Monday, September 29, 2008

Creating Disaster for Ourselves in Pakistan

Dexter Filkins wrote a solid summary of how Pakistan nurtured the rise of the Taliban over the last decade (New York Times, Sept. 28) but timidly sidestepped clearly spelling out the lessons, delicately noting that “some American analysts worry that the fledgling civilian government in Pakistan won’t be able to survive the cross-currents of American pressure and the anti-American anger it stimulates.”

Let’s be clear: helicopter gunships shooting up the neighborhood, missile strikes on civilian housing, and army attacks that drive the whole population of poor areas out of their homes are not the way to construct the moderate, secure civil society that could be a bulwark of democracy in Pakistan and a comfortable partner for the U.S. The Pakistani military offensive in Bajaur that began in August drove some 400,000 refugees out of the region on foot. That level of chaos represents a huge victory for extremists: one can only imagine the amount of anti-Americanism and pro-al Qua’ida feeling such Pakistani military blundering (following the appalling tactics of the butcher of Beirut [1982] Sharon adopted by Bush in Iraq) will generate. Direct American attacks on Pakistani soil simply serve to drive home the point that the opponents of the Taliban are folks who seem quite willing to brutalize marginalized third world populations and kill innocents.

In truth, the situation is even worse: these tactics by Washington and its allies also reinforce the Taliban-al Qua’ida alliance. Is it still necessary to point out that these are two distinct groups? Given the evident ignorance of Washington power-holders…yes, I guess it is.

  • Al Qua’ida – global enemy of the West determined to dethrone the world’s last superpower and establish a global or at least regional Islamic state;
  • Taliban – also a radical Islamic group but focused on reforming society and politics through force in the region.

The differences are fundamental (no pun intended), but the longer Washington treats them the same, the more these two groups are likely to be transformed into a single, unified enemy that will view defeating the U.S. as the necessary first step toward reforming their own society.

This still is not the whole story: the longer this process continues, the greater the opportunity for radical Islamists (provided that they play their cards skillfully) to take on the mantle of patriotism and become seen as defenders of the people against foreign aggression. If radicals achieve that goal of being generally seen as the only real patriots, they will become all but invincible…and the cause will have been our own leaders’ incompetence.

Iraq, at peace under Saddam's admittedly vicious rule, was transformed into a catastrophe by the U.S. invasion. Bungling the issue of nuclear Pakistan would be a far more serious mistake.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Presidential Debate Drops Ball on National Direction

Whither America? What are the principles that should guide U.S. national strategy?

Should our foreign policy be based on the use of force or should every effort be made to cooperate, compromise, understand, sympathize--leaving our overwhelming military power as a dangerous but available last resort? That is the basic question; Obama hinted at a more reasonable perspective than McCain's me-too neo-con hubris but essentially both candidates dropped the ball last night.

Last night's Presidential Debate recognized that a linkage between foreign policy and economics exists; that was good. Unfortunately, despite the remarks of both about the distinction between tactics and strategy, neither really understands what that means: neither offered a clear strategic vision for this country. On the contrary, the two instead bickered about details, leaving fundamental questions of national strategy unaddressed.

Whether or not to have a troop surge is a tactical issue. Whether to focus our military initiative on Iraq or Pakistan or Somalia or Iran or Afghanistan is a tactical issue. The strategic question is whether or not military force is the appropriate way to resolve the complex socio-political challenges the U.S. faces in interacting with global cultures that it's foreign policy behavior has so deeply offended. Honest, decent citizens may disagree on this issue; but simply to ignore it is astoundingly stupid and dangerous.

The differences on detail between the two candidates are important; given a choice between black (Bush), dark gray (McCain), and light gray (Obama), of course, I can make a choice. But a choice between black and white--or at least a discussion of the principles governing such a distinction--would be so much more welcome.

However, neither candidate seems capable of rising to the challenge this country faces. Each lacks vision; each seems to buy into the dangerous, arrogant, self-defeating neo-con policy that all who are not with us are against us. I hope I am wrong. I hope Obama is just trying to convince Joe Sixpack that he is a tough guy, and that he will indeed rise to the occasion and grow to become a wise leader if elected. But I fear that this country will sorely miss the kind of open-minded leadership that a Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader would have offered. At this point it seems doubtful that either major candidate will have the vision and moral integrity to wash the neo-con poison that has so alienated the world and so empowered al Qua'ida out of American politics.

