Saturday, October 31, 2009

Israel: War Crimes Then, "Peace Crimes" Now

Israel remains firmly in denial about its barbaric treatment of the people of Gaza, and Washington, busy with its own empire-building in Afghanistan, remains dutifully in support. If the people of Gaza were accepted as, well, “people,” the crack in the war party’s shield might bring down the whole U.S.-Israeli anti-Islamic house of cards, so that party’s experiments in the Gaza Laboratory continue.

Meanwhile, the U.N. has courageously shined a spotlight on Israeli war crimes, and one wonders if discussions about Fallujah or U.S. failure to tackle Afghan heroin production might be next.

UN General Secretary Ban commented:

Jerusalem must be the capital of two States – Israel and Palestine – living side-by-side in peace and security, with arrangements for the holy sites acceptable to all, if peace in the Middle East is to be achieved, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned today....

He cited as obstacles to peace continued Israeli evictions and house demolitions in East Jerusalem, the latest occurring yesterday, closure of Palestinian institutions there, and the expansion of settlements contrary to international law and the Roadmap peace plan espoused by the Quartet – UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States – that seeks a two-State solution to the conflict….

He also called on Israel to re-open its borders with Gaza to allow in reconstruction material 10 months after the end of its three-week assault on Hamas there, noting that a donors’ conference in Egypt raised $4.5 billion in financial aid for the purpose.

“Little if any of that money has been delivered,” he said. “Families have not been able to rebuild their homes. Clinics and schools are still in ruins. I urge Israel to accept the UN reconstruction proposals as set forth, recognizing that the only true guarantee of peace is people’s well-being and security.”

He called on both Israel and the Palestinians to carry out “full, independent and credible investigations” in accordance with the recommendations of a UN commission led by Justice Richard Goldstone, a former prosecutor at the UN war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which found evidence that both sides committed serious war crimes in the Gaza war.

Ban’s comments come amid controversy over the Goldstone report, which, according to Goldstone, found:

The Mission found that the attack on the only remaining flour producing factory, the destruction of a large part of the Gaza egg production, the bulldozing of huge tracts of agricultural land, and the bombing of some two hundred industrial facilities, could not on any basis be justified on military grounds. Those attacks had nothing whatever to do with the firing of rockets and mortars at Israel…. These attacks amounted to reprisals and collective punishment and constitute war crimes.

Goldstone’s report on Israel’s December 2008 attack on Gaza is a landmark effort by the global community to stand up to oppression, but Ban’s comments carry this even further, officially stating the obvious: even in victory, Israel has done little if anything to “clean up its act.” If what Israel did during the overt military phase of its suppression of Gaza constituted “war crimes,” then what is the proper term for its continued collective punishment of a now quiescent population – “peace crimes?"

Friday, October 30, 2009

Constructing Afghan Society

Practical solutions for building civil society in Afghanistan do exist. The key is to get over the addiction to brute force and think about it.

I recently offered three principles to guide our thinking about Afghanistan, principles taboo in the mental box called official Washington. The goal of these principles is to win via civic action designed to create a healthy Afghan society (not a new colony for the Empire). What follows is a set of specific proposals that speak directly to the challenging task of implementation.

1. A White House Initiative to Empower NGOs:

Bring to the White House the international organizations who know Afghanistan well because they have been there so long — such as World Vision, Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Tearfund, Christian Aid, Church World Service — and many others. Ask them what U.S. policy would best work, and what kind of security they would need to really do the kind of development in Afghanistan that is most needed.

Let the non-military strategies lead the way, rather than the other way around, which often just makes aid and development work another weapon of war; but then provide the security needed for that work, and make it as international as possible. Also bring in some of the religious and other nonprofit leaders from the Obama Advisory Council and others, to focus on the deeply ethical and moral issues that are at stake in our decisions about future policy in Afghanistan — legitimately protecting Americans from further terrorism, defending women from the Taliban, developing a diplomatic surge, genuinely supporting democracy, and saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war — to name a few.

2. Raise Saffron, Not Poppies. A second idea, directed at combating the crucial opium trade, is to encourage farmers to turn to saffron. This might provoke attacks by the Taliban, but that would only serve to expose their lack of concern for the Afghan people. It also might provoke attacks by the narco-state bureaucracy, which could possibly be countered by increasing the already-evident tendency of the U.S. to deal directly with local authorities..

