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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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June 27, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Doctors and Torture at Guantanamo

The U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has been much in the news recently. The growing clamor from mainstream politicians and newspaper editorial boards to consider shutting down the facility has, of course, been met with announcement of a new $30 million contract for Halliburton to build a new two-story prison.

A great deal of the discussion has included a bizarre controversy over whether detainees at Guantanamo are being tortured or ill-treated, with some Republicans claiming that being there is roughly like a stay at Club Med and Rep. Duncan Hunter's cartoonish display of a plate of lemon chicken to a press conference.

Actually, two things are clear. First, the some detainees at Guantanamo have been tortured. Military and CIA interrogators, sometimes posing as FBI agents, have placed lit cigarettes inside detainees' ears. As Erik Saar, a military translator, details in his book, Inside the Wire, a detainee deemed recalcitrant may be singled out for an "Initial Reaction Force," a team of MPs that goes into his cell and beats him savagely. Sean Baker, an American soldier clad in an orange jumpsuit and designated as a detainee in an IRF training, was beaten so hard that he suffered permanent brain damage.

In addition, there is frequent use of methods that the State Department does not hesitate to designate as torture when practiced by regimes we don't favor prolonged sleep deprivation, extremely painful "stress positions," and shackling of prisoners for up to 24 hours, forcing them to lie in their own wastes.

Second is that the tortures performed at Guantanamo are as nothing compared to what the United States is doing at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include, but are hardly limited to, electric shock, waterboarding and partial asphyxiation, severe beating, prolonged food deprivation, mock executions that last designated as torture even in the infamous Bybee memo, which suggested that major organ failure was required before physical abuse could be considered torture.

In an odd way, revelations about lesser torture techniques are routinely used to effectively cover up greater acts of torture. Although much is made of the claim that no detainees tortured in Guantanamo have been reported killed, as of March the Associated Press had found evidence of at least 108 deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody.

Amid the horrors of America's new gulag archipelago, one new claim should stand out. In an article in the July 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan Marks reveal widespread and systematic involvement of medical personnel in interrogations at Guantanamo.

Claims that confidentiality of patient information is respected at Guatanamo are false. Bloche and Marks discovered that private medical information at Guantanamo is systematically used by special "Behavioral Science Consultation Teams" (or "biscuit teams") to prepare psych profiles for interrogators.

As the authors point out, even the most seemingly innocuous involvement of medical personnel in interrogation and torture is fraught with peril. The line between unethically giving private information to torturers and advising them, based on that information, how best to torture is a thin one, easily crossed by the biscuit teams. From that to direct oversight of torture techniques is just another small step.

The authors concentrate on the fact that involvement of medical personnel put prisoners at greater risk for serious abuse. Even more important, however, is what these actions represent: a perversion of the healer's art. Most people believe that doctors are entitled to greater respect, not because they make more money, but because they are sworn to help people, in particular taking an oath that includes the phrase, "First, do no harm."

In early November, I remember being deeply angered and pained when I saw the photos of handcuffed doctors from Fallujah General Hospital splashed across the front page of the New York Times. The Iraqi doctors I met were among the finest people I knew; during the April assault, some of those same handcuffed doctors had been working 22 hours a day, with hardly any medical equipment, to treat the constant stream of injured. To see these people declared a military target for helping the wounded was unbearable.

The Bush administration has done a great deal of damage in its global crusade; not least, though less visible than the damage done by bombs and bullets, is the destruction and perversion of our noblest impulses.

Posted at 10:56 am

June 24, 2005

Democracy, Americano-Iranian Style, Part 2

An extreme cultural conservative who projects a pseudo-populist message but is really a stalking horse for a group of grim theocrats triumphing in a rigged campaign, complete with reports of menacing thugs placed at the polling booths to influence the vote, against an extremely wealthy business-as-usual establishment figure who is seen as disconnected from the common people? Could it really happen?

The votes are not quite all counted, but it's clear that John Kerry -- I mean Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- has lost the Iranian runoff. Reuters reports that with 13.3 million of a reported 22 million ballots counted, his opponent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has garnered 61.6% of the vote (how much this reflects genuine voter preferences and how much the reported presence of Basij, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards militia, stationed at polling booths in Teheran, is unclear).

