The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
Site Search:
Home ArticlesLettersArchives
Empire Notes Needs Your Help
More info: How to Help

Empire Notes

"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

Subscribe to our E-Mail List (hit "Enter")

September 29, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Meet the New Boss

I nearly fell asleep several times watching the debate. While my narcolepsy may not be of intrinsic interest, it does say something about the evolution of a candidate who was the most interesting and, to many, the most inspiring, in recent history, and about the lack of evolution of the foreign policy status quo and the lack of any interest in self-awareness on the part of the American political mainstream.

After Barack Obama gave his speech on race in March, pointing for the first time ever a way past the toxic atmosphere of racial resentment that defines today’s partisan divide and cripples attempts to create a better country, I asked a left-leaning friend what he thought. After reflection, he said that Obama was “presidential.” It was a mini-revelation to me; I had never in my life considered that the word might have a meaning. The feeling was short-lived.

Months ago, I wrote that Obama had lost his mojo and suggested that the chance of his ever saying anything original again was small. My prediction was rather depressingly borne out during the debate.

Although I’m quite sure Obama made some deliberate decisions to change his tack and has no doubt convinced himself that many of his new positions make sense, it’s not particularly illuminating to blame him.

Instead, reflect on a system that is so stable and so all-encompassing that, after two failed wars, the destruction of Iraq, the loss of close to 5,000 U.S. soldiers, and a tremendous amount of sustained open controversy, the 2008 presidential foreign policy debate could have been the 2000 debate. The space between Bush and Gore on foreign policy was not noticeably smaller than that between Obama and McCain.

Obama wants to talk to Iran at some level about something without preconditions? Big deal. What is he going to offer as an inducement to make a deal? Vanished in the wind is his attempt in the early summer to oppose hysterical hyperventilation over the nonexistent threat from Iran. Apparently, even pointing out that talking about Israel and doing something about Israel are two rather different things in the Middle East is not acceptable when everyone is watching on TV. He said Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, disagreeing with both the most recent National Intelligence Estimate and the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And he seems to agree with McCain that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is a terrorist organization, although neither of them even knows the organization’s name, calling it the Republican Guard.

What does this combination of certainty and ignorance remind you of? Yeah, that’s right, the entire postwar national security establishment.

Obama’s proposal to send two more brigades to Afghanistan is risible, from a philosophical or a pragmatic point of view. First, Afghanistan is at a point where more troops mean more trouble; second, with increases of tens of thousands in the U.S. troop presence over the past few years, why is another increase of 7,000 even a policy, let alone a new one?

When asked about how to cut spending to pay for the bailout, after being pushed, Obama mentioned eliminating the $10 billion a month we’re spending in Iraq, while “they have a $79 billion surplus.” This is truly odd, since Obama has nothing convincing to say about ending the occupation any time soon. Besides, the $10 billion a month is spending on the U.S. military and its operations and it’s hard to imagine why the Iraqi government should pay for them.

Even on what, in a rational polity would be the easiest target of all, the bloated military budget, Obama actually let McCain get in the only word – he suggested that cost-plus contracting should end, a cosmetic measure compared to the roughly $600 billion in annual military spending or to the $700 billion bailout, but more than Obama had to suggest.

And both of them talk a lot about what they surely know is the chimerical goal of “energy independence,” something that would only be possible with the major cuts in consumption that nobody, including Al Gore, wants to talk about.

Don’t get me wrong; it makes a big difference who gets elected in November. It did four years ago, as well – remember all the silly talk from certain activists about how 1968 got Nixon elected but the Vietnam War ended? It makes a bigger difference this time, since it deals with America’s most persistent and most defining sin, for one thing, and because of McCain’s rapidly progressing dementia. Just don’t expect that difference to make much of a difference, if you know what I mean.

Posted at 10:29 am.

September 22, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Paulson's Billions

Apparently, I couldn't stay away from the computer this week.

In the eminently forgettable 1985 comedy Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor played a man who received an odd bequest: if he spent $30 million in 30 days, he would receive $300 million. The catch was that he had to spend the money without accumulating any assets.

The Bush administration plan for dealing with the potential meltdown of the financial sector is to give Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and/or his successor, $700 billion to spend over two years. He’s supposed to spend it on accumulating the lowest-quality assets around, the right to collect on bad debts and derivatives associated with those rights.

The payoff, unlike the case for Richard Pryor, will be a whopping increase in the national debt.

The Bush administration’s initial draft proposal gives all power to the Treasury Secretary, with only the vaguest mention of oversight, to spend the money as he chooses. He can choose what personnel or private firms he wants to implement the plan and he can buy mortgage-backed securities on any terms he wants.

The proposal reminds me of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress a week after the 9/11 attacks. Yes, there had been a serious attack and everyone was jittery expecting another one. Something was definitely going to be done.

But the Bush administration seized on the chance to push through a several-paragraph resolution that basically authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force,” the necessity and appropriateness to be determined solely by him, against anyone who he determined, through whatever process he chose, to be involved with the 9/11 attacks in any way or to be harboring anyone involved with them.

