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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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May 24, 2005

Afghanistan -- 21st Century Democracy in Action

Hamid Karzai was in Washington this week. He had the obligatory orchestrated lovefest with Bush at a White House press conference, with as much freedom of speech as he would have had if Bush had an actual gun pointed to his head.

It included this paean to Afghan independence:
PRESIDENT KARZAI: Mr. President, I'm here today to thank you for all that you have done for Afghanistan. And we are very, very happy. We are grateful. You sent the Vice President of the United States to come and attend the inauguration in Afghanistan. It was a tremendous honor for us to receive him there, to have him there. It was the manifestation of the commitment of the United States and yourself to the Afghan people to have that day attended by the Vice President. And we are very, very happy more importantly to have had the First Lady to visit us in Afghanistan. We were thrilled. The Afghan women were thrilled. The Afghan site were thrilled. And now you guess whose turn it is now to come to Afghanistan. (Laughter.) So we'll be hoping to receive you there very soon.] ...

The country is much greener than it was in the past few years. I thank you once again for receiving us here and for the support you've given to us all along, and will continue to do so. Thank you.
But, even though it got far less press attention, Karzai expressed a long list of concerns to Bush in the Oval Office.

Shocked by the front-page story in the Times about U.S. forces slowly, brutally torturing two Afghan detainees to death, Karzai called for all Afghan detainees to be transferred to the custody of the government of Afghanistan.

He also called for more control over U.S. forces' operations in Afghanistan to be handed over to his government.

He also blamed the "international community" and, in particular, the United States lack of sufficient support for his government's opium-eradication efforts.

If Afghanistan was truly a sovereign country, then, of course, the least one could expect is that it would have the right to control of detainees on its own soil and to restriction of military operations on its own soil. Bush's response was to completely ignore Karzai's requests, saying only that U.S. operations in Afghanistan were on a "cooperate and consult" basis with the Afghan government.

Bush displays Karzai at the White House to trumpet the great democracy created in Afghanistan, introducing him as the first elected leader in Afghanistan in 5000 years (who was elected in 3000 BC?); at the same time, he makes it very clear that Afghanistan's sovereignty is a mockery and that it is no more than a colonial protectorate of the United States. And nobody wants to see a contradiction. Welcome to democracy in the 21st century.

Under the Same Sun has a very similar post that predates this.

Posted at 8:43 pm

May 18, 2005

My friend Jim Ingalls has just started a new blog, political conScience. He seems to be updating it a couple times a week.

He, along with his partner Sonali Kolhatkar (the host of Uprising, the radio show that started running my Empire Notes Commentaries), is a founder of the Afghan Women's Mission. Both Jim and Sonali maintain active engagement with work going on in Afghanistan and also keep up to date on the larger situation there.

Jim's blog covers a wide variety of posts, including some about science (he's a physicist).

He's just written a solid, informative analysis of the wave of demonstrations touched off in Afghanistan by Newsweek's reporting that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran).

BTW, from what I can gather, the problem with the initial reporting, which caused Newsweek to apologize and later to issue a retraction, was simply that their high-placed government source had said first that he read these claims in an official report of the U.S. Southern Command and later said he might have read the claims from some other source. So the problem is not with the report about the incident but rather with the exact identity of the source. Since recent military reports about torture allegations have been whitewashes, it would be surprising if these claims had made it into an official report. According to Calgacus, in any case, such claims are common.

Anyhow, Jim's analysis makes it clear that, as U.S. occupations continue and as abuse, humiliation, and torture continue, an almost inevitable effect will be to channel legitimate resentment and oppositional feeling into, unfortunately, destructive movements.

With regard to Afghanistan, he concludes, "It is important to see the anti-US protests as symptomatic of a real resentment, but without strengthening democratic forces, that resentment is likely to be channeled by reactionary forces, the warlords, drug lords, and the Taliban."


May 14, 2005

The "smoking gun memo" turned up by the Times of London, which details the British government's knowledge, as of July 23, 2002, at the latest, of the Bush administration's determination to go to war on Iraq no matter what has gotten remarkably little media coverage in the United States.