War & Economic Security

When a war against one little opponent that is “defeated” and totally occupied after only three days ends up costing $1 trillion, it is intuitively obvious that some relationship exists between a country’s foreign policy and its economic state of health. Exactly how that relationship works is a bit more complicated. I don’t pretend to have a complete understanding, but it does seem clear beyond any doubt that we should recognize that a relationship exists and be debating it.

Last night's Presidential Debate recognized that a linkage between foreign policy and economics exists; that was good. Unfortunately, despite the remarks of both about the distinction between tactics and strategy, neither really understands what that means: neither offered a clear strategic vision for this country. On the contrary, the two instead bickered about details, leaving fundamental questions of national strategy unaddressed.

Foreign policy and economic health are two critical pillars of long-term national security. The relationship between foreign policy and economics is particularly important when our foreign policy is based on endlessly expensive high-tech war against rebels with Kalashnikovs rather than patience, compromise, police action, diplomacy, winning friends, setting a good example, or any other of the many more modest methods of conducting foreign policy. Given the number of overemotional politicians who want a war with Iran (three times the size of Iraq) and seem quite ready to provoke a war with Pakistan (10 times the size of Iraq), exploring the relationship between a foreign policy based on violence and domestic economic health is clearly an urgent requirement for managing our country’s future in a rational manner.

One way utterly to obscure this relationship is to pay attention to gross national product. That statistic would count an armor-plated Humvee or a pile of white phosphorus terror bombs as having exactly the same value as the same dollar value of, say, solar generating equipment or educational facilities. But the difference between the former and the latter in terms of how it contributes to the quality of our lives needs no explanation. As a greater and greater percentage of our economic efforts goes into producing war materials whose long-run results are to increase global opposition to U.S. foreign policy and increase the number of soldiers who return home as invalids, the relationship between gross national product and the quality of life for the average American becomes increasingly tenuous. A long war is pure gold for war profiteers even as it rusts away the nation’s ability to generate the economic underpinnings of a comfortable lifestyle.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Say "No" to Scare-mongering Politicians

While the political elite labors to convince us all that the sky will fall unless it is granted the power to reward its corporate allies for the irresponsible financial management of this country of which both are guilty, I am watching rural America continue to live and work within its means.

Yes, our elite could wreck everything. On the other hand, there is an element of utter unreality about Bush's panic-stricken pleas for instant gratification.

Here in rural America, I am running a small personal construction project that requires me to manage about a dozen different contractors - electricians, tree men, plumbers, construction types, movers, cleaners, etc. Chicken-Little screams from the White House notwithstanding, every single real professional contractor I have contacted is overwhelmed with work.

Beneath the self-serving panic of the rich and corrupt, addicted to the profits they are making from provoking foreign wars and degrading our environment, lies a powerful economic engine of millions of Americans industriously going about the business of living.

Exactly why the rich who are sinking the ship of high finance must be rewarded so quickly escapes me. On the street in the U.S., there are certainly many problems, but I do not, in interacting with actual hometown individuals, see any reason for panic. Yes, easier access to business and personal loans would in some cases be helpful. Stronger penalties for individuals who max out their credit cards would also be helpful, for the many with weak wills and expensive buying habits. But justification for saying the sky will fall unless vast rewards are given to millionaires on Wall Street who gambled and lost simply is not visible on mainstreet.

The panic-striken White House pleas to bail out the rich RIGHT NOW are precisely like its panic-striken pleas to stop the alleged enemy of the moment from destroying the world. Seven years ago Bush-Cheney founded their imperial reign on cries of terror about bin Laden; then they switched focus to Iraq; then they switched focus to Iran; now it's Iran on Monday and Pakistani tribesmen on Tuesday. Are these problems? Of course - just as the financial mess is a problem.

But reasons for panic? Reasons for pouring gasoline on the fire? Reasons for pouring good money after bad? Reasons for bombing the innocent in order to catch one or two of the guilty? No, au contraire. These problems are reason for cautious, reasoned policies. The Chicken Littles of Washington are brilliant at exploiting scare tactics to enhance their personal wealth and power. They have learned that Americans are so ignorant about high finance and international affairs that scare-mongering works. They won't stop until the American people wake up and demand that they stop. It's up to you: get educated and speak out!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Financial Bailout & National Character

The U.S. currently faces three crises: financial, health care, and foreign policy. In each arena, national irresponsibility—call it intentional attempt to defraud, procrastination, and imperial overreach, respectively—has created a needless crisis that is undermining the quality of life for Americans today and the stability of the nation’s prospects for the future.

