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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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March 27, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq's New Civil War

The war in Iraq seems to have fundamentally changed character.

The violence has reached hitherto unheard-of proportions. In today’s and yesterday’s news reports, at least 30 Iraqis were killed in a bomb blast at a U.S.-Iraqi joint military base west of Mosul; 30 corpses, many headless, were found near Baqubah; 13 corpses, many of them handcuffed before being shot, were found around Baghdad; and, most ominously, somewhere from 16 to 37 supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr killed in a mosque raid carried out by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. In a particularly macabre episode, an Iraqi doctor admitted, presumably under torture by Kurdish security forces, that he had killed 35 patients under his care, members of the Iraqi army and police.

News reports alone show perhaps 50 people a day being killed in Iraq; the true number is, of course, significantly higher. Individual murders don’t even make the news any more.

This level of violence has only been matched during a few months of last summer, when a sensational wave of suicide bombings was unleashed following formation of the Iraqi government in late April. This time, it doesn’t even involve Zarqawi and the suicide bombers, who have drastically decreased their level of attacks. Responding to severe criticism from everyone from the Iraqi insurgency to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda, they have stopped beheading prisoners, cut down on car bombings, and are now reconfiguring, supposedly with an Iraqi leader. In U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s words, “More Iraqis are dying today from the militia violence than from the terrorists.”

At the same time of this explosion of violence, the anti-occupation struggle has fallen to a low ebb. March will see fewer U.S. fatalities than any month since February 2004, before the events of late March and April 2004 permanently altered the character of the occupation.

Although the bombing of the shrine in Samarra on February 22 triggered the shift, it had been building for a long time. The shift is not all peaches and cream for the Bush administration. They appear to have lost control of the country (although they never really had it); the car-bombing campaign of last summer, which gave the same impression, helped drive down Bush’s job approval rating significantly.

Still, the United States seems to be viewing the prospect of Iraqis killing Iraqis and ignoring Americans with, shall we say, great equanimity. Indeed, it plays well into the strategic shift that I wrote about earlier. Although U.S. forces are still occasionally attacking the Sunni insurgency, they are beginning now to openly attack the Shi’a militias, in concert with Iraqi troops.

This serves several purposes. The United States needs to reign in Shi’a militias because the Shi’a political parties they’re associated with have grown too powerful and independent. The sectarian killings provide an excuse to attack Moqtada al-Sadr, who has become their number one enemy – partly because he still opposes the occupation and partly because he has made serious attempts to build unity with Sunnis, including clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars. Joint maneuvers against militias with Iraqi troops serve the goal of trying to detach the Iraqi soldiers’ loyalty from the militias and transfer it to the U.S. military. Simultaneously, those maneuvers, presumably largely with Kurdish troops, help disrupt the Kurdish-Shi’a bloc that had been emerging but that threatened to be hegemonic, reinforcing the current much weaker Kurd-Sunni Arab bloc.

Daniel Pipes, in an op-ed in early March, almost seems to lick his lips as he contemplates Iraq’s possible descent into civil war, pointing out that “when Sunni terrorists target Shiites and vice versa, non-Muslims are less likely to be hurt,” adding that, from his point of view, “Civil war in Iraq … would be a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one.”

Although Pipes’ attitude is probably shared by many neoconservatives, it is not by the Bush administration or the bulk of the foreign policy establishment. This level of violence is not good for U.S. interests. It imperils the oil flow and makes the occupation look like a failure. But if it lays the foundation for permanent ethnic-sectarian feuding by warring factions, all of whom look to the United States to be an “honest broker,” then indeed it will be worth the temporary cost to them.

One thing is for sure: the United States was not asked to invade Iraq by anyone and it is morally culpable for all the resulting mayhem.

Posted at 10:27 am

March 20, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Bush's New National Security Strategy

The Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially over the past four and a half years or so, has been an object lesson in the problems a global empire faces when it tries to solve most of its problems by force, coercion, or diktat.

In the process of carrying out an offensive that was meant to establish and assert an unchallenged and unchallengeable American supremacy, the Bush administration has:
  • Been fought to a standstill in Iraq by a rag-tag insurgency armed with AK-47’s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and which has little or no coherent political vision, in the process losing over 2300 soldiers.
  • At one stroke, removed Iran’s biggest worry in the region, Saddam Hussein, and allowed Iranian influence into Iraq at the highest levels.
  • Provoked a standoff with Iran for which the United States has no good solution – to the point that some members of the foreign policy establishment are suggesting that in the long run the United States will simply have to live with Iran as a nuclear power.
  • Made Iraq a haven for jihadists.
  • Turned world opinion, especially among Muslims, sharply against the United States and its policies.
  • Pushed North Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and become a nuclear power, confirming it even more in its unassailability.
  • Revealed the tightness and precariousness of the global oil market, on which all modern life depends.
  • Heavily damaged U.S. credibility in regard to claims about weapons of mass destruction or anything else having to do with intelligence.
  • Heavily damaged U.S. legitimacy with regard to claims about human rights, democracy, transparency, and accountability, in part through the creation of a global secret gulag where people are tortured and into which innocent people disappear.
  • Traumatized its own military to the point that it sharply rejects the idea of getting into anything like the Iraq occupation in the near future
And that’s just for starters.