3. Target Heroin Labs. ...and not just those under the control of "insurgents." I wonder what would happen if the criminal gangs exporting heroin began to get the idea that merely standing near a heroin lab might be dangerous to their health? A major obstacle to accomplishing this is the high proportion of the Afghan narcotics trade that is under the control of the Afghan regime. According to a Russian report on recent comments by Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian Federal Drugs Control Service:

The most modern and the best equipped laboratories processing opium poppy into heroin are located in the northern provinces of Afghanistan near the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek borders, which are areas of influence of the Northern Alliance.

The real threat comes from drug bosses operating in the north of Afghanistan, "and the coalition forces are not conducting an effective fight against them." [Thanks to the Human Security Report Project's Afghan Security News at Simon Fraser University for bringing attention to this report.]

4. Pay Afghan Security Forces a Living Wage. Those willing to undertake the incredibly dangerous career of being a member of the Afghan security forces (which someday are theoretically supposed to replace the U.S. military) are now paid only about half what it costs to raise a family. Is that the way to keep your police force honest? [Thanks to the Human Security Report Project's Afghan Security News at Simon Fraser University for bringing attention to this report.]

If you think about it, which Washington officials enamored of grandiose plans for military bases and pipelines don’t, solutions are possible.

Newsletter Giving Highlights of This Blog

Announcing: Newsletter Now Published

"Governing for the People"

This "behind-the-news letter" will summarize the key issues discussed in the Shadowed Forest blog in order to expose the real nature of government. The theme is judging the degree to which government is designed for the benefit of the elite or the people, a distinction that those doing the governing of course go to great lengths to conceal.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Preparing an Honorable U.S. Exit Strategy

The time has come for the U.S. to move past the simplistic “go or stay” debate to a focus on the full range of Afghan policy options. Washington urgently needs to design an honorable Afghanistan exit strategy.

Three principles that currently seem almost taboo in Washington policy-making circles point the way to an honorable exit strategy from Afghanistan for the U.S. These principles are of course moot to the degree that Washington may have no intention of leaving, but for those searching for an American exit strategy that leaves Afghanistan in peace, these principles offer an initial set of guidelines.

  1. Local Control: Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;
  2. Civil Society First: The method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;
  3. Afghan Independence: The goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.

But how can they be implemented?

Neither as a society nor as a government, has the U.S. even come close to answering this challenging question. In fact, the question almost seems to be considered unacceptable in polite conversation, as though even to ask were somehow to “embarrass,” a sin in Washington far worse than hypocrisy.

Local Control:

Whether “local” means “tribal,” “Afghan,” “Muslim,” or “Central Asian,” it implies that decisions do not flow from Washington, but what other organizations are willing to step up to take leadership and, of course, how are their members to be protected? Are there politically neutral civil society organizations that could be accepted by both sides, that could negotiate with both sides to carve out spaces for action? Might there be members or factions of the Taliban willing to accept moderate Muslim but modernizing civil society activities in return for the removal of U.S. forces and their inclusion in the political process?

Iran. One piece of a non-American solution is Iran, which has been providing electricity and other economic aid to the Herat region, the area of its traditional influence, but Iranian aid allegedly can cut both ways. Whatever the truth of Pentagon charges that Iran aids the Taliban, it is certainly aiding Afghan society more generally, including the building of a new university and, sometimes, in the face of American opposition. Iran also fulfills its aid pledges much more reliably than does the U.S.

Turkey. Turkey is, albeit slowly, taking the initiative to support Afghan development. Two questions concerning this potentially important development concern Turkey’s resolve to act in time, given the urgency of the situation, and whether Turkey will act primarily as a member of NATO or primarily as a Muslim country.

Civil Society. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief or other international relief coordinating bodies might be a route to building Afghan society that could be accepted by both the U.S. and the Taliban if the Taliban could be granted a role in building society so they would not see destruction as their route to power. A good beginning would be for the U.S. to give the kind of emphasis to improving Afghan civil administration it is giving to building up Afghan security forces. Arif Rafiq recommends that the Organization of the Islamic Conference take the lead; why that group has not been more active on Afghanistan so far is unclear.

Civil Society First:

Whatever the politically correct words from McCrystal, as long as the Pentagon is in charge, the hammer it holds in its hand will always be the main tool employed. How might Washington transfer initiative from the Pentagon to civilian organs of government?

Medecins Sans Frontiers has returned to Afghanistan for the first time in five years, because it views the situation as worsening. Whether or not MSF will be better protected this time than back in 2004, when it left Afghanistan because its personnel were being murdered, remains to be seen.

Afghan Independence:

Whatever Washington’s intent, to the degree that it unilaterally constructs military bases in Afghanistan, it will give the impression that it plans to colonize Afghanistan and use it as a base for threatening regional states. Both care in constructing bases that are obviously designed for counterinsurgency use only (rather than regional power projection) and a focus on obtaining approval from regional states (specifically including Iran) in advance would be useful steps for signaling a willingness to support true Afghan independence. Far more important would be a fundamental shift in military policy from a U.S.-centric to a Muslim-centric military force.