Karl Vick's article in the Washington Post, Class Pivotal in Iran Runoff, gives a good sense at the anger of the common Iranian against a small privileged class. He quotes a small fabric vendor: "Business is no good unless you enjoy a government rent or are the son of a cleric. We had one shah, and now we have thousands."

Rafsanjani is very clearly one of the biggest of those "shahs," one of the wealthiest people in the country and a past master at crony capitalism and backroom political deals. His platform included "economic liberalization," not exactly the kind of thing that generally excites the poor.

The clear perception that he was the more pro-Washington candidate -- his platform also included normalization of relations -- may have hurt him. It's not clear. But, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof would have you think, it's hardly the case that every Iranian you meet is "pro-American."

This was a deeply skewed election, by design. Of the two "reform" candidates, one, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, was relatively unknown, and the main one, Mostafa Moeen, was extremely dull and uncharismatic. Real reform candidates, including some firebrands who might have whipped up some support, were excluded by design (although, as I've pointed out before, even with all these caveats, the five "serious" candidates, whose percentages were in double digits, represented far more ideological diversity than the two "serious" candidates in the U.S. elections).

Still, throw in all the caveats you want and I'm reluctantly forced to one conclusion. Given the presence of a remarkable, courageous student movement and a large number of people who want the ideological controls lifted off of their democracy, the fact is that in Iran, just as in the United States, there are far more people than one would like to admit who support extremely conservative interpretations of religion and their intrusion into politics.

Posted at 9:21 pm

June 23, 2005

Adventures in Accountability

Fifteen and a half months after the devastating attacks on the Madrid subway that killed 190 people, a 16-member Spanish parliamentary commission has come out with a 290-page report with two major conclusions.

Says the Guardian,
According to the 290-page document, the Aznar administration largely ignored the increasing threat of an Islamist strike on Spanish soil. Among the warning signs, the panel cited Spain's support for the war in Iraq and the 2003 explosions in Casablanca which killed 24 people at a Spanish social club.

"The Casablanca attacks marked a turning point," the panel concluded, citing testimony from intelligence experts.

"Without a doubt, what most surprised the commission is that the politicians leading the fight against terrorism were conscious of the threat and what measures that should have been taken, and yet they did not act accordingly."
And from the Reuters story:
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, including a tape by an Islamic group saying the attack was a reprisal for Spain's role in Iraq, the PP insisted Basque separatist guerrillas ETA were the prime suspects in the attacks which killed 191 people.

"The objective was to influence public opinion about the authors of the attack and avoid political consequences which might harm the electoral interests of the Popular Party," read the final report. The report alleged the PP was afraid of public outcry if the bombings were linked to its unpopular support for the Iraq war.

"It was clearly an informative attitude inappropriate for a democratic government," said the report.
The government ignored obvious warning signs that might have made it preventable and then it "manipulated" and "twisted" the information to pin the rap on ETA in order to salvage its own political fortunes.

45 and a half months after 9/11, the United States still has no such report -- and, basically, no such investigation (the 9/11 commission steadfastly refused to blame anyone) -- despite the wealth of evidence of incompetence (with regard to 9/11) and malfeasance (connecting Iraq to 9/11).

Talk about a country that desperately needs the rule of law and democratic accountability.

Posted at 4:58 pm

June 22, 2005

Yet More Democracy in Iraq

Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar has just sent around translations of two important articles from al-Hayat.

First, and most telling, 83 of the 275 MPs in the National Assembly (just over 30%) have demanded that al-Jaafari's government negotiate a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, accusing the new Iraqi government of not caring "about the demands of millions of Iraqis."

Of course, among those 83 are members of the Sadrist "Independent National Bloc," they include numerous members of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. Some statements from MPs:
Karim Najati MP, a member of the [majority] Shia "United Iraqi Alliance" [UIA], described the government's request of the extension of the presence of multinational forces in Iraq as "shameful and disgraceful." He pointed to the fact that "there are members in the US Congress opposed to the occupation of Iraq whereas we ask for the troops to stay," adding that "no Arab or Muslim can accept" what al-Jaafari's Government did.

