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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January 28, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Advice to the Gazans

I have a suggestion for Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza: Stop your ridiculous rocket attacks into Israel.

I'm not saying this because they are effectively terroristic indiscriminate attacks on the civilian populace. Although they are, the arguments that the Qassam attacks or Hezbollah's Katyusha attacks in northern Israel during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war are inherently terroristic because the targeting technology is so poor seems to suggest that only advanced militaries with GPS-guided bombs are allowed to conduct a war.

I'm also at a loss to understand why idiotic rocket attacks that may possibly, by sheer weight of metal, occasionally scratch a civilian, are inexcusable but the deliberate, sustained siege of an entire civilian populace is not.

According to an op-ed by Sara Roy and Eyad al-Sarraj in the Boston Globe, since June, out of roughly 9000 different commodities that used to enter Gaza before the siege was imposed in 2006, only nine have been allowed in. Daily imports of flour allowed are about 5% of what is needed. 87% of Gazans live below the poverty line.

This is not exactly the Nazi walling-in of the Jewish ghettoes – the starvation there was far worse and the end-game was different – but it's the closest modern approach. And, to say the least, there's more of an international culture of human rights around these days than there was 70 years ago. For all the good that's doing the Gazans.

No, the main reason the Qassam attacks should stop is that they're playing the Israelis' game. Even before Hamas won the elections in 2006, the Israeli plan was to isolate itself from Gaza, absolve itself of even the minimal obligations it respected as an occupying power, and attain near-complete freedom of military action in dealing with future potential problems. They didn't need more of a plan than that because they had decided Gaza, unlike the West Bank or the Golan Heights, was almost worthless to them.

Since the elections and especially since the clashes between Fatah and Hamas and the splitting of the Palestinian territories, the plan has been in addition to squeeze the populace so hard that it gives up on having its own political representation and happily accepts a government – that of Mahmoud Abbas – that collaborates with Israel and eventually signs for a "two-state solution" of the kind that Israel wants.

This plan, conceived in even harsher terms by the Bush administration, which decided in 2006 that Palestine was part of the "global war on terrorism," has been carried out with minimal international outcry and, indeed, with substantial international support.

Hamas did make some bold and creative initial attempts to present its international case. After the elections, Ismail Haniyeh told the Washington Post, a propos of the endless questions about recognizing Israel, "Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders and then we will know what we are talking about."

There were signs that Hamas might drop the bloodthirsty rhetoric and start communicating in the language, duplicitous as it is, of international respectability.

Unfortunately, that has all been sabotaged, in part because of the U.S./Israel response to the elections (with Europe and the Arab nations as accomplices) and in part because of internal power struggles in Hamas.

The current strategy of continuing to fire rockets that never hit anything is not "resistance." It is, rather, all that Israel needs in order to continue its policies, to legitimize its claim to treat Gaza as an "enemy entity" rather than an occupied nation to which it has certain humanitarian obligations.

I wouldn't presume to tell the Gazans whether the political goal they should fight for right now is simply an end to the Israeli siege or a preservation of the shards of the Hamas government and of their democratic right to pick their own representatives. I'm just saying either goal would be served better by an end to the rocket fire.

Gandhi's advice to the Jews faced with Nazi exterminism was to oppose openly and nonviolently so as to arouse the conscience of the world. Naturally, this disgusts most people who hear it. And it's certainly not clear it would have saved the Jews. It might, however, not have turned out worse than the eventual strategies followed by most Jewish communities.

In order to have any chance at a better future, the Palestinians need the conscience of the world just as much – and the conscience of Israelis too.

Posted at 12:23 pm .

January 21, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Obama, Reagan, and the Promise of Change

Amidst all the furor over Barack Obama's recent comments about Ronald Reagan, it would be nice if somebody -- anybody – would pay attention to what he actually said and, more important, what he meant.

It was, in fact, an intriguing reflection on both the opportunities currently available to liberals and the left and their lack of ability or positioning to take advantage of those opportunities.

In the process of talking about himself as the candidate of change, Obama pointed to the potential of this historical conjuncture. To him, this election, like that of 1980 and 1960, has the possibility to lead to major changes in the political paradigm.

Echoing fairly standard political science analyses – and speaking in a manner much better suited to a graduate seminar than to a political campaign – Obama pointed out (more by implication than by actual detail) that the Vietnam War and the stagflation and "moral crisis" of the 70's led to the collapse of establishment liberalism and a growing feeling that people wanted to take power away from the government and give it to the grassroots. Unlike how some on the left read it, the real winners of this seismic shift were the right. We got a huge antinuclear movement that had modest accomplishments – they got Proposition 13 in California, the rise of the right-wing machine, talk radio, a renewal of militaristic confrontation with the Soviet Union as opposed to the "establishment" consensus of détente and coexistence, and a tectonic shift in fiscal policy. Only ten years lapsed between Nixon's statement that "we are all Keynesians now" and Reagan's introduction of the tortured arithmetic of supply-side economics.

