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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 31, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Democracy is Dead, Long Live Democracy

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto caps off Pakistan’s recent descent into hell. The last few years have seen the emergence of a tribal insurgency in Balochistan, an upsurge in conflict between state forces and jihadis in Waziristan, escalation of violent Shi’a-Sunni conflict, and, most recently, an epidemic of mass-casualty suicide bombings that have briefly caused Pakistan to eclipse Iraq in the news.

Contrary to certain Bush administration fantasies about quick, easy, and clean regime change through surgical “decapitation” strikes against heads of state and powerful political figures, assassination, even of worse leaders than Benazir, is rarely a good thing for any country. Even Saddam’s richly deserved execution ended up only adding fuel to the fires raging in Iraq.

The fact that Benazir’s assassination was a terrible thing for Pakistan does not somehow mean that she herself was some prize. The response from virtually every political quarter in the United States, from Dennis Kucinich to George Bush, has been that somehow the shining light of Pakistani democracy has gone out.

The queen of democracy is dead, but fortunately the Dauphin of democracy has emerged from Oxford to take her place. A 19-year-old boy is now the titular head of the Pakistan Peoples Party simply because of who his mother was (and she, in turn, rose to her position of prominence because her father had been Prime Minister).

To top it all off, at the press conference after his elevation, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had the audacity to say, “My mother always told me democracy is the best revenge.”

Apparently, democracy equals corrupt feudal autocracy combined with dynastic succession.

We in the United States should hardly be wagging our fingers, of course, seeing as how we’re still in the middle of what’s likely to be at least a 24-year period of Clinton-Bush rule. And that our president, whose first election at least was not exactly a model of democracy itself, has no problem in talking about how Pervez Musharraf – a military dictator who just earlier this year locked up hundreds of lawyers and human rights activists and imposed censorship on broadcast media – is advancing democracy in Pakistan.

Have you notice that even when our talk about democracy is not an out-and-out lie, it is essentially meaningless, amounting to little more than a fetish for elections?

A recent newspaper headline announce that despite elections last year, Congo’s problems remain. Really? A country of a million square miles with almost no state outside the capital city, virtually no infrastructure, no social services, where armed militias carve out their own fiefdoms, frequently extracting the country’s rich natural resources and dealing directly with the foreign corporations that use them, using the local population as slave labor or worse, didn’t have its problems solved by a meaningless paper exercise? Remarkable.

That same attitude has been there in spades with regard to the Bhutto assassination. Her blood was barely drying when President Bush made his first statement that elections should go ahead as planned. Farcical as the January 8 elections would already have been, coming off a long period of overt martial law (and with continuance of repressive measures even after martial law had formally been lifted), with two parties headed by autocratic exiles and a process rigged by the military dictator in power, they will be even more of a joke now with Benazir dead and the whole process thrown into chaos.

And yet it seems likely they will go ahead on schedule. The PPP wants them early to capitalize on sympathy for Bhutto (and on their dynastic succession), Nawaz Sharif wants them because he wants to get rid of Musharraf, and Musharraf wants them because he needs some legitimation to prop up his rule. However they turn out, rule in Pakistan by a corrupt, unresponsive, repressive feudal and military elite will continue – but it will be a great victory for democracy.

Meanwhile, across the oceans, nobody is explaining that the Bhutto assassination underscores more deeply than ever that the “war on terror” paradigm is simply a recipe for creating more failed and semi-failed states where violence dominates the political process. Instead, we get to learn that we need a fence on the border with Mexico to keep swarms of Pakistani jihadis out of the country. Oddly, this is no more ridiculous than the previous contention, which we have heard from numerous Democrats, that what we really need in Pakistan is more of the policies that have caused this phenomenal upsurge in jihadi violence.

Posted at 10:57 am

December 10, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- How Not to Build 21st Century Socialism

Last week, I wrote about the political threats to maintaining and extending democracy in Venezuela during its revolutionary transformation to “21st century socialism.” They are substantial, but there is still plenty of hope. Aspiring dictators rarely lose referenda by 1.4% and accept the defeat. Chavez’s egomania is one of the main obstacles to progress in Venezuela, but, por ahora, he remains committed to constitutional means.

The economic threats are potentially as big as or perhaps bigger than the political ones. It’s an odd sort of socialism they’re building in Venezuela.

There are a number of achievements on this front to be proud of. According to government figures, the poverty rate has gone from 43% in 1999 to 27% today, partly because of a doubling of the share of social spending in the total government budget. The Barrio Adentro program has, through a partnership with Cuba, brought vastly improved health-care to the urban poor, helping to realize the 1999 constitution’s enshrining of health as a basic human right. Mision Robinson has also had a major impact on illiteracy, although not quite as great, apparently, as the government initially claimed.

Given Venezuela’s spectacular increase in oil revenues – last year they totaled $58 billion -- a modestly redistributive vaguely welfare-statish government could have accomplished as much. Of course, with reference to the ideological climate in the world when Chavez initially came to power, that would have been considered tantamount to revolutionary socialism.

The negatives, however, are many and surprising. According to Venezuela’s own Central Bank, income inequality has increased in the Chavez years; the Gini coefficient, a common measure of inequality, went from .44 in 2000 to .48 in 2005. At the same time, and in accordance with this, according again to the Central Bank, the share of remuneration to capital in the GDP has increased dramatically and that to labor has decreased. According to the Economist, even the incidence of stunting and malnutrition in children has increased during Chavez’s term, from 8.4 per thousand to 9.1 per thousand. During roughly the same period, the financial sector increased in size by 160%.

