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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 26, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Obama's Foreign Policy and the Left

Barack Obama continues to impress. Bush's idiotic comments to the Knesset, in which he labeled all talks with enemies or opponents "appeasement," thus tarring the Israeli government, which is in talks with Syria as we speak, have set off a new round of hyperventilation and saber-rattling over Iran.

The money-in-the-bank expectation would be for the Democratic candidate to try to compete in bellicosity, soberly agreeing that Iran posed a fundamental existential threat about which something must be done. Hillary Clinton would have done it in a heartbeat, were she not so intent on hard-working whites like Bobby Kennedy.

But Obama, in a huge departure from tradition, actually pushed back, and not just with vague talk about the need for diplomacy. Pointing out that militarily and politically Iran is nothing compared to the old Soviet Union, with whom we negotiated, he actually had the temerity to ask, "What are George Bush and John McCain afraid of?"

This is a question almost unimaginable in American politics. True, you could get it from say Mike Gravel, but his words don't exactly carry a lot of weight, despite the brilliance of his campaign videos. And yet, for all Ahmadinejad's bombast, the obvious truth is that the current regime in Iran is run by a bunch of deeply conservative old men who are afraid of any changes to the status quo. Khomeini has been dead for 20 years and the Islamic Revolution died with him; the phenomenon of revolution leading to reaction and eventually to stodgy conservatism and stasis is hardly a new one.

This conservatism was bad news for the lukewarm reform efforts of Khatami and is bad news for the student pro-democracy movement, but if any country does not want to be on a collision course with Israel, it's Iran. Iran's support for Hizbullah, incidentally, is of a piece with this conservatism – do recall that the natural state of affairs is for Israeli troops not to be occupying southern Lebanon.

On the other hand, Obama's recent address to the Cuban-American National Foundation was deeply disappointing. It's hard to tell how much of it is pander and how much his own analysis; it is indubitable that he lacks the depth and insight on foreign policy that he has with regard to domestic issues. Although he still easily beats Hillary Clinton and John McCain, let us not succumb to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Anyway, after years of flirting with the obvious position that the embargo on Cuba serves little purpose except to kill the vulnerable who need access to the medicines that only the United States produces, Obama clearly said he would keep the embargo, although he would talk to Raul Castro. Of course, if he's so committed to the embargo, what exactly is there to talk to Raul about?

Even more disturbing because it was hardly a necessary pander was his seeming desire to maintain or even expand the counterinsurgency in Colombia. With the death of Manuel Marulanda, wouldn't this be a good time to suggest a new rapprochement in Colombia and an end to the violence between the government and the FARC, instead of maintaining the fiction that the government is somehow a mere policeman trying to control right-wing and left-wing violence?

Both the good and the bad aspects point to the real possibility of constructive engagement by the left with the Obama campaign and the Obama phenomenon. Many activists have for months now been advocating that the left get involved because the incipient movement holds great progressive promise but is also at this point held together only by charisma rather than any sort of coherent programmatic analysis.

In this view, that is what the left would provide, while simultaneously proselytizing within the movement. I agree with all of this analysis, particularly about the formlessness of the Obama movement and to some extent of Obama himself, but it still strikes me as particularly one-eyed. That there is much we can teach the Obama movement is not in question.

But let's remember that one of the reasons everybody hates us is that we think we know everything. It may be a hard pill for some on the left to swallow, but I think we can also learn a great deal from Obama, not just about on-the-ground organizing and democratization of politics, but on how to think about and frame political issues. If we haven't learned something about race in America, first from Obama's meteoric rise and second from his speech on race, then we are fools. And if we miss the teachable moment represented by his movement, then we should get into a different business.

Posted at 10:40 am

May 19, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Barack Obama, Hamas, and the Specter of Munich

The recent presidential-campaign-related brouhaha over Hamas, Neville Chamberlain, and the specter of Munich that apparently constantly weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the punditocracy is a disturbing but expected harbinger of things to come.

The flap has a long pre-history. Months ago, the right wing and pro-Zionist organizations started stirring up all kinds of fears about Barack Obama, partly because his campaign solicited input from a wide variety of people including Rob Malley. Malley, one of the few decent Clinton administration officials dealing with Palestine, has recently been working for the International Crisis Group, turning out remarkably insightful reports on political developments and conditions in the occupied territories. In the course of them, he interviews many people, including Hamas members; as a result, he has been branded a terrorist sympathizer.

Next, Hamas spokesman Ahmed Youssef said he hoped Obama wins the presidency and John McCain, in a particularly smarmy move, started saying that Obama was the candidate of Hamas.