Another member of the UIA, Abdul-Rahman al-Neeimi (Sunni), said that the presence of these troops "confused the security issues." He accused the multinational forces of standing behind attempts at igniting a civil war, asserting that "they have used all possible means in order to provoke sectarian strife in Iraq, but have failed thanks to God." He concluded saying "We tell the occupation forces: Hands off the Iraqi people and let us heal our wounds by our own means."
This news hasn't turned up in a single one of the newspapers in LEXIS-NEXIS's "Major Papers" category, but the true test will be if it also doesn't turn up tomorrow.

Given the obvious, overwhelming coercive force the United States disposes of, including not only its military presence but also control over the reconstruction purse-strings and over the status of Iraq's external debt and its compensation liabilities from the invasion of Kuwait, to have 30% of the Parliament (and it would presumably be more if the Sunni Arabs had voted in significant numbers) call for the government to exert its nominal sovereignty is remarkable. Had Iraq not been deliberately put in such an untenable position by the United States, with its army dismantled so that it can't defend its own borders, it's not difficult to guess that the number on this petition, rather than 83, would be a sizeable majority.

Second: the new Commission on Detainees (a commission of the National Assembly) headed by the UIA claims that the United States is holding prisoners of conscience in Iraq:
The MP said that the number of detainees belonging to [Muqtada] al-Sadr's Current reached 350 and that their names were given to the Iraqi Government, affirming that the majority of them were arrested "preventively and they have not been charged with any accusation until now." He added that the four-member commission has asked the Government, in a memorandum given to the National Assembly, to apply article 15 of the Transitional Administrative Law which stipulates that "nobody can be arrested for more than 24 hours without being charged" and that "no one can be arrested for their religious or political opinions." He asserted that the detainees belonging to [al-Sadr's] Current are "prisoners of opinion and patriotic stances" and fall therefore under the article referred to, adding that they are presently detained in the prisons of "Buka" in Basra, "Badush" in Mosul and "Abu-Ghraib" in Baghdad, and that the conditions of their detention are "very bad and harsh," and that the Government should order their release.
Obviously, insofar as someone is merely politically a part of the Sadrist current, which holds some two dozen members of the National Assembly, and not an armed member of the Mahdi Army, then even a legitimate government's legitimate security forces would not have the right to hold him or her.

Posted at 4:39 pm

June 21, 2005

Iraqi Nationalists vs. Jihadis

Here's a remarkable (if true) piece of news reported by Sabrina Tavernise for the Times:
Late Sunday night, American marines watching the skyline from their second-story perch in an abandoned house here saw a curious thing: in the distance, mortar and gunfire popped, but the volleys did not seem to be aimed at them.

In the dark, one spoke in hushed code words on a radio, and after a minute found the answer.

"Red on red," he said, using a military term for enemy-on-enemy fire.

Marines patrolling this desert region near the Syrian border have for months been seeing a strange new trend in the already complex Iraqi insurgency. Insurgents, they say, have been fighting each other in towns along the Euphrates from Husayba, on the border, to Qaim, farther west. The observations offer a new clue in the hidden world of the insurgency and suggest that there may have been, as American commanders suggest, a split between Islamic militants and local rebels.

A United Nations official who served in Iraq last year and who consulted widely with militant groups said in a telephone interview that there has been a split for some time.

"There is a rift," said the official, who requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the talks he had held. "I'm certain that the nationalist Iraqi part of the insurgency is very much fed up with the Jihadists grabbing the headlines and carrying out the sort of violence that they don't want against innocent civilians."
Of course, there has been for quite some time massive tension between the almost entirely Iraqi military-focused resistance and the jihadist groups that have a mix of Iraqis and other Arab fighters, many of which seem to concentrate on attacks that range from bloody sectarian terrorism to attacks (most of them terrorist as well) on "collaborators" loosely construed as including even people lining up to join the Iraqi police or cleaning women working on U.S. bases. I suppose one should also mention that the pure sectarian terrorist attacks are also included by the groups that commit them under the rubric of attacking "collaborators" through a bizarre determination that Shi'a (and Kurds) are inherently collaborators.

Before the ascendancy of the latter sort of attack, one would have been hard-pressed to find any Iraqi who would defend them, outside of a vanishingly small group of religious extremists. No doubt, it would still be very hard to find Iraqis to defend them openly, but tensions have escalated to the point that personal animosities and personal violence on a purely sectarian basis is now common.

