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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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January 30, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Hamas and Palestinian Democracy

Surprising everyone, including themselves, Hamas won the recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections in a landslide, picking up 74 of 132 seats, compared to 45 for Fatah, the group that has represented the Palestinians for 40 years. Knowledgeable observers, like the Israeli government, had been worried about a strong Hamas showing (though not this strong), and had been pushing to postpone the elections. The United States, blissful in its ignorance, blithely decided to push ahead.

For the record: I don’t like Hamas or any other religious extremist organization. I think its suicide bombings of civilian targets are atrocious acts and have harmed the Palestinian cause. I also don’t see how they are worse than the frequent Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians, including a nine-year-old girl, Aya al-Astal, shot near the wall on the very day of the elections. And I don’t see how Hamas’s actions compare with the cruel closures Israel placed on the Palestinian territories, which hit their height in 2002 and 2003, causing massive malnutrition and killing far more babies than Hamas could.

That said, I find much recent commentary on the results to be absurd. The strangest is the idea that now, having won the elections, Hamas must renounce violence. This directly contradicts what these same commentators say in every other case that comes up – governments are supposed to have more of a right to commit violence than non-government actors, not less, and democratically-elected governments the most of all. Well, Hamas was elected overwhelmingly, in an election where Israel and the United States both did their best to suppress the Hamas vote.

I do agree with those who say Hamas should renounce terrorism. Now that they’ve been elected, they should embrace the far more civilized doctrine of collateral damage. They can hire military lawyers who carefully go over every possible target, check which international conventions they have agreed to, and try as hard as they can to finesse the restrictions, just as the United States did when it cordoned off Fallujah and subjected it to withering bombardment in November 2004, likely killing more civilians than Hamas has in its entire existence.

It should be pointed out that Hamas has not carried out an attack in well over a year and declared a formal tahdia, or truce, in March 2005. They did this even though suggesting a truce is the most dangerous thing a Hamas leader can do; in 2004, for example, after Abdelaziz Rantissi offered a 10-year truce with Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders and allowed establishment of a Palestinian state, within three months both he and the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had been assassinated by Israelis.

Israel has yet to go a year without killing Palestinians, even though leaders who called for such a truce would not be in danger of assassination except possibly by settlers.

Another strange notion being peddled is that Hamas must abandon its call for the destruction of Israel. That call, while insupportable, is a statement about the supposed illegitimacy of the Israeli state, not a call for genocide against Jews. Undoubtedly, there are people in Hamas who have a strong emotional desire to kill all Jews; there are also Israelis who want to kill all Palestinians, and Americans who want to kill all Arabs. Those feelings must be distinguished from actual or even potential political programs.

In that regard, Hamas’s call for the destruction of Israel is the mirror of Israel’s stubborn refusal to declare its borders, which always leaves open the destruction of even any possibility of a Palestinian state. Indeed, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, when asked if Hamas would ever abandon the goal of destruction of Israel, said, "If Israel is ready to tell the people what is the official border, after that we are going to answer this question."

Rejecting Fatah’s corruption and authoritarianism, the Palestinian people have made a new choice. Israel’s response of withholding the Palestinian Authority’s tax receipts is entirely illegitimate. The U.S. decision to withhold aid, also reprehensible, shows what it really thinks of democracy in the Arab world when the results go against its interests. The talking heads are wrong: the problem was not Bush’s naïve faith in democracy but the administration’s naïve faith that it could manipulate Palestinian election results with USAID money and cheap ploys.

Perhaps, for once, the United States should live up to its rhetoric about democracy and accept the decision of the Palestinian people.

Posted at 10:29 am

January 23, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq -- A New Strategy for Victory, Part 2

Last week, I talked about a shift in the administration’s Iraq plan, bringing the Sunni insurgency in and putting the dominant Shiite religious parties off-balance. Recently, over fears that Shi’a and Kurds could form the government by themselves, Zalmay Khalilzad has launched a full-court press for a so-called “government of national unity.”

As I said earlier, I believe this policy change is deliberate, with Khalilzad as the driving force.

So what is the reasoning behind this? And why is the U.S. not only alienating its Shiite allies, whom it brought in on its tanks and helped install in power, but also its faithful Kurdish allies? Indeed, an article in the LA Times reports, “American officials have made it a priority to persuade the winners in the election not to give top posts in the defense and interior ministries to anyone linked to armed groups such as the Shiite Muslim-controlled Badr and Al Mahdi militias, and the Kurds' peshmerga forces.”

Of course, the U.S. looks bad when a ragtag insurgency can fight it to a standstill, but beyond this there are two major linked considerations.