The financial crisis grew from an intentional attempt on the part of both individual home buyers and financial “movers and shakers” to defraud – to cheat someone. Homeowners wanted to buy a house for more than it was worth and quickly sell it for still more to some other poor slob, who would then be left holding the bag while they ran for the door with the money. The nation’s financial leaders were essentially playing the same game – knowingly breaking both laws and commonsense rules of investment to make a quick buck without really working for it. It’s called “getting rich quick” and both morally and legally it constitutes fraud. Many, many Americans deserve to be convicted in court of crime and severely punished as part of any Federal bailout.

For a creative approach to managing the financial crisis proposed by
Representative Dennis Kucinich, the man who should probably have been our next president, see this report about his "no cash for trash" rejection of the Bush bailout idea.

The health care crisis grew from decades of procrastination in facing the truth on at least two levels:

  • The first level is that we individual Americans are almost all guilty of being too lazy to get basic exercise and too self-indulgent to eat nutritious food. We have the cheapest and, if you shop very carefully (avoiding all processed items on the interior shelves of standard grocery stores), some of the healthiest food in the history of mankind. The healthy food is even some of the cheapest – compare the cost of a bowl of organic, steel-cut oats with a bowl of your junk dry cereal of choice.
  • The second level is that the health care industry has become increasingly organized as a profit-making business rather than a critical government service to the population.

We all knew this was the wrong approach, but letting things slide was easier than facing up to the truth. If you think I am overstating, try getting effective health care for an aged relative on Medicaid with severe depression. Thanks to the general trend toward “one-size fits all” mass processing of the sick to generate corporate profits and, specifically, to the irresponsibility of Ronald Reagan, this nation no longer does mental health problems for the poor. For a second example, try persuading a hospital to keep a sick person in the hospital once the insurance company starts pressuring the doctor to kick the patient out. Yes, I said that correctly – it is, in today’s corporate health industry, not the doctor but some anonymous insurance company employee in a far-away city who decides when a patient will be sent home from the hospital. The bottom line is that today, America is a three-class society – the elite rich who can buy the care they need, a class with health insurance, and a class without.

The foreign policy crisis grew from a post-Cold War decision to take advantage of the sudden absence of serious foreign enemies to steal what we wanted, to bully the world into submission. Don’t like a Latin American leader who is trying to strengthen his country’s independence? Foment a coup against him. Don’t like a Mideast dictator who suddenly talks back? Invade. Don’t like the internal policy of a country that is wrestling with an Islamic rebellion? Bomb the rebels whether that country gives you permission or not. Don’t like a country’s foreign policy – call it undemocratic and institute regime change. Like a country’s foreign policy – call it democratic (regardless of the degree to which it tortures or slaughters its citizens) and prop up its corrupt ruling class.

Those short-sighted, self-centered policies were not selected out of ignorance – they were intended to be profitable now (i.e., short-sighted) and profitable to Americans, or more specifically to American elites, without concern for anyone else (i.e., self-centered). But the short term is proving to be very short indeed, as the resurgent Taliban resistance to Western control over Afghanistan, Pakistani tribal resentment at outside interference, and al Qua’ida efforts to pour gasoline on the (momentarily?) cooling flames of global conflict increasingly overlap—propelled to do so both by the policies of al Qua’ida and those of Washington. Seven years on, the result of the specific U.S. policies of the so-called “war on terror” is growing al Qua’ida power, decline in the U.S. position in enormous Pakistan (population 200 million) that is far more dangerous than the small signs of progress in tiny Iraq (population 30 million), and rising hostility toward the U.S., meaning that—in an age where a really small bunch of guys anywhere can put together the means to cause us real harm—U.S. national security is declining as fast as house prices.

Despite the existence of these three crises, Washington is proposing to spend limitless hundreds of billions of dollars to resolve just one of these crises: the financial one. Why?

