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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, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Lessons from the Appropriations Fight

In the last few days, pretty much everyone has weighed in on the final passage of the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq. And, with the exception of Harry Reid, who fatuously suggested that the bill represented “great progress,” everyone across the entire spectrum from President Bush to Counterpunch agrees that it was a miserable capitulation.

Jon Stewart described it best on the Daily Show: “It's sort of like punishing your child by saying, 'If you don't get your grades up, you are grounded ... unless, of course, you would like to go out. And by the way, you are grading yourself and I keep the pot in the silverware drawer.’”

For once, the consensus on Iraq is actually correct. With unprecedented public opposition to the war and support for Congressional attempts to put limits on the president’s execution of it, the Democrats ended up allowing a bill that gives Bush all the funding he wanted, with only the face-saving measure of mandating that the White House give a series of presumably superficial and misleading reports on progress toward a set of “benchmarks” having to do primarily with the performance of the Iraqi government.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Democrats neatly pushed themselves into the awkward position of bringing forth legislation that the majority of Democrats voted against.

Most analyses have not moved beyond this fairly obvious analysis and beyond their indignation at the Democrats. Well, the Democrats didn’t disappoint me; I expected a result more or less like this. From the beginning, Nancy Pelosi had made it clear that refusing to fund the war was not an option. Not only for the conservative Democrats and those worried about re-election in competitive districts, but even for the liberal to moderate leadership, that was a red line not to be crossed.

For the rest, it was just a game of chicken. The best the Democrats could have done was to get Bush to agree to some concessions. Since he knew he had nothing to do but stand firm, he wasn’t going to make any except for purely cosmetic ones like those in the final bill.

Even so, at the end the Democrats played their hand badly. They decided to fold in the most humiliating way, they claim, because of fear that over the Memorial Day recess the administration would pound them for not supporting the troops. In fact, it has become very clear that on this matter no one is listening to the president any more.

Where does this result leave us?

I am encouraged by the fact that, excepting Joe Biden, all of the presidential candidates in Congress voted against the bill. Not because it is testimony to the sterling character of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton; in fact, if it was that, it would be a meaningless fact. But consider – out of a mere 10 Democrats in the Senate who voted against the bill, three were presidential candidates.

Dodd, as a minor candidate, has to do something to get people’s attention, but Obama and Clinton, who mostly blow with the prevailing winds and who generally stay in the middle of the pack among Democratic Senators, broke from the pack at the last minute because they realized it would be political suicide to vote for the bill.

Since the masses of the Democratic Party faithful are bitterly tired of the war, Democratic presidential candidates will be forced to oblige them, thus creating strong pressure to bring the rest of the Democrats in Congress on board.

John Murtha has promised another budget fight in September. Whether it has a different outcome than this one will depend strongly on whether the political climate in the United States has changed. Right now, although there would have been public support for showing a little more backbone, there is little for simply refusing to fund the war. The latest poll results show 13% for that position compared to 69% for funding it with “benchmark” requirements – pretty much like the final bill except that the requirements in the latter are toothless.

There is a very hopeful lesson to learn from the budget fight. As little as six months ago, the smart money was on the Democrats’ continuing their previous strategy of doing nothing, allowing Bush to intensify the catastrophe, so that they would win big in the 2008 elections. The appropriations fight shows that the pace of events has overtaken such political considerations – people want action now, not in 2009.

Posted at 10:51 am

May 21, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- What Is To Be Done?

Last week, I wrote about the qualitative shift in the political dynamic regarding Iraq that has taken place over the last few months.

An illuminating index of this shift: even though an analysis of the basic underlying strategic interests in Iraq suggests that a Democratic president elected in 2008 would not withdraw from Iraq, presidential candidates have been competing with each other to sound the most committed to withdrawal; even Bill Richardson, one of the most conservative candidates and one who touts his long history of being part of the foreign policy establishment, promised that the first day he was elected he would get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

You don’t have to be a believer in politicians’ promises to consider this significant; indeed, my guess is still that a Democratic president would not withdraw. But the competitive dynamic of the primary season will help to shape a climate that pushes the Democratic center and any putative elected president to the left and in the process accelerate the breakup of the current foreign policy consensus, which is that Iraq is hopelessly messed up but it would be disastrous for the United States if it left. The recent LA Times editorial calling for withdrawal is a sign that this consensus is not long for the world.

