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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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July 30, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Thoughts about Impeachment

Suddenly, there’s a flurry of talk about a subject that until recently was not considered polite enough for mixed company: impeachment. Some activists have been obsessed with it for years, but now it’s almost hitting the big time.

Although pollsters rarely ask about impeachment, that may be starting to change. A poll in early July by the American Research Group registered the highest numbers yet: 45% in favor of impeaching Bush vs. 46% opposed and a majority, 54%, in favor of impeaching Cheney.

At the same time, activists confronted House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, occupied his office and got arrested, and have been lambasting him ever since.

While it’s nice to see this, there are some considerations that warrant a critical approach to impeachment.

Let me start by saying unequivocally, that Bush has committed a vast, constantly ramifying, and utterly bewildering array of crimes, misdemeanours, atrocities, and criminally culpable verbal gaffes. Unlike some of the great crimes against humanity by presidents past – anyone remember the bombing of Nagasaki – many of them seem to be within the general area that the founders must have thought of when they wrote and ratified the provisions of impeachment. He deserves impeachment as richly as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Vice President George HW Bush, and Andrew Johnson. By the bye, good cases could also have been made for FDR, Abraham Lincoln, our finest president, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson.

Even so, there is a major substantive problem with impeachment. Oddly, the enormity of Bush’s crimes makes it harder, not easier, to impeach. Consider the three relevant cases.

Clinton did something that wasn’t a crime, then lied about it. He was impeached for obstructing the investigation into his non-crime. The whole thing was a farce, conviction was impossible, and Clinton weathered it easily.

Nixon’s articles of impeachment did not mention any of his great crimes. The impeachment would have been based on three charges: the Watergate burglary directed at obtaining political intelligence about the Democratic Party and the subsequent coverup, the use of various executive branch agencies to conduct illegal acts against individual citizens, and, interestingly, the refusal to comply with Judiciary Committee subpoenas. The third article, purely procedural, would never have come up if there hadn’t been other impeachable offenses.

Most Republicans on the committee voted against the articles of impeachment. But after they were passed, the committee obtained “smoking gun” taped evidence of Nixon’s personally directing the coverup. After hearing Nixon talk explicitly about things like hush money, even most Republicans couldn’t go against the tide.

Bush doesn’t keep tapes and there is little reason to believe he has personally directed obviously criminal activities – although Cheney might have.

Andrew Johnson’s case is actually the most relevant. The Radical Republicans wanted to impeach him because he was subverting Reconstruction, opposing the full emancipation of blacks, and sowing the seeds of much of what has gone wrong with the country ever since. But even the most radical Congress in American history realized that this was not impeachable, so they passed a blatantly unconstitutional law just to create an artificial showdown which would give them an excuse for impeachment. Although there was a deep, profound, and justified reason to remove Johnson, if you just read the articles of impeachment, it would appear as farcical as the Clinton case.

Johnson’s conviction failed by only one vote, yet somehow that showdown established the precedent that genuine high crimes were not impeachable; indeed, ever since it’s been restricted to low crimes, some even below the belt.

Evidence of low crimes – DNA, broken windows and forced locks – is easy to come by and to deal with.

Evidence that Bush deliberately lied to take us into war, deliberately and knowingly conspired to subvert the Constitution, and so on, is of a different character. False statements about WMD are easy to find – the problem is actually an abundance of riches. The man said on at least three occasions that we invaded Iraq because Saddam refused to let inspectors in – mindless delusion, not an impeachable offence, is the most likely verdict.

Implementing legal briefs that make coherent but not convincing arguments that torturing people is legal and constitutional may, again, be something you think is absurd and awful, but it’s hard to show it’s criminal.

All of this is not to say impeachment shouldn’t be done – it’s actually a good thing that it’s being so widely talked about – but to point out some of the obstacles to its actually going anywhere. Next time, I’ll tackle some of the political problems with it.

Posted at 10:37 am.

July 23, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Crocker Anticipates the Inevitable

The United States was caught flat-footed by the North Vietnamese victory in 1975. Somehow, they hadn’t quite learned from the experience of 10 years of failure. Indeed, Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs last year bellyaching about how they would have won the war if they hadn’t been stabbed in the back by Congress. And, of course, it is a standard right-wing trope that, if not for the stab in the back by the hippie peacenik journalists America would have won.

Things may be playing out slightly differently this time around. Now that the U.S. team on Iraq – Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Ryan Crocker as ambassador to Iraq, and David Petraeus as chief general in Iraq – accords closely with the bipartisan wet dream that still animates the chattering classes of Washington DC and that most of the country fervently wishes to get back to, we’re getting dribs and drabs of truth out of Iraq.

