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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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November 27, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- The "Good News" from Iraq

Well, there’s another elephant in the room. You can tell by how quiet opponents of the war in Iraq have become.

The last two months have, it seems, shown a precipitous drop in violence in Iraq. The best-known and most easily tracked statistic is, of course, U.S. military fatalities. There were 38 in October and 32 thus far in November, as compared with an average of about 70 per month overall or 85 per month in previous Octobers and Novembers. This is particularly striking given the elevated troop levels in the country.

Iraqi fatalities, combatant or noncombatant, are far more difficult to track and it’s likely that all official tabulations are gross underestimates. Still, reported violence against civilians in Iraq is way down, by a factor of three or so compared with the summer and maybe a factor of 6 or more compared with the height of the violence in late 2006. It’s easy to notice a huge drop in reported high-casualty car-bombings.

The Bush administration and its right-wing supporters are crowing and everybody else is dead silent. The Democratic presidential candidates, forced by the conventions of American politics to open their mouths even when they have nothing to say, have – at least, the leading candidates have – decided that it is important to acknowledge the “good news” and slightly soft-pedal their already soft-pedaled criticisms of the conduct of the war. The websites of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all have plans to “end the war in Iraq,” but none of those plans have been updated to take into account recent events; nor do any of them rise above the most banal of platitudes.

The left is saying even less than that.

ِAt this point, we don’t even know if the drop in violence is sustainable, let alone why it’s happened. But there are some things we can say.

It is certain that the extreme and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by some insurgent groups, combined with the lack of any concrete benefits they bring, has alienated many to the point that they see anybody else as better. Tribal Sunnis fed up with al-Qaeda in Iraq, Shi’a fed up with the Mahdi Army’s reign of terror, other vengeance-seekers have decided that their primary concern is not the depredations of the U.S. military and that the best way to oppose their worst enemies is an alliance of convenience with the United States.

How much any of this has to do with the increased number of troops and the supposed shift to a counterinsurgency strategy is unclear. What is clear, I think, is that it has little to do with Americans winning “hearts and minds” in Iraq; not only is that not how counterinsurgency actually works, all the Americans need to do on that front is not be as bad as the jihadis and death squads. If it does have to do with the new strategy, it is simply two things. First, that the Americans are seen now as having enough of a presence on the ground for people to risk allying with them against those they hate even more than the Americans. As troops are drawn down, this calculation could shift. And second, that the Americans are establishing closer control over the population. This is impossible to verify, in the absence of information. It is interesting to note, though, that Jon Lee Anderson’s account of operations in the latest issue of the New Yorker describes troops as engaging in the same kinds of gratuitous physical and verbal abuse so amply documented from the earlier period of the occupation.

Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen describes these alliance shifts as signs that “more Iraqis are lining up with the government and against extremism.” This is nonsense. Against extremism definitely and with the U.S. troops tactically yes, but the Anbar Awakening is not lining up with the Shi’a-dominated government and there are no signs that it ever will.

But then, contrary to popular opinion, the goal of the United States is not unity and stability in Iraq; it is retention of the most U.S. influence with the least trouble. That is the goal that is being better served now than it was last year; criticizing the tales of the surge’s “success” by saying that it hasn’t led to a political solution misses the point and confuses rhetoric with reality.

For the most part, opponents of the war are falling back on the hoary “whatever happens in Iraq isn’t worth the life of one more American soldier,” a proposition that is not only false but politically useless. We need to respond to the new events in Iraq and we need to do it better than that.

Posted at 10:04 am

November 25, 2007

Allan Nairn

Allan Nairn, the brilliant investigative journalist who did groundbreaking work in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, East Timor, and elsewhere (for example, he broke the story of CIA connections with FRAPH, the paramilitary goon squad that worked as enforcers for the military regime that ousted Aristide in 1990), has resurfaced. He's got a blog called News and Comment. Check it out.

November 22, 2007

The Good Die Young

Ian Smith, ruler of the white racist settler regime of southern Rhodesia during the late 60's and the 70's, dead at 88. Unrepentant to the end. I hope he took a message with him for Jeane Kirkpatrick, Milton Friedman, and Augusto Pinochet.

November 19, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Iran and Coercive Diplomacy

In general, I hate writing about Iran; the whole endless mess of coverage about Iran’s nuclear programs and speculation about whether we’re crazy enough to bomb them is about as enlightening as reading about the latest suicide car bombing in Iraq.

Unfortunately, just such an atmosphere of boredom and supersaturation is the least conducive to actually understanding what’s going on and what’s at stake.

So, the Iranian nuclear issue, in a nutshell. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires it not to develop nuclear weapons and to conduct declared peaceful nuclear programs under a series of safeguards enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Enforcement under the NPT is noncoercive and is predicated on voluntary cooperation between signatories.

Because of the nature of these enforcement protocols, it’s not difficult to develop a nuclear program on the side; Iraq did in the 1980’s, and the IAEA was unaware of its extent until the enhanced weapons inspection regime put into place after the 1991 Gulf War.

