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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 29, 2006

Haditha Commentaries (two parts)

Haditha is Arabic for My Lai

One day in November 2005, Marines in Haditha decided to take revenge for the death of one of their comrades from an IED by deliberately murdering 23 innocent, unarmed men, women, and children. They went into their houses and shot them at close range. Adults begged and pleaded and attempted to save their children by shielding them with their bodies, praying to the same god the soldiers pray to.

Afterward, the Marines lied to cover up their actions. The eight helpless men they slaughtered became “insurgents.” The other 15, necessarily “civilians” because of age or sex, they first claimed were also victims of the same IED; later, some were supposed to have been “collateral damage” of a supposed “exchange of gunfire” with said “insurgents.”

Unluckily for them, a journalism student had taken video of the bodies in the Haditha morgue, with images that showed victims shot in the head from close range in execution-style killings. According to Rep. John Murtha, speaking last week to the press and on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the military investigation of the incident will uphold the above claims.

Although Murtha was much more interested in making excuses for the Marines because of the stressful nature of the situation they were being put in than in talking about the actual incident, the old militarist deserves credit. When Matthews tried to spin the incident, Murtha calmly corrected him and said, no, there was no battle, no exchange of gunfire, no explosion – the troops killed 23 people “in cold blood.” When Matthews asked him if this was like My Lai, Murtha quite honestly said it was.

Indeed, the parallel to the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, where American soldiers slaughtered up to 500 Vietnamese civilians, lining men, women, and children up to be machine-gunned, is inescapable. The scale is smaller and most likely no women were raped this time, but the bestiality of the Haditha massacre is equivalent.

Now is not the time to bleat about our “support” for “the troops.” These particular depraved murderers deserve the best of medical care when they get home – but they should get it in prison.

Although for most Americans My Lai has somehow become a metonym for all American crimes in Vietnam, the truth is that My Lai was simply the tip of the iceberg. Smaller-scale massacres were common; in some areas, the indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese was standard operating procedure.

Haditha is also the tip of an iceberg. Two aspects of the incident suggest the possibility that there have been many more just like it. First, the attempted coverup, with stories about a firefight and collateral damage. Had it not been for video evidence that contradicted this, it’s very unlikely a military investigation would have been anything more than a rubber stamp.

Second, the attempt to pass off the eight men as insurgents. This, of course, encapsulates the logic of the U.S. military in the worst areas. During the second assault on Fallujah, for example, the operative principle was that any “military age male” in the city was presumptively a fighter and thus subject to attack. Plant a gun on a man you’ve killed, or, for that matter, a shovel, and instantly he’s an “insurgent.”

Haditha also connects organically to a whole series of different ways to kill civilians – checkpoint killings by trigger-happy soldiers, indiscriminate return fire in crowded civilian areas, use of area weapons like 2000-pound bombs on “suspected insurgents,” and a general “shoot first ask questions later” policy – that frequently amounts to, if not deliberate murder, a depraved indifference to Iraqi life. Then add on to that incidents like the two 2004 assaults on Fallujah, where civilian “collateral damage” is so widespread as to be a feature rather than a bug.

An innumerate and unempathetic American public was never able to comprehend the enormity of the crime that was the Vietnam War. To this day, people estimate that perhaps 100,000 Vietnamese – 3 to 5% of the actual number – were killed. While it was going on, the massive bombardment, the devastation of the ecosystem, the systematic destruction of life in certain rural areas, did not fully register with the vast majority of Americans. It was only the My Lai massacre that brought home to them the savage immorality of the war. Although Tet marked a turning point regarding winnability of the war, it was My Lai that turned the public morally against the war.

The time is ripe for a similar transformation regarding Iraq. So far, the brutality of parts of the insurgency on the one hand and the valorization of the troops on the other have made it difficult for any moral case against the war to be made (it’s hard mentally or emotionally to associate immoral acts with heroes and choirboys, let alone the heroic choirboys who are constantly presented to us). That must change now, and the Haditha massacre shows the way. Haditha is, indeed, Arabic for My Lai.

Haditha Massacre, Part Two: The Lessons We Learn

In the past several days, the Haditha massacre has been covered in depth by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and TIME magazine, as well as garnering some network news coverage. So far, local and regional papers have not followed suit.

When the results of the military investigation are released, supposedly next week, the level of media coverage should increase further.