Perhaps one of the more portentous was Crocker’s recent cable to the State Department. urging the provision of immigrant visas for all Iraqi employees of the U.S. government. "Our [Iraqi staff members] work under extremely difficult conditions, and are targets for violence including murder and kidnapping," Crocker wrote. "Unless they know that there is some hope of an [immigrant visa] in the future, many will continue to seek asylum, leaving our Mission lacking in one of our most valuable assets."

On the surface, this might simply seem to be an odd but not unheard-of outbreak of decency by a high U.S. official, acknowledging the least of the debts the United States owes the people who don’t merely risk their lives for the United States but lie to friends and family about where they work, monitor every single action they take, and live in constant expectation of death.

But the U.S. record of dealing decently with its allies and collaborators is a remarkably poor one. In Iraq, the United States three times abandoned the Kurds to their fate – in 1974, 1991, and 1996. The first time around, Henry Kissinger, explaining the abandonment to Congress, explained superciliously that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” The second time was part of one of the worst crimes of the United States in the post-Vietnam era – when the sainted George Bush Sr. called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam, then panicked when they did and helped Saddam in brutally suppressing them. The third time, in what some have called the “Bay of Camels,” a sudden invasion of northern Iraq (nominally part of the same country, but under autonomous administration since the Gulf War) caught the CIA completely unprepared and resulted in the slaughter of thousands of locals with whom they had been working, most of whom they made no effort to remove from harm’s way.

In Vietnam, the United States did accept 140,000 people in 1975, but it made no advance preparations and no effort to help most of those people actually get here.

This time, Crocker may actually be anticipating the inevitable. It’s not simply that these Iraqis lead impossible lives now, but that he is aware that they always will. Unlike the architects of our brilliant “counterinsurgency” strategy who claim that we can pacify the country then pull out in six months, he may actually be thinking.

At stake are the lives of as many as 110,000 Iraqis, not including any in the army or security services. So far, only translators and interpreters have been given any shot at immigrant visas and until recently the entire quota for Iraqis was 50 per year, meaning even they had a nine-year backlog. Now, the quota is a munificent 500.

Since 2003, the United States has admitted 825 Iraqis, many of them part of the backlog from the Saddam years. The main reason cited for the incredibly slow approval is the need to protect against terrorism.

Sweden, eager to make amends for its horrible crimes in Iraq, approved 7200 applications for asylum last year – proportionate to population, this is as if we let in 240,000.

The noxious Michael Chertoff justifies the delay by saying that Europe’s formerly more generous asylum laws are the reason it is now stuck with “radical extremists who are fomenting homegrown terrorism.” This must be why Sweden is so plagued with attacks.

Crocker is trying to do the right thing. But it seems unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of these Iraqis will be provided for. They may be serving the empire, but they’re still just hajjis.

Posted at 10:43 am

July 16, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- U.S. Crimes: Business as Usual in Iraq

After four years of failure in Iraq, the country has learned many lessons from the war. Almost all of them are nearly as wrong as the hallucinations of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Perhaps the hoariest myth of the mainstream war critics is the claim that the occupation failed because we didn’t send enough troops. Closely related is some underlying idea that our troops over there spend their time reading to sick Iraqi orphans while crazy Arabs try to kill them and each other.

On my first trip to Iraq, in January 2004, it took about half a day to discover that, contrary to press accounts of the time, the occupation was failing. What was difficult for me to put together, and to credit when I did, was that the primary proximate cause was not the lack of a government and widespread anarchy and neglect in society, not apprehension over potential neocolonial appropriation of Iraqi resources and economic restructuring, and not even generalized resentment over foreign occupation by a hated enemy widely considered responsible for the devastation of Iraqi society through the sanctions in place from 1990 to 2003 – though all of these considerations were present.

It was the behavior of the American troops.

This was difficult to document systematically at the time and became near impossible shortly thereafter – and a public awash in favorable coverage would have ignored it. Besides, Iraqis, like all liberated people, are unreliable witnesses to their own liberation.

As Iraq veterans returned home and some turned against the war, we got occasional stories about the subject. Later, we learned about a handful of murders and massacres, like Haditha.

Although we finally had good credible witnesses – the killers – there was no systematic picture. Those who wanted to claim that torture was a matter of a few “bad apples” on the night shift at Abu Ghraib had to be willfully blind, deaf, and dumb – very dumb – to do so. Those who believed stories of checkpoint killings, racist denigration of Iraqis, routine treatment of male Iraqis as insurgents, massacres, and a general casual attitude toward the killing of Iraqis were isolated instances could be forgiven; although print media coverage of the occupation has actually become very good in some areas, there is almost no half-decent reporting on U.S. military operations. Every suicide bomber’s death toll is reported, but we get almost nothing on Iraqis killed by Americans. When we do, they are always “insurgents” or, more recently, “al-Qaeda.” Security conditions in Iraq have pushed even critical reporters into positions of dependence on the troops and uncritical reporting of their claims.