In a position like this, a rational administration would back down and change course. Indeed, it has been beset by a chorus of calls from the foreign policy establishment to, among other things,
  • Repudiate the so-called “pre-emption doctrine.”
  • Stop torture and dismantle or restructure its global gulag.
  • Come clean with the American people about its failures in Iraq.
The administration has not been completely immune to the pressures of reality. In particular, it has finally come up with a rational strategy in Iraq that is sharply different from earlier ones. It also spent a good deal of time trying to mend fences with Europe and create a united front on Iran and its potential nuclear program.

But, basically, the administration’s strategy has been to reject all criticism and declare success. On Sunday talk shows for the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, administration officials claimed that Iraq was very far from a civil war, even as the death toll after the Samarra mosque bombing climbs to 2000. Dick Cheney even suggested that those like Zarqawi who have been trying to foment civil war have “reached a stage of desperation,” echoing his fatuous statement last summer that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”

The newly promulgated 2006 National Security Strategy is another case in point. It declares the Bush foreign policy a great success, reaffirms the preemption doctrine, and singles Iran out as a near-term candidate for regime change.

To the old rogues’ list of the State Department, which has now shrunk to Cuba, Iran, Syria, and North Korea, it adds Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe as dictatorships that must go – a new 7-country “axis of evil.” We are currently witnessing one thrust against Belarus, although it is almost certain to fail.

Bush’s democratic logorrhea reaches extreme heights in the new NSS – the word “democracy” appears 52 times, “democracies” 29 times, and “democratic” 43 times. In the coded language of U.S. foreign policy, this suggests that the United States intend to throw its weight around a lot. The document is rather elliptical on the question of significant use of military force, a big open question. When similar language was used on Iraq in the past, it was a cinch Iraq would be invaded; this time, the situation is not so clear, because of past failures and because of the deep irrationality of striking Iran. Still, the new NSS reopens a question that should have been closed. The Bush administration seems as committed to irrationality as it ever was.

Posted at 10:39 am

March 13, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq After Three Years

This Sunday, it will be three years since the United States launched its unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq. The anniversary will be commemorated, as have been the last two, by worldwide protests. Of particular note are decentralized marches across the United States and protests in Iraq itself.

Anniversaries are always a good time to sum up.

The war was not initially justified as liberation or humanitarian intervention. Initially it was about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s supposed links with al-Qaeda. Of course, the claims about WMD were a pastiche of lies and distortions. Their best evidence for the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda was obtained from an al-Qaeda member who was repeatedly tortured until he made up a link to placate his torturers. Even in the Middle Ages, confessions obtained by torture were not considered to be evidence.

Still, after those lies and excuses faded, the most persistent theme for three years now has been about the invasion of Iraq as liberation and the occupation of Iraq as an attempt to help the Iraqi people and build democracy.

Judged on those criteria, there is virtually nothing good to say about the whole enterprise. Before the invasion, Iraqis were suffering under the twin oppressions of Saddam’s despotic rule and a system of comprehensive international sanctions. Iraq had never been able to recover from the massive destruction of infrastructure deliberately carried out by the United States in the first Gulf War. Nothing should have been easier than improving the humanitarian situation; absent positive malevolence toward the people of Iraq, the least you would expect would be some improvement in conditions.

Instead, shockingly, even by the most basic index, gross mortality, Iraqis are actually worse off. Infant mortality has doubled, crime has skyrocketed, and of course Iraqis have been killed wholesale by American and Islamist extremist terrorism. A survey done by American researchers at Johns Hopkins and Columbia and Iraqi researchers at Mustansiriyyah estimated that, in the first 18 months, excess Iraqi mortality, compared with respect to conditions in 2002, amounted to 100,000 dead. Other studies since have tended to confirm that figure roughly; some suggest the number was higher. Since this survey was done before the November 2004 assault on Fallujah, before the spate of suicide bombing attacks last year that probably claimed 6000 lives, and before the explosion of violence by government-affiliated death squads, it is very reasonable now, 36 months into the conflict, to double that number.

This 200,000 comes upon the heels of the hecatombs of the 1990’s, that claimed over 1 million lives, with U.S. involvement.

Iraq is on the verge of open sectarian war. Although conflicts between Kurds and Arabs have been a major problem throughout Iraq’s history and although Sunni-Shi’a inequalities and tensions have also been significant (reaching their worst heights during the 1991 uprising), never has Iraq been in a situation where ordinary people are killing people simply because of their sectarian identity. Although there was mass violence along sectarian lines on a few occasions, it was always through the medium of the despotic state. This can be blamed, in roughly equal measure, on the United States and on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Salafi extremists.

