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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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September 24, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Saffron Revolution in Burma

As the American public continues to answer poll questions and sits peacefully and patiently waiting for Congress to do something about the Iraq war, something remarkable – and inspiring – is happening in Burma. A five-week cycle of protest and repression is close to cresting, and the long-term political implications for the country are still unclear.

The protests have been spearheaded by Buddhist monks – the country of 50 million has roughly 500,000 of them – who have gradually coalesced around the symbol of the overturned begging bowl. For a monk to turn his begging bowl over in front of someone indicates that he thinks the person is unworthy to contribute to the monk’s sustenance and that he will take no alms from that person. In this case, the “person” is the military and the junta that rules Burma. Some monks are suggesting also that they will provide no religious services for the military – something like the Catholic Interdict, except that the stakes are somewhat lower in a religion without eternal damnation and hellfire.

The protests have spread from Rangoon and Mandalay even to small towns in isolated north Burma. The most recent one in the capital may have drawn 100,000 people – a fantastically large figure for a severely repressive regime like Burma’s, and the largest since the wave of pro-democracy protests in 1988.

A few days ago, in a deeply symbolic moment, the police allowed 500 monks to visit the compound of the leader and living embodiment of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In part because of the unique legitimacy of the monks in Burmese society, the regime’s response has been very understated by its own standards. It has primarily stayed at the first level of repression, use of volunteer junta supporters and hired thugs to beat protesters – although it has also taken known political activists into preventive detention and tortured them (of course). Riot police and the military have so far been minimally involved, but that will either change very soon or the junta will blink and find itself confronted with an ungovernable country.

The proximate cause of the protests was a decision by the junta to double the price of gasoline and quintuple that of natural gas; the protests started out seemingly economic and “apolitical.” In a country so seething with political tension, however, the initial cause hardly matters. The first intifada in Palestine was started by a traffic accident. And in fact the overthrow of Suharto’s corrupt and authoritarian regime in Indonesia and the institution of democracy started with protests against IMF-imposed fuel-price hikes.

So far, military repression has not dissuaded protesters. For every person with bones broken, it seems, 10 more join the protests. Bans on journalists and cameras are being defeated by pictures taken from cell-phone cameras and uploaded to blogs.

Though it seems blasphemous for any people to bring about democracy in their country without U.S. bombs dropping like manna from heaven, it may possibly be happening. The key consideration now is – obviously – for the protests to continue growing and, crucially, for something – anything – to stay the junta’s hand.

It’s a perplexing situation for those in the West who would like to help. On the one hand, certain kinds of pressure can be of tremendous importance to regimes that are heavily dependent on the United States. When Reagan at long last withdrew support from Marcos, the regime could not stand against the massive popular protests; when Clinton finally – after dithering for weeks and letting thousands get killed – told Indonesia he was withdrawing support, Indonesia finally acquiesced to independence for East Timor.

And, in fact, the protests against Suharto multiplied so quickly because he did not crack down on them when they were still small enough to stop. Allan Nairn once suggested to me that part of the reason was the scrutiny Suharto had come under for the 1991 Dili massacre in East Timor, scrutiny that was largely the work of the East Timor Action Network.

Burma has no significant ties to the United States. The only country with significant leverage over it is China and there are speculations that China’s desire to look good for the 2008 Olympics is making it pressure the junta not to crack down.

It is not at all clear what human rights activists in the United States can do to help, especially in a context where the Bush administration is already – no skin off its nose – calling for action in the Security Council. What is clear is that unless we pay careful attention to situations like this, and try to think through the knotty political problems associated with them, we will be similarly helpless in future situations.

Posted at 10:33 am

September 17, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Talking about Oil

In his newly released memoir, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan reportedly says, “I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows -- the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

His claim is fostering some irrational exuberance on the left. Apparently, Dennis Kucinich is claiming that Greenspan’s “admission” proves he has been right the whole time.

This is a topic that seems to breed misunderstanding across the political spectrum, so I think it’s worth elucidating some basic points.

To begin with, ever since the first gusher was hit in 1858, oil has been important to the United States. Although there were minor interventions in Latin America earlier, oil only emerged as a major foreign policy issue in the aftermath of World War I. The Treaty of Sevres and followup agreements effectively secured to Britain and France the almost completely untapped reserves of the Arab East, and the United States fought back. Eventually, U.S. oil companies did enter the consortium that developed Iraq’s oil and shortly thereafter they won the biggest prize of all, signing a deal with Saudi Arabia that cut out the British entirely.

After World War II, with oil clearly one of the major factors determining the outcome and with the United States out to use its newfound position of pre-eminence to extend its hegemony, oil became not just a major but an explicit factor in all U.S. policy-making regarding the Middle East – and it remained so until the end of the Cold War.

During the run-up to the Gulf War, President Bush and his advisers openly talked about the significance of oil. Since then, strangely, it has become a taboo subject, as Greenspan points out. Even major foreign policy strategy works frequently fail to mention oil. It’s not there in the Project for a New American Century’s famous “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” paper, it’s scarcely mentioned in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “The Grand Chessboard,” and, amazingly, it has hardly entered the mainstream discourse through the last five years of buildup to and prosecution of a disastrous war and occupation.

It’s almost as if somebody is hiding something.

Still, Greenspan’s comment and other fugitive mentions of oil do not mean what many on the left think they mean. One should distinguish between strong and weak versions of the oil hypothesis.