For these reasons, at the insistence of the United States, something called the Additional Protocol, which would enable IAEA inspectors to check for undeclared nuclear facilities by requesting access to various physical locations, scientists and technicians, and documentation, was added to the NPT. In 2003, Iran agreed voluntarily to submit to its provisions.

As a result, IAEA inspectors were able to find out a great deal that had not been known before. But this was of course not good enough for the United States, and in 2006 it succeeded in pushing the Security Council to approve sanctions against Iran (Resolutions 1737 and 1747), in addition to implementing some of its own.

The Iraq experience has taught members of the Security Council to trust the United States as far as they can throw it, and so 1737 and 1747 are very carefully worded. Although they invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the part governing the use of force, they stick to Article 41 of Chapter VII, which involves only nonviolent actions. They want the resolutions to have teeth, but they don’t want to take the slightest chance that the United States could claim the resolutions authorize it to bomb Iran.

Those resolutions went beyond the provisions of the NPT, requiring Iran to stop uranium enrichment, something that’s necessary for nuclear reactors as well as bombs.

Iran’s reaction was predictable; it stepped up efforts at enrichment and also terminated cooperation under the Additional Protocol. Ahmadinejad, Bush-like, told the world that the resolutions were just “pieces of paper.”

The latest IAEA report on Iranian compliance, dated November 15, is mixed. On the one hand, it verifies that there has been no diversion of declared nuclear material and that uranium is being enriched only to 4% U-235, enough for a reactor but far short of bomb-grade. The report is reasonably pleased with Iranian cooperation, although it notes that it expects more access to individuals and documents within the next few weeks.

On the other, it notes that suspension of Additional Protocol measures mean it has declining ability to assess whether Iran has undeclared programs. It also notes that Iran, goaded by the Security Council resolutions, has increased by a factor of 10 its number of centrifuges, for use in enrichment.

The contents have been badly misreported in the U.S. press, most of which is as eye-glazed as the rest of us over Iranian nuclear activities, and perhaps slightly more inclined than most of us to accept State Department characterizations unexamined.

The Bush administration reportedly will seek stricter sanctions from the U.N., to go along with its new raft of belligerent measures against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and anyone who deals with them.

Of course, the lesson from the IAEA report is blindingly obvious. Even if Iran isn’t interested in building a bomb, it’s even less interested in backing down under U.S. coercion – and it feels no need to with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, oil at $95 a barrel, and almost nobody in the world taking the Bush administration seriously.

Except for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidates seem to understand that the ham-handed approach of the current administration won’t work. What most of them don’t seem to understand is that even a kinder, gentler, smooth-tongued (Bill) Clintonesque coercion won’t work either – and is increasingly unlikely to work with any of the problems we will face. What will be needed is – dare I say it – actual diplomacy.

Posted at 1:02 pm

November 12, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Honoring Henri Alleg's Heroism

Over the weekend, you no doubt got the chance to hear many empty words about heroism. It’s a topic the right wing and the various official and semi-official organs of mainstream culture are very fond of. On the left, however, here in the United States, it hardly ever comes up.

It is not a good idea to cede any basic human virtue to the other side. And it’s not as if there aren’t stories enough to talk about.

Thanks to Democracy Now!, I just learned to my surprise and delight that Henri Alleg is still alive. His 50-year-old story of heroism under the most trying circumstances, long buried under the weight of history, has, by the peculiar alchemy of the Bush administration, been transmuted into the most current of current events.

Alleg, born to a French mother and Algerian father, was a journalist living in Algiers during the Algerian Revolution. For five years in the early 1950’s, he was editor-in-chief of the Alger Republicain, a Communist and anti-colonialist newspaper that called for freedom of speech and the right of redress for Algerian grievances.

In 1955, the French shut the paper down; shortly thereafter, Alleg went into hiding. In 1957, he was finally caught, by the 10th Paratrooper Division.

For one month, he was subjected to an array of the most brutal tortures imaginable. He was beaten on the genitals, his genitals and nipples were burnt with an open flame, he was repeatedly shocked, he was deprived of water for days. And, most relevant to today, he was subject to what the French called “la baignoire,” the bathtub – and what the U.S. government, perhaps wishing to evoke a summer day at an amusement park with the family, calls waterboarding.

He was strapped to a board and placed under a sink, with a rag covering his face, and the tap was turned on. After minutes of desperately trying to keep the water from filling up his lungs and drowning him, right when he was on the verge of suffocation, the water flow would be stopped. After he caught his breath, it would start again.

This was perhaps the most effective method the French had at their disposal and may well have won the Battle of Algiers for them.

Yet somehow, heroically, Alleg didn’t break, not even when the “Paras” took his wife into custody. He knew that if he did, the lives of all those who had helped him while he was in hiding would be forfeit.

After he was moved from his place of torture and held in ordinary prison, Alleg wrote up his ordeal and smuggled the account out. In 1958, it was published as La Question – The Question. Initially, the French government allowed printing of the book, but simply censored newspaper accounts of it – here, we could expect the newspapers to do that themselves – but, as its popularity took off, the book was banned outright. Even so, publishers continued to bring it out and people continued to read it. After that, nobody in France could any longer claim ignorance of what was being done in Algeria in their name. The book was re-released in the United States last year.