For anyone genuinely interested in a pan-Iraqi anti-occupation resistance movement, or, indeed, anyone genuinely interested in a decent future for Iraq, both the proliferation of sectarian violence and the fact that these spectacular terrorist attacks overshadow the military resistance must be very galling. And, indeed, we have seen many statements to that effect emanating from resistance groups (remarkable given how few of their communications get into the English media). I wrote about such communications for the first time almost a year ago.

And yet, given all this animosity, this is the first I've heard or even imagined about open warfare. No doubt covert assassination as part of various political power plays has occurred, but not to any great extent within the mostly Sunni armed groups.

This is not surprising; although there are acrimonious political differences, warfare against a common enemy creates a sense of solidarity. Even if you don't like your fellow soldiers (and even if you think they're pursuing a totally counterproductive strategy), you don't kill them for it. The Vietnam War is a case in point. Racial and political tensions within the U.S. Army reached sensational levels; opposition to the war was rampant. And yet, violence against other soldiers was largely taboo; even fragging incidents had to do more with angers at officers for exposing oneself to risk than with moral condemnation of their actions. This is one of the universals of war; when helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson turned his guns on his fellow soldiers at My Lai and threatened them, he was performing a truly exceptional act.

Unfortunately, the continued occupation and in particular the two assaults on Fallujah clearly forged the same kind of battle solidarity between groups that have actually fundamentally different aims (foreign jihadist groups want U.S. soldiers to stay in Iraq, for example). In fact, it's always been my contention that the best way to deal with jihadist terrorism in Iraq is for U.S. troops to leave so that those groups, to the extent they continue to exist, cannot cloak themselves in the mantle of the anti-occupation struggle; at that point, it would be quite a simple matter for Iraqis to deal with them.

Not to mention the fact that Bush's avowed plan of making U.S. troops in Iraq a magnet for jihadi groups is not exactly designed with the welfare of Iraqis in mind; what's more, Iraqis are largely aware of this and very much resent the U.S. regime change for opening Iraq's borders.

Posted at 8:42 pm

June 20, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Democracy, Americano-Iranian Style

Iran has a weird political system. On the one hand, it has a very long tradition of voting, dating back to the promulgation of its first modern constitution in 1906.

On the other, for most of that past century, there has been some kind of filtering process. First, there was the monarchy Reza Khan and then his son, Mohammed Reza Shah. Later, after the shah's downfall, a rather different system emerged. A supreme leader is selected on the basis of his Islamic scholarship; he heads a Guardians' Council composed of Islamic scholars. All candidates for political office must be approved by the Council on the basis of adherence to approved interpretations of Islamic doctrines and all decisions of the elected government are subject to potential review by the Council on the same grounds.

With that very large caveat, Iran has a democratic political process, with universal suffrage from the age of 15.

This doesn't sound very democratic, and yet, I am struck by a certain parallel to our system.

The tenets of laissez-faire free market capitalism play roughly the role in our system that Khamenei's interpretations of sharia play in theirs. Instead of a Guardians' Council, we have an amorphous, self-appointed group of big funders who decide whether a candidate is financially viable; for presidential elections, we also have a commission that was set up to keep all the other candidates out of the nationally televised debates.

And, while the president can apparently do whatever he wants when it comes to foreign policy, major attempts at domestic legislation almost always have to gain approval from unappointed corporations. Even Bill Clinton's very non-subversive attempt at universal health-care could get nowhere because it was ruled a violation of the insurance companies' creed.

In the United States, mechanisms of exclusion are mostly informal and hidden behind a veneer of free choice, while in Iran they appear carved in imperishable stone. Actually, both may be similarly malleable. It would take massive popular mobilizations to break out of this system of exclusion here; a similar level of mobilization in Iran might well force even conservative clerics to moderate their interpretation of religious doctrines.

In both cases, it's really a question of degree more than one of rock-hard principle.

Iran has taken a very undemocratic turn recently. Out of over 1000 candidates for president, all but six were rejected by the Guardians' Council. Later, at Khamenei's insistence, they reinstated the reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen and a few others.

Once the Council reversed itself, and even without including real reform candidates like Reza Khatami, the main candidates offered a far wider range of viable political choices than did the last American election.

The front-runner, with 21%, is former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, generally called a moderate, but who calls himself a "fundamentalist reformer." Second, with 19.5%, is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guard and a hard-line conservative who has much support among the poor. Three other candidates got double-digit percentages, with Moeen coming in fifth.