It includes information like this:
The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.
So even by that point it had been expressed that Bush had made up his mind to go to war, the "regime change" as a motive was illegal but that that was Bush's motive (not "disarming Saddam," as he said so often in later months), that all "diplomatic" efforts would be a sham. And even that the timeline of actions was roughly known (the war was later delayed from January to March because of Blair's insistence on trying to get a Security Council resolution). Note also the reference to the "congressional elections," an open recognition that timing of the drive was partly manipulated to influence the elections (as is virtually always true when the United States goes to war).

Earlier journalistic scoops had made it clear that the Bush administration was firmly resolved on war as early as March 2002, but this is the first document confirming the testimony of often anonymous officials.

The media watchdog group FAIR just recently put out a media advisory about the minimal coverage of the memo in the U.S. media.

Among the points in the advisory is that the Washington Post had not covered the story at all, even though its ombudsman had written acknowledging that it had gotten many complaints from readers.

Fortunately, that lack has been remedied. On Friday, Walter Pincus had a piece about the memo. As befits a subject of this importance, concrete evidence that Bush and Blair were involved in an illegal conspiracy to go to war no matter Iraq's response to political pressure, the article ran on page A18.

Posted at 1:58 pm.

May 13, 2005

Radio Commentary -- The New Jihad

Airing on Flashpoints today:

The State Department 2004 Country Reports on Terrorism came out recently. It states openly what what government analysts have been saying quietly since 2002: that we are in a "new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al-Qa’ida organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al-Qa’ida itself."

It even admits that "WMD technology and know-how is proliferating within the jihadist community."

Most ominous, and most profound, the report says, "Foreign fighters appear to be working to make the insurgency in Iraq what Afghanistan was to the earlier generation of jihadists — a melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training ground, and an indoctrination center. In the months and years ahead, a significant number of fighters who have traveled to Iraq could return to their home countries, exacerbating domestic conflicts or augmenting … existing extremist networks in the communities to which they return."

That's right. Iraq in the aught's is to the world what Afghanistan was to the 80's – with the United States in the role of the Soviet Union.

That first international jihad was created through the connivance of the United States, with the aid of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. The United States started intervening in Afghanistan in July 1979, with the clear idea of provoking the Soviet Union into an invasion, as Zbigniew Brzezinskii admitted openly in a 1998 interview. By December, they had invaded, and the United States was poised to get what it considered "payback" for Vietnam.

$3.5 billion was spent in the largest CIA operation ever, with matching funds from the Saudis. Some of the money was used to take roughly 20,000 Islamic extremists from around the world and bring them to Afghanistan to be trained in sabotage and the use of explosives.

Among them was Abdullah Azzam, who in 1984 founded the Maktab al-Khidmat, the Bureau of Services, which created a database of foreign jihadis and helped get them their travel papers, experience that was invaluable later in getting jihadis into the United States. That organization was the base on which al-Qaeda, an organization founded by Azzam in the late 80's to carry the jihad out of Afghanistan, was built.

Those jihadis, for the most part, left Afghanistan with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and went home – to found Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and similar groups elsewhere. The civil war in Algeria that left 100,000 dead in the 1990's was one byblow of that brilliant decision by the United States; 9/11 was another.

With our penchant for learning from history, we have done it again – but worse. Afghanistan was a backwater; Iraq is central to the Arab world and the site of major holy places for Shi'a and Sunni.

What's worse, in addition to the motive of constructing an empire in the Middle East that controls or influences global oil supplies, there may well be another very particular motive for this reckless gambit.

Bush has often justified the invasion of Iraq by saying that we're taking the war to the jihadis before they bring it to us. As Ted Koppel said on Nightline recently, "It has clearly been a considered and deliberate policy of the US government to fight this war in Iraq so that we won't have to fight it here at home."

The State Department report says, "Iraq remains the central battleground in the global war on terrorism," almost as if the writers are proud of that, as if it's their handiwork.

Certainly, numerous Iraqis I've talked to are of the opinion that making Iraq the battleground is a central reason for the invasion.