Says Obama, this couldn't have happened if it didn't capitalize on underlying popular feelings. The feeling that Europe and Japan were taking over economically and that taxes were too high, and dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic, non-innovative postwar accord between business and labor did lead to a political opening to promote "entrepreneurship" and this in turn was the wedge for everything from supply-side economics to the ideological transformation that saw the conventional wisdom go from blaming poverty on structural features of the economy to blaming poverty on poor people and especially on black welfare queens.

Notwithstanding asinine comments from Edwards Clinton, Obama was not praising these changes. It's just that, in his ongoing attempt to be all things to all men, he avoided explicitly condemning them, merely pointing out that they did in fact resonate with a large number of Americans (including people who got harmed by them).

Kennedy, said Obama, similarly involved major change. Nixon and Clinton did not. Furthermore, according to him, the Republicans have been for 10 or 15 years now the party of ideas.

Despite Bill Clinton's red-faced tantrum over this claim, it is laughable to say, as he did, that he was the one with the ideas during his presidency. His slight tax raise involved merely a rejection of Reagan, not anything fundamentally new. He intervened militarily more often than Reagan, with exactly the same kind of small-bore, heavily scripted operations. He won reelection in 1996 by talking about school uniforms and a V-chip for televisions – if these count as ideas, then this country is doomed.

Finally, Obama pointed out the promise that is there for the other side now. The right wing's ideas, never more than garbage logically, are also played out politically. You can still see John McCain claiming that tax cuts always increase revenues and Mike Huckabee talking about remaking the Constitution in God's image, but, as much political force as this nonsense has behind it, it is clearly on the downswing.

Now it ought to be our turn. Unfortunately, here's the rub: We got nothing. Says Obama, political change has to resonate with the American people to be achievable. I have seen no hint that Obama himself has any such new ideas. The real left's ideas are still, to the American public, way out in left field. The closest approach I could imagine is a national single-payer health insurance system, but mainstream Democrats won't embrace it. In 2000, Nader's anti-corporate agenda had a near-miss; unfortunately, it could make little headway against the institutionalized two-party system.

And these ideas build on no elaborate quasi-logical ideological underpinning that can itself resonate, unlike supply-side economics, the conservative attack on affirmative action, or anything else you could name. When you look at the difference in product between left-wing think tanks and right-wing ones, you can see why.

The window of opportunity, unfortunately, won't be open forever.

Posted at 10:47 am.

January 14, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Hillary Clinton meets Karl Rove

Last week, I sketched a few reasons why progressives ought to be intrigued by the possibility of an Obama presidency. This week, I’d like to suggest that they get outraged by what is being done to thwart that.

The Clintons, longtime fans of dirty smashmouth politics and racially coded political messages (remember Bill Clinton’s making a point of executing Rickey Ray Rector, a black man so mentally impaired that he saved the dessert of his last meal “for later” and his gratuitous attack on a black female rapper), seem to have taken a page from Karl Rove.

Indeed, they’ve converged with Rove. In a recent WSJ op-ed, touting Clinton to the skies because he thinks the Republicans can beat her, Rove managed to call Obama “lazy,” suggest that he was “trash talking,” and allude to “playing pickup basketball.” How he managed to leave out watermelon and swinging from trees, I can’t imagine.

But he’s got nothing on the Clinton people. Billy Shaheen drew a lot of press in December for suggesting, faux solicitously, that the Republicans would go after Obama’s cocaine use as a young man and even suggest that he was a dealer. Hint: “drug dealer” is another racial code word. Although Shaheen was then ousted, Clinton’s unionbusting campaign manager Mark Penn managed to get in another mention of cocaine on TV. More recently, Andrew Cuomo, referring obliquely to Obama, actually said that this was not a campaign where you could “shuck and jive” – a watermelon reference would be a step up for him.

Bill Clinton managed to avoid any code words, just suggesting that Obama’s campaign and public persona were a “fairy tale.” Hillary Clinton got her chance to shine when she suggested that all of Obama’s rhetoric about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was overblown and that the credit really lay with a racist Texas good ol’ boy who destroyed a small Southeast Asian nation.

To the credit of Democratic primary voters, none of this garbage was playing very well until Hillary Clinton’s apparent “emotional moment” provoked an unbelievable storm of sexist inanity from TV hosts and pundits – the utterly misogynist Chris Matthews being perhaps the worst culprit. Faux progressive John Edwards got in his licks too, slimily taking the opportunity to suggest that Clinton didn’t have the “strength and resolve” (read male genitalia) to be president.

It’s very understandable why college-educated white women in New Hampshire got angry and turned out in droves to vote for Ms. Clinton. It is unfortunate that there is something of a push to blame Obama, who has stayed above the fray (and also hasn’t started any wars or levied crippling economic sanctions on any countries, unlike the Clintons), for the disgusting behavior of a bunch of asinine white guys.