First, the fact that the Shiite parties and, indeed, the new Iraqi government, are quite friendly toward Iran, which is the true strategic bugbear of the United States in the region, far more than Iraq ever was.

Second, the United States long ago lost any significant political capital in Iraq and has, at best, only regained it in small, strategically unimportant areas.

Peter Galbraith provides a particularly striking revelation of this lack of political capital. In late August, during the wrangling over the constitution, at one point President Bush personally called Abdelaziz al-Hakim of SCIRI and pleaded with him to make some concessions on federalism and de-Ba’athification, only to be casually rebuffed. If it weren’t for Bush’s invasion, al-Hakim wouldn’t even be in Iraq, but he still saw no need to make even a token accommodation.

Another example: the United States threw its weight and its resources behind Ayad Allawi, both in the January and the December elections, with minimal effect. In this election, his coalition will seat only 25 members of parliament, down from 40 last time.

The direct leverage of the United States on major internal political matters is virtually nil. So it has to rely on indirect leverage – and on building direct leverage from the ground up.

Indirectly, they stop weakening the Sunni Arabs and instead politically resurrect them and place them as a check on the Shi’a religious parties. Second, they use economic leverage. As a condition of debt relief, the Paris Club forced various concessions on an unelected Iraqi government in 2004. One of them kicked in with the December 2005 IMF stand-by agreement, which required tripling the price of gasoline (which will double again by the end of the year).

This highly unpopular provision has further undermined the Shi’a parties. Had the United States wished, it could easily have vetoed the provision.

Directly, the U.S. strategy is to build up a nonsectarian army that is abstractly loyal to the Iraqi government but primarily loyal to its own chain of command and its U.S. trainers. With the extremely close integration of Americans, responsible for creating it ab initio and shaping it every step of the way, it is intended to be the primary vehicle of direct U.S. political influence. This is so even if the U.S. has to step on the Kurds’ toes by undermining the peshmerga.

If the Sunni insurgency cooperates, the U.S. endgame seems clear. They want less violence and a recuperated oil industry, but they want to keep perpetual low-level sectarian tension. They will then make themselves the perpetual “honest broker” between warring parties. With tight macroeconomic controls, heavy influence over the military, and a favorable status-of-forces agreement that includes several large permanent bases, they hope to be able to draw down the bulk of the troops and simultaneously increase overall U.S. political power in Iraq. It’s not a nice future for Iraqis and it’s not likely to begin to address the problems created by the occupation, but, if violence is reduced, it might still look like paradise compared to the nightmare inflicted on Iraq since the regime change.

The way to a genuinely bright future would require Iraqis putting aside their sectarian differences and uniting against U.S. plans, a hope that seems dimmer by the day.

Posted at 11:41 am

January 20, 2006

Osama's Book Club

Osama bin Laden's latest statement has been translated and transcribed. As often happens, different translations differ substantially (AP version BBC version).

The statement mentions Bill Blum's book, "Rogue State," by name and quotes from it. On the strength of that, he tells me, has was invited on to CNN tonight, the kind of thing that doesn't happen very often. I just checked his Amazon sales rank. On January 18, it was 205,763rd in sales; on January 19, it was 86th.

That kind of boost is up there in Oprah territory. And unlike James Frey in his so-called memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," Bill doesn't indulge in fabrication. His writing style is a lot better, too.

Posted at 12:09 am

January 17, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq -- A New Strategy for Victory, Part 1

All unheralded, the United States seems to be embarking on a massive shift in its Iraq strategy. The first inkling came on December 20, when U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, while uttering the usual bromides about the elections, also had this to say:

"It looks like people preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identity. But for Iraq to succeed, there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation."

Months earlier, in the midst of the mindless triumphalism over the constitutional referendum, it was mostly us in the antiwar movement and a few other critics who pointed out that the vote on that, as well, had been an ethnic census. Suddenly, we were hearing it from the highest civilian representative of the U.S. government in Iraq. Since that time, that evaluation has been repeated until it is a standard of mainstream “respectable” commentary.

On the flip side, where once it was wishful thinkers among antiwar activists who constantly proclaimed that Iraqis had strong national unity and minimal sectarian conflict, now it is wishful thinkers like President Bush and Christopher Hitchens who say it.

Another clue is the fact that, as reported in the New York Times a week ago, the United States is in serious talks with Sunni insurgents, the idea being to separate the mainstream insurgency from the sectarian jihadists like Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, eliminate the latter, and integrate the former into the political process. As a goodwill gesture, the Americans even released Satam Quaood, a former associate of Saddam’s, and the type that so far U.S. forces have been more likely to beat to death than to release.