Rafiq, for example, recommends that only Muslim troops be sent to Afghanistan. This intuitively appealing approach would entail new dangers – highly unstable Bangladesh might suffer blowback of its own were it to get involved in the Afghan conflict; Turkey might appear to be just another NATO member; Saudi involvement would raise the already high threat of further Saudi sponsorship of Salafi extremism; it is hard to see how Egypt or Iran could be a force for the sponsorship of democracy. However, while these concerns merit consideration, they pale beside the horrors and self-defeating nature of massive American forces. Might sufficient forces be assembled from such Muslim states as Morocco, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Malaysia, and Indonesia? Might an Asian even if non-Muslim force be able to play a significant role, perhaps in guarding regions currently peaceful?


Wise policy-makers in Washington will start thinking seriously about how an honorable exit strategy from Afghanistan might be designed. Both the obvious worsening of the situation since Washington turned its primary attention to invading Iraq six long years ago and the easily overlooked historical record of American military interventions in developing world conflicts support the contention that Washington needs to have a carefully planned exit strategy.

The result of American intervention in Vietnam was the destruction of Vietnamese culture; a disastrous defeat for the U.S. that provoked stagflation and opened the strategic door to the Soviet Union; a dishonorable rooftop escape for Americans accompanied by a treacherous abandoning of America’s Vietnamese allies; and the needless death of perhaps 4,000,000 people.

The result of American intervention in Iraq remains to be seen but already includes perhaps 1,000,000 dead; tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers with wounds so severe their lives are destroyed; invalidation of America’s claim to being moral leader of the world; and the provocation of an Iraqi domestic terror campaign that may yet spill over into the rest of the world.

Designing an exit strategy that will save the U.S. from another defeat and make possible a stable, decently governed Afghanistan will require an uncommon degree of policy-making creativity and humility. It is time to get started.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Provoking Russian-Iranian Entente

Does Washington risk provoking a new cold, or even hot, war with Russia by asserting the right to intervene massively in Afghanistan but failing to control Afghanistan’s booming heroin export trade?

Moscow is beginning, quite rightly, to view its heroin addiction epidemic as a threat to its national security.

From this, it would be a small step for Moscow to conclude that Washington is intentionally looking the other way. Two glaring facts would seem to support such a view:

  • The American army in Afghanistan is doing little to control heroin export;
  • Alternative methods for Afghan farmers to earn a living are being ignored.

What, then, might Moscow do if it decided Washington were intentionally subverting Russian society the way the Colombian drug cartels are subverting American society?

The list of Russian options for fighting back seems long enough to merit a bit of contemplation by Washington:

  • Cut off the recently-approved flow of American military supplies through Russia into Afghanistan;

  • Work with Tajik contacts both in Tajikistan and the increasingly disaffected Afghan north to separate that part of Afghanistan from the Taliban regions of the Pushtun south to create a buffer zone or just to complicate American plans;

  • Lead a Shanghai Cooperation Organization regional initiative to build a third political force in Afghanistan, independent of both the Taliban and the U.S., perhaps starting with a campaign against large American military bases in Afghanistan that would no doubt attract Chinese interest;

According to a Russian news agency report, a regional conference on Afghanistan in 2008 concluded:

The American counter-terrorism campaign encouraged terrorists, boosted production of drugs, illegal immigration, illicit arms deals, and fomented other threats that compromise the security of Afghanistan itself and other Eurasian countries. All of that necessitates actions by Afghanistan's neighbors who view the Afghani crisis resolution as vitally important.

  • Cut a mutually-beneficial two-part deal with its ally Tehran to support increased Iranian influence in regions of Afghanistan historically and religiously close to Iran already to combat the drug trade that both Moscow and Tehran fear.

A Russian Perspective

What really scares Washington - from George W Bush to Obama - is the perspective of a Russia-Iran-Venezuela axis. Together, Iran and Russia hold 17.6% of the world′s proven oil reserves. The Persian Gulf petro-monarchies - de facto controlled by Washington - hold 45%. The Moscow-Tehran-Caracas axis controls 25%. If we add Kazakhstan′s 3% and Africa′s 9.5%, this new axis is more than an effective counter-power to American hegemony over the Arab Middle East. The same thing applies to gas. Adding the "axis" to the Central Asian "stans", we reach 30% of world gas production....