Even if this policy made any sense, it would be criminal. Afghanistan lost 1.5 million people so that the United States could get payback; Iraq has lost 130,000 and counting. It's the kind of policy that devastates the chosen battleground.

Also, it makes no sense. The Afghan jihad in the 1980's led to 9/11; this one may lead in time to worse. You'd have to be a fool to think otherwise. Unfortunately, power doesn't merely engender corruption; it engenders stupidity as well.

May 11, 2005

Okay, You Can Have the Money, But Be Good

The Bush administration's $82 billion supplemental spending appropriation, primarily done to fund the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq (but with tsunami relief, "aid" to the Palestinian Authority, and pork for the shipbuilding industry in Maine and Mississippi, inter alia, thrown in), has passed in final form.

It was a foregone conclusion,< and the lopsidedness of the votes (368-58 in the House and 100-0 in the Senate) was not encouraging.

But, Congress does seem, however tentatively, to have taken a stand.

From H.R.1268.PP, Section 6057a (you can search for the full text at
(1) None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act shall be obligated or expended to subject any person in the custody or under the physical control of the United States to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment that is prohibited by the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.
In 6057b, it specifies:
As used in this section--
    (1) the term 'torture' has the meaning given that term in section 2340(1) of title 18, United States Code; and
    (2) the term 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment' means the cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the fifth amendment, eighth amendment, or fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
The definition in 2340(1):
(1) "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
It goes on to define "severe mental pain or suffering" to include things like threat of imminent death or threat to torture or kill someone else, which certainly rules out the not uncommon practice of "mock executions" (a phrase that can hardly do justice to the terror induced by having a gun fired next to your head and knowing that the person firing the gun would just as soon kill you).

Of course, this is the exact definition, and the exact section of code, that Jay Bybee was working from for his infamous memo for Alberto Gonzales in which he concluded that anything with consequences short of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" did not qualify as physical torture.

He also concluded that, in a criminal trial over torture charges, "if the defendant acted knowing that severe pain or suffering was reasonably likely to result from his actions," that did not in itself constitute specific intent to commit torture, and thus the defendant was not liable.

And, of course, the Bush administration steadfastly maintains that its electrocution, beating people to death, and similar unsavory methods do not constitute "torture."

Still, the explicit prohibition of "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment, including any proscribed by the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, does seem to put some teeth in it. There's no way the administration can reasonably claim that the methods employed are alowed by the Constitution (famous last words, right?).

Of course, if it ever comes to a showdown, Congress would have to show that the "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment was done with funds appropriated under this bill, seemingly a difficult task given the fungibility of money.

Overall, though, given the profoundly supine nature of this Congress, this counts as taking a stand.

Note also what they did not take a stand on. The phrase "in the custody or under the physical control of the United States" seems deliberately designed to exempt "extraordinary rendition" of prisoners to be tortured in other countries from any prohibition. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 100-150 prisoners have been "rendered" for torture.

And Section 6057a, clause 2, says,
Nothing in this section shall affect the status of any person under the Geneva Conventions or whether any person is entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Given that the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, it shouldn't have been that difficult for Congress to stand up for Geneva.

Posted at 8:18 pm

May 10, 2005

Democracy in Egypt DOA

Remember the great groundswell of democracy in the Middle East brought about by the enlightened policies of George Bush and the neoconservatives? Why would you? After all, it already played its role in abetting the propanda offensive around the Iraq elections in January.

Still, oddly enough, life goes on in those countries even after their propaganda value for Americans is spent and we are meant to turn our attentions to important matters like runaway brides.

Out of all the signs of emerging democracy in the Middle East, the only one where the Bush administration could even pretend to be standing on principle was Egypt. In Iraq, they had been forced against their will into elections, then engineered a propaganda offensive to make a virtue of necessity. In Palestine, elections, internally directed as they are, cannot possibly impede the occupier. And in Lebanon, the United States capitalized on the assassination of Rafik Hariri in order to try to destabilize a regime in Syria that it sees as an enemy.

Only in Egypt was it apparently putting pressure on a staunch ally to allow democracy and a possible threat to his rule -- primarily by having Condoleezza Rice cancel a trip to Egypt in protest of the imprisonment of opposition politician Ayman Nour.