This information logjam is starting to break. Last week, in The Nation, Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian published a summation of a project involving in-depth interviews with 50 U.S. Iraq veterans, who spoke with surprising candor. They paint a picture of routine killing of Iraqi noncombatants by U.S. soldiers and a culture of systematic lack of accountability and also lack of giving a damn within the military (many individual soldiers, of course, are deeply affected).

One interviewee recounts an incident where a briefing for senior officers showed horribly gruesome pictures of a checkpoint killing where a soldier put 200 rounds into a car, killing a mother, father and two small children. A colonel present turned to the others and said, “If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn't happen.”

The Los Angeles Times also deserves credit for some recent articles. One from June recounts the death of an Iraqi boy because of indiscriminate firing by U.S. troops under attack. This was a common complaint among Iraqis I interviewed, but somehow in the media the only mention was of U.S. soldiers’ complaints about the indiscriminate fire of Iraqi recruits, contrasted to our disciplined boys.

And an article about the Haditha massacre trials mentions the testimony of Marines about the practice of “dead-checking” – if you see a wounded man, check if he’s dead and, if not, put a few more bullets in him. Although this procedure violates the Geneva Conventions, the article claims, it is explicitly taught at boot camp and in pre-deployment training. The Village Voice had an article about it in 2004, after the second assault on Fallujah, but you will look in vain in the mainstream press for any other references.

Far be it from me to call anyone to action – especially on air – but those who are looking for something to do might consider making sure their representative reads Hedges and al-Arian’s article and that their paper is pressured to print more about this subject.

Posted at 10:46 am.

July 14, 2007


Today is Bastille Day. It's also the anniversary of the Iraqi revolution of 1958, which brought Abdel-Karim Qassem to power. Qassem was a military dictator who grew rather unbalanced after a few years in power, but he was, sadly, the best ruler Iraq has had since it became Iraq (the first Hashemite king, Faisal, was wiser, steadier, more judicious, less authoritarian, but Qassem initiated very significant redistributive efforts). When the Ba'ath took power for a few months in 1963, they executed him on national TV.

Posted at 2:59 pm.

July 9, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Thoughts on the Showdown in Pakistan, the Burqah, and the Psychopathology of "the West"

The world is a strange place. Sooner or later, something occurs to lend at least some credence to even the most crack-brained of arguments.

The example I’m thinking of here regards a showdown between the Pakistani government and a group of religious extremist militants led by two charismatic Islamic clerics that is now holed up in Islamabad’s Red Mosque.

What is striking about this group is the central role of female militants, students at Jamia Hafsa, which touts itself as the largest Islamic university for female students in the world.

Although it’s been around for 15 years, it has recently been engaged in rather aggressive action. Since February these female students have been illegally occupying a government building. Burqah-clad women have been engaged in a vigilante reign of terror that included kidnapping several people from what they said was a brothel. Recently, the clerics in charge have characterized Qaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan’s flagship institution of higher education, as a brothel, and even threatened the use of acid on the handful of uncovered women who still attend.

Although male students of the affiliated Jamia Fareedia are certainly committing more such assaults, the creation of squads of female vigilantes to assault women in the name of Shari’a is a striking innovation – compare it with the modus operandi of the Taliban, often scandalous by the norms of the society they operated in.

Although political Islam as a general phenomenon has often had the active and even vociferous participation of women, the extremist groups most visible since 9/11 have generally not and street violence is usually the domain of men.

Here’s what’s interesting to me about this. The burqah and associated clothing like the niqab, or veil, which only shows the eyes, have loomed large in the fevered imaginings of “the West” for quite some time now.

In the United States, there’s considerable evidence that even wearing a hijab (headscarf), in most parts of the country creates not just discomfort but fear and revulsion in ordinary passersby. The loathsome racist talk-radio host Michael Savage recently suggested that women wearing burqahs were “hateful Nazi[s] who would like to cut your throat and kill your children.”

In England, Jack Straw created a furor when he suggested that women not wear the niqab; he was backed up by Tony Blair. In the Netherlands, the previous government decided to ban the wearing of the niqab for security reasons; it was estimated that the ban might apply to roughly 50 women in the entire country. Although the current government wanted to forget about a ban, two-thirds of the Dutch population supports it.

This March, in Quebec, when people learned that niqab-wearing women would not be required to show their faces in order to vote, the chief electoral officer’s office received so many angry e-mails and phone calls that he had to hire two bodyguards and reverse his decision. In the entire province, 10 to 15 niqab-wearing women might have voted.

