The American client government in Iraq has embarked on a remarkable campaign of diplomatic hostilities with its neighbor, Syria, accusing Damascus of, among other things, the modern-day blood libel that immediate consigns a nation to diplomatic hell, and makes it a target for what George W. Bush used to call "the path of action": supporting al Qaeda.
As Jason Ditz reports, America's Baghdad satrapy has been broadcasting confessions "obtained" (via "strenuous" but no doubt justified and right-minded interrogation) from captives blamed for the recent bombing attacks that have shaken the PR image of a calmer, surge-soothed Iraq. The bombings also pointed up the vast failures of the client regime to provide security or bring together the warring factions inside the country. These goals are of course impossible for a regime installed and maintained in power by foreign invasion; even so, they represent the Green Zoners' sole claim to "legitimacy." Thus any threat to the PR image undermines the regime's hopes to survive the partial reduction of American occupation forces (erroneously termed a "withdrawal" in the obfuscating argot of imperial message management).
And so the client state led by sectarian extremist Nouri al-Maliki has turned to the time-honored tactic used by governments since time immemorial to divert attention from its own manifest failures: blaming foreign devils. Naturally, the Maliki regime cannot blame its foreign masters in Washington for unleashing, arming, abetting and exacerbating the murderous chaos in the conquered land. Nor can they blame their long-time mentors and supporters in Iran. So that leaves Syria.
With the televised confessions, the Maliki regime has moved swiftly from blaming Baathist diehards who have been hiding amongst the multitude of Iraqi refugees to accusing the Damascus regime of openly directing the attackers -- and now, in the latest show-trial spectacle, of supporting al-Qaeda training camps on Syrian soil.
This is heavy stuff indeed. For as we all know, the presence of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan was the sole, purported reason for the American invasion in 2001; and preventing the re-establishment of such camps is still one of the primary excuses for continuing the slaughter there. The presence (or threat) of al-Qaeda camps is also proffered as justification for extending the Terror War into Pakistan and Somalia. What's more, the continual -- and blatantly false -- trumpeting of a "connection" between al Qaeda and Iraq was, in the end, the principal reason why the Iraq invasion garnered so much initial public support; the act of unprovoked aggression was seen as "payback for 9/11," as so many U.S. soldiers put it in those heady early days.
The "al Qaeda" card trumps everything else. It justifies any action: invasion, torture, drone attack, rendition, death squads, covert ops, war profiteering, draconian power -- "the dark side, if you will," as one great American statesman put it. By openly accusing the Syrian government of sponsoring al Qaeda and directing terrorist attacks inside Iraq, the Maliki regime is laying the groundwork for any action their Washington masters might want to take against Damascus at any time.
The regime is also giving one more reason to delay and dilute the American drawdown (which is also a cherished goal of the American militarists): are you going to pull out troops from Iraq when al Qaeda is getting state protection on Iraq's borders and launching terrorist attacks?
Iraq's extraordinary accusations against Syria -- which have already led to a mutual withdrawal of ambassadors -- have thus far garnered little attention amongst the scribes who attend upon the imperial court. And who knows? At a nod from Caesar, the Iraqis might kiss and make up with Damascus tomorrow, if that is deemed more suitable for the immediate needs of imperial policy. But one should always remember that Syria has long been -- and still remains -- a prime target of that faction of American militarists known loosely as neo-cons. Indeed, at one point, it was a toss-up as to which "recalcitrant tribe" of Arabs they wanted the American war machine to hit first: Iraq or Syria?
As I noted way back in caveman times -- April 2003, to be exact -- the neo-cons had been putting Syria in the crosshairs for years:
A few months before PNAC's prophetic 2000 report [which longed for "a new Pearl Harbor" to "catalyze" the American people into supporting a vast and profitable militarist agenda], an allied group with an overlapping membership published a similar document outlining steps to be taken against Syria: first "tightening the screws" with denunciations and economic sanctions, then escalating to military action, as Jim Lobe of Inter-Press Agency reports. The architects of this document included Elliot Abrams, the convicted perjurer now running Bush's Middle East policy; Douglas Feith, one of Shifty's top aides; Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary to Colin Powell, and influential Pentagon advisors such as David Wurmser, Michael Leeden and everyone's sweetheart, Richard "Influence-Peddler" Perle.