A nuclear Iran would inevitably turbo-charge the new, emerging multipolar world. Iran and Russia are de facto showing to both China and India that it is not wise to rely on US might subjugating the bulk of oil in the Arab Middle East.


The latter option in particular should be contemplated carefully in Washington. The Central Asian-Middle Eastern region is currently at a tipping point, where any one of at least three historic shifts is possible. These three potential shifts in regional power relationships are all quite conceivable at the present time because the multiple, cross-cutting cleavages of the artificially conceived nuclear crisis and the various regional conflicts have destroyed regional stability.

The first possible shift is the “Netanyahu option,” a nuclear strike on Iran that would, if successful, empower Israeli rightwing militarists dreaming of Israeli domination of the region. Success is highly unlikely, however, since the aftermath of a nuclear strike would be a classic case of a complex (i.e., unpredictable) situation. The winner would probably be bin Laden.

The second possible shift is the “Obama option,” a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations that would stabilize the region and greatly facilitate American efforts to resolve the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts. Although this option would require recognizing Iran’s emergence to regional prominence with the right to choose its own path and constraining the war party in Washington, the result would be a relatively stable regional balance of power curbing both the threat of Israeli nuclear aggression and Iranian nuclear militarization.

The third possible shift is the “Putin option,” a breakthrough in Russian-Iranian relations at American expense, propelled by mutual concern over the strategic threat of rising American military power in Central Asia. Various cooperative steps in the energy, maritime in this direction, motivated by intense U.S.-Israeli threats against Iran, are already visible. Such a bilateral breakthrough at American expense would encourage both Iranian and Israeli extremism, wreck the chances for resolving the Western-Iranian nuclear dispute, imperil the American adventure in Afghanistan, and very possibly end up destabilizing Pakistan or, perhaps, result in a distinct type of regional stability enforced by Russia, with the U.S. on the sidelines.

It would be ironic, to put it mildly, if willingness in Washington to tolerate Afghan heroin exports ended up provoking the regional replacement of the U.S. by Russia in coordination with an emergent Iran.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Resolving Conflict With the Muslim World

The Western conflict with the Muslim world can be resolved--not by "victory" for the American empire or its "defeat" but by supporting local solutions and real independence for local societies.

In response to an excellent summary by Stephen Walt of the problem of the Afghan conflict, I wrote the following letter to focus attention on nature of an acceptable solution:

Leave Afghanistan? Absolutely--but leave responsibly.

Thinking of the current Afghan conflict as a complex system—and it certainly is one in every sense of the word—makes your well-reasoned argument for U.S. withdrawal all the stronger…but also offers some guidance to the way in which the U.S. should withdraw.

First, the complexity perspective tells us to look for feedbacks, and one of the most dangerous feedbacks (which you alluded to) is the impact of the U.S. presence on nationalist feeling: the more visible the U.S. military, the more support the Taliban will receive from Afghan nationalists. And one could amplify this point by citing innumerable additional negative feedbacks (e.g., radicalization of society, destruction of infrastructure) resulting from high-tech foreign military activity.

This leads to the second point, concerning the nature (and purpose) of a U.S. withdrawal. The question should not be, “Should the U.S. stay or leave?” The question should be, “How can the U.S. most effectively support the creation of a stable, well-governed, secure society?” Full application of American power to create a lackey state is exactly the wrong way. Rather, behind-the-scenes American support for civil society reforms guided by non-Western societies to create a viable, independent Afghan state should be the goal.

Starting from your analysis of the problem, Washington needs to move toward an Afghan, Muslim, Asian solution. That is the exit strategy for the U.S. and the road to peace for Afghanistan.

This is clearly not the current focus of Washington thinking. We need a concerted, organized project to create a plan by which the U.S. can retreat from the Afghan limelight without once again turning our backs on the long-mistreated Afghan people.

To summarize, I offer three principles for resolving not just the Afghan conflict but all the brushfires along the borders between the "American system" of global rule and the Muslim world:

  1. Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;
  2. the method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;
  3. the goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.
Can Americans and their friends rise above the crisis of the moment to think through how we might plan such a solution? Behind the headlines and away from Washington decision-making circles, a huge amount of thought and research has gone into finding the answer in recent years. The knowledge to come up with such a plan is available, if only we can summon the will to create the plan and (of course) implement it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Is Arabic for Vietnam

That old “Vietnam is Arabic for Iraq” bumper sticker is still on my car. Am I out-of-date? The continuing presence of Cheney’s sneer on U.S. TV, as though he should be considered a legitimate public figure instead of a discredited national disaster, suggests that I am not. The pattern of errors from the French Indochina War to the American Indochina War to the War Against Islamic Independence (if I may be permitted to assign the sort of names that may become generally accepted by historians of the future) is ominous. By failing unambiguously to denounce the mistakes of their allies and predecessors, American politicians ensure the repetition of their mistakes.