Even the much-analyzed French headscarf ban affected maybe 1200 hijab-wearing girls in the whole school system. All of these brouhahas involved complete non-issues whipped up by nasty politicians battening off the Kulturkampf component of the so-called “war on terror.”

The mere sight or even thought of a woman dressed like this seems to tap straight into the atavistic, self-indulgent victimization complex of the non-victimized West, just as with the Danish cartoons – the prophet of the Muslims is insulted, Muslims riot and get killed, nobody who’s not a Muslim is harmed, and we are all victims whose way of life is under threat.

Actually, some of the arguments against the niqab are valid. When Florida courts ruled that a woman who didn’t remove hers for her picture couldn’t get a drivers’ license, it made perfect sense. You can’t identify someone if you can’t see their face. In a situation where niqab-clad women were constantly committing murders, carjackings, and muggings, banning it might be conducive to public order. Of course, we’re talking here about a tiny group of women not known to have committed any crimes.

Indeed, the case of the women of Jamia Hafsa is the first time I know of that these arguments about identification might actually apply – and the first time where the burqah is actually being used, qua Michael Savage, as a threat and symbol of aggression. As is generally, though not quite always, the case with “our” victimization by “their” intolerance, the only victims of this will be Muslims in a country far far away

Posted at 10:45 am

July 2, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Meaningless Slogans and the Antiwar Movement, or, the Critique of Pure Cant

Thomas Jefferson, the father of July 4th, once wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

I am neither so grandiose nor – I hope – so hypocritical, but I do have an implacable hostility toward at least one form of mental tyranny: cant.

The vicinity of the Fourth of July is a particularly appropriate time to take on this particular enemy. I won’t attempt to elaborate right now – Frederick Douglass said it better in 1852 than any of us have since – but it is interesting that we hear so much about the founding fathers fighting for our liberty and so little about how, for many of them (Patrick Henry and even Jefferson, more secretively) one of the key “liberties” they wanted to defend from the British was the right to own slaves.

As this example shows, cant can be just as much the province of the “good guys” as of the “bad.” And, in recent years, as virtually every utterance from the right has become a self-parody, I find myself more focused on the cant of the left.

In particular, perhaps it is time for the left to put to rest the nonsensical slogan, “Support the troops, bring them home.” It is true, as crafters of this slogan have been at pains to point out, that the other side makes precious little sense either. Supporting the troops by not anticipating the dangers, waiting years to adapt Pentagon procurement practices so that they’re equipped as well as possible, and having psychologists deny them rights to combat-related disability benefits because of claims that their PTSD actually results from when their parents didn’t take them to the circus is not exactly in accord with the vernacular definition of “support.” I wouldn’t deny this. But I think their version still makes more sense than the antiwar movement’s version.

“Support the troops, bring them home” sounds a lot to me like “Support the policemen, make sure they don’t have to fight crime” or “Support the ballerinas, keep them from performing dangerous dance steps that could lead to serious joint injuries.” If your daughter was a doctor fighting, say, a malaria epidemic, would you be “supporting” her by trying to get her called away?

Of course, it is true that, unlike said doctor, many of the soldiers want to leave. Do you mean “support the soldiers’ wishes?” Do you really think decisions about war and peace should be made by polling the military? I imagine not.

For whatever reason people join the U.S. military, the truth is that it exists to fight wars abroad. If we fought lots of noble wars abroad from disinterested humanitarian motives and nobody was killed (except, of course, for “bad guys”), and the countries we bombed were transformed into Sugar Candy Mountain, then perhaps that would be a noble goal. As it is, the last war we fought in which our participation was unequivocally a good thing (with lots of horrors embedded within it, of course) was World War II and at the start of that war we barely had a standing military.

The purpose of the war machine created since then is not to defend what George Bush likes to call the “homeland.” Before 9/11, about 8% at most of the military budget was spent on anything potentially related to “defense.” The Army’s Northern Command was created only in 2002. A telling anecdote of Richard Clarke’s: in 1993, when the World Trade Center was bombed, a Naval attaché assisting him was unsure whether domestic attacks were part of the purview of the National Security Council.

The muddled thinking embodied in this slogan is like that at the New York Times, where the editorial staff not long ago managed to say that, although Bush’s occupation of Iraq was clearly a terrible idea, we need a larger army. What do we need that army for if occupations are a bad idea? They couldn’t say.

The war in Iraq is not about to end soon, but it’s already time to look forward and consider the lessons we learn from it, as a nation. The story of the war has been told by a group of liberals for whom this is the one aberration from America’s exceptionalism: the one time we struck first, the one time we used torture, etc. When we use their language in order to be accepted, we forfeit our ability to tell a different story. The price of our intellectual liberty is eternal vigilance.

Posted at 10:23 am
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