John Murtha and even Republican John Warner of the Senate Armed Services Committee say that there was a coverup of the incident that quite clearly involved higher-up officers in the Marines. According to Murtha, “Until March, there was no serious investigation. There was an investigation right afterward, but then it was stifled.” Had it not been for the Iraqi journalism student’s video of the bodies, turned over by TIME magazine to military authorities, there would have been no investigation at all. Without further video evidence, like a Marine’s cell-phone picture of Iraqis kneeling before they were shot, the initial conclusion of the investigators, that the incident was a mere example of “collateral damage,” would likely have been sustained.

The U.S. news media effectively helped to keep the story under wraps. Although TIME, the Independent, and other foreign media had covered it months earlier, until Murtha spoke up at a May 17 press conference, essentially nobody else had picked up the story – even though a massacre of civilians by U.S. troops is unquestionably newsworthy.

Despite some consternation within official ranks over this story, there are already signs that an American public conditioned by longstanding prejudices to see the Iraq occupation as a savage bellum omnium contra omnes involving senseless Iraqis, with American troops trying vainly to impose order, will find it hard to process a story about atrocities committed by those same U.S. troops, much less one that suggests what an atrocity the whole occupation is. The predictable reprise of the Abu Ghraib “a few rotten apples” spin from the right wing, along with denunciations of John Murtha and others for attacking the troops will not help; neither, in turn, will Murtha’s and others’ constant protestations that they are not attacking the troops but supporting them nor their invocations of the great stress the Marines were under that forced them to go and shoot small children at point-blank range.

To understand the kind of intellectual and moral culture these revelations will fall into, one need look no further than Maureen Dowd’s last column. A sensitive humanist and liberal, she is clearly disturbed by the killings. And yet the upshot of her piece is this: the occupation of Iraq is making us become like them. We should not allow our contact with this particular heart of darkness to make us into them.

It is true that there are groups in Iraq that have distinguished themselves by phenomenal, senseless brutality. Even so, it is galling for America to invade a country, occupy it, destroy its social structures, cause the death of hundreds of thousands, kill tens of thousands itself, permanently destabilize the country, and even, occasionally, deliberately murder civilians, and have the only lesson be that we shouldn’t let Iraqi brutality contaminate us.

Two other stories will have to be covered in order for the American public to make sense of this story – in addition to the obvious one that Haditha is the tip of the iceberg. First, it is not true, as Murtha suggested, that lack of training has anything to do with this. On the contrary, U.S. military training makes such incidents inevitable. Soldiers march to chants like “Kill! Kill! Kill! Blood makes the grass grow.” This is not mindless sadism, but rather a specifically developed regimen designed to overcome the natural human aversion to killing another human. Soldiers are made into killing machines; a culture that will do this on the one hand and on the other constantly tout “humanitarian intervention,” where soldiers are supposed to safeguard the interests of a civilian population, is a culture in deep denial.

Second, racism and the peculiar brew of racialized militant nationalism and religion in the wake of 9/11. British officers have remarked numerous times on how U.S. interaction with Iraqis is characterized by racism. Remarking on the propensity of U.S. troops to use massive return fire in civilian areas, something it’s hard to imagine them doing in, say, Europe, one British officer said, “They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen.” This component has been ignored for too long.

Even My Lai, unfortunately, did not teach Americans lasting lessons of the kind they really need to learn. It is unquestionably up to the antiwar movement to try to ensure that Haditha does.

Posted at 11:08 am

May 15, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Big Brother and You: The Latest From the NSA

NOTE: To date, my weekly commentaries have been short and sweet because I also record them for radio. Thus, they have to be between 700 and 750 words. This week, I'm posting a longer and more fleshed out version, with links.

Big Brother and You: The Latest From the NSA

Big Brother is watching you. At least when you’re on the phone -- he knows what numbers you’ve called, how many times and for how long, what numbers people at those numbers have called, and so on.

Last week’s revelation that, for almost five years now, the National Security Agency has gotten AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth to turn over all the calling records of all their clients, marks a qualitatively new step in the Bush administration’s post-9/11 creation of the panoptic state, one of its key goals in the constantly metastasizing “war on terror.”

Before now, every step in the increase of domestic surveillance and repression was, for all practical purposes, targeted at a small minority of people. The Justice Department’s dragnet put out shortly after 9/11 affected South Asians and Arabs primarily, as did the later “special registrations.” Extended detentions and curtailment of rights up to and including habeas corpus affected small numbers of supposed “terror suspects” (again from those same ethnic groups). The “no-fly list” was the same, although the so-called “terror suspects” on that list included significant numbers of nonviolent activists. Pentagon surveillance of domestic antiwar groups also didn’t touch normal people. Even the warrantless NSA wiretapping revealed last fall supposedly affected about 500 people at a time, a total of several thousand since 9/11. And, we were assured, except for a few cases of error in placing the location of a cell phone, at least one end of those monitored conversations had to be in a foreign country.