The report sprang largely from the loins of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, a curious grouping of right-wing American Christians, right-wing American Jews, and a sprinkling of Lebanese exiles. They object -- rightly -- to the fact that Syria has maintained "long-term access to major military bases" in Lebanon, using this minatory presence to exercise undue sway over Lebanon's political and economic life. Of course, some cynics would say this situation is remarkably akin to Israel's own 18-year occupation of, er, Lebanon, or the United States' decades-long -- and still-continuing -- military presence in Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Panama, etc. But you know what cynics are like.
The USCFL also provides highly insightful and very nearly literate analyses of vital regional issues, such as its seminal paper, "Even Arabs Don't Like Arabs." But the mindset of the group -- whose members now stalk the corridors of power in Imperial Washington -- is perhaps best displayed in its thoughtful 2001 treatise, "A Petition Demanding War Against Governments That Sponsor Terrorism" (Except, of course, for governments who enforce their will by the ever-present threat and use of violence -- i.e. terrorism -- but are run by nice white men educated at Yale and Oxford.)
Here, the proto-Bushist group demands that six "rogue nations" -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya and Sudan -- "turn over their governments to the United States" on pain of massive military response. The United States will then "occupy these territories until proper governments" -- ones that allow "long-term access" to major military bases, no doubt -- "can be established." And just how massive should that threatened U.S. military response be? The USCFL is, as always, admirably -- and brutally -- forthright: "America must set a clear example-identical to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you tread on me, I will wipe you off the face of the earth."
In the end, of course, Iraq represented too glittering a prize for all the various militarist factions to pass up on the first course. But you must never underestimate the appetite -- and persistence -- of our militarists. The latest accusations of the Iraqi client regime will be used to stoke the never-ending fires of militarist warmongering; they won't rest until every knee bows to their god of American Dominance.
The destruction of New Orleans represents a confluence of many of the most pernicious trends in American politics and culture: poverty, racism, militarism, elitist greed, environmental abuse, public corruption and the decay of democracy at every level.
Much of this is embodied in the odd phrasing that even the most circumspect mainstream media sources have been using to describe the hardest-hit victims of the storm and its devastating aftermath: "those who chose to stay behind." Instantly, the situation has been framed with language to flatter the prejudices of the comfortable and deny the reality of the most vulnerable.
It is obvious that the vast majority of those who failed to evacuate are poor: they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there, no means to sustain themselves and their families on strange ground. While there were certainly people who stayed behind by choice, most stayed behind because they had no choice. They were trapped by their poverty - and many have paid the price with their lives.
Yet across the media spectrum, the faint hint of disapproval drips from the affluent observers, the clear implication that the victims were just too lazy and shiftless to get out of harm's way. There is simply no understanding - not even an attempt at understanding - the destitution, the isolation, the immobility of the poor and the sick and the broken among us....
Where were the resources - the money, manpower, materiel, transport - that could have removed all those forced to stay behind, and given them someplace safe and sustaining to take shelter? Where, indeed, were the resources that could have bolstered the city's defenses and shored up its levees? Where were the National Guard troops that could have secured the streets and directed survivors to food and aid? Where were the public resources - the physical manifestation of the citizenry's commitment to the common good - that could have greatly mitigated the brutal effects of this natural disaster?
..Well, we all know what happened to those vital resources. They had been cut back, stripped down, gutted, pilfered - looted - to pay for a war of aggression, to pay for a tax cut for the wealthiest, safest, most protected Americans, to gorge the coffers of a small number of private and corporate fortunes, while letting the public sector - the common good - wither and die on the vine.