The runoff will include only the first two the fundamentalist reformer vs. the fundamentalist with no hint of reform about him. Sounds like Bush vs. Kerry.

Harsh as the Guardians' Council filter is, at least with regard to political range, it doesn't compare with the filter imposed by the two-party system. You could say we don't need that range here because people don't have the range of political views they have in Iran, and you wouldn't exactly be wrong; but there is a pretty obvious chicken-and-egg problem here.

This was a rather undemocratic election, certainly as compared with those in 1997 that first ushered in Mohammad Khatami, the current president. And yet it can still be compared with our last election. It's true that there are allegations of vote-tampering in the Iranian election; of course, that couldn't happen here.

One last set of comparisons. The United States wins hands-down when it comes to protection of individual civil rights; no contest from Iran. On the other hand, here's another index of democracy: ability to criticize the head of state to his face. Last year, on Student Day at Teheran University, Khatami was heckled and forced to account for his capitulation to the hard-line clerics; he defended himself feebly and entreated students not to heckle. If you can imagine that happening to Bush, or even Clinton, you're living on a different planet.

Audio

Posted at 10:48 am

June 17, 2005

Fragging, Polls, and an Unwinnable War

A potentially significant development from Iraq:
A U.S. Army staff sergeant has been charged with premeditated murder in the deaths of two soldiers including the suspect's commanding officer this month at their base outside the city of Tikrit, military officials said Thursday.

The two suffered fatal wounds in a series of June 7 explosions that struck as they conferred in a room on a base, situated on the compound of a former palace of Saddam Hussein. The two officers died the next day. Officials initially reported that the explosions were mortar strikes.

The charges against Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, 37, are believed to represent the first suspected case of "fragging," military slang for the killing of an officer by a subordinate, in Iraq.
There was one previous incident of fragging, in Kuwait shortly before the invasion. That one was clearly a one-off occurrence. This one is potentially more serious, although the complex of reasons and opportunities (not to mention the breakdown of Army discipline) that made fragging so common in the Vietnam War, especially in the later stages, don't really exist in Iraq. It takes a lot more than just disagreement with the war, anger with a commanding officer, and general frustration (all of which are, of course, plentiful in Iraq)to make fragging a thinkable option for a soldier.

Still, there's no question that this is not just an ordinary piece of news.

And it's instructive to juxtapose this with Tom Lasseter's article of last Sunday that quotes senior U.S. military commanders who have come to the conclusion that they cannot defeat the insurgency through military operations alone:
"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that ... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military's efforts "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" - pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.

"Like in Baghdad," Casey said during an interview with two newspaper reporters, including one from Knight Ridder, last week. "We push in Baghdad - they're down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week - but in north-center (Iraq) ... they've gone up," he said. "The political process will be the decisive element."

The recognition that a military solution is not in the offing has led U.S. and Iraqi officials to signal they are willing to negotiate with insurgent groups, or their intermediaries.
Then throw into the mix the recent collapse in Bush's poll numbers -- as in the New York Times/CBS poll that made the front page of today's Times, with only 37% approving Bush's handling of Iraq and 45% thinking the invasion was the right thing versus 51% saying it wasn't. Other polls have showed that, not only are Bush's Iraq approval ratings very low, but for the first time, his "war on terrorism" ratings have dipped below 50% (like this Washington Post-ABC News poll showing 52% of respondents said Bush's policies have not made America safer.

Even before all these little signs, troop morale in Iraq was very low and that of the American public (insofar as it was concerned about Iraq) was not much higher. But in the past month or two, that already low morale has shown some signs of collapsing.

Other than the cumulative effects of dragging out the occupation, the only thing I can really point to as a cause is the spate of violence in Iraq since the April 28 formation of the new government (the increased traction of the Downing Street memo is feeding this disaffection, but simply because of timing doesn't seem like the cause). That said violence would make a noticeable dent in U.S. poll numbers is surprising, considering their relative invulnerability to such details as what's actually going on, but it seems to be the case (I think shenanigans in Congress over Terry Schiavo and Tom Delay are also contributing to the background).

Undoubtedly, there will be points where the administration can revive morale, like the next elections in Iraq. But there is at least the possibility that some corner is being turned.