Bush was pushing an open door; it passed the House and Senate with only one dissenting vote, that of Barbara Lee. And yet, even if Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney and Russ Feingold were in favor of the Afghanistan war, already an obvious prospect at that time, they apparently never stopped to think that the authority granted was much wider. When the administration gave itself the right to declare U.S. citizens enemy combatants and hold them indefinitely without right of habeas corpus or due process, it cited the authorization.

This time around, the Democrats are slightly more critical. It is clear that they will allow this bailout to be rammed through, but they will exact some concessions. They may require relief for homeowners who can’t make their mortgage payments, some conditionalities to companies seeking federal relief, and/or an economic stimulus package.

One proposal getting a lot of play is to limit executive pay in companies getting relief. As emotionally satisfying as this would be, it is unfortunately small potatoes compared to the size of the bailout; the same is true for the other concessions the Democrats are likely to seek.

Although assets acquired by the government can later be sold if markets revive, it seems clear that the logic of the bailout is going to require massive losses. In the short term, just reviving liquidity in these markets may help distressed companies, but if their bad securities are bought up at actual market prices, how will this help their balance sheets? Presumably, the government will buy assets at inflated prices and then sell them for lower prices in the future.

It is clear that something needs to be done. While some on the left may see Wall Street on fire right now and be tempted to say, “Let the motherfucker burn,” only a fanatic could truly hold to that. A serious meltdown could trigger widespread economic dislocation and recession.

The government should be providing the market with a controlled landing while appropriating as many of the profits as possible, given that it is assuming all of the risk; unfortunately, the bailout actually seems designed to allow quick resumption of the status quo. Two years from now, somewhat chastened and with leveraging back to 10 to 1 instead of 30 to 1 or more, the moguls of Wall Street will be dreaming up new ways to bamboozle people, create systemic risk, and cash in; John McCain is already pushing privatization of Social Security, Wall Street’s wet dream.

The price for the rescue of the status quo, in a country already in trouble because of its lack of willingness to invest in the future and in the welfare of the average citizen, will be a sour atmosphere of fiscal retrenchment in Washington; expect that for years to come significant spending on universal health care, vital infrastructure, development of alternative energy sources will be all but politically impossible; the only thing likely to be exempt from extreme fiscal discipline will be money for war.

Posted at 10:03 am.

September 8, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

Bob Woodward, tireless scribe to the powerful, has a new book with stunning revelations like the fact that the United States has been spying on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In other news, George Bush is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, the Republicans sometimes lie, and the sun frequently rises in the east.

According to Woodward, the “surge” is not primarily responsible for the success in Iraq. Apparently, nameless high-tech methods, described by the president as “awesome,” have enabled much better targeting of insurgents in Iraq.

The U.S. military is engaged in a war of words about how many innocents were slaughtered in the small Afghan village of Azizabad. The military says 5 to 7 civilians and 30 to 35 insurgents were killed; every other observer, including the villagers, officials from the Afghan government and human rights organizations, and U.N. investigators, say over 90 civilians, the majority of them women and children were killed.

U.S. forces have been involved in ground raids in Pakistan, supplementing their frequent random airstrikes.

The United States has officially turned over responsibility for security in al-Anbar province to the Iraqi government – along with responsibility for pay of the remaining Awakening militias.

The only criticisms of the Iraq war heard in recent months from Democratic politicians are that we need to pull soldiers out of Iraq, where they have been successful, to Afghanistan, where they are needed, and that we need to pull soldiers out of Iraq because they have done their job, but the Iraqis have shirked their duties and must be forced to be more self-reliant, not shiftless, lazy, and ungrateful for all that has been done for them.

Everything that one sees or hears just rounds out the dominant narrative, that the United States has finally succeeded in Iraq; Republicans say the success is fragile and must be nurtured by lots of Americans with guns, while the Democrats say it’s robust.

A bipartisan consensus seems to have evolved on a need for U.S. escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although Barack Obama was ahead of John McCain on this one, because of the convenient fact that he had opposed the Iraq war and could thus convincingly portray Iraq as the bad war and Afghanistan as the good one, McCain, the Bush administration, and the military are all on the same page as him now.

It’s gotten to the point where there’s almost nothing interesting to say about U.S. foreign policy any more. One can point to relatively more minor matters, like U.S. adventurism regarding Georgia, but about the two wars the United States is currently waging there is a rigid lockstep.

Indeed, the only thing that keeps an atmosphere of triumphalism from emerging and engulfing everything is the increasingly nonsubstantive partisan divide. The Democrats still have to make noises about Iraq and about how the U.S. strategy isn’t quite working, even though they don’t seem to believe what they’re saying. And Obama still pulls some sleight of hand about complete U.S. withdrawal, although that has become utterly implausible.