... As Big Money solidified its ascendancy over government, pouring billions - over and under the table - into campaign coffers, politicians could ignore larger and larger swathes of the people. If you can't hook yourself up to a well-funded, coffer-filling interest group, if you can't hire a big-time Beltway player to lobby your cause and get you "a seat at the table," then your voice goes unheard, your concerns are shunted aside. (Apart from a few cynical gestures around election-time, of course.) The poor, the sick, the weak, the vulnerable have become invisible - in the media, in the corporate boardroom, "at the table" of the power players in national, state and local governments. The increasingly marginalized and unstable middle class is also fading from the consciousness of the rulers, whose servicing of the elite gets more brazen and frantic all the time.
When unbridled commercial development of delicately balanced environments like the Mississippi Delta is bruited "at the table," whose voice is heard? Not the poor, who, as we have seen this week, will overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the overstressed environment. And not the middle class, who might opt for the security of safer, saner development policies to protect their hard-won homes and businesses. No, the only voice that matters is that of the developers themselves, and the elite investors who stand behind them.
....The destruction of New Orleans was a work of nature - but a nature that has been worked upon by human hands and human policies. As global climate change continues its deadly symbiosis with unbridled commercial development for elite profit, we will see more such destruction, far more, on an even more devastating scale. As the harsh, aggressive militarism and brutal corporate ethos that Bush has injected into the mainstream of American society continues to spread its poison, we will see fewer and fewer resources available to nurture the common good. As the political process becomes more and more corrupt, ever more a creation of elite puppetmasters and their craven bagmen, we will see the poor and the weak and even the middle class driven further and further into the low ground of society, where every passing storm - economic, political, natural - will threaten their homes, their livelihoods, their very existence.
And if Katrina happened today, in our bold new progressive era, where would those vital resources be? Still gone -- gone into the trillions of dollars now committed to bail out the rapacios financial elite, gone to the still-raging, ever-expanding wars of terror and domination that our leaders -- "progressive" and conservative alike -- keep waging.
A few days ago, we noted the revelations by Stars and Stripes that the Pentagon was using a shadowy PR firm to identify the political leanings of journalists trying to cover the "Good War" in Afghanistan (as well as the "Forgotten War" in Iraq). The idea, clearly, was to encourage and reward "pro-war" reporters while planting a big red flag on the backs of any writers considered less than gung-ho about the imperial bloodshed in Muslim lands.
Naturally, the Pentagon denied that the vetting program operated by the Rendon Group – which was hired by the Bush gang to help instigate the mass murder in Iraq – was in any way a sinister, slimy attempt to manipulate the news in order to make the endless slaughter of the Terror War more palatable for the folks back home. Perish the thought! declared the brass. Why, goodness mercy me, the only aim of the program is to help reporters tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. As Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman put it after S&S first broke the story: "It’s a good article if it’s accurate. It’s a bad article if it’s inaccurate. That’s the only measurement that we use here at the Defense Department." Makes you want to puddle up, don't it?
Well, Stars and Stripes has done something almost unheard-of in modern journalism – followed up on a story with a skeptical stance toward the bland assurances of authority – and guess what they found? Go ahead, try – you'll never guess. They found that the Pentagon was lying! From S&S:
Contrary to the insistence of Pentagon officials this week that they are not rating the work of reporters covering U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stars and Stripes has obtained documents that prove that reporters’ coverage is being graded as “positive,” “neutral” or “negative.”
Moreover, the documents — recent confidential profiles of the work of individual reporters prepared by a Pentagon contractor — indicate that the ratings are intended to help Pentagon image-makers manipulate the types of stories that reporters produce while they are embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Well, I never! The Pentagon -- run by honest Brother Bob Gates, who is such a straight arrow that the saintly progressive Barack Obama carried him over from the Bush Regime to keep running our "overseas contingency operations -- has been caught lying through its teeth! What next? Obama spending his vacation playing golf with sleazy Swiss bankers or something?
Back to S&S:
“The purpose of this memo is to provide an assessment of [a reporter from a major U.S. newspaper] … in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan,” reads the preamble to one of the reporter profiles prepared for the Pentagon by The Rendon Group, a controversial Washington-based public relations firm.