Posted at 1:31 pm

June 13, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Bolivia and the Indigenous Reconquista

The last few weeks in Bolivia have been nothing short of astonishing. In 2000, in what was dubbed the "Water War," the people of Cochabamba expelled an international consortium headed by Bechtel that had taken over their water supply and jacked up prices. In 2003, the people inaugurated the "Gas War" because of rage at a foreign investment deal that would give Bolivians only a tiny fraction of the total profits to be made from extracting and selling their natural gas (just as had been the case with 500 years of extraction of silver and tin). In October of that year, the Gas War claimed a head of state, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who had to resign and go in disgrace to Miami.

This time around, in the second stage of the Gas War, things have gone far beyond that. Another head of state, Carlos Mesa, is gone and, unlike in 2003, he was not replaced by his natural constitutional successor. That would have been Hormando Vaca Diez, head of the Senate, hated as a feudal plantation owner with a violent law-and-order fetish; though desperately desiring power, he had to agree not to take the presidency, instead allowing it to pass to the head of the Supreme Court.

Re-nationalization of Bolivian gas is now permanently on the agenda.

Ordinarily, we could simply stop there and say, in this post-Cold-War political climate, this much is all that we could possibly expect. But, after 25 years of there being no alternative, something new is stirring in the air most particularly, in the rarefied air of El Alto, the massive Andean shantytown that is the world's gateway to La Paz, Bolivia's capital.

To understand these events fully requires terms that we were told history had forgotten much as the indigenous were told history had forgotten them.

Here's one: dual power. This is a situation in which popular movements, while not having overthrown a state, have removed the state's monopoly on control. Not only can the popular movements exercise direct political power (rather than merely attempting to influence elected representatives), the state is conversely highly constrained in the exertion of power.

This situation has existed in Bolivia for some weeks and continues, at least at the moment.

Miners, farm-workers, and coca-growers organized; the indigenous majority of Bolivia, Quechua, Aymara, Chiquitano, and Guarani, mobilized. Making clever use of Bolivia's geography, they paralyzed the country. The neighborhood association of El Alto mobilized to lay siege to La Paz much as the followers of Tupac Katari did over 200 years ago. Gas and oil fields around the country had been seized; and a variously estimated 70 to 120 roadblocks at strategic points had brought road traffic to a standstill. With that leverage, the government had to take these movements very seriously.

Here's another long-forgotten word: revolution. The idea is out there. For many political leaders on the far left of the popular mobilizations, it took the form of a push for a Constituent Assembly that would supersede the existing government and write a new constitution for Bolivia. This might start with codifying the nationalization of all Bolivia's natural resources, but it wouldn't be legally required to stop anywhere; an entirely new political system could be inaugurated.

This incipient revolution has been no tea party. It has involved miners marching with sticks of dynamite and angry verbal battles between political organizations committed to the struggle and people tired of cooking with firewood and dramatically rising food prices. And yet, to the remarkable credit of all Bolivians, only one person has been killed during this evolving drama, killed, of course, by the state security forces.

After 500 years of massacre, genocide, rape, slavery, torture, and exploitation, that the indigenous of Bolivia should begin their reconquista so peacefully staggers the imagination and, one hopes, stretches it as well.

It will not happen right now. Splits on the left, the difficulties imposed by these tactics, and the general inhospitability of the world to change from the roots have, I think, already caused this revolutionary tide to start ebbing. It could hardly have been otherwise. But this I will predict: this is not the last time the Indians of Bolivia will enhance our political vocabularies.

Posted at 10:45 am

June 8, 2005

A Little Historical Irony

Howard French has an article in the Times today about a new Chinese crackdown on bloggers and personal web site owners, who will now be required to register with the government. This would normally be news in the "dog bites man" category; after all, despite the fact that Thomas Friedman constantly trumpets the Internet's liberatory potential, it actually has considerable liberatory potential (in societies that thrive on information control rather than induced apathy, information selection, and spin -- in the latter, it is merely a useful tool).

But one thing caught my eye. President Hu has been justifying recent measures against free expression by warning that free expression could lead to insurrection -- which he does by quoting Mao's famous dictum, ""A spark from heaven can light up an entire plain" (normally rendered "A single spark can start a prairie fire").