Take another example, as I mentioned last time: Gen. Petraeus is supposed to report on progress with the new strategy in September and there has been a flurry of articles about Republican disaffection and the Bush administration plan to build up this report as a major event. But can you imagine anything Petraeus is likely to say that would change hardened attitudes about the war and cause ordinary people to suddenly decide they want to keep the troops there? Especially when the most immediate effect of the escalation is an escalation in U.S. fatalities?

Or imagine if George Bush were to do what he should have done a year ago, two years ago, three years ago – if winning the war was more important to him and his coterie of advisors than their bizarre, secretive, messianic, cabalistic egotism. This would be along the lines of admitting how horribly he and his advisers failed, how many mistakes they made that were obviously mistakes at the time, how screwed up the situation in Iraq is, and so on, but then pointing out the critical importance of Middle Eastern oil to the world of influence in the Middle East to the U.S. role of global hegemon, the dangers of leaving an open field for Iran by withdrawing from Iraq, etc., and then pointing out that fixing the mess would require a much greater commitment from the United States and calling for volunteers. Do you think he would get more than a handful of people to enlist? It seems unlikely.

All in all, I think, a convincing portrait of a policy in collapse and of a potential political turning point – at least convincing to me since I drew it.

With this kind of analysis, it’s natural to ask “What can or should the antiwar movement do, given this picture?” This is perhaps particularly salient given that United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella organization for grassroots antiwar activism (as opposed to the inside-the-beltway activism that has taken off in the last year or so), is having its third national conference a month from now in Chicago.

The same question occurred to me last week, but I was a bit nonplussed to realize that no obvious answer occurred with it.

In search of inspiration, I turned to the draft documents on “strategic framework” and “comprehensive program” being circulated by UFPJ in the leadup to the conference.

Unfortunately, I found a strategic framework with no strategy in it and a comprehensive program that was neither comprehensive nor programmatic.

I learned that we should be thinking strategically about questions like how to increase the size of weekly vigils in our city from 25 to 50 or 75. If anyone knows firsthand of a single city with a weekly vigil of 25, please let me know.

I learned we should “keep up the pressure on Congress.” Only, in liberal districts it’s now impossible to pressure your representative. They will tell you that they’re just as much against the war as you and they’re trying to do what they can given the political realities and the need to maintain Democratic unity to pass legislation. What more would you even want them to do? If Nancy Pelosi were to push for the Democrats not to pass a supplemental appropriation at all, which is what some activists in San Francisco are saying she should do, she would just provoke an exodus of conservative Democrats who would ally with Republicans to pass one.

My favorite thing I learned is that “our movement is making a real and important difference.” This is a neat trick. Given that we are not some sort of secret cabal pulling the levers of power from carefully hidden locations but a group of people following a model of public agitation and education, this is unprecedented – the first such movement in history to make an important difference even though no one is even aware of our existence.

I don’t want to criticize the drafters of this document (which accurately reflects the approach within UFPJ) too much. After all, this is a situation in which it is difficult to figure out anything worthwhile to do. Another teach-in with 25 people in attendance who have been to 50 teach-ins in the past 6 years? Another walk through the streets holding placards, with everybody agreeing with you but nobody doing anything?

In the past, I have suggested that the left antiwar movement concentrate on tasks that others won’t do, most importantly the critique of the war from an ethical viewpoint. Although disaffection with the war is even more widespread than in the Vietnam era, there is no corresponding moral revulsion; the moral revulsion is at what George Bush and his cronies have done to us, and to a lesser extent, what they have done to Iraq. There is very little if any about what we as a nation have done to Iraq.

This bit of advice has been useful at times. The assaults on Fallujah and the Haditha massacre were obvious places to apply it; the horror of those assaults has still not garnered noticeable attention from the mainstream media here. This advice also suggests the dangers of the “support the troops” hysteria, which valorizes our society, it’s role in the world, and even to some extent the cause they are supposedly fighting for in Iraq and blunts the criticisms we could be making.

But in general, it’s very difficult to follow that advice, for the simple reason that we get almost no information out of Iraq about U.S. military actions.