S&S also shreds the post-revelations denials by the Pentagon and Rendon, including the lie by Gates' mouthpiece that the vetting program (that isn't a vetting program, of course) ended last October, in the bad old Bush days:
But the Rendon profiles reviewed by Stars and Stripes prove otherwise. One of the profiles evaluates work published as recently as May, indicating that the rating practice did not in fact cease last October as Whitman stated.
And the explicit suggestions contained in the Rendon profiles detailing how best to manipulate reporters’ coverage during their embeds directly contradict the Pentagon’s stated policies governing the embed process.
By week's end, the Pentagon was in full retreat on the story (in public, at least), pulling out the old stand-by used to cover a multitude of sins, from torture to corruption to atrocity to systematic deceit: a "review" of the program. Whitman, who days before had been loudly trumpeting the program's decency and goodness, was now declaring -- what else? -- that he didn't know the first thing about it, but he was sure enough gosh-dang-diddley-darn going to find out:
“For me, a tool like this serves no purpose and it doesn’t serve me with any value,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters as some of the affected war correspondents began demanding to see their secret military profiles....“I haven’t seen anything that violates any policies, but again, I’m learning about aspects of this as I question our folks in Afghanistan,” Whitman said. “If I find something that is inconsistent with Defense Department values and policies, you can be sure I will address it.”
And we're sure a grateful nation gives its thanks for this great diligence. Whitman, a former Special Forces op whose last wetwork was back in the bug-out from Somalia, has long shown a dogged fealty to the truth: here, for example, planting stories of Iranian "threats" to U.S. boats in the powderkeg of the Strait of Hormuz; or here, early on in the mass murder in Iraq, ardently peddling the Pentagon's knowingly false stories about the "heroic" rescue of Jessica Lynch. There is perhaps one aspect of his promised "review" that might trouble a cynic, however:
Whitman told Pentagon reporters that he was inquiring about the issue, but he added that the Pentagon is not launching any formal inquiry to the matter.
No "formal" review, then. No official inquiry. Just a couple of phone calls from good old Bryan to a few top brass and their mercenary manipulators: "You doing something dirty over there?" "Nope. Everything's jake." "Cool."
Whitman, by the way, is not really a holdover from the Bush Administration, like his boss, Bob Gates. He is actually a holdover from the Clinton Administration, having ascended into the higher Pentagon PR ranks back in 1997, where he helped shape the presentations of Clinton's "good war" against Serbia in 1998, then went on to serve the the cause of imperial message massage into Afghanistan and Iraq.
As we always say around here: Continuity! It's what makes America great!
Walter Benn Michaels explores the curious modern sociopolitical concept of "respect," which is being appropriated by both left and right as a convenient diversion from dealing with the increasing, crushing imbalance of class and wealth in society.
While noting -- and duly lauding -- the (relative) progress made against endemic racism, homophobia and misogyny, Michaels points out this progress, such as it is, has come because it does not threaten the overweening power and privilege of the elite. In fact, some maligned, repressed and persecuted groups of citizens are falling even farther behind: the poor, and those once called the working class.
...it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality.
True; and one perhaps not irrelevant fact that leaps to mind here is that Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated until he started talking about economic injustice faced by all citizens in a militarized state waging unjust wars around the world. Michaels continues:
An obvious question, then, is how we are to understand the fact that we’ve made so much progress in some areas while going backwards in others. And an almost equally obvious answer is that the areas in which we’ve made progress have been those which are in fundamental accord with the deepest values of neoliberalism, and the one where we haven’t isn’t. We can put the point more directly by observing that increasing tolerance of economic inequality and increasing intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia – of discrimination as such – are fundamental characteristics of neoliberalism. Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics. The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by – they aren’t even addressed by – anti-racism or anti-sexism.
My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.