Finally, during President Bush’s recent speech to the Knesset, while referring to the “evil men” of Hamas, he said this:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided." We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

This is an obvious reference to Jimmy Carter, who has had talks with Hamas, and possibly a veiled innuendo at Barack Obama, who has staked quite a bit on a claim that we should talk to our enemies, like Iran and Syria, but, mindful of the realities of U.S. politics, has consistently drawn the line clearly at Hamas or Hezbollah, saying that they are terrorist organizations and nobody should talk with Hamas in particular until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel, and agrees to abide by Oslo and all subsequent agreements.

This speech whipped up the normal hysterical nonsense on right-wing talk radio all over the country, some of it by people like talk-show host Kevin James who neither know what appeasement means nor what Chamberlain did at Munich.

After the right wing revived the mischaracterization of Obama’s already clearly stated (and stupid) position on Hamas, Democrats jumped in. James Rubin wrote on Friday in the Washington Post that he had interviewed John McCain a few years ago and McCain, when asked about Hamas, made the fairly obvious statement that Hamas was now the government in Palestine and that it looked like the Palestinians had thrown Fatah out for good reason – a remarkably lucid statement for a man who believes that Iran trains al-Qaeda members. As a result, some have been saying that McCain is actually the one who is soft on terror.

As this sordid story has progressed over months, Barack Obama has been compelled to make increasingly forceful statements regarding Hamas until his position is indistinguishable from the status quo created by the United States, a status quo that keeps Gaza under siege and Sderot subjected to rocket fire. Creating arbitrary and meaningless preconditions to justify refusing to talk to the representatives of the Palestinian people, even if they are from an organization that is forced to cling to its rhetorical stands because those are the only things it has to cling to (except for guns and religion) is a recipe for more of the same.

Some on the left would like to take away from this a feeling of vindication that Obama has been shown up to be just another politician like all the others. While surely satisfying, such a position is fatuous.

It also leaves no recourse when further developments require Obama to do more and more to show how tough he is. Jeremiah Wright’s clown show at the National Press Club forced Obama to come out and repudiate not just Wright but even some of his sensible critiques of American history (along with some insensible ones). When such things happen, the left loses; instead of a teachable moment, we get a closing of ranks.

Since Obama has clearly shown time and again that he doesn’t want to do the idiotic posturing on “terror” any more than he has to, our attention would be better turned to mobilizing and creating the conditions for more rational discussion about these issues during the remainder of the campaign. I am not holding my breath.

Posted at 10:45 am.

May 12, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Palestine and the Future

I rarely write about Palestine, not because I don’t have my views, but because there is such a wealth of writing in English by people with great knowledge, long experience, and deep understanding; compare it, for example, to the extreme superficiality of almost all writing about Iraq.

But here we are at the 60th anniversary of the birth of Israel. It has occasioned and will occasion a flurry of predictable commentary from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as historical retrospection and narrative about the events of 1948.

And yet, for the future, I see little or no reckoning with the hard truths that any strategist for the Palestinian people will have to deal with.

There is analysis of the wretchedness of the current situation. Journalists and left intellectuals have written about the creation of the Gaza ghetto and the Israelis’ careful calibration of violence on the one hand and access to food and basic services on the other in order to maximally demoralize the population while provoking minimal reaction from the world – with stunning success so far. They have written about the corrosive effects of the political split in Palestine and about the reconstitution of Fatah as an American-backed, supplied, and trained militia. Pushed into the position of supporting the legitimacy of Hamas’s rule as a result of its victory in the 2006 legislative elections, few of them have written about the efficacy of Hamas’s rule or its utter hopelessness as a leader of Palestinian liberation.

Still, on the whole, there are two main strands of left analysis. One, by the two-staters, is that national liberation movements always win when they get the support of their populace and that establishment of a Palestinian state is inevitable. The other, by the one-staters, is that national-liberation-cum-civil-rights movements always win in the modern world and that establishment of a nondiscriminatory state for Jews and Arabs in all of Palestine is inevitable.

Even a fairly cursory study of the relevant history not only suggests otherwise but also brings into question the relevance of these models.

Consider civil rights movements. Ask yourself how things would have developed if African-Americans had spent decades fighting back violently against white oppression before launching the confrontational but nonviolent civil rights movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. If South Africa is your model, do recall that anti-white violence by the ANC was almost nonexistent. It’s not easy to reverse the course the Palestinians have already been down.

This is not to argue that nonviolent confrontation from the beginning would have been more successful; the first intifada was minimally violent (with deliberately enforced rules that rock-throwing was the limit), but, even though it accomplished a great deal, it failed.

And, indeed, had it been up to the south, it’s hard to imagine the civil rights movement would have succeeded. Depriving bus companies of their revenues and forcing sheriff’s offices to spend more money on dogs and firehoses was not enough of a cost to overturn the perceived benefits of a violently enforced racist order in the south; had it not been for the rather different role and perceptions of the federal government and the northern liberal establishment, King and his supporters could quite easily have been taken care of.