  • It is not necessary, from the perspective of the ruling circles in this country, to resolve the health care crisis because that is a crisis that affects only the poor and the middle class; the rich can buy the best health care known in human civilization in whatever amount they desire.
  • It is not even desirable, from the perspective of the ruling circles in this country, to resolve the foreign policy crisis because it is precisely the existence of that crisis…that global turmoil…that offers the members of our ruling class the wonderful opportunities for making a buck of which they are so eagerly taking advantage.
  • The financial crisis, however, is very different: the financial crisis is threatening the very livelihoods of this country’s richest and most powerful corporate officials.

Now that merits a bailout.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Financial Crisis: Helping Folks in Need, Not the Rich

Following up on yesterday's theme that the first step toward resolving the financial crisis is common sense (rather than technical expertise) and that rewarding the guilty is NOT common sense, here's another suggested route: instead of putting hundreds of billions of dollars in the hands of the wealthy financial "experts" on Wall Street and in Washington who caused this crisis, why not use that money to extend short-term, low-interest loans to low- and medium- income individuals who need loans either to continue making mortgage payments or to run small businesses?

* Federal loans
* No points, fees, gimmicks
* 1% interest per year for five years
* for individuals with annual income less than $75, 000 or businesses employing fewer than 12 people
* maximum loan size $100,000.

In brief, the loans would be bandaids to give short-term help to the folks who need help. There may well be many legitimate reasons why this would not work - but before supporting an historic give-away to the rich and corrupt and incompetent, I would like to hear what those reasons might be.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Creating a Plan to End Federal Mismanagement of the Economy

Back in the U.S. from a vacation in the Canadian wilderness, I discover to my shock that politicians in charge have done nothing to resolve the financial crisis they created by their years of mismanagement (otherwise known as reducing "big government" and cutting "regulatory red tape"). That generation of Washington's refusal to take responsibility for monitoring the behavior of corrupt corporate executives on Wall Street and elsewhere was the gift of Ronald Reagan. Bush is certainly guilty have having continued the worst of Reagan's nonsense, but Reagan was the one who started it. Make no mistake about it: this is a man-made, a Republican-made crisis.

Anyway, Bush has now had weeks, in fact months of warning that the Republicans' traditional hands-off attitude toward corruption in corporate America undermines national security by weakening our economy. Nevertheless, his only solution is to give his rich corporate buddies taxpayer funds--a handout to the rich with no strings attached, just like the no-strings-attached policy of letting him make war where and when he so chooses that he and his neo-con masters have always advocated.

The result is that even the short period of my two week vacation has seen astonishing deterioration in America's financial condition. The Bushites are right about one thing - this IS serious. We do have the capacity to wreck it all, folks. God may have provided us with this incredibly rich and beautiful land (I won't argue that point either way), but he absolutely did not guarantee that we could keep it forever. We have to earn that right. Rewarding the guilty is not exactly the way.

Here's a simple outline of a possible way forward: get a small (e.g., 7 people max) group of Americans who seem sort of open-minded and intelligent together to sketch out a plan (in contrast to the blank check concept pushed by Bush). Give them 72 hours. Send it to Congress and publicize. Two pages is fine - but two pages of outline with specifics. My recommendations for committee members:

  • Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney
  • Presidential candidate Ralph Nader
  • Presidential candidate Ron Paul
  • two recognized economists who have NOT ever served in Washington
  • two recognized political scientists who have NOT ever served in Washingon.

Ask the Supreme Court justices to select the four economists and political scientists tomorrow during lunch. The names don't matter too much - any man in the street could do this job better than Bush did it. Common sense and decency are the main qualifications. Technical expertise comes later.

Suggestions for points to include in this little "statement of work to save America" are invited.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pakistan Strikes Back Against Washington

Judging from the public remarks by senior Pakistani officials, disunity within the Pakistani government would seem likely to be among the costs of American attacks on Pakistani soil. While just-elected Pakistani president Zardari just termed “the threat of global terrorism” “chief among the challenges that all Pakistanis face,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned the recent American attack in an “impassioned” speech on Thursday, saying it "violated the sovereignty of Pakistan." Similarly, a Pakistan army spokesman warned that U.S. militancy would “ further anger” Pakistanis” and “undercut cooperation in the war against terrorist groups.” More seriously, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC), Gen Tariq Majid, called the attacks “callous and wanton” and reserved the right to “appropriately retaliate”.