At the time, my speculation was that quite probably this was a game played with Mubarak, whereby he agree to take a meaningless hit from the Bush administration in order to serve its larger propaganda purposes. At any rate, in this one case where there seemed even the slightest sign of a commitment to democracy-promotion by the administration (unlike Haiti, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), it didn't seem as if anything was actually going to change.

And, lo and behold, Egypt's Parliament has just approved a new electoral law that, while nominally allowing for Mubarak to be contested in the presidential "election" this fall, in actuality makes it nearly impossible to contest him.

Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party controls 90% of the seats in the lower house, the People's Assembly, so passage of the law was very easy.

The key features of the new law:
  • Recognized parties in existence for over 1 year can field a presidential candidate. The Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group with the largest mass base, has no recognized party and cannot compete. Ayman Nour, one of the best-known non-MB oppositional politicians, cannot run because his party, Ghad, is less than a year old.
  • In 2011, only parties with 5% or more of the seats in Parliament can field a candidate. Currently, no opposition party meets that criterion.
  • Independent candidates can run if they get the "support of 250 elected politicians drawn from the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, which is the upper house of Parliament, and the provincial councils in each of 26 governorates." The numbers are such that Mubarak's party can make sure no independent can run.
The director of Kifaya, the pro-democracy umbrella group, says of the new electoral law, "It is a return to a referendum, it is not open elections." Kifaya is calling for a boycott of the September elections.

The Times article linked above, talking about the disappointment engendered after the high hopes of earlier months, says that Mubarak "fed expectations for real change when he said in an unusual series of television interviews in late April that he would be perfectly happy to win just 60 percent of the vote."

There speaks a true democrat.

Posted at 7:16 pm

May 9, 2005

Sectarian Conflict in Iraq

This is perhaps the biggest story in Iraq over the past few months -- the second biggest being the U.S.-engineered Ba'athist restoration in the Iraqi security services, and the concomitant creation of a repressive police state in which Iraqi human rights violations merge seamlessely with American human rights violations. Third, I suppose, would be the revelations about the scale of corruption -- where again, the CPA and the current half-Iraqi half-American system are about equally corrupt.

I haven't been writing about it much, hoping perhaps to wait until I could capture it all. But, of course, the story continues to burgeon.

The three main arenas of sectarian conflict right now are the formation of the government and cabinet, composition and operations of the security forces, and acts of the Sunni insurgents. There are certainly others, like Kurdish ethnic cleansing attempts in Kirkuk, Shiite Islamicization of local government in the south, or the incipient parcelization of Baghdad into armed camps based on sectarian identity, divided no-man's-lands. And, of course, all of these different threads tie into each other very closely.

I hope to address this in a more comprehensive way, but for now just a snippet to show how complicated, confused, and contradictory Iraqi sectarianism is.

Robert Worth recently profiled Fakhri al-Qaisi for the Times. Al-Qaisi is one of the founders of the new National Dialogue Council, an umbrella group of 11 different Sunni political parties, united to exercise some clout in the new assembly.

Even though he is one of the moderates, he is clearly virulently anti-Shi'a. Here he is complaining about the Shi'a politicians' supposed marginalization of Sunnis in the formation of the cabinet:
"They offered us joke ministries," Mr. Qaisi said in an interview in a Baghdad hotel. "What will the resistance do when they hear of this? They will send a car bomb."
There seems perhaps to be an undertone that this is somehow an acceptable response, even though with Sunni holding only 17 out of 275 seats in the assembly, any cabinet seat given to them is because of Shi'a generosity.

The article continues:

During a raid on his house last year, American soldiers threw his pregnant daughter to the floor, and she later miscarried, he said, and his son was so frightened that he has become mentally ill. But Mr. Qaisi seems far less angry at the American troops than at the Shiite militia members who were also in on the raid.

"If the U.S. troops came alone, we would shake their hand," Mr. Qaisi said. "But they brought our enemies with them."