Here is another key problem of our day: almost everything that is called "left-wing politics" is actually a fairly brutal form of right-wing politics. Hence, all the nutty criticism of Barack Obama as some kind of "far-left" socialist, when he is of course an ardent, open champion of our financial and militarist elites. And the so-called "leftist" government of New Labour in the UK is another glaring example; this "party of the working class" has gone where even Maggie Thatcher feared to tread to coddling big business, waging aggressive war, and building up a police state-style apparatus of authoritarian power. For 30 years now, in both the US and UK, there has been nothing remotely resembling anything that could be called "left-wing politics," if "left-wing" can be understood as a concern for a more just and equal society; we have had -- and still have -- only far-right and center-right politics. Back to Michaels:
The recent furore over the arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ of Henry Louis Gates helps make this clear. Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too. The problem, as a sympathetic writer in the Guardian put it, is that ‘Gates’s race snuffed out his class status,’ or as Gates said to the New York Times, ‘I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere.’ In the bad old days this situation almost never came up – cops could confidently treat all black people, indeed, all people of colour, the way they traditionally treated poor white people. But now that we’ve made some real progress towards integrating our elites, you need to step back and take the time to figure out ‘who you’re messing with’. You need to make sure that nobody’s class status is snuffed out by his race.
The neoliberal ideal is a world where rich people of all races and sexes can happily enjoy their wealth, and where the injustices produced not by discrimination but by exploitation – there are fewer poor people (7 per cent) than black people (9 per cent) at Harvard, and Harvard’s not the worst – are discreetly sent around to the back door. Thus everyone’s outraged that a black professor living on prosperous Ware St (and renting a summer vacation ‘manse’ on Martha’s Vineyard that he ‘jokingly’ calls ‘Tara’) can be treated with disrespect; no one’s all that outraged by the social system that created the gap between Ware St or ‘Tara’ and the places where most Americans live. Everyone’s outraged by the fact that Gates can be treated so badly; nobody by the fact that he and the rest of the top 10 per cent of American wage-earners have been doing so well. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Liberals – especially white liberals – are thrilled by Gates’s success, since it testifies to the legitimacy of their own: racism didn’t make us all this money, we earned it!
Thus the primacy of anti-discrimination not only performs the economic function of making markets more efficient, it also performs the therapeutic function of making those of us who have benefited from those markets sleep better at night.
Micheals then takes on the popular -- if incredibly tepid -- "progressive" reaction to the growing inequalities in the system. There is now a movement decrying -- again, rightly -- the cultural prejudices that the comfortable exhibit more and more openly against the poor. This is particularly acute in the UK, where all are invited to sneer at the "chavs" and their clothes, their accents, their tastes, etc. Now some earnest progressives are fighting back against this prejudice, as evidenced in the collection of essays published by the Runnymede Trust: Who Cares about the White Working Class?
Again, Michaels lauds the sentiment behind the collection: we should treat the mores and cultural expressions of the working class with the same kind of respect we are urged to show toward ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. But, once again, says Michaels, these sentiments are fine as far as they go -- but they don't get at the heart of the matter:
In the event, however, what Who Cares about the White Working Class? actually provides is less an alternative to neoliberal multiculturalism than an extension and ingenious refinement of it. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class... but as a function of the increasing injustice of ‘classism’. What outrages them, in other words, is not the fact of class difference but the ‘scorn’ and ‘contempt’ with which the lower class is treated. ... The focus of her outrage ... is not the fact that some people can afford [luxuries] and others can’t, but that the ones who can are mean to the ones who can’t.
...What left neoliberals want is to offer some ‘positive affirmation for the working classes’. They want us to go beyond race to class, but to do so by treating class as if it were race and to start treating the white working class with the same respect we would, say, the Somalis – giving ‘positive value and meaning to both “workingclassness” and ethnic diversity’. Where right neoliberals want us to condemn the culture of the poor, left neoliberals want us to appreciate it.
The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt.
This dynamic surely played a part in at least some of the support that Barack Obama received in the last election from "progressives." For in his stated policy positions, Obama offered very little that was "progressive." He was for continuing the War on Terror on Bush's terms, winding down the war in Iraq more or less on the schedule Bush had negotiated, then expanding the war in Afghanistan and extending it into Pakistan. He threw his support behind Bush's plan to bail out Wall Street. He took to the bully pulpit to scold black fathers for their failings, and black people in general for blaming the system for their problems. He made campaign appearances with homophobic preachers, while throwing over his own pastor and long-time friend. He surrounded himself with advisers from Wall Street. He pledged to increase the size and reach and power of the War Machine. And so on and so forth. He was, if anything, well to the right of, say, Bill Clinton in 1992 -- and Bill Clinton in 1992 was the most right-wing Democratic candidate since Woodrow Wilson.
