything the Kucinich campaign ever put together. The disparity was far greater than the disparity in funding of the two campaigns.

Thanks to those who wrote in.

December 11, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Baker Boys not so Fabulous

With much labor and fanfare, the elephant has produced a mouse.

The eagerly anticipated Iraq Study Group report does acknowledge that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating." That's something, at least, compared with President Pollyanna's evaluations.

The 79 recommendations in the report include many sensible ones, which any but a phenomenally corrupt and incompetent administration would already have implemented. It proposes that the United States reestablish metering of oil to cut down on corruption, renew the term of the Special Inspector-General for Iraqi Reconstruction and state that it has no ambition to establish permanent military bases.

Overall, though, the problem with the report is, paradoxically, both a lack of realism and a failure of imagination.

One of the most talked-about proposals -- obtaining Iran and Syria's help in Iraq – makes sense, but the commission has not seriously addressed how to implement it.

For Iran, it proposes the carrot of World Trade Organization (WTO) membership and the stick of a putative Saudi increase in oil production – small beer compared with potential regional dominance.

For Syria, its list of requirements is similar to what one might impose on a defeated country, and the only real inducement is an Israeli return of the Golan Heights, a move that would require pressure no U.S. president will bring to bear.

The commission's primary strategic policy recommendation -- shifting U.S. troops from a combat to a training role and sharply drawing down the number -- frankly echoes what the military and the administration have been talking about for years. The reason it hasn't been implemented is that it pays little attention to America’s political and strategic weakness in Iraq.

Without large contingents of combat troops in place, the leverage of minimally trained American "trainers" isolated in Iraqi battalions, dependent on Iraqi officers who speak English to tell them what is going on, will be minimal to nonexistent, as will their impact on the counterinsurgency.

So much for the lack of realism. The failure of imagination is a deeper problem.

Imagination might suggest that, instead of having the Iraq army take over the counterinsurgency, maybe the counterinsurgency should just stop. After all, the so-called successes of U.S. military operations have gone hand in hand with a steady increase in the level of insurgent violence.

It might take imagination to acknowledge that the United States created this mess, unasked for. Perhaps, even before proposing carrots and sticks for Iran and Syria, the United States should consider apologizing to all for the tremendous dishonesty, arrogance, negligence and brutality we have shown on the road to this disaster. It’s the least that would be necessary even to get traditional U.S. allies like France and Germany to help, let alone demonized enemies like Iran and Syria.

Most important, a little imagination is necessary to grasp that the United States is so hopelessly compromised -- politically, ideologically, operationally and institutionally -- in this affair that it has no capacity to be part of the solution. Reflecting the reality on the ground, recent polls show 60% of Americans and 78% of Iraqis believe the U.S. presence provokes more conflict than it prevents.

The Baker-Hamilton Commission rightly stresses the necessity of a far-reaching and deep amnesty agreement in Iraq – more properly termed, a reconciliation agreement.) Prime Minister al-Maliki's embryonic attempt to do that in the summer was cruelly aborted by the White House, a move the commission takes the administration to task for.

The commission also recognizes that all forces but al-Qaida -- and perhaps some of the more vicious Shiite death squads -- should be part of the solution. What it doesn't recognize, however, is that it is the very presence of U.S. forces that has allowed al-Qaida to entrench itself.

As a result of that U.S. presence, the bulk of the Sunni insurgency has welded itself with al-Qaida; the occupation has allowed Sunnis to justify suicide bomb attacks on Shiite civilians as attacks on "collaborators."

The proper role of the United States is straightforward: It should immediately cease combat operations, cease trying to be a political actor in Iraq, start downsizing its embassy and pull its troops out quickly.

Iraqi leaders, handed an impossible mess, may be able to use the transition time to come to a modus vivendi, or they may not. Either way, at least the United States will not be continuing to aggravate the problem. At this point, that’s easy enough to see if you’re an ordinary Iraqi, an ordinary American – anything but a Washington Wise Man.