And, obviously, national liberation movements fail all the time. Over 95% of Iraqi Kurds favor a separate state, yet even in the chaos that Iraq has now become, that is unlikely to happen.

If you look at some of those that succeeded, you also see that one of the crucial conditions is that the cost to the oppressing power and its privileged population of allowing freedom or “freedom” has to be less than the cost of continuing the oppression. Algeria is the case that is closest perhaps to Israel/Palestine, because of the large number of French settlers, the pieds noirs, who owned almost all of the country and, in the end, lost everything. Had internal political infighting not reached the point where those same pieds noirs created a militant cryptofascist secret armed organization and tried to assassinate de Gaulle a dozen times, the outcome would have been very different.

Right now, a two-state solution, if it were on the horizon, which it’s not, would mean the Israelis controlling the part of the West Bank the Palestinians had the way they’re controlling Gaza now; not something to look forward to. The one-state solution is anathema to Israel’s majority Jewish population, who see it as an existential threat.

As far as I can see, only the Palestinians can change this calculus, but how is the big question.

Posted at 10:47 am.

May 5, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Sadr City and the Return of the Repressed Stupidity

Let me start with a big shout-out to the ILWU, for their 8-hour May Day strike in protest of the war. The dockers have always been there on the big political issues of the day and, even though so much has changed, that has not.

Those of you still among the dwindling minority that follows coverage of the war probably know that April was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers, with 52 dead, since last September.

But do you know the cause? I wonder. It’s true that it’s been mentioned in passing news briefs, but there’s been very little to underscore the significance of what’s going on.

The U.S. military is engaged in the most violent and protracted urban warfare since the great battles of 2004. As of a week ago, according to a government spokesman (who is most likely a Sadrist), 925 people had been killed in the offensive on Sadr City; by now, it must have climbed over 1000. This is a scale similar to that of the first major assault on Fallujah, back in April 2004.

And, indeed for all the much-vaunted brilliance of David Petraeus’s much-vaunted counterinsurgency strategy, this assault is distressingly similar to that one in strategy, tactics, effect on the civilian populace, and overall mindless stupidity.

The official reason given by U.S. military spokespeople for the assault is the need to “push back” the various mortar crews regularly firing from Sadr City into the Green Zone. In Fallujah, it was the need to apprehend the people involved in the killing of 4 Blackwater mercenaries and the subsequent desecration of their corpses.

In both cases, the cities were kept under a partial siege, with inflow of food limited and food prices skyrocketing. In this case even more than in Fallujah, the primary means is aerial bombing and artillery fire. On Saturday, firing at what they said was a Shiite militia “command center,” and at what locals said was a place of prayer for pilgrims and people whose relatives are in the hospital, U.S. forces missed and hit the Sadr General Hospital instead.

Both cases involve essentially a general assault on the populace with the supposed aim of apprehending or removing the ability to maneuver of small groups of men who can appear and disappear, moving with ease through the population of which they are a part. Just as with Israel’s war against Lebanon, this approach is the essence of futility. If you want it to work, you have to pound the population into complete submission.

The U.S. military high command might want to consider a few basic verities of the kind they themselves have been spouting in other contexts when talking about the new thinking behind the surge:

1. The population of Sadr City before the assault was about 2.5 million. Its population afterward will be about 2.5 million.

2. The population will blame the people who are bombing them for the assault, not the people who are resisting the bombing.

3. The bombing of the hospital will be viewed as deliberate by the population. As will the killing of civilians. These are, after all, predictable consequences of aerial assaults on densely packed residential areas.

4. The United States will end up with less influence in Sadr City, not more.

Why is the United States returning to the utterly stupid strategies of 2004, rather than the somewhat successful reasonably pragmatic ones of 2007?

For one, the strategy of creating your own militia to spark infighting among your enemies, which worked brilliantly in Anbar (largely because of the senseless savagery of AQI) and to some extent in the south (where the Awakening Councils consist of Shi’a tribesmen being rallied against the Sadrists) was out of the question in Sadr City.

For another, deaths from mortar fire in the Green Zone have symbolic significance – and also, guess where U.S. bigwigs spend their time.

More important, though, I think it is the natural hubris of the military mindset, especially when it’s a matter of Western neocolonials subduing the natives. If defeat is necessary for them to learn, by the same token victory causes them to unlearn: they decided, in the face of all the facts, that they could take Sadr out with a “knockout punch.”

The relative calm of late 2007 was likely as much of an anomaly as extreme violence of late 2006. Although there are questions about who should gain the credit for the drop in violence, it’s pretty clear who is responsible for the new upsurge: the United States.

Posted at 10:40 am
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