Overconfidence. The French, being in Vietnam first, led the way in making fundamental mistakes. According to The Pentagon Papers:

In May, 1947, Minister of War Coste-Floret announced in Paris that: "There is no military problem any longer in Indochina . . . the success of French arms is complete." Within six months, though ambitious armored, amphibious, and airborne drives had plunged into the northern mountains and along the Annam coast, Viet Minh sabotage and raids along lines of communication had mounted steadily, and Paris had come to realize that France had lost the military initiative.

Military Solutions to Political Problems.

The record shows that through 1953, the French pursued a policy which was based on military victory and excluded meaningful negotiations with Ho Chi Minh.

Simplistic Analysis of the Adversary. The following classic oversimplification is of course a self-fulfilling prophesy of which politicians seem never to tire:

American thinking and policy-making was dominated by the tendency to view communism in monolithic terms.

It is ironic that this Washington attitude toward the Viet Minh existed, since relations between the anti-Japanese Viet Minh and the U.S. had been cooperative during World War II.

Creeping Commitment.

From 1946 to 1954, France became increasingly engaged in a major counter-insurgency campaign in Indochina. At first, the threat was not immediately recognized as being serious, but it soon became a strategic imperative for France to keep its colony, and prevent a precedent to be emulated across its colonial empire. Furthermore, after its defeat in June 1940 by Germany, France was engaged in reinstating itself as a major power, and would not allow a colonial conflict to be lost to a gang of insurgents. Over time, the French military commitment, including auxiliaries and Vietnamese allies, reached nearly 450,000 troops.. Source.

Take Key Assumptions for Granted. The surest path to disaster is the failure to question fundamental assumptions, and the classic assumption is of course that everything you want is essential for survival. Whatever you do, never waste time trying to figure out an alternative way of achieving one’s goal.

The U.S. Government internal debate on the question of intervention centered essentially on the desirability and feasibility of U.S. military action. Indochina's importance to U.S. security interests in the Far East was taken for granted.

Making Historic Decisions Too Quickly. Truman’s decision only three days after the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 to provide significant military aid to the French war against the Viet-Minh, who had assumed power, declared Vietnamese independence, and requested international recognition following Japan’s surrender, is a classic. The US military aid surge notwithstanding, by the end of the year, a Viet-Minh campaign to destroy French forts on the Vietnamese-Chinese border had inflicted what has been called the worst colonial defeat of French forces since the 1767 loss of Quebec.

Where, in all the conflict, is any Western awareness of the natural preference of societies for making their own decisions? Regardless of right or wrong, once a society perceives a domestic conflict as being dominated by foreigners, those foreigners begin to lose momentum. Perhaps the key fact about the whole post-WWII Western experience in Vietnam is that the French had to reinvade after Japan’s defeat, e.g., the 1946 naval shelling of Haiphong and consequent slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese and provocation of the French Indochina War following the unilateral French decision to modify its previous recognition of Vietnamese independence by limiting the Viet Minh regime to the north.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cultural Taboos Threaten American Progress

American culture is evolving in ways that pose increasingly dangerous and unnecessary constraints on the ability of American society to imagine effective solutions to the highly interconnected set of foreign policy, economic policy, environmental policy, and health policy problems it currently faces.

Politics in the U.S.—at the level of policy-making—has a degree of rigidity, narrow-mindedness, and short-sightedness that causes enormous harm to the security and quality of life of Americans. The artificial constraints that American voters and policy-makers impose on themselves, the unstated and unreasoned taboos that are accepted without a second thought, have the effect of preventing Americans from taking full advantage of their vast natural and intellectual resources. The result is a set of interlocked policies that needlessly undermine American security and worsen the general quality of life in American society.

Taboos obstructing honest evaluation of fundamental policy choices prevent American society from moving effectively in new and desperately needed directions. The American system is based on open debate to find answers to complex problems. That is the best system yet discovered for resolving national problems, but it only works when society faces its options honestly. New directions do exist for addressing this set of challenges, but the roads will only be found if we are willing to look for them.

Ironically, these fundamental decisions—precisely the ones meriting the most meticulous public debate—are typically the public policy decisions made with the least care, the least debate, the least thought. The results include a foreign policy based on military force even when force intensifies hostility; health care as a business rather than a right; environmental policy favoring consumption now rather than preservation for future generations; and an economic policy that has more or less steadily been enriching the super-rich and impoverishing the rest since the Reagan era.