Not only did those measures affect small groups and not the general public, they affected groups the public either hates, dislikes, or at the least doesn’t give a damn about. Arabs, South Asians, foreigners trying to get into the country, people with alleged terrorist connections, and last but not least, leftist activists.

The upshot was that, despite early and constant agitation by activists about the PATRIOT Act and its successors, a notable majority of the public has favored these measures (polls in 2005 and early 2006 usually showed 50-60% in support of the Patriot Act and 30-40% against – see

Although the primary rationale was always that these measures were supposedly necessary for fighting terrorism, it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that the real reason was that normal “middle Americans” did not believe these measures applied to them. In a so-called “war” notable for the lack of any calls to sacrifice by the leadership and any desire for sacrifice by the public, it was hard to believe that a majority would support real invasions of their privacy in order to “fight terrorism.”

Those suspicions have been corroborated. These latest measures affect everyone. The Rocky-Mountain-based Qwest did not turn over its records to the NSA, citing legal concerns, so if you use Qwest and only call people who use Qwest and they only call people who use Qwest and so on, you’re fine. For the rest of us, the vast majority, the government now has access to a huge array of extremely intimate information about us.

Although the data collected is simply call records and not actual contents of the calls, it would be child’s play for an investigator using those records to figure out whether you’re having an affair, making illegal bets on the Rose Bowl, or one of the myriad of other things that ordinary people would rather not have found out. If this program is actually deemed legal by the courts, then those results could, in turn, potentially be used to obtain search warrants – giving the final coup de grace to the “probable cause” requirement, which has been under assault in the courts for 25 years and which CIA-Director-designate Michael Hayden, who implemented this program at President Bush’s behest, does not believe is part of the Fourth Amendment.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what the government intends to do with all of this information. The avowed intention of the NSA is to use this data to perform “social network analysis,” to see the pattern of linkages between terror suspects and others. Analysis of those patterns can tell whether different suspects are part of a cell, whether different cells are part of an organization, whether hitherto unknown people are involved, and so on. In theory, analysis of that kind can be a powerful investigative tool. In practice, the NSA deals with 650 million intercepts a day, only an infinitesimal fraction of which ever go in front of an actual human analyst. On September 10, the NSA intercepted two transmissions in Afghanistan, one saying "The match begins tomorrow" and the other, "Tomorrow is zero hour." They weren’t translated until September 12; to this day, if dealing with potential attacks was the primary consideration, the best investment would be in more Arabic translators. Social network analyst Vardis Krebs, interviewed by, dismisses this approach as counterproductive, saying, "If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense."

Those problems are further exacerbated by the way we know that this administration uses such data. First, they develop an idée fixe about who their enemy is and what he is doing, then they try to manipulate that data to prove what they already “know” to be true. This takes forms that range from the Pentagon spying on antiwar groups holding peaceful vigils to torturing captured al-Qaeda operatives until they “admit” nonexistent links with Saddam Hussein’s government.

But even if this information is useless for foiling terrorist plots, other potential uses abound. What I wonder about most with this administration that has done its best to identify the Republican Party and, indeed, the party’s right wing, with the “national interest” and “national security” (to the point that even the Democrats are upset) is whether any of this information has been or will be used for Nixon-style “dirty tricks” against political opponents. If it’s done carefully, it might not at all be obvious that NSA-obtained information was being used. If it is to be done, there will be no better opportunity than the 2006 elections, about which the Republicans are deeply worried.

Whether this is a real possibility or not, the point is that the information is there and can be used at any time against any of us by the government for any nefarious purpose that comes up. As some of this starts to sink in, polls are showing a majority of Americans opposed to this program; USA Today showed 51% disapproving to 43% approving, with 31 of that 51 saying such a program would never be right in any circumstances. Newsweek had 53% saying the program “goes too far in invading people’s privacy” to 41 saying it was a “necessary tool to combat terrorism.”

Those poll results indicate that this issue may finally be able to gain some traction. The answer is not to start yet another campaign or yet another organization – we’ve got more than enough of those -- but to mount a renewed effort to explain to the public what the “war on terror” really is. In a nutshell, it’s an organizing principle to be used to transform not only U.S. military policy but also, domestically, the relationship between government and society, in the direction of increased authoritarianism and militarization.