These official signals have also been picked up by various establishment-serving pundits and analysts, culminating in an article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times that makes a point of distinguishing the “resistance” from the “insurgency.” “The resistance,” he says, is “the great mass of Sunni Arabs for whom the American invasion turned life on its head” and who have, in turn, “granted insurgents safe passage, turned a blind eye to myriad acts of sabotage, taken small payments for small services, and generally wished America ill.” This resistance, he says, is “composed for the most part of people who want jobs and a stake in the new Iraq and may start to think differently should those be provided.” Now, it’s the establishment using the term “resistance.”

Simply put, the United States is backing away from its early strategy of beating the Sunni Arabs through military force and through a dirty counterinsurgency fought more and more by Iraqi government forces and associated militias with primarily Shiite and Kurdish troops carrying out depredations in Sunni areas, and shifting to a strategy of trying to include Sunni Arabs as much as possible, even perhaps making concessions if necessary to the resistance to stop it from fighting, and undermining as much as possible the dominant Shiite parties and their hold on power.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor mentions that leading figures in the Shiite party SCIRI, who ought to be feeling smug, instead act as if they are under siege, while members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party are far more secure than a month ago.

As usual, Iraqis were aware of these shifts long before the media here started to pay attention. No doubt, there is dark muttering from many Shiite politicians that the reason for the shift is that Khalilzad is a Sunni. Another possibility is that a feckless, ignorant United States is just lurching from one damage control mode to the next, without a clear idea of anything; certainly, that has often been the case in Iraq.

But I think that, for once, this is a somewhat coherently thought out and deliberate shift, carried out on the basis of fundamental political considerations. There are several reasons why I think that: First, it requires making the U.S. military back off from their stance of total war until victory; this is incredibly difficult, as it totally violates their self-proclaimed warrior ethos, and could hardly be done by accident. Second, official pronouncements suddenly changed sharply in tone. Third, the presence of Khalilzad; even though he is a neoconservative, he is not as invincibly ignorant and arrogant as the authoritarian conservatives and cultural supremacists who have been making most of the decisions.

Next week, I’ll go into those considerations and what they portend for the long-term plan in Iraq.

Posted at 10:44 am

January 9, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Congo's Tragedy and Western Complicity

The latest issue of the Lancet, the well-known British medical journal, contains a shocking report on mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between April and July 2004, a multinational team of researchers carried out an exhaustive survey of 19,500 households in randomly selected clusters, leaving out the roughly 10% of the country where violence was too great.

They conclude that excess mortality in Congo, a nation of 64 million people, is 38,000 per month – this excess measured with respect to the baseline of sub-Saharan Africa’s already staggeringly high crude mortality rate of 1.5 per 1000 per month. This dwarfs the sanctions on Iraq, where the excess mortality was 5-10,000 per month and was also calculated with respect to a baseline of much lower mortality.

Ever since the overthrow of Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime in 1997, Congo has been wracked by violence. Starting in 1998, it was the site of what is sometimes called Africa’s First World War, a civil war that involved eight other nations -- Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan, and Libya – as well as numerous indigenous armed groups. That war officially ended in 2002, with an estimated death toll of 3.3 million.

Although the continuing violence is at a much lower level than before, it is still the cause of most of this excess mortality. Excess mortality in the eastern provinces, where violence was concentrated and where it continues, was about three times that in the western. Over half of these deaths are due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and easily treated respiratory infections.

At 450,000 excess dead per year, this constitutes one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. Unfortunately, it gets virtually no attention – unlike the all-important “war on Christmas,” which garnered 58 spots on Fox News in the course of a single week.

Part of the reason activists haven’t really talked about Congo is that there are no easy solutions to offer. With the sanctions on Iraq, the remedy was very simple – remove the sanctions and allow Iraqis to use their oil revenues to rebuild the country – but here it’s hard to know what to say.

The West has benefited from the plunder carried out by Uganda and Rwanda in eastern Congo. The mining of coltan, an ore that provides tantalum, a key element in so-called “pinhead capacitors” used in cell phones, was a major source of profits to those armies and a major reason for their continued operations – of course, they received mere pennies for every dollar the cell-phone makers made.

Human Rights Watch has chronicled and denounced the links between the international mining conglomerate Anglo American and the brutal Nationalist and Integrationist Front, an armed group that controls much of the gold mining in the Ituri district.

The West is, of course, also responsible for the brutal history of Congo that led up to this. Belgium essentially turned the entire country into a massive slavery and forced labor plantation, killing an estimated 10 million in the process. After independence, Belgium and the United States collaborated in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a leader who held out genuine hope to the people of Congo, and his replacement by the tyrannical and corrupt Mobutu.