The careful reader may notice an underlying similarity among the four policy arenas: a foreign policy based on force benefits the military-industrial complex, an environmental policy favoring consumption benefits corporations looking for short-term profits, the economic policy benefits the Wall Street, banking, and real estate businesses; the current health care system benefits the insurance and medical businesses. And all four harm the average American.

That American society now faces a crisis in each of these four major policy arenas--foreign policy, economic policy, environmental policy, and health care policy--is now fortunately becoming widely recognized, though at an enormous cost (a decade of war against radical Islam, a still-deepening recession made in Washington, declining environment [see the New York Times' expose this past week of corporate poisoning of the nation's drinking water], and one of the least effective health care systems in the modern world).

The economic decline of American society, just to take one example, over the last half century is easy to see if one only recalls that in the 1950s, a man could support a middle class family on his salary alone, that by the 1990s a middle class lifestyle required that both husband and wife work, and that today a rising percentage of families face the perilous situation of the wife being a temp without benefits while the husband is unemployed. The overall economic trend is not “a natural result of the rest of the post-WWII world catching up.” That excuse contains just enough truth to be marketable, but the real reason is socialism for the rich. “Socialism for the rich” is not just a cute slogan, though few people ever stopped to think about what it really means until last fall’s billionaire bailout brought the idea to everyone’s attention.

Given the current recession, perhaps the most obvious example of “socialism for the rich” is taxing wages but not the profits from derivatives. This policy, if one thinks about it, sends the clear message that the U.S. government discourages people from holding honest jobs and prefers that the rich gamble on the market and, in particular, gambles by inventing financial tricks that enable the rich to evade legal requirements for collateral, instead building financial houses of cards. A more traditional but equally scandalous type of “socialism for the rich” is allowing huge lumber companies to clear-cut national forests (perhaps the most precious natural resource in the possession of the American people) virtually without paying any compensation at all to the thus cheated American taxpayer and, needless to say, without being required to restore the forests. Anyone who is shocked at this revelation need only drive on a side road somewhere in Oregon, notice the fine line of trees, and then walk 50 feet off the pavement: behind the screen, all you will find in a shocking number of places is a national desert.

Similar analyses could easily be made for foreign policy, environmental policy, and health care policy. The broader point is to figure out why Americans have such trouble reforming public policy. It is far more subtle than just “crooked politicians.” American voters consistently support politicians who favor socialism for the rich, environmental destruction, military force as the core of foreign policy, and health care as a business to enrich insurance companies rather than a natural right of all Americans. Intellectually serious reform candidates ran in the recent presidential election under Republic, Democratic, and several third party labels.

At the heart of this self-defeating American attitude toward public policy lies American culture, and unfortunately American culture is evolving in exactly the wrong direction. In only the last couple decades the trends toward irresponsibility (“it’s society’s fault”), winner-take-all, and bullying (whether it’s bullying your neighbor on the highway or Muslims worldwide) have become all too visible. Combine these negative trends in general culture with some highly pernicious cultural taboos that prohibit the honest public analysis of our public policy options, and the result is a social system condemned to self-defeating governance.

Maybe violence and overwhelming military superiority are the only way to achieve security. Maybe we want a country with sick poor people and great health care reserved for the “important” people. Maybe we can destroy the environment to our heart’s content and just keep inventing new ways of surviving (yes, I actually read a book making exactly this argument). Maybe the historic capitalist boom-bust cycle is the best of all possible worlds. Maybe…but that conclusion is not obvious. It deserves debate.

Alternatively, maybe allowing Muslims (e.g., Palestinians) to have their own countries and to play by the same rules as everyone else (e.g., nuclear policy toward Israel and Iran) would lead to a more stable and secure world. Maybe the provision of free, public, basic health care with the emphasis on nutrition and disease prevention for all would create a richer and happier and more productive society. Maybe saving our forests for our children would create a stronger America. Maybe America would be a better country if tax policy were designed to encourage honest labor and discourage irresponsible forms of Wall Street or real estate financial manipulations.

These are all fair questions. They deserve debate.
  • Should the U.S. continue to give a blank check to right-wing Israeli militarists trying to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their own land? Or should the U.S. support Israel reformers?
  • Should Iran be denied the opportunity to emerge as a regional power or be forced to accept limitations on its nuclear capabilities that are not imposed on Israel or even Pakistan or India?
  • Should we learn to build more environmentally acceptable homes (i.e., not out of wood) in order to save our remaining national forests?
  • Should we keep the current health care business that has produced the richest medical and insurance companies on earth or pay to create a one-class society where the poor and the unemployed have basic health care?