Obama's "progressivism" consisted almost entirely of the symbolism of his mixed-race heritage and personal history. There was very little in his actual policy positions to lead one to believe that he would be -- or wanted to be -- anything other than a dutiful servant of the power structure. But many people voted for him because they wanted to use the symbol of his person to make a statement about-- and a stand against -- racism in American society. Again, this is an understandable and laudable sentiment; who of enlightened mind does not want to take a stand against racism? But this symbolic act was, to use Michael's terms, empty of genuine political content. For as we have seen, Obama's rule has been characterized not by "change," but by a remarkable degree of "continuity" with his predecessor.
But as Michaels notes, race was ever one of the most potent tools for obscuring the harsh imbalance at the heart of American society:
Race, on the other hand, has been a more successful technology of mystification. In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones. So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I’m not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture ... But, and I acknowledge that this is the thinnest of anecdotal evidence, I somehow doubt she does.
The American elite figured things out a long time ago: you can let people do anything they want, say anything they want, have a wide-open society -- as long as no one seriously threatens to upset the golden applecart of power and privilege. Or to put it another way, you can have "left-wing politics," "liberal politics," "progressive politics," anything you please -- as long as what you actually practice is "right-wing politics."
We are seeing this dynamic in its rawest state with the health-care "reforms," which have turned into yet another gigantic boondoggle for powerful corporations, despite the clear wishes of a large majority of Americans for something totally different. But it is a current that runs through -- and defines -- the entire political system today.
The American political world is shocked – shocked – to discover that the CIA has been torturing some of the victims seized, kidnapped, snatched and literally sold into captivity by America's Terror Warriors. (Other captives have been tortured by the military, by hired contractors, and by various other organs of the security apparat.) This despite the fact that these tortures – including the threat to kill a captive's children – have been known for years, reported in the mainstream media and in several books by well-regard writers with highly respectable publishing houses. (I've been writing about America's torture regimen, in print and on-line, since early 2002, drawing almost entirely on these widely available sources.) None of the material now being released is "news" in the sense that it is new; but as always, it's nice to have one more source of confirmation for these already multiply-confirmed high crimes.
Of course, Barack Obama – who was forced to release some of the material by an ACLU lawsuit, and not because of his deep-rooted, progressive commitment to openness in government – has chosen to go the time-honored "rotten apples" route. Whenever a sliver of light is thrown onto the atrocities of the American power structure, our leaders – regardless of party or puported ideological stripe – always, without fail, seek out a few patsies to stitch up in show trials, to "prove" that the "system works," and can weed out the few "bad apples" who have left a tragic – but infinitely small – stain on America's unrelenting goodness. This is precisely what Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, are doing now. Holder has announced a tepid probe into some of the possible "excesses" committed by a few CIA interrogators, while letting the true architects and perpetrators of an elaborate, deliberate, inherent system of torture get off scot-free.
Glenn Greenwald has many of the details here and here, among them the telling – and damning – fact that Obama and Holder have apparently decided that the "torture memos" prepared at the White House's order should be considered "settled law;" that is, only those agents whose tortures might have gone a bit beyond the already heinous tortures "allowed" by the White House memos are to be investigated for possible prosecution. As long as you stayed within the gruesome "guidelines" of the White House torture memos, then your atrocities are now to be considered "legal." This is yet another open reinforcement of the long-established covert practice of what we might call Nixon's Law: "If the president orders it, it cannot be illegal." As we have seen over the years, this includes the genocidal bombing of Cambodia, the waging of aggressive war in Iraq (which has murdered well over a million people), the "extrajudicial assassination" of, well, anybody the president or his designated minions care to kill; and the establishment of a world-wide gulag of torture and murder.