Behind the Shiite religious parties, Mr. Qaisi sees a darker foe: Iran. Like a number of other Sunni politicians, he has taken to calling the Shiite leaders "Safawis" - an allusion to the Safavid rulers who came from what is now Iran to conquer Iraq in the 17th century.

Most tellingly, Mr. Qaisi has a perception of Iraq's most fundamental realities that is utterly opposed to that of the Shiites. He and many other Sunnis believe that much of the terrorism ostensibly carried out by Sunni fighters is in fact directed and financed by Iran. He even says that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist whose network often attacks Shiite mosques and civilians, is largely a front for Iran's Shiite government.

Mr. Qaisi refuses to believe that Shiites make up 60 percent of the population, the figure that has been widely accepted inside and outside Iraq for a number of years. Instead, he believes they are closer to 30 percent - less, he adds, than Iraq's Sunnis.

During my travels in Iraq, none of the Sunnis I spoke to were anywhere near as open in calling Shi'a the enemy, and many said quite the contrary. But I did talk to many who wanted to question the extent of the Shi'a population.

And certainly the central dynamic of the past year has involved Sunni seeing Shi'a as a bigger enemy than the occupying forces and Shi'a seeing Sunni as a bigger enemy than the occupying forces -- in addition to Arabs and Kurds seeing each other as the ultimate enemy.

But what's really remarkable about al-Qaisi and yet very typically Iraqi is that, although he holds these absurd views, all three of his wives are Shi'a.

Reading this article reminded me of the time I interviewed an engineer in Baghdad, someone quite well known to anti-sanctions activists, and out of the blue he began defending Saddam's murderous Anfal campaign against the Kurds to me. I got angry and started criticizing him and he was then at pains to point out that his wife was Kurdish.

Another Sunni Arab, who did some translating for us, was vocal about support for Saddam and about the superiority of Sunni Arabs; at the same time, he had numerous Shi'a friends and did not pay attention to Shi'a vs. Sunni when making friends.

As of that point, the sectarian prejudice, contempt, and anger was much more of a political and much less of a personal thing. This was why Iraqis could look at a history of severe conflict and say with some confidence that civil war and a bloodbath was unlikely.

Now, the violence is becoming more and more personal. As it does, the danger of Iraq dissolving into a welter of violence grows.

Posted at 9:30 pm

May 6, 2005

Anyone Who Moves in the Zone, Even if it's a Three-Year-Old, Should be Killed

Dennis Perrin of Red State Son has kindly typed up a little brief from the latest issue of Harper's. This is a transcript of a radio communication between Israeli soldiers near Rafah, in regard to the killing of 13-year-old Iman al-Hamas last fall:
SENTRY: We spotted an Arab female about 100 meters below our emplacement, near the light armored vehicle gate.

HEADQUARTERS: Observation post "Spain," do you see it?

OBSERVATION POST: Affirmative, it's a young girl. She's now running east.

HQ: What is her position?

OP: She's currently north of the authorized zone.

SENTRY: Very inappropriate location. [Gunfire] OP: She's now behind an embankment, 250 meters from the barracks. She keeps running east. The hits are right on her.

HQ: Are you talking about a girl under ten?

OP: Approximately a ten-year-old girl.

HQ: Roger.

OP: OP to HQ.

HQ: Receiving, over.

OP: She's behind the embankment, dying of fear, the hits are right on her, a centimeter from her.

SENTRY: Our troops are storming toward her now. They are around 70 meters from her.

HQ: I understand that the company commander and his squad are out?

SENTRY: Affirmative, with a few more soldiers.

OP: Receive. Looks like one of the positions dropped her.

HQ: What, did you see the hit? Is she down?

OP: She's down. Right now she isn't moving.

COMPANY COMMANDER [to HQ]: Me and another soldier are going in. [To the squad] Forward, to confirm the kill! CC [to HQ]: We fired and killed her. She has...wearing pants...jeans and a vest, shirt. Also she had a kaffiyeh on her head. I also confirmed the kill. Over.

HQ: Roger.

CC [on general communications band]: Any motion, anyone who moves in the zone, even if it's a three-year-old, should be killed. Over.
Israel denies that there is any specifically authorized practice of "confirming a kill" (which the company commander did by firing at the child at pointblank range).