Unfortunately, such core questions about public policy are considered “off-limits.” Or, at least, those profiting from the current system are trying very hard to sell that viewpoint.

Sure, everyone talks about health care and foreign policy and economics and the environment, but look at content of the debates: it focuses on details. Should we, perhaps, modify the degree of Wall Street regulation a bit (while still leaving the main offenders in business)? Should we, perhaps, talk to international adversaries (in order to get them to do what we previously used the threat of violence to achieve)? Should we, perhaps, add a few soldiers in uniform to your Muslim country of choice or should we use mercenary forces out of uniform (but without altering the goal of our war)? Should we, perhaps, pass a new environmental protection law (but without holding corporate executives criminally responsible for their cheating on the laws already passed)? Should we, perhaps, add a sliver of the disadvantaged to the rolls of those favored with health insurance (but surely without endangering the massive profits of the health care industry)?

The basic questions that address fundamental direction are seldom voiced. They are taboo.
  • A foreign policy of true compromise with reformist Islam is a taboo subject.
  • A health care policy that rejects socialism for the health care industry and institutes socialism for the disadvantaged is a taboo subject.
  • An environmental policy that punishes corporate polluters and preserves the environment (allowing economic functions only within those constraints) is a taboo subject (the recent New York Times expose of corporations polluting the nation’s drinking water notwithstanding).
  • A financial system that controls exploitation and stimulates responsible productivity is a taboo subject.
Americans do have certain cultural/political advantages. Perhaps the greatest is the consensus that those who break taboos are not killed, so, yes, I can voice these complaints in safety, something I would not be able to do in, say, China, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. While I am grateful for this, it does not invalidate my argument. Taboos work more subtly in the U.S.: those who violate them may speak; they are simply ignored. In terms of having influence, if you challenge taboos, you will be cut out of the debate, will no longer be heard, will effectively no longer exist except as an official nonperson, an “…ist,” as in “racist, socialist, leftist.” In (we imagine) highly stable but tenuous Neolithic times, banishment of those who broke village taboos by speaking out may have enhanced group survival; in the contemporary rapidly evolving world, it invites disaster.

The U.S. has an historic power advantage over its adversaries (even after a decade of behaving like a rogue elephant), the best academic establishment on earth, and enormous resources. These advantages give American society an incredibly fruitful array of options. That is, Americans have the collective power to do an unimagined range of different things...if they can open their minds sufficiently to imagine taking new directions toward a fundamentally more just and effective society. Whatever the route to a perfect society, we will never find it (or even succeed in treading water in today's world) if we censor ourselves from discussing the basic options about the fundamental direction of public policy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learning to Govern...from Wolves!

Even wolves seem to govern themselves better than the U.S. has been doing recently...

“An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason, and, it should be noted, is alpha at the deference of the other wolves in the pack….The social structure of a wolf pack is dynamic – subject to change, especially during the breeding season – and may be completely reversed during periods of play.” [Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men, p. 33.]

Compare this wisely flexible social sophistication with the winner-take-all attitude that has been gaining increasing domination over U.S. society during the last decade or two. In the U.S., a politician, bureaucrat, or corporate executive is increasingly likely to have the ability to enforce his or her control all the time, across all issues to the limits of that leader’s purview regardless of his or her competence on the issue under consideration. Managers can sneer at staff scientists, politicians haughtily dismiss the results of their own review committees, and arbitrarily make and enforce decisions based on nothing but their own personal, uninformed preferences.

Such immature and irrational behavior is not only not widely condemned, it is lauded as demonstrating a trait now increasingly perceived in the U.S. as among the most meritorious of all: “toughness.”

And wolves have had the reputation of being wild and uncivilized beasts!

The above glib generalizations surely do not apply everywhere to the degree that they apply at management levels in Washington and on Wall Street, and I would welcome counterexamples as rays of hope for the future. That said, the argument is serious and the results harmful to society.

A foreign policy based on the military suppression, with endless slaughter of noncombatants, of social movements (e.g., radical Islamic protest against Western domination of the global political system) is a prime example of the harm that can result from granting uninformed leaders the power to ignore the counsel of experts and make arbitrary decisions.

A second outcome of this mode of socio-political organization is the confused health reform debate currently raging across the land. Uninformed politicians are tossing out a stream of ideas, while all ignore the specialists who understand that the core issue is whether or not in a modern civilized and democratic society, health care should be a profit-making business or a “right.”