In foreign policy, the Bush administration articulated the notion of “pre-emption,” a supposed right that past administrations have come very close to asserting, but have never quite done in such an open fashion (in terms of international law, the correct term is not “pre-emptive war,” which implies that there is a real, gathering threat but rather “preventive war,” fought against an enemy that might conceivably become a threat at some nebulous point in the future). It’s quite clear now that the ever-evolving plans for domestic surveillance embody the same principle. Going far beyond finding terrorists before they strike, this latest program involves finding necessary information about all of us before we become terrorists. Combine that with a very broad view of who the “enemy” is (potentially including all those who disagree with the administration) and you have not only a rather frightening vision of the destruction of liberty in this country, you have a paranoid, secretive, incompetently run proto-panopticon that is collapsing under its own weight.

The conventional wisdom is that the war on Iraq is a failure and a “distraction” from the important “war on terror” – the truth is that the “war on terror” itself, as a concept, is a massive failure, even from the point of view of the string-pullers in the Bush administration.

APPENDIX: No sooner do I post this article than another blindingly obvious use of this kind of data presents itself: using phone call data to find government employees who leak information (even if the information, like that about NSA wiretapping, is completely irrelevant to national security). Apparently, this is happening with ABC News and, in particular, James Risen, the guy who broke the wiretapping story and who wrote "State of War," a rather interesting book about the CIA and the Bush administration.

Posted at 12:40 pm

May 8, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Energy, Democracy, and Dick Cheney

As the United States continues to show its respect for democracy, oddly enough, democracy is still breaking out.

The U.S.-Israeli plan, with the aid of the EU, to punish the Palestinians for their election of a Hamas government is now well into its fourth month. Palestinians face a restoration of the humanitarian crisis they underwent at the height of the Israeli “closures,” in 2002 or 2003; perhaps even more.

Dick Cheney got the gushing attention of a still bizarrely sycophantic U.S. media for his supposedly courageous denunciation of Russia’s all-too-apparent anti-democratic trends. Short of Kim Jong-il or Saddam Hussein, it’s hard to imagine a world leader with less global credibility—or, frankly, manifest interest -- on the question of democracy.

Cheney is not Bush; he has no fetish for democracy (which, in Bush’s conception, seems to consist of constant repetition of the words “freedom” and “liberty,” with numerous “Almighty’s” thrown in – plus constant declarations of his intent to ignore Congressional statutes and invade other countries). And, indeed, he quickly moved to his main point.

Cheney’s noble declaration made in Lithuania, a spot calculated, with the trademark subtlety of the Bush administration, to provide maximum insult to the Russians, wasted no time in getting to the point: “No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation.” He then reinforced the point by visiting the famed democrat Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to discuss future U.S. oil investments.

Cheney was joined by the rest of the Bush administration in failing to praise a remarkable democratic development elsewhere. In Nepal, a country of long-term tyranny and brutal poverty and inequality, restive under the increasingly violent and autocratic grip of King Gyanendra, who had seized absolute power in early 2005, an unlikely coalition of former democratic but elitist politicians with Maoist rebels has won a major victory.

Earlier, growing street protests in Katmandu played a major role in forcing the king to capitulate and allow the restoration of some kind of democracy; this week, the Parliament has agreed to the Maoists’ demand to convene a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution, and could conceivably eliminate the monarchy. This ought to be as inspiring as anything that happened in 1776 or 1789, but somehow the Bush administration has been lax in congratulating the Maoists on their great victory for democracy – or in repudiating their giving of aid to Gyanendra to suppress his opponents.

Nothing this week brought together these seemingly all-consuming themes of energy and democracy like Bolivia’s move to dramatically hike royalty requirements on large natural gas fields, the first step in a declared program of nationalization or renegotiation of all natural gas contracts with foreign companies.

In an interesting twist, Morales’ decision is being presented as a re-imposition of the Bolivian constitution over Bolivia’s energy reserves. The privatization process of the 1990’s was apparently done in violation of the constitution; the executive made deals with companies by decree, without congressional approval.

Needless to say, once again, no Bush administration official came forward to hail the return of constitutionalism in the Bolivian energy sector.

On the other hand, the administration had little else to say. Condoleezza Rice decried Morales’ demagoguery and Cheney, very mildly, said he thought nationalization like Bolivia’s was “a mistake.”