The irony, of course, is that Mao was in favor of revolution and said it to suggest the possibility of revolution at a time (1930) when the Chinese Communists were very beleaguered, while Hu has seamlessly and shamelessly appropriated it to justify attempts to make sure no revolution occurs.

Our brave new world abounds in such historical ironies. Grover Norquist hangs a portrait of Lenin in his living room (and quotes him frequently), Nazim Hikmet's words are used to sell inclusion of Turkey in the EU, Business Week puts Jack Welch on the cover wearing a beret with a Red Star in the middle (like the iconic picture of Che Guevara). It's part of the condition of postmodernity.

To me, one of the more interesting ones is that Tom Paine, perhaps the most authentically American (for all that he was English by birth) leftist and revolutionary figure, is remembered, quoted, and praised far more by the right wing than by the left (with exceptions like tompaine.com and the Green Party's newsletter, Common Sense).

Posted at 7:20 pm

June 6, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Imperial Hegemony and the OAS

Even its recent "democratic" repackaging cannot halt the headlong slide of the American imperium and its legitimacy. Bogged down in a mindlessly destructive war in Iraq, rendered impotent by a handful of poorly trained and lightly armed guerillas, the empire has been unable to keep events, and countries, from slipping like grains of sand through its increasingly tightening fingers.

The area that gets the most attention in this regard is, of course, the Middle East. Despite the sound-bites crafted by executives of Saatchi and Saatchi for Lebanon's Cedar Revolution and Laura Bush's nonsense about Suzanne Mubarak's dedication to women's rights as Mubarak supporters were beating and sexually harassing female pro-democracy activists in the streets, the larger story is clearly that the United States is making the people of that part of the world its enemy. Greater democratization, as in greater expression of the popular will, will over the long run mean fiercer and fiercer opposition to U.S. hegemony and, indeed, to anything remotely associated with the United States.

In the Middle East, however, that loss of U.S. imperial prestige is really only a consideration for the long term excepting in Iraq, where it's a matter of daily headlines. There is another region of the world, however, where that loss is exploding into significance right now.

That place, not surprisingly, is the true crucible of global democratization, South America. It is that continent, so long and so painfully dominated by the Colossus of the North, and not that same Colossus, that has something real to teach the world about democracy. The progress South America has managed to make in its noble experiment has largely been enabled by the Bush administration's imperial overstretch and consequent incapacity to enforce its imperial prerogatives in its own backyard.

This administration has, of course, meddled in Latin America. The coup attempt in Venezuela, continuing support to the opposition thereafter, the successful coup in Haiti and the subsequent international occupation both had U.S. complicity at the core.

But more often it has found itself unable to do much. The referendum in Venezuela was a huge blow to U.S. meddling, which has not recovered; the administration is floundering for a strategy to deal with Chavez. Brazil has won suits against the United States at the WTO, with minimal response. And Argentina recently asserted the right of sovereign default on debt, something no one had talked about for decades. It told creditors to whom it owed over $100 billion that they would have to take 30 cents on the dollar, with no negotiation; they meekly accepted it, and the United States had little to say.

And now, the Organization of American States is refusing to go along with the latest administration offensive.

On Sunday, Condoleezza Rice delivered an impassioned address to the OAS General Assembly, in which she proposed that the organization hold accountable "leaders who are elected democratically" to make sure that they exercise their "responsibility to govern democratically" an obvious reference to Chavez.

The concrete proposal of the Bush administration, that the OAS establish a permanent committee that would "monitor the exercise of democracy in the hemisphere," was resoundingly rejected at the meeting. So concerned is the administration that George W. Bush plans to address the OAS today.

In rejecting this idea, the OAS is going against the very logic of its creation at the initiative of the United States to serve as a legitimating body for U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere. Although the United States has had some difficulties dominating the OAS in times past, by the early 90's, it seemed to have established complete control. A decade later, that control is in tatters; the organization won't even approve something as seemingly legitimate as monitoring the exercise of democracy because they understand this is code for removal of Chavez and other leaders the United States finds offensive.

This says a great deal about both the decay of U.S. hegemony in its historical heartland and the emerging democratic sentiment in South America. Yet I still find myself torn. Perhaps the OAS actually should create that committee to monitor the exercise of democracy in the United States.

Posted at 11:00 am
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