At this point, I’m tapped out with regard to answers but I would suggest one thing. The upcoming national conference should be all about a realistic analysis of where the antiwar movement fits in this political conjuncture (answer: nowhere) and of how to try to change that, with special attention to successful models of activism even if they are far away from our grassroots paradigm.

Personally, I think we have a lot to learn from liberal bloggers, who have not only had episodic successes like their role in getting Trent Lott to step down as Majority Leader and in creating the U.S. attorney scandal (Josh Marshall’s blog Talking Points Memo put the story together and the liberal blogosphere relentlessly flogged it until journalists finally picked it up) but also in creating a self-sustaining community that actually enables people and increases their capabilities.

Others may have other ideas. But a serious dialogue about where we are, how we have come so low, and ways we might be able to bring ourselves up is infinitely preferable to self-congratulatory proclamations about our accomplishments followed by detailed working out of programs for action that won’t be implemented and, if they were, would just be more of the same that has gotten us into this mess.

Disclosure:I have been an elected member of the Steering Committee of UFPJ since June 2003 and have worked for a couple of weeks in the national office.

Posted at 11:10 am

May 15, 2007

The Good Die Young

For all of us in the immoral minority.

May 14, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- A Policy in Collapse

What does a policy in collapse look like?

Perhaps when you have lost, one by one, the support of your supporters, the acquiescence of your opponents, the ability of your employees and subordinates, the alliance with your allies, and the usefulness of your chosen instruments.

This is what is finally happening, after four years of a seemingly never-ending collapse of the occupation of Iraq.

The latest development in the supplemental appropriations fight is heartening and a little unexpected. As a condition for progressive support for Nancy Pelosi’s carefully crafted supplemental appropriations bill that treats the Bush administration like a shady merchant – “we’ll give you half now and half later” – Pelosi was forced to agree to a vote on a much stronger bill mandating that withdrawal begin within three months and be completed within nine months. It’s true that the bill was reworded to include the now-standard exceptions for “limited focus” anti-terrorist operations and for training the Iraqi armed forces (no longer a priority for the U.S. military), but even so, as a modified version of a bill being pushed for months by the House Out of Iraq caucus, it was shaped to shake things up.

171 Democrats voted for the bill. The Washington Post recently ran an article calling Barbara Lee, who distinguished herself by a lonely vote against the unlimited authorization of force passed by Congress three days after 9/11, a “leader” of a “chorus” – who could have imagined it?

In Iraq, the new surge plan is going nowhere fast. It started, in accord with classical counterinsurgency theory, with plans to move certain troops out of their remote bases and into neighborhoods to build contact with the locals and try to create control, winning minds if not hearts; now, troops in their local neighborhood bases are spending their free time adding concrete barriers and barbed wire to them.

It has temporarily made Shi’a death squads go to ground – although they’re seeing a resurgence – but opened up Shi’a neighborhoods to a sensational spate of ultra-high-casualty suicide bombings by Sunni extremists.

Even if the new strategy made sense and could be followed on the strategic level, it would require at least half a million troops; furthermore, it is being carried out by troops that are simply inadequate to the job. A recent military survey found that over one-third of troops who had served in Iraq said torture was all right in some circumstances and 10% said they had personally mistreated Iraqis; 17% said all Iraqis should be treated as insurgents, the exact opposite of the counterinsurgency viewpoint behind the latest strategy and a large enough fraction to doom it tactically even if it could have worked strategically. Not to mention the fact that US troops are so widely hated in Iraq that a significant number of Sunnis wants them to stay because they want protection from the Shi’a but thinks it’s ok to attack them at the same time.

Finally, after much ballyhoo about “benchmarks” and pushing the Iraqis to pass a new oil law, reverse de-Ba’athification, and hold provincial elections, it’s become clear to anyone outside the White House that this is just not going to happen, for the simple reason that America’s Shiite allies in the government are not its allies – especially now that the U.S. is targeting their militias. Pressure from the U.S. can get the cabinet to promise to push through certain legislation, but it can’t get them to act on it and it can’t get the parliament, where the U.S. has much less leverage, to pass it. With the possible exception of toothless legislation that doesn’t address the issues but will allow the Bush administration to tout victory for several hours before people discover that it’s not true.