Socialism, 21st century or otherwise, should be made of sterner stuff.

At the same time, the macroeconomic stability of Venezuela is open to question. Although it claims to be producing 3.3 million barrels per day, most estimates are that the number is closer to 2.5. Gasoline is sold on the domestic market for 7 cents a gallon, vastly below even the subsidized prices Saudis and Kuwaitis pay. The government maintains an official exchange rate for the Bolivar that differs wildly from the market rate; not only that, it sells dollar-denominated bonds to Venezuelan banks at the official exchange rate, which they can then sell for dollars and turn around to get bolivares at the market rate. This sort of arbitrage sucks up billions of dollars of Venezuela’s oil revenues.

In addition, although Chavez’s partial privatization of various oil concessions (which forced ExxonMobil but not ChevronTexaco out of the country) would seem to be a good thing, the upshot is that investment in further exploration and infrastructure has declined; revenues from the Venezuelan oil company, PdVSA, go to fund social programs and to pay for a staff that has doubled in size under Chavez, rather than to investment.

Add to all of this a spree of arms purchases that would warm the cockles of a Pentagon procurer’s heart – including 24 Su-30 fighters and 50 helicopter gunships (neither of any use if the United States were to attack) from Russia just recently – and you have a looming disaster.

These figures do not mean that the Venezuelan government is malevolent or that the talk of socialism is a sham. In part, they reflect the uncomfortable fact that it is impossible to get very far in the world today without appeasing domestic and international capital. In large part, they reflect a sudden boom in oil revenues without the economic and social mechanisms in place to channel it properly. The problem is that there is little sign that much is being done about this.

So far, the oil boom has kept Venezuela’s accumulating economic contradictions from directly harming the people of Venezuela. And it is true that oil prices will never go back to what they were before the Iraq war. But Venezuela cannot remain certain even that its oil revenues will continue at the current level. If there is a sudden drop, expect the economic strains to come to the surface as political unrest.

Posted at 12:26 pm>

I am indebted to my colleague Matias Scaglione for some of this analysis.

December 3, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- No 18th Brumaire for Hugo Chavez

I confess to being slightly relieved that Sunday’s constitutional reform referendum in Venezuela was defeated. I am, of course, in favor of social security for street vendors and protection of gay rights.

And I realize that not supporting the reform puts me in bad company – the New York Times to start, but including all other defenders of the status quo who refuse to believe that another world is possible and that ordinary people can actually be the subjects and not simply and always the objects of their own lives.

I am even aware that as I speak the privileged upper classes of Venezuela are rejoicing that they have taught those obnoxious Negros e Indios a lesson.

Even so, I’ll stick to my position. For years now, I’ve been worried about anti-democratic trends in Venezuela.

Not all of them are Chavez’s doing. He may well not have been involved in the publishing of a “blacklist” containing the names of the millions who signed the petition for a recall referendum. Many of them suffered penalties like loss of government jobs or benefits for exercising their democratic rights.

The decision in December 2005 by the opposition to boycott the National Assembly elections, leading to 100% domination of the assembly by Chavistas, was deeply irresponsible and has been disastrous for the country, providing Chavez the rope by which he has tried desperately to hang himself.

Especially since his reelection by a landslide in 2006, Chavez’s ego has been out of control, and, in the runup to the referendum his behavior was increasingly erratic. He told Venezuelans that a vote for the referendum was a vote for him and a vote against was a vote for George W. Bush.

He threatened to nationalize Venezuela branches of Spanish banks if Spain’s King Juan Carlos didn’t apologize for telling him to shut up. Maybe it’s wise to nationalize them – I don’t know (the right of nationalization has been understood and accepted internationally ever since Mossadegh argued the British into the ground before the UN in 1951) – and Juan Carlos is an unelected former Franco sympathizer, but connecting a major political act with a personal insult is ridiculous. He seems to suffer from the same malady as Louis XIV.

And the referendum itself coupled progressive social measures with scary political ones. Eliminating the term limits on the presidency was the one that got the most attention, but it also gave the president the right to appoint officials who would normally be elected, to declare a state of emergency and suspend some civil liberties indefinitely, and to designate areas for military control. It’s hard to make a case that, even with the best intentions, Chavez needs that kind of power.

Early on, Chavez was often criticized for being an authoritarian caudillo type, even on the American left. At that point, I was much more sympathetic to him, because it was clear to me that his hopes for transformation in Venezuela would require the accumulation of power. After he won the recall, though, was the time to slow down and gradually push for his ideas while pressing the opposition to work through normal legal and political means.

Now, Chavez does not lack for defenders on the left, who point out that, for all the talk about lack of democracy, Chavez has routinely put major matters to popular vote, something that never happens in the United States. Or they compare him with George Bush – Chavez acts within the law, unlike King George, who thinks the Constitution gives the president unlimited powers.

But comparing any head of state with George Bush is succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Besides, Venezuela needs democracy much more than the United States does. Even the almost unprecedented assault of Mr. Bush on the Constitution and democracy has hardly affected the lives of the vast majority of Americans. On the other hand, huge changes in people’s lives are at stake in Venezuela and for the building of “21st century socialism” not to go the route of 20th century socialism will require a great deal of effort.

The shock of the defeat seems to have given Chavez some much-needed grounding and his concession speech was conciliatory in tone, radically different from his rhetoric previously. It is even possible that the defeat will in the end help to bring some democratic form of socialism to Venezuela. In any case, 15 years in power ought to be enough for Chavez; a revolution that requires him for longer than that isn’t much of a revolution.

Posted at 10:38 am
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