The company commander, a Druze, now faces three years in prison.

In other news, Congress recently approved Bush's proposed $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority (which he tacked on, like the tsunami aid, to the Iraq military spending supplemental), with some "restrictions."

According to Glenn Kessler in the Post,
the fine print of the document gives $50 million of that money directly to Israel to build terminals for people and goods at checkpoints surrounding Palestinian areas. Another $2 million for Palestinian health care will be provided to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, while the allocation of the rest of the money is tightly prescribed.
Bad enough to give Israel money to build things for the Palestinians, when their general practice is deliberately to destroy Palestinian government buildings, but to give money for health care for Palestinians to Hadassah is done purely to insult. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and the U.S. Congress have that in common.

Posted at 8:00 pm

May 6, 2005

Clarification on MoveOn

Eli Stephens of Left I on the News, while agreeing with me about MoveOn's opportunism regarding the Iraq war and occupation, points out that my earlier post, where I hold them responsible for the actions of Zack Exley, a former staffer, smacks of illegitimate guilt-by-association.

That is, of course, true. I wrote hastily. What I meant is, given the abundant evidence of MoveOn's opportunism on the war, dating from October 2002 when it raised $2 million for four senatorial candidates, at least one of whom, Jean Carnahan, had voted for the war, through its abortive call of last year, quickly forgotten, for national protests against the occupation, to its stunning silence of recent months, that Zack Exley's working for the Blair campaign is the icing on the cake.

BTW, some of you may recall that Normal Solomon wrote a good piece on this subject some time back.

Posted at 6:00 pm

May 5, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Democracy and American Culture in Iraq

My weekly radio commentaries are now being picked up by Flashpoints (which airs on KPFA in the Bay Area, KPFT in Houston, and a couple of other places) as well as by Uprising (KPFK in Los Angeles):

A coherent picture is finally starting to emerge of U.S.-built “democracy” in Iraq. A deeply postmodern administration that consistently believes in symbolism over substance, and that seems to have no recognizable conception of democracy, has built in Iraq exactly what its worst critics might have predicted.

In some spheres, democracy has been reduced to meaninglessness; in others, it has been redefined as corruption, repression, and lack of accountability.

We saw a worldwide orgy of media coverage over the undeniable courage of Iraqis in turning out to vote, complete with purple-stained Republican fingers at the State of the Union address. But for three months, as politicians were locked in sectarian wrangling and refused to form a government, we heard almost nothing. It’s almost enough to make you forget that the point of those elections was to form that government, which was then supposed to do something.

And now that the government has been formed, it is scheduled to lock itself in even more intractable sectarian wrangling over the constitution; meanwhile, no responsible Iraqi body will be addressing the severe needs of the people.

We have a “democratic” Iraqi government that beats, arrests, and intimidates reporters, routinely confiscates TV tapes, and even arrests journalists for “insulting” politicians. Many reporters say they refuse to cover the new Iraqi security forces because of harassment; others have quit their jobs entirely. The Baghdad bureau of al-Jazeera remains closed, as it has been for months. Let’s leave aside the distressingly frequent killing of Arab reporters by American troops.

The new system is ferociously corrupt. Transparency International reports that Iraqi businessmen universally complain about the need for bribery in all dealings with the government; some say the level of corruption is an order of magnitude beyond that of Saddam’s regime in the late years of the sanctions. The report says the new Iraq could become “the biggest corruption scandal in history.”

This comes after the massive corruption of the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which spent or committed over $19 billion of Iraqi oil revenues, much of it to U.S. corporations, but has been unable to account for $8.8 billion of Iraq’s money.

Initially, the administration had grandiose schemes of remaking Iraq in the neoconservative image, with a government stamped “Made in the USA” that had nothing discernibly Iraqi about it. Now that those notions have collapsed completely, they have reversed course and for the past year have been seeking the most efficient of Saddam Hussein’s executioners in the military and from his dreaded Mukhabarat to destroy their enemies for them.