The strong version, invariably dismissed as a crackpot conspiracy theory by the mainstream, has different versions. Either the United States went to war to deliberately grab the oil of Iraq for the profit of U.S. oil companies or its primary concern is to control the flow of oil so as to shut it down if other countries don’t do what it wants.

Obviously, the first Gulf War ended without anyone making profits from Iraqi oil, including the Iraqis. It did involve greater U.S. control over the flow of Iraqi oil, but it’s always difficult to trace how exactly that is used to coerce third parties, except perhaps in the broadest of terms (the United States, as a major oil producer, favors higher oil prices than most of Europe, Japan, China, and India, but then again when the price of oil bottomed out in 1998, the United States did nothing).

The weak version, also never talked about, is a truism for most of the foreign policy establishment. The United States always frames its interventionism in defensive terms. During the Cold War, it involved defense against communism; dabbling in the Middle East was necessary to defend against Soviet intervention. Later – and Paul Wolfowitz was among the early visionaries here – it became defense of the region against countries in the region.

The United States has created a global empire by holding its influence loosely. It rarely creates explicit colonial spheres; instead, its philosophy is largely to make sure that no region and no major market can be dominated by any other country. U.S. dominance is theoretically designed to ensure free competition with, no doubt, fringe benefits for the United States. For the most part, this system has worked well.

And, indeed, Greenspan in an interview with the Washington Post made it clear that he was not saying the Iraq war was an oil grab but was simply necessary to make the world oil market safe from Saddam Hussein.

The weak thesis, however, involves a lot of slippage. It’s very easy to decide that somebody is a threat to world oil supplies even if he isn’t and then go to war against him. If you happen to be occupying his country afterward, what could be more natural than to opportunistically try to secure massive oil profits for U.S. companies as an afterthought?

Posted at 10:49 am

September 10, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Who is David Petraeus?

All Washington – and some of the surrounding suburbs – breathlessly awaits that rarest of events: a newly canonized saint attesting to his own miracles. The saint has the unlikely name of David Howell Petraeus and he is indeed the rock on which George Bush is building his new church.

By the Washington Post’s count, through the end of July, Bush had mentioned Petraeus by name at least 150 times; his dog, Freedom, and his cat, Liberty, must be getting jealous.

Strangely, although all the bloviating heads agree that the real issues in Iraq are political, not military, no one is particularly excited about the report of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, an Arabist and long-time diplomat.

Who, then, is this man, and what is the significance of his testimony?

From the popular press, one can glean three basic points. First, he’s a fanatical fitness buff who regularly trounces his enlisted men in calisthenic feats. Second, that he’s a “very smart man,” with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Third, that he was the main force behind the writing of the new, updated Army field manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24.

Tom Ricks’s bestselling book, Fiasco, which is largely “Iraq according to Petraeus,” fills in some more background. In this counterinsurgency morality play, Petraeus, in charge of much of northern Iraq in the initial phase of the occupation, is the good son who enjoins his forces to treat the population respectfully, minimize house raids and indiscriminate artillery fire, and generally presides over peace. Ray Odierno, in charge of western Iraq, is the prodigal son who has his forces indiscriminately round up Iraqis, sometimes taking almost all the military-age men in an area, and channel them into Abu Ghraib with no clear idea about their eventual disposition, favors the “smash the gate in the middle of the night” approach to house raids, and writes approvingly of the utility of 155 mm howitzersand counter-battery fire in counterinsurgency – and contributes seriously to the growth of the insurgency.

At the time, apparently, many in the army, including Odierno, criticized Petraeus for his “kid gloves” approach, which left far too many people intact, people who might then join the insurgency after the destruction of Fallujah brought the insurgency to Mosul. It’s even possible that these criticisms were why he was pulled out of theater for a considerable time.

Over the last couple of years, and especially since the beginning of the “surge,” as one would expect from a good biblical story, the good son and the prodigal son have been reunited, to much rejoicing in the Republican Party, if not in heaven. Odierno is now Petraeus’s second-in-command, and the new strategy is an interesting combination of their two approaches, stressing conventional counterinsurgency tactics but adding in a sixfold increase in air strikes, which, indiscriminate as they necessarily are, are anathema to the good counterinsurgent.

Petraeus was also in charge of “training” the new Iraqi army, at which time he lost track of 190,000 guns and wrote a ridiculous “happy talk” op-ed in the Washington Post, a month before Bush’s reelection, which hailed the “tangible progress” being made with Iraqi security forces and said that “momentum has gathered.” Of course, Iraq in the fall of 2004 was paradise compared to what it is now. Perhaps he should have specified the direction of the momentum.

As for Petraeus’s dissertation, it is, like that of most military men turned scholar, a stolid, earnest, and rather derivative treatise – he’s no Andrew Bacevich, whose work is truly worth reading. Oddly, the subject of the dissertation is rarely mentioned. It is an analysis of the U.S. military’s “Vietnam syndrome” and a carefully understated argument that the lessons of Vietnam do not apply to all other situations and that the U.S. military should not be afraid of getting into protracted warfare in the future, if the situation is right and should not be quite such a drag on adventurist civilian administrations. Unfortunately for Petraeus, Iraq is not quite a vindication of his thesis.

Despite relentless media hype, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 39% of Americans surveyed believed that the Petraeus report would give an accurate picture compared to 53% who believe it will be excessively rosy. While it’s true that military men, unlike politicians, have a deeply internalized ethic of honesty, it’s also true that only a few of them make it to the rank of general; considering the performances we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s clear what the main criterion is. Petraeus’s dissertation, written a quarter-century ago, is reasonably honest; don’t expect the same tomorrow.

POsted at 2:14 pm
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