Today, that retaliation evidently began, as Pakistan suspended fuel supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan via the Torkham highway that links Peshawar with Kabul. Does anyone have the numbers on the impact this suspension of fuel deliveries might have on NATO operations in Afghanistan if it endures?

Even more interesting than the daily tit-for-tat which seems to be steadily destabilizing U.S.-Pakistani relations and the new civilian leadership of Pakistan is the rapidity of the evolution of the overall situation in the Taliban's favor over the last month:

* 500,000 Pakistani internal refugees, who are now apparently free to return to homes that their own government has destroyed;

* the new Pakistani civilian coalition has collapsed, imperiling the future of Pakistan's briefly resurgent democracy;

* a series of U.S. attacks on Pakistani territory that, judging from Pakistani media reports, have accomplished nothing except to kill a few minor combatants and a number of innocent civilians, making the U.S. look simultaneously barbaric and incompetent;

* fuel supplies from Pakistan to NATO forces in Afghanistan suspended...not by Taliban attacks but by the Pakistani government!

Instead of citing terrorism as Pakistan's greatest challenge, perhaps Zardari should have considered "government responsiveness to the needs of the people" or "the tactics employed by this so-called 'war on terror'." It is noteworthy that both the Pakistani attack in Bajaur last month that initiated the current situation and the U.S. attack this week occurred before his election: Zardari is not exactly getting a honeymoon period in which to figure out the correct tactics.

Friday, September 5, 2008

From Another Perspective...

In an alternative universe, Moscow decides that if Washington insists on expanding NATO into Russia's backyard, the only way Moscow can get the respect it naturally wants is by establishing a counter-alliance. Talks with Venezuela and Bolivia begin immediately, not because Russia actually has any interest in defending them, but because they demand the talks--understandably enough, given the pressures against them from Washington that they perceive. Moscow calculates that it can trade refusal to sign them up for Washington's rejection of NATO membership for Georgia and, more importantly, Ukraine. But Moscow misses the electoral campaign utility of a tiff with Moscow for Republicans, while Washington happily turns up the heat. When beleaguered Mexico, burned by disadvantageous trade deals and the endless American demand for drugs, suddenly announces that it has joined up as a Russian ally, Washington is stunned. Given American relations with Ukraine and Poland and Georgia, Moscow honestly cannot understand what the fuss is all about...

Please note: The above paragraph is fiction. No responsible elected official would play such silly games. Even Hollywood wouldn't touch a plot this ridiculous. Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to give them a call...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Right of Aggression...As Convenient

The recent U.S. attack into Pakistan was described in the New York Times as follows:

Helicopter-borne American Special Operations forces attacked Qaeda
militants in a Pakistani village near the border with Afghanistan early
Wednesday in the first publicly acknowledged case of United States forces conducting a ground raid on Pakistani soil, American officials said.

Curious wording that avoids the key issue. Either the Pakistani government gave permission or it was U.S. aggression, just like the Russian aggression against Georgia over which Washington took such umbrage. The implication is clearly that the Pakistani government did NOT know, but we need to know which it really was. Others can comment on what actually happened; I wasn't there and don't know anything except what I read. My point is to draw attention to the long-term implications, of which there are many.

One critical implication for the future of world politics and, therefore, the security of us all, concerns the precedent being set. Washington is currently expending a considerable amount of capital (both moral and financial) to establish the precedent (in the Georgian case) that sending military forces across the border of another state is wrong and will be punished by the world community.

The Pakistani protest against the U.S. attack on Pakistan this week suggests that it did not give permission and, therefore, that Washington has now established precisely the opposite precedent. Making matters even worse, the bungled U.S. attack reportedly killed women and children. Moscow now has a clear defense against Washington's criticism. Beyond that, any other state with concerns about another state (e.g., China vis-a-vis Taiwan, India vis-a-vis Pakistan, Iran vis-a-vis Israel) can cite the Pakistan precedent. Note clearly that the discussion does not concern self-defense; the circumstances are neither those of war or imminent war. We are, with the U.S. attack on Waziristan, in a much grayer (read "more dangerous") area where a potential, future, perceived threat exists. This precedent comes very close to allowing anyone to commit aggression whenever aggression may be deemed to be convenient.

The task of the next U.S. president just got significantly more difficult.