When policy is controlled by “winners” rather than people with knowledge, it tends to be arbitrary, ineffective, counter-productive or even carefully designed to benefit only the policymaker. These traits appear clearly not just in the counterproductive military attacks on Muslims or the endless decades of argument over the health care mess that never produce real reform but in the perfectly needless recession created from scratch by tough but self-focused or brainless “leaders” who never bothered to think that bubbles always burst, in the idiotic faith that Iraqis would welcome U.S. invaders “with flowers.”

Even wolves seem to realize something Americans don’t – that leadership should be about more than “toughness;” it should be a function of competence.

Friday, October 9, 2009

War, Recession, Health Care: What Can We Do?

What can we do about the war with Islam, the recession, the health care debacle, and other national emergencies in the U.S.? Quite a bit, actually, but it all starts with attitude.

“Oh, dear. What can we do?”

That, in essence, is the national debate…whether the subject is the recession that we needlessly provoked, the endless “chickens coming home to roost” war with Islam, the national shame of our health care industry, the steady degradation of the environment, or the wave of corruption among the commercial-financial-government elite.

The idea of reacting to these fundamental national problems with a sigh of “what can we do?” is of course to imply that these evils came from “somewhere else” and are by definition something beyond our control and, most importantly, NOT OUR FAULT!

  • It is thus “not our fault” that some Muslims finally got fed up after years of Western mistreatment and decided on a global campaign of terrorism to send us a message. We didn’t get the message. Hence, our old behavior continues, and we remain utterly unable to understand why military force is not working in Afghanistan…or Gaza or Somalia or Iran.
  • It is of course also “not our fault” that the two factions of the national party-for-the-conservation-of-elite-privilege cooperated back under Clinton (!) to destroy the New Deal safeguards against financial terrorism by big banks and thus paved the way for the recession. Hence, the members of that elite in Washington rewarded the members of that elite on Wall Street, the guys on Wall Street are happily gambling on life insurance derivatives (the old real estate-based derivatives having been, ah, “discredited”), and more guys on Main Street are unemployed every month.

OK. You get the idea.

So, what if we took responsibility and looked for solutions? One word on health care and another on the recession.

Health Care. The problem with the health care industry in the U.S. is that Americans, and particularly elite Americans (who profit), accept that phrase—health care industry—as legitimate. Health care cannot, in a decent society, be viewed as an “industry,” i.e., a business. Businesses are supposed to make profits. And that is exactly the purpose of the business of providing health care to Americans. To repeat, health care in America is highly successful; it does exactly what it is designed to do: it generates fat profits for the practitioners (insurance companies, drug companies, friendly politicians who get campaign funds). These profits are generated by methods with which every American is very familiar: by preventing the sick from getting insurance, by pushing the sick out of hospitals as fast as possible, by utterly ignoring elderly patients with cognitive problems and throwing them on the mercy of their untrained and probably working relatives (thus wrecking family after family). At least the wave of unemployment in the recession will give many more family members the time to care for these aged parents! Fixing the health care system requires throwing away the idiotic and immoral idea of a health care business and replacing it with the concept of universal health care as a basic human right.

The Recession. At a certain level, the problem is too little money in the hands of consumers because of too few jobs. We happen in the U.S. to have a crumbling infrastructure, inhumane central cities, and collapsing main streets in small towns. Hiring the 15 million unemployed to rebuild the country would resolve all the above problems, but that takes money. Where can we get it from? The answer is pretty simple: tax the most lucrative business in the U.S. (no, I don’t mean illegal narcotics): Wall Street gambling. Tax profits on derivatives (my thanks to Ralph Nader for advocating this idea). The law Congress should pass is provided below in its entirety:

All financial transactions of the general form known as “derivatives trading” or related transactions shall be taxed at a rate at least 50% greater than the income tax rate of the mean American worker, as calculated annually by the Congressional Budget Office.

In a very basic sense, the U.S. really is a democracy: we Americans have the system we designed. It does what we designed it to do. If we do not want a system that rewards political corruption; creates enemies; wrecks our environment; and generates obscene profits from the premature sickening, aging, and death of American citizens, then we have the option of designing a different system. Truly, we do. We have the skills; Americans frankly are rather badly educated, but we have the best academic establishment in the world and could choose to educate ourselves better. We have the money: although the average American is having an increasingly tough time, the total amount of money in the society is enormous (needing only to be spread more equitably and used for serious things like productivity rather than gambling on Wall Street, conspicuous consumption, and bombing everyone we don’t like). We have the resources. We have voted for corruption, recession, imperial conquest, bad capitalist (for profit) rather than good socialist (for society) health care, and dirty drinking water. We could, if we so chose, vote for the opposite and pay for its achievement.