In a past era, that last statement might well have been true. Even five years ago, Bolivia would have been universally hammered in the press and government statements for a supposedly “illegal” act, companies would have moved immediately to retaliate with a capital strike, and Bolivia would likely have capitulated in short order. Today, even Brazil, which has incredible leverage not only through location but through buying 70% of Bolivian gas exports, and whose state oil company, Petrobras, has significant holdings in Bolivian gas, has responded mildly, hoping to work things out. Although foreign companies are mostly talking about suspending investment (at least one company, Shell, still wants to engage), if that capital strike begins to pinch, there is always the prospect of Venezuela coming to Bolivia’s rescue.

Despite the fact that local or regional control over the energy reserves that by right belong to the U.S. is perhaps the chief fear of the Bush administration, there seems to be little they can do about it, whether with Bolivia or with Russia. The empire is losing control over both energy and democracy.

Posted at 10:54 am

May 1, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Oil Prices and the Madness of Politicians

Last week, the average price at the pump for a gallon of gasoline in the United States was $2.91 per gallon. Last week, Exxon Mobil announced first-quarter profits of $8.4 billion, which, given seasonal variation, puts it on track to exceed last year’s profits of $36 billion, the largest profits of any corporation in history. A couple weeks earlier, retiring CEO Lee Raymond was given a $398 million severance package. In a similar vein, ChevronTexaco’s first quarter profits were $4 billion and ConocoPhillips’s $3.3 billion.

Higher gas prices always make American politicians, especially Democrats, act like crazy people. This time around, with the added goads of the aforementioned profits, the Iraq war, President Bush’s collapsing popularity, and the desire of other Republican politicians to distance themselves from these various albatrosses, the craziness has spread to everyone.

How crazy do things have to be before George Bush, of all people, tries to present himself as the scourge of oil companies? Could even the most gullible of his dwindling stock of supporters believe this?

Congressional Republicans’ laughable scheme to deal with these prices – a $100 rebate for everyone making $146,000 or less – has been rejected even by the Republican base as insulting. The Democrats’ plan – a 60-day suspension of collection of the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax – is even smaller in scope, is also a redistribution of public revenues to individuals, and is much less fair, since tens of millions of poor people who don’t own a car will hardly benefit at all. Not surprisingly, conservative commentators like the Democrats’ plan better than that of their own party.

Democrats and even many Republicans are also talking seriously about eliminating tax rebates for oil companies and perhaps even instituting a windfall profits tax.

Oil companies, under more political pressure than they’ve been since the 1980’s, have responded with, among other things, a phenomenally disingenuous ad campaign that tries to imply that they have no control over prices. A nice little graph on the ExxonMobil website claims that the price of gas is simply the price of crude oil plus the price of refining and marketing plus state and federal taxes. The price of crude, they say, is set by the “world market,” a magical beast that makes decisions and then forces tiny mom-and-pop companies like ExxonMobil to abide by its dictates.

This analysis ignores the fact that the big oil companies don’t just buy oil wholesale from countries like Saudi Arabia, refine it, and market it, they also own the rights to large amounts of crude themselves. ExxonMobil, for example, has proven reserves of 73 billion barrels, more than all but a handful of countries.

The worst craziness, though, is the almost total lack of public recognition of a rather obvious point: if you’re an environmentalist, concerned about global warming and oil depletion, then you ought to be in favor of higher gas prices. They do hit countries of the Third World extremely hard and, to a much lesser degree, the working poor in the United States as well – it would certainly be better if high gas prices were a result of high taxes, as in Europe, rather than of the operations of the oil market, so that there would be more money to ameliorate the effects on the poor – but the dangers of global warming are so great and so near at hand that any curbs to consumption have to be grasped at.

For the past 10 years, politicians of all stripes have been terrified of taking up this or any other issue regarding the relationship of carbon emissions to people’s consumption. Al Gore, who wrote a compelling book about global warming and other global ecological dangers, in the early 1990’s, was part of an administration that for eight years did nothing to change corporate fuel economy standards – or even to eliminate the SUV loophole, which it could have done without congressional assent. In 2004, John Kerry explained that, notwithstanding Republican claims, he was actually against a higher gas tax before he was for it, against it after he was for it, and perhaps even against it while he was for it.

On the weekend, the Climate Crisis Coalition, a group formed two years ago to try to take advantage of the new political openness on global warming, held a national strategy conference. Although the question of gas prices came up, no coherent approach was formulated. In the next few years, formations like this will have to tackle this issue, as well as larger issues of consumption, head on.

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