They have started working with informal militias, not under the control of the Iraqi government, to carry out their most deadly missions. The most important, Adnan Thabit’s Special Police Commandos, are drawn mostly from the Saddam-loyalist Republican Guard. Thabit is being advised by Jim Steele, whose last important job was working with El Salvador’s paramilitary death squads.

In El Salvador, the United States at least had the shame to try to hide its connections with the death squads; in Iraq, U.S. officers talk openly about how these militias supposedly won’t feel the constraints that Americans feel. Given that Americans beat detainees to death, administer electric shocks, and carry out mock executions, it is not quite clear what those constraints are.

Perhaps the flagship of the new Iraqi democracy so graciously created by the United States is the TV show “Terror in the Hands of Justice,” which airs twice daily with videotaped confessions of tortured Iraqi resistance fighters. Where, even in the history of repressive police states, have you heard of the like?

The show is Thabit’s brainchild, but the idea of demonizing the resistance by saying they are homosexuals could equally well be his own idea or inspired by the infamous techniques being used by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib.

All in all, the United States has created in Iraq not the slightest shred of representative democracy or liberal culture but rather a twisted amalgam of Iraqi political culture under Saddam and American political culture under Bush.

Usually, when we intervene, we say it’s to inject American culture and democracy when really we’re trying to create a client state where popular aspirations are repressed in favor of U.S. imperial interests. This time, it seems, we actually have injected American culture -- the narrowest, most bigoted form, which is what dominates the country today -- into Iraq.

Posted at 7:45 pm

May 5, 2005

MoveOn's True Colours

A couple days ago, Adam Nagourney had an interesting article in the Times about American political operatives helping in Tony Blair's reelection campaign. Among those mentioned were Karen Hicks, field director for Howard Dean's New Hampshire campaign; Joe Trippi, one-time campaign manager for Dean; and Zack Exley, who not only worked on Dean's and Kerry's campaigns, but before that was on the staff of MoveOn.

I think this is indicative, not just of how superficial and insincere the Dean campaign's opposition to the war was, but also of how fake MoveOn's is. You could have excused their working for Kerry, who supported the war and wanted to win the occupation, by saying that Kerry was at least marginally less in favor of the war than Bush.

But now they're working for Tony Blair, who, on the other side of the pond, is the one who pushed for the Iraq war, who lied about it, and who supported the Bush administration in its premeditated campaign for regime change.

Posted at 2:45 pm

May 4, 2005

More on Lynndie England

Whatever connivance was involved in Lynndie England's plea bargain has been undone, by a combination of a bolt from the blue from Charles Graner and England's own stubborn incapacity to understand that she had done anything wrong.

Testifying at England's sentencing hearing, Graner said that three pictures he had taken, of her posing with a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man were to be used as a "legitimate training aid for other guards." What exactly guards were going to learn from such a picture was apparently not made clear.

Frustrated that statements supposedly made to support mitigation of the sentence kept on verging on protests of innocence, Judge Col. James Pohl stopped the hearing and threw out England's plea, admonishing her, "If you don't want to plead guilty, don't. But you can't plead guilty and say you're not guilty. ... You can't have it both ways."

Posted at 11:58 pm

May 3, 2005

Speculations about Lynndie England

Lynndie England pled guilty to 7 out of 9 original counts with which she was charged. While she pled, the judge almost scuppered the deal when he questioned her (according to the UCMJ, the judge must be assured that the guilty plea is actually true).

From the Post article:

England told the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, that she was sent to Iraq as a records clerk with the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cumberland, Md., and had no training as a prison guard when the Army assigned her to work at Baghdad's toughest prison. When Pohl asked the defendant why she posed for the leash picture, she responded that she had been told to do so by a superior.

"Did you question this procedure?" the judge asked.

"I assumed it was okay," England replied, "because he was an MP [a military police soldier], he had the corrections-officer background. He was older than me."

Pohl appeared troubled by her answer, noting that she had to have knowledge that her actions were wrong to be legally culpable. He told prosecutors that "it's going to be difficult to make a photograph of a lawful act into a crime."