What person within the whole foreign policy establishment would countenance abandoning Iraq to a ferociously anti-American and pro-Iranian government when there is no force capable of making the United States leave? The military is under strain because of the enhanced deployment schedule necessitated by the surge, but that is far from becoming a serious problem. To the extent that it is, there will be gradual drawdowns in the troop numbers. With the extremely low casualty rates coming out of Iraq and complete public passivity about the war in the United States, there is no particular reason for the government to change its strategies.

After all the Sturm und Drang of the past few years, the large numbers turning out to oppose the war, the delegitimization of everything the Bush administration has done, the emergence of militant organized liberalism, the collapse of the easy support for U.S. military intervention that has prevailed ever since the Gulf War, what a strange state of affairs we have come to – seemingly excessively stormy waters that, on closer examination, turn out to be a dead calm.

And yet, what depraved monster would wish on any country the “success” that Iraq has been subject to? If there were an antiwar movement left, its task would be to save Afghanistan and Pakistan from any similar successes. Will another one rise? I’m not going to hold my breath, but then holding your breath isn’t the best way to change things anyway.

Posted at 10:59 am.

September 1, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Redeeming the Promissory Note

Barack Obama’s convention speech was pretty good, given his unfortunate but inevitable reinvention as a mainstream politician, but it had no echoes of Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, and despite everything, it was one of the most remarkable moments of American history.

The right and left have both written about what King might have thought about Obama’s winning the nomination; both seem to agree that he wouldn’t have been overly pleased. Everybody’s King is a wish fulfillment fantasy; the right’s has no discernible connection with the historical man, while the left’s is merely an oversimplification.

I believe King would have thought that the promissory note he spoke of in 1963 had finally been redeemed in significant measure in 2008. It’s true that his agenda expanded over the next few years after that speech and that he repeatedly made the case that formal legal equality meant little without economic parity, something on which remarkably little ground has been gained in 45 years. But, even though he repeatedly told his people that they would get to the Promised Land, I think he knew there would be problems even in that land; he was no fool, to promise, as John McCain recently did to Rick Warren, that he would “defeat evil” in the world.

Had you told King that day on the Mall that in a mere 45 years, a black man would be the favorite to win the presidency, I think his reaction would have been the same as mine two years ago – that it was a hopeless fantasy. At a recent talk, the sociologist William Julius Wilson said that the Obama phenomenon had taught us all a lesson about race in America.

And so it should have. Of course, there have been subtle and not-so-subtle racist dynamics throughout the campaign; race may still cost him just enough votes to lose.

Some things remain the same. But how much has changed!

To be on the left is to want to smash the conventional wisdom and also to constantly point out that things are much worse than others think they are. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a point and sometimes progress is made.

This is not tokenism, it’s not merely the wish of some white liberals for cheap absolution, and it’s not even the simple manifestation of the national desire for self-validation. There has been a profound shift in Americans’ feeling and thinking about race.

There is no way to minimize the importance of this development. Black and white has been the central fault line of American history, the primary motor that still drives American politics.

It’s very rare that a large section of the American public is deeply concerned over a moral issue that actually has to do with their own actions – as opposed to our usual serious grappling with the morality of Turks exterminating Armenians or Serbs killing Bosnians and with why we should bomb them.

Perhaps the two most notable times were early Reconstruction and the civil rights era.

Both times, much of the promise of those periods was lost. Post-Reconstruction, a national racist consensus was constructed, just in time to serve as a major underpinning of a new policy of explicit imperialism.

Another racist consensus emerged in the post-civil-rights era, based on a law-and-order reaction to the rise in crime, the tax revolt caused by a reaction to fictitious black women driving Cadillacs, resentment caused by the loss of middle class stability for whites supposedly because “unqualified” blacks were stealing their jobs. The consequences were the renewed dominance of the Republican Party, the rise of the right wing, and the creation of the new domestic security state – the things that still dominate our national landscape.

Over 1% of the adult population is in prison in the freest country in the world; if China had a similar rate, it would be an international scandal. Racial disparities in the prison population are greater than they were 30 years ago.

It’s tempting to use this to say things haven’t changed, except in form. The left always wants to get beneath the surface. Once, while leaving Baghdad, I talked to a kid from a sectarian leftist organization who refused to concede that the end of apartheid was a historic accomplishment. He was black.

Instead of constantly trying to remind people of how we always lose, let’s celebrate this moment; let’s even claim it as a victory for our side. It isn’t justice for the crimes of the past; that, unfortunately, never comes. But it is hope for the future.

Posted at 10:36 am.
Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and BeyondBush, Iraq, and Demonstration Elections Notes on Bush RNC Speech"Report from Baghdad -- Hospital Closings and U.S. War Crimes "Report from Baghdad -- Winning Hearts and Minds"Report from Fallujah -- Destroying a Town in Order to "Save" it"Report from Baghdad -- Opening the Gates of Hell"War on Terrorism" Makes Us All Less Safe Bush -- Is the Tide Turning?Perle and FrumIntelligence Failure Kerry vs. Dean SOU 2004: Myth and Reality