Jumping forward a half-century again, the Democrat-dominated Senate just confirmed the appointment of a new attorney general who apparently does not know if waterboarding is torture. While you might argue that such stunning ignorance fully qualifies the man to be a Bush appointee, I can’t help but think his blindness is shared by many, abetted by a press that routinely describes the procedure in sanitized and highly inaccurate terms. The reason that waterboarding produces a “feeling of drowning” is that the victim is drowning. Pouring water on someone’s face won’t produce any effect if he can still breathe – check this out in the shower sometime.

Sadly, our mainstream journalists, no matter how assiduously some of them may work to discredit the Bush administration, are only capable of imagining life from on top; if they could even think for a minute or two about the effects of water, they would be more critical. They don’t need to be like Henri Alleg, they just need a little empathy.

Hugh Thompson, the man who stopped the My Lai massacre, died last year without fanfare. Alleg is 86 and living in obscurity. If we’re going to have a day dedicated to honoring heroism, let’s honor some true heroes.

Posted at 10:48 am

November 5, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Musharraf Acting Out Bush's Fantasies

Pity poor George Bush; he must be consumed with envy as Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf gets to act out his wet dreams. If only the institutional basis of civilian government and rule of law in the United States was as weak as that in Pakistan!

Bush and Musharraf have been perversely linked ever since Bush’s first run for president, when, being quizzed by a reporter about names of heads of state, he first showed his now legendary dedication to democracy by responding that though he couldn’t think of General Musharraf’s name, “It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the subcontinent.”

He must be ecstatic now that Musharraf has suspended the constitution and the rule of law, eviscerated the judiciary, and locked up thousands of people in preventive detention, all at least in part in the name of better fighting the “war on terror.”

It’s true that nominally the Bush administration is opposed to Musharraf’s declaration of martial law (although the president has made a point of not mentioning it himself).

Musharraf’s regime has been in a state of political crisis ever since a major constitutional showdown in the spring that originated with the desire of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhury’s desire to pursue the question of the hundred of disappeared in Musharraf’s Pakistan. Since then, the world has seen some rather bizarre scenes: imagine lawyers in three-piece suits braving tear gas and baton charges to throw rocks at the police. Indeed, even after the preventive detention of thousands, including human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir; cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan; Javed Hashmi, the organizational head of the Muslim League, one of Pakistan’s two major parties; and basically anyone who might serve as a nucleus of opposition, lawyers were still at it. Two judges who had taken the oath of office under the new regime were kept from presiding in court by lawyers’ threats to throw eggs at them.

In the face of the regime’s crumbling legitimacy, the Bush administration finally took a stand for “democracy” – which is to say, a cynical attempt to push Musharraf to come to a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto and thus stabilize his dictatorship. For some reason as yet unknown – perhaps because, as Asma Jehangir wrote before she was made incommunicado, that Musharraf has “lost his marbles,” Musharraf suddenly lurched the other way.

He did it cleverly; knowing that the United States would be forced to “tsk-tsk” and shake its finger at him, he also arrested retired General Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and a prominent critic of Musharraf’s support for the U.S. “war on terror.” He has undoubtedly told Bush’s people that he needs more power and fewer legal restraints in order to step up counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts like everyone from Barack Obama to Dick Cheney has been pushing him to do.

Of course, although one can’t exactly characterize Musharraf’s efforts as a success, it’s odd that American politicians think they can advise him on how to do it better; after all, Musharraf’s failures, spectacular as they are, are nothing compared to American failures in Afghanistan. Not only is there the Taliban resurgent, the new Taliban seems, unimaginably, even more vile than the old. When Iraq is your great counterterror success story, you really shouldn’t be advising others.

In any case, the result of Musharraf’s careful triangulation has been predictable. Even as Secretary Rice called on Musharraf to rescind his declaration and have elections, the Pentagon rushed to report that the tremendous flow of military aid would not be affected. Since 9/11, Pakistan has gotten over $10 billion, almost all of which has gone to feed the military in one way or another. Although Rice has made some noises about a comprehensive review of all aid, the upshot will most likely be only cosmetic measures.

In the face of the incandescent courage and deep commitment to democracy and the rule of law being shown by Pakistani lawyers and human rights activists, the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the U.S. government are particularly galling. Bad enough that it is the United States, as much as any agent, that has inflicted on Pakistanis the tyrannical rule of Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, the dissolution of the Northwest Frontier into jihadism and warlordism, and the rise of fundamentalist sentiment and barbaric suicide bombings throughout the country without trying to cover it with unctuous and meaningless talk about democracy.

Posted at 10:13 am

November 4, 2007

The Good Die Young

Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, dead at 92.

It's not so much because he dropped the bomb on Hiroshima -- I don't imagine too many soldiers would have disobeyed that order, even if they were in a position to understand the full ramifications -- but because he vociferously defended the bombing to the end of his life, mindlessly repeating all the stupid lies created about the bombing (and documented so well by Gar Alperovitz in his book "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and the Architecture of an American Myth").

And for gleefully doing a reenactment at an air show in Texas in the 70's. Posted at 6:45 am
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