After doing so much to create Congo’s problems, the West has no interest in trying to fix them. There is no imperialist imperative to control the country; why should there be when resources flow freely without requiring any trouble on the part of the West? The UN peacekeeping force was recently increased to 16,700, or one person per 60 square miles, but in 2004 the UN was only able to raise half of the funds allocated for them. Nobody is pushing to get control there any more than they were in Liberia or than they are in Darfur.

The left has been very reticent to try to address such questions, out of fear that any call for humanitarian intervention will serve imperialist ends. This abdication is not only morally questionable, it is strategically unsound; indeed, the absence of a sensible way to deal with such problems helps to feed the kind of human rights imperialism that the left is (rightly) so afraid of.

The international community must devise a way of dealing with such problems, and the left must be involved in that devising. Any such method must in turn obey the twin principles of not increasing Western influence and holding the West at least financially if not morally accountable for what it has done. Easier said than done, but right now nobody is even saying it.

Posted at 7:52 pm

January 2, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- 2006: Imperatives for the New year

Once again, those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar are marking the passage of one year and the inauguration of another; as always, there seems to be an irresistible human urge to mark such times with a spate of commentary about “the year in review,” “what the next year holds in store,” “new year’s resolutions,” and so forth.

Far be it from me to buck the trend.

First, a bit of the year in review. 2005 was not, as the editor of the Nation put it on her blog, a “year of sweet victories.” Weighty as are public financing of elections in Portland, Oregon, and the defeat of anti-homosexual bigot Fred Phelps’s granddaughter in municipal elections in Topeka, Kansas, here are a few of the things to weigh them against:
  • The inauguration of a massive campaign of suicide bombings in Iraq. The over 500 such attacks in Iraq, the majority of them this year, exceed the number of all other such attacks in all countries in all modern history. At the same time, jihadism is growing and internationalizing itself at a rapid pace.
  • The emergence of massive sectarian strife and the inauguration of a full-fledged police state in Iraq under American tutelage.
  • 2005 was the hottest year on record. New scientific results show that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greater than at any time in well over 10,000 years. Rapid climate change is emerging as a likely scenario.
  • The destruction of New Orleans, with minimal sustained political protest against the callousness and incompetence of the official response, little attention paid to the almost complete lack of reconstruction since then, and the abortion of a dialogue on race that had barely started.
  • An earthquake in Pakistan that leaves 3 million people to face the cruel winter of Kashmir without shelter and with minimal international aid.
  • The exposure of phenomenal amounts of cruelty, arrogance, incompetence, authoritarianism, and tyranny from the Bush administration without, in the end, imperiling its 40-45% base of public support – and without creating public support, either for any systemic alternative to the status quo, or even for the feckless Democratic Party.
Of course, I could go on. But I agree with one part of the aforementioned post – a new year is a time to accentuate the positive. Not by overblowing it or by not being mindful of the negative, but rather by taking a clear-eyed look at the world, at the political opportunities contained therein, and then deciding on what you need to do – what use is summing up the past year if you make no New Year’s resolutions? Among the greatest positives of last year are:
  • The emergence of a real political imperative for action on global warming and the decision in the teeth of U.S. opposition to continue negotiations on carbon emission reductions.
  • The continuation and expansion of the Bolivarian struggle in Venezuela and the possible addition to it with the election of Evo Morales.
  • The near-total collapse of U.S. public support for the continued occupation of Iraq.
And here are a few imperatives for action by U.S. progressives in the next year:
  • We’ve barely gotten in the game on climate change. The past year has dramatically opened up public space on this issue. Progressive activists have created a Climate Crisis Coalition, but a lot more activism is needed.
  • Active solidarity with emerging struggles in South America – especially in Venezuela and Bolivia, where they have state power and can attempt really significant changes. At the same time, we need to start learning from those experiences how to build a broader and more expansive vision of democracy and political engagement that we can bring back to the United States.
  • Creating a serious dialogue about public health in the United States. It’s not just a matter of 45 million uninsured; almost everyone in the country gets significantly worse health care than they would elsewhere.
Last, we must reinvigorate a disoriented antiwar movement. We needn’t concentrate so much on telling people what they already know, or on debating the specifics of withdrawal plans with Nancy Pelosi and Donald Rumsfeld; rather, we need to use the occupation of Iraq to show what is wrong with U.S. political culture and with the U.S. role in the world – and also, most crucially, to start articulating a different vision for both of those things.

Posted at 11:03 am
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