Then, the lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense requested a one-hour recess:

When they returned, England had changed her tone and her explanation, saying she knew at the time that use of the leash "was not only morally wrong but legally wrong." She continued, "I had a choice, but I chose what my friends wanted me to do."

England went on to say that she had deliberately done wrong in posing for other pictures, including one that showed seven naked prisoners forced to form a human pyramid. "I knew it was wrong," she said. "Who would morally do something like that in a U.S. prison?"

Now, it seems obvious that Ms. England is neither very bright nor very reflective and had spent no great amount of thought on the moral questions surrounding her conduct. She simply went along with Graner's wishes, with peer pressure, and didn't have a care in the world about what she was doing -- made all the easier by racist dehumanization of the her victims.

She wasn't even smart enough initially to make a show of repentance and understanding that what she did was wrong until her lawyers coached her once again during the recess.

As Under the Same Sun points out, her claim not to know about the Geneva Conventions, while hardly surprising, has nothing to do with the issue of knowing whether breaking prisoner's fingers, leading naked men around on a leash, and administering electric shocks is wrong

But what really interests me is this. The article in the Post says,
England's defense team has been arguing for nearly a year that her case was part of a bigger picture, initially trying to get top U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to testify at her court-martial about the nation's policies for handling and interrogating detainees. They argued that England was simply doing as she was told, and that as a low-ranking soldier she was not in a position to question orders.
The article in the Times adds this crucial bit of testimony:
"Do you believe any of this conduct was in any way encouraged by a chain of command?" he asked. "No, sir," she said.
I assume that this about-face also occurred after the one-hour recess. Now, put this together with the fact that the evidence against Ms. England was, shall we say, rather graphic and hard to refute, and ask yourself, "What was the plea bargain really about?"

Was it about evidential issues relating to Ms. England's crimes or was it -- at least tacitly -- about an agreement to forget about implicating people higher up in the chain of command, indeed to forget about even subpoena'ing them?

It might be argued that prosecutors were actually worried that England's defense would successfully present her as a mentally defective person incapable of understanding what she was doing and get her totally or partially exonerated on those grounds, but I don't think that's how courts-martial generally operate.

The military officers who would make up the jury would know very well that the decision had been made at the top that these few people in the pictures were to be punished and would furthermore not want to cast the military in an even worse light than it already is by agreeing that the military recruits people who can't tell right from wrong and puts them in charge of prisoners.

So, the evidence is far from conclusive, but the inferential case seems to me quite strong, that the real terms of England's plea bargain were about covering the ass of the military hierarchy.

This is much in accord with the entire conduct of the military in investigating the proliferating torture scandal in the past year. Indeed, I would say that England, Graner, et al., have been prosecuted not primarily because of their crimes but because they took too many pictures.

Posted at 6:52 pm

May 2, 2005

Notes on the Death of Irony

Several days back, on the first anniversary of the televised Abu Ghraib revelations, George W. Bush gave a press conference to "explain" his Social Security plan by saying exactly what he's been saying on every occasion since he first brought the subject up.

In the course of questions, someone asked him about the persistence of the Iraqi resistance, and he said, "There are still some in Iraq who aren't happy with democracy. They want to go back to the old days of tyranny and darkness and torture chambers and mass graves."

Not just on any day, mind you. On the anniversary of the first major torture revelations. By the way, I just discovered a blog called Rummy's Diaries, whose proprietor is systematically going through documents and news reports, including some of the vast trove unearthed by the ACLU, and compiling a chronology (past entries are retrospectively updated as new evidence comes to light).

And after the destruction of Fallujah in November, followed by the quick moving in of heavy equipment for "reconstruction" -- meaning, bulldozing all the bodies off the streets and into, guess what, mass graves. As I wrote about the April assault on Fallujah, they were already forcing the creation of new mass graves because of their bombing, but this time they actually made the mass graves themselves.

And yesterday, Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, was on CNN denouncing North Korea's missile test, saying, "I think they're looking to kind of be bullies in the world."

When Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Tom Lehrer announced the death of satire. Reality, he said, had become a self-parody; no longer could satire improve on it. Still true 32 years later.

Posted at 5:45 am
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