Although the United States was forced, against its attempts to delay, to agree to a timetable for elections and although the elections, despite attempts by the United States to interfere and influence them, were reasonably fair, they have created a government that is almost entirely unresponsive to the people and has one of the worst human rights records in the world.

It would have been too much to expect the United States to bring decent politics to Iraq; after all, it would be nice to see decent politics in this country. But the least you might have expected is that this high-tech, economic superpower could have rebuilt Iraq’s infrastructure. Instead, the United States will be leaving Iraq with fewer hours of electricity per day than it had before the war; before the war, 30% of Iraqis had access to clean water, now it is 22. And things won’t get better, because the reconstruction money, so much of it spent on private mercenaries and corporate profits, has run out and the United States is abandoning near-completed projects and letting them rot.

The Iraqi people never asked to be “liberated.” Other people praying for an end to their despotic regimes must have added a new prayer in the last three years – “Please, God, let us not be liberated by the United States.”

Posted at 6:43 pm

March 6, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Strange Bedfellows: India and the United States

I’m firmly in the anti-nuclear camp. I favor complete abolition of nuclear weapons, even though the immediate effect of such abolition would be to increase the already massive military dominance of the United States and thus, potentially, to extend even further its ability to attack other countries.

That’s partly because the risks of existing stocks of nuclear weapons and of proliferation of weapons into the wrong hands are so great as to outweigh other concerns, but also because I can’t imagine nuclear abolition without fundamental changes in the international political culture that militate against U.S. military interventions.

I was very much against India’s development and then “testing” of nuclear weapons in the late 1990’s. Unlike Iran and North Korea currently, India could claim no genuine need for nuclear weapons. It has never been under threat of attack by the United States, nor, in recent decades, by any regional powers. China has never evinced expansionist aims or any desire to influence India’s politics. Pakistan’s nuclear announcement was necessitated by India’s, not the other way around.

And development of nuclear weapons, even if they are not meant to be used, has pernicious domestic effects far beyond the diversion of resources necessary to make them. They include a cultural valorization of things military and creation of an institutional base for greater military influence over political affairs. These effects are hard to notice in the United States, which has developed glorification of the military and civilian political deference to military demands independently right along with nuclear weapons for the past 60 years. But in a country like India, with a rather different tradition, the effect has been noticeable and not pleasant.

The recent U.S.-India nuclear arms deal, timed to coincide with Bush’s high-profile visit to India, is thus of great concern. It does not bother me so much that he has recognized India’s status as effectively a nuclear power and thus outside the bounds of the Nuclear nonproliferation Treaty (which India never signed). This stance is infinitely preferable to the hypocritical hectoring of past U.S. administrations, which have always acted as if the provisions of the NPT apply to everyone else (even non-signatories) but not to them. The de facto two-tiered structure created by the NPT is illegitimate and unsustainable for the long-term. None of the nuclear powers seems interested in obeying Article VI of the NPT, which calls on them to make progressive arms reductions, eventually disarming completely. The United States doesn’t even allow IAEA inspections.

No, my concerns are different. One, obviously, is that increased use of fissile material, whether in India’s notoriously unsafe nuclear reactors, or to start the next stage of its absurd nuclear arms race with Pakistan, is potentially disastrous.

Another is that this is another major step in India’s strategic realignment as an open U.S. ally. This realignment is particularly tragic since U.S. imperial legitimacy is now at a low ebb. The drive to push through increasingly protectionist and extortionate “free trade” agreements that further institutionalize North-South inequality is faltering badly. Crippling debt service requirements are recognized as illegitimate. South America is alive with people’s movements challenging U.S. hegemony and neoliberal capitalism -- and still taking state power.

The illegal invasion of Iraq, torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram, and war crimes in Iraq make it harder and harder for the United States to lecture the rest of the world – except, somehow, the Indian government, which sat quietly when Bush called on them to join his supposed crusade for democracy and to open up to his favorite multinational corporations.

Reacting to this, New York Times faux journalist Elizabeth Bumiller writes that Bush’s visit abroad, especially to India, provided a welcome respite from the criticism and opposition he faces at home.

That’s something new, that the nearly universally hated Bush would be more comfortable abroad. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s not the Indian people. 250,000 protested Bush’s appearance in Bombay and 100,000 in Delhi. The protests were not only carried out by Muslims, as some news reports have insinuated, but also by the left parties, which have large constituencies. It’s not even the politicians. MPs in the Lok Sabha, India’s equivalent of the House of Commons, protested Bush’s appearance as well; he was unable to address them directly, as Clinton had earlier.

It’s simply the Indian government, tragically out of touch with the concerns of the Indian people and with the zeitgeist, while the rest of the world is slowly waking up and realizing it has the power to oppose the empire.

Posted at 8:54 am
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