Even Bush’s ultimate mindless allies, the Republican Party, want to desert him. At the first Republican debate, everyone mentioned Ronald Reagan’s name constantly. Bush’s name came up only once. In part because of their growing fear of the new political climate, they have pushed Bush to show some results by September or, they say, they will desert him in droves.

The truth is, the Bush policy has fallen so low that nothing David Petraeus could say in September can possibly change the dynamic – even if he had great success to report.

This is not, as Winston Churchill famously said, the end. It is not quite the beginning of the end. But we’re definitely past the end of the beginning.

May 7, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Azmi Bishara and Israeli Ethnocracy

After last summer’s Israel-Lebanon war, I speculated that, at least theoretically, there was a chance that Israel’s debacle and Hizbullah’s victory might lead to new hope in Israeli-Arab and even Israeli-Palestinian relations by putting a dent in the arrogant faith of most Israelis that they could always prevail against Arabs through force alone. Just as South Africa’s defeat by primarily African and African-Cuban forces at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 played a noticeable role in the National Party’s eventual acquiescence to a negotiated end to apartheid, the potential outlines of such an eventuality were visible in Israel’s 2006 defeat as well.

Unfortunately, the chances of such a process beginning in the case of Israel were almost negligible; as I pointed out at the time, the problem was not so much the lack of a Palestinian Mandela as the lack of an Israeli de Klerk, not to mention the growth of an increasingly corrosive nationalism and racism among the Israeli public.

Since that time, that ugly turn has just intensified. It’s distressing to note that the preliminary Winograd commission report on the war made a point of laying some of the blame on Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The crowd of more than 100,000 that gathered after the report drew at least as much from the right wing as from the left; it called for Olmert’s dismissal without calling for a change in Israel’s militaristic stance. And for the right, Olmert’s real crimes are losing the war by not bombing hard enough and, even more important, the Gaza withdrawal.

Another illuminating sign of this growing trend is the persecution of Azmi Bishara, leader of a growing civil rights movement among Israeli Palestinians and until recently an Arab member of the Knesset.

Bishara has been charged with treason for supposedly passing information to Hizbullah during the war and receiving money for it. I am not privy to the details of Shin Bet’s charges, but the claim seems silly. Unlike Arafat, he is no believer in the kindness of strangers with big guns and big moneybags (whether Syria or the United States), preferring instead to base his work on democratic politics and universal human rights principles.

And, as Bishara himself pointed out in a piece in the LA Times, what information exactly would an Arab MK have about the Israeli military that could compare with Hizbullah’s?

My favorite charge is that Bishara warned Hizbullah that during the war the Israelis would try to kill Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah. One wonders if he also passed on crucial information regarding the possibility of the sun rising in the east.

While it is certainly possible that the Israeli government, caught in its hypernationalistic paranoia, believes the charges, the real reason, I think, for this persecution is the threat posed by Bishara’s democratic political actions within Israel.

As leader of the National Democratic Assembly, Bishara calls for transforming Israel from an ethnocracy to a democracy, with full civil and national rights for the Palestinian minority in Israel.

To quote Bishara: “Today we make up 20% of Israel's population. We do not drink at separate water fountains or sit at the back of the bus. We vote and can serve in the parliament. But we face legal, institutional and informal discrimination in all spheres of life.”

This is an issue independent of the status of the West Bank and Gaza and of the right of return of refugees. Although the legal and institutional discrimination in Israel itself is not as bad as it was in the American South in 1930, it’s worse in many ways than it was in the South in 1880.

Talk about a one-state solution for Israel and use of the term “Israeli apartheid” is growing. The two main pillars for those who dismiss and demonize such talk are the claim that “secular and democratic” is simply code for destroying Israel and the claim that Israel within the green line is a democracy with equal rights for all. Bishara leads the movement that has the best chance of exposing both of those claims and of establishing credibility for anti-Zionism. And, composed of Israeli citizens as it is, it cannot simply be put down with violence or shut up in a cage like the population of the occupied territories.

Bishara is not the Palestinian Mandela, but he is trying to be the Palestinian Martin Luther King. His fate will be a harbinger of things to come in Israel and the Middle East.

Posted at 1:24 pm
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