Posted at 12:11 am

December 10, 2006

The Good Die Young

Augusto Pinochet, 91. In the space of less than a month, Milton Friedman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Pinochet have died. Obviously, Someone is planning a reunion.

Those of you who are religious, light a candle for Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, so that they live long enough for us to give them the trial they so richly deserve (Bush will likely be found not competent to stand trial).

December 8, 2006

The Good Die Young

Jeane Kirkpatrick, 80.

December 4, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Tidbits from Iraq and the "War of Terror"

A few odds and ends from, in the words of Borat, America’s “war of terror,”

In a raid west of Baghdad, U.S. forces destroyed two buildings, killing, in the language of the military “six suspected insurgents, two women and a child.” Pay careful attention to the language. What that means is that they killed six men, two women, and a child. Iraqis in areas where the United States is conducting counterinsurgency operations come in three kinds: women, children, and “military age males,” AKA “suspected insurgents.”

Thomas Ricks’ book, Fiasco, a devastating account of U.S. military operations during the first half of the war, and written based primarily on military sources, goes into some detail about how certain of the U.S. military commands in Iraq, particularly the Fourth Infantry Division under Ray Odierno, would routinely round up every Iraqi adult male in the area of a given operation, then holding them for months effectively incommunicado.

This kind of tactic, of course, as much as anything, led to the creation of a wide-scale insurgency. Once the counterinsurgency became well-established, it’s been an open secret that standard doctrine in large parts of the country, including Anbar province, calls for treating all military-age males as potential enemies. During the second assault on Fallujah, it was routine practice to turn back car-loads of people trying to flee the bombing if they contained even a single military-age male.

This kind of identification was a standard practice in the Vietnam War, especially in what were known as “free-fire zones,” and one of the clearest pieces of evidence that it had become effectively a war against the people. When every man is a potential enemy, you can’t possibly be a liberator, even if you want to.

President Bush recently hectored NATO about stepping up and making Afghanistan more of a priority. Lately, Afghanistan has been, as everyone knows, going the way of Iraq. An insurgency that feeds off of crimes and acts of negligence by the occupying forces and that is politically based in Pashtun irredentism (as that in Iraq was based in Sunni irredentism) has been using improvised explosive devices and suicide car bombings, with U.S. forces suffering a fatality rate (per soldier) similar to that in Iraq.

The solution, urged by the Bush administration and by, it seems, every respectable American observer, is to solve the problem that has emerged in Afghanistan by recapitulating the tactics used in Iraq that, we all know, solved the problem there so effectively.

Suitably chastened by the hectoring, key European countries like Germany have agreed to think seriously about joining the counterinsurgency in southern Afghanistan.

Last but not least, my favorite story of the last week. Iraq’s Interior Ministry has formed a special unit to monitor news coverage and take legal action against journalists who report, in their words, "fabricated and false news that hurts and gives the Iraqis a wrong picture that the security situation is very bad, when the facts are totally different."

Their first target is the Associated Press, for its story that Shiite militias, in revenge for the massive car bombings in Sadr City that killed over 200, took six Sunni worshippers at a mosque in the Hurriyah district, doused them in gasoline, and set them on fire. The Interior Ministry, run by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, claims that the source for the story, police Captain Jamil Hussein, does not exist – and the U.S. military has backed them up. The AP reporter who did the story claims two years of contact with Capt. Hussein, including numerous meetings with him in his office in the Yarmouk police station, where Hussein wore a police uniform – as well as corroborating claims from three different witnesses who live in the area where the killings took place.

I’m no big fan of the corporate media, but I think it’s pretty clear which side to trust. What a farce. First, under Saddam, Iraq has press spokesman Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who becomes known for his comical lies. Then we take over in Iraq and all of our spokespeople are reincarnated as Sahhaf – watch Tony Snow any time. Then, oddly, the Iraqis who come to the fore in new, democratic Iraq, with these two fine examples before them, bear a strong resemblance as well. And so it goes.

Posted at 11:09 am
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