Gloria Steinem, a pro-Clinton hack who ten years ago actually defended his execrable alleged behavior toward Paula Jones as a “clumsy sexual pass,” deliberately tried to inject a destructive race/gender dynamic into the race. In arguing that gender is the ultimate axis of oppression, that black men had benefited from the end of legal discriminations but white women hadn’t (roughly the opposite is actually true), she even resurrected the old claim that black men got the vote long before white women, without bothering to mention that this right was subsequently taken away. It was hard not to think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s opposition to the 15th amendment because “Sambo” would be “making laws for the daughters of Adams and Jefferson.”

But by far the worst – and most Rovian – thing the Clintons are doing is going on in Nevada. After the mostly Hispanic Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama, AFSCME, a pro-Clinton union, has brought a suit to disallow a number of caucusing locations on the Strip, because they claim that those locations make it too easy for pro-Obama culinary workers to vote. Just as the Bush machine disenfranchised blacks in Florida to “win” the 2000 election, the Clinton machine is trying to disenfranchise Hispanics in Nevada. But it’s not racist – any more than what the Bushes did was. They just want to keep supporters of the other side from voting.

The left, which seems to have written off Obama as no better than Clinton, should be a lot more outraged than it is. No matter what you think about Obama – and he is way better than the Clintons – it doesn’t take any deep analysis to figure out that the Clintons shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this. One Karl Rove is enough.

Posted at 10:43 am.

January 7, 200

Weekly Commentary -- Obama's Victory

I don’t do presidential endorsements, and I wouldn’t even if we had decent candidates.

That said, almost the only candidate in the race who I find interesting is Barack Obama and, I must confess, I’m happy that he won the Iowa caucuses so resoundingly, even though John Edwards is the newly anointed progressive populist hero.

One reason is obvious: even if Edwards had won, given his funding and polling situation, he couldn’t have beaten Clinton. Obama, by contrast, is already the heir presumptive; some polls are showing him ahead in New Hampshire by 10 or more points, and on the Iowa Electronic presidential futures market, Obama is given a 65% chance to become the Democratic nominee, compared to 30% for Clinton.

I also really don’t care for Edwards. In 2004, he was probably the most conservative Democratic candidate other than the execrable Joe Lieberman. According to Bob Shrum, Edwards was actually very skeptical of the Iraq war but voted for it because Shrum told him he was too inexperienced and didn’t have the “credibility” to vote no.

In his 2008 reincarnation, he goes around telling people that we’ve got to take back government from the kind of politicians who work for hedge funds, live in 28,000-square-foot houses, and get $400 haircuts. My problem here is not his hypocrisy – better Edwards than a rich corporate shill who doesn’t talk the populist talk.

No, what bothers me is that Edwards is an airhead. You don’t found a center that supposedly is studying how to alleviate poverty (when it isn’t just working for your political aggrandizement) and work for a hedge fund. And if you’re going to run as a man of the people, why not go to Supercuts like the rest of us? Apparently, no matter how many mills his father worked in, he has already lost any gut-level understanding of how most Americans live.

Edwards deserves credit only for his political opportunism: he realized early that the only way he could be in this race was by apologizing very explicitly for his Iraq war vote and relentlessly attacking everything he stood for in his previous political career.

Obama is much more interesting. He comes from a community organizer background. He hung out with pro-Palestinian activists. Be assured that he knows how the world looks from the viewpoint of a progressive activist.

Every now and then, in the midst of his blather, he slips in a little hint that he knows what’s what. Most recently, he pointed out that if he were to design the health-care system from scratch, he would choose a single-payer system. Similarly, in the summer, after a really silly speech to the Council on Foreign Relations about how he would love to bomb Pakistan without Musharraf’s approval, he inadvertently started to say that there was no reason ever to use nuclear weapons.

Put all of these moments together and it’s a sorry mess of gruel compared to the red meat Edwards is throwing to progressives. And, honestly, Obama’s victory speech after the Iowa caucus was one of the most content-free speeches I’ve heard.

But what white progressives seem remarkably obtuse about is that it is that the best thing about Obama is that very ambiguity and vacuity. If he said the kinds of things that even a “bright, clean, articulate” Harvard-educated community organizer who wants mainstream respectability would say, he wouldn’t be doing much better than Al Shapton.

Instead, he got 38% of delegates in a state that’s 95% white and only 2.5% black. More important, he dramatically increased participation in the caucuses, through correctly identifying the causes and cures of apathy and disaffection. The left’s standard answer on this is , for the most part, wrong; most people are not apathetic because nobody speaks for their views and against the corporations that run the country. Edwards has shown how far you can go with that in a presidential campaign; his hope for victory in Iowa was predicated on low turnout. Obama’s vague, mushy “politics of hope rather than politics of fear” rap is working.

What will be the use of his vague, mushy mobilization of Democrats, independents, and Republicans to “get beyond partisan division” is another matter – but it can’t be a bad thing that he is doing it.

Obama is not some stealth candidate who will suddenly unveil a socialist agenda once elected; that kind of thing doesn’t happen. But it might be very interesting to have a president with a gut-level understanding of the U.S. left and of the rest of the world.

Posted at 10:40 am
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