Greenwald also underlines a point buried deep in the newly-released Inspector General's report:
that many of the detainees who were subjected to this treatment were so treated due to "assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence" -- meaning there was no real reason to think they had done anything wrong whatsoever. As has been known for quite some time, many of the people who were tortured by the United States were completely innocent -- guilty of absolutely nothing.
Greenwald and those he links to lay out the facts and the implications of the latest development well. (Salon's Mark Benjamin has highlights from the actual document here.) However, I must take issue with one of his main points. Greenwald insists that all Americans should be made to learn about the tortures outlined in the IG report, so they will "know what was done in their names." The apparent implication of this is that if the people know, they will rise up and demand that the true perpetrators be punished, without fear or favor, all the way to the top. This is a noble sentiment, of course, but I'm afraid that one can only reply to it as Brick did to Maggie the Cat's protestations of her love: "Wouldn't it be something if that were true?"
For the plain fact is that "the people" out there beyond the Beltway do have a good idea of "what's been done in their names." (As noted above, most of the damning facts about the American gulag have been in the public domain for a long time.) And for the most part they are fine with it. The Foxicated faction of the public – those tens of millions who live in Rupert Murdoch's overheated fantasy world -- enthusiastically embrace torture, of course; hell, they'd like to see more of it. To this large swathe of the public, it is the prosecuction of torture that is the atrocity.
As for the vast, amorphous, floating "center" so beloved by pundits and politicians, their reaction would largely echo Obama's own hand-picked CIA Director, Leon Panetta, who says we must be understanding of any possible "excesses" committed after 9/11, because, after all, our leaders were just doing what they felt they had to do to keep us safe in a very trying time. Maybe a few people went overboard here and there – and yes, maybe some of the policies themselves were misconceived, even foolish (like that invasion of Iraq thing) – but again, they were all undertaken in good faith, by leaders who, even if we might strongly disagree with them, were doing what they thought best for the country.
If the people have not already risen up in anger and protest at what has been done in their names, then a few more details from a heavily-censored government report dealing with only one small aspect of a massive, systemic crime is not going to move them.
As for Obama, he has always made clear his intention to avoid prosecuting his imperial forbears for anything. And he will doubtless do all he can to keep the plucking of bad apples to an absolute minimum. (That's assuming that anyone at all will actually be prosecuted as a result of the new probe.) But even the very mild measures Obama has been forced into by the ACLU lawsuit must be making him a bit nervous. After all, the last president who made noises about punishing the security apparat is now lying beneath an eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery. These guys play for keeps.
Continuity, continuity, in all things, continuity.
This has been the battle cry of Barack Obama's administration, especially when it comes to waging the Terror Wars -- and trying to manipulate public opinion about these intractable conflicts.
As Stars and Stripes reports, Obama is paying millions to a shadowy PR firm to "vet" the political leanings of journalists reporting on his ever-expanding "Af-Pak War." This happens to be the same PR firm used by the Bush-Cheney regime to help mislead the nation into the murderous war of aggression against Iraq: the Rendon Group. S&S:
As more journalists seek permission to accompany U.S. forces engaged in escalating military operations in Afghanistan, many of them could be screened by a controversial Washington-based public relations firm contracted by the Pentagon to determine whether their past coverage has portrayed the U.S. military in a positive light.
U.S. public affairs officials in Afghanistan acknowledged to Stars and Stripes that any reporter seeking to embed with U.S. forces is subject to a background profile by The Rendon Group, which gained notoriety in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq for its work helping to create the Iraqi National Congress. That opposition group, reportedly funded by the CIA, furnished much of the false information about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion.
Rendon examines individual reporters’ recent work and determines whether the coverage was “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” compared to mission objectives, according to Rendon officials.
Not to worry, though. The Pentagon says it doesn't deny anyone access because of their background; they just use the information to let the relevant commanders know if they've got some nosy pinko commie islamofascist left-wing wacko in their midst. Just so they can be extra careful that, you know, nothing happens to the little American-hating bastard during the visit.
“We have not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography,” said Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a public affairs officer with U.S. Forces Afghanistan in Kabul. “It’s so we know with whom we’re working.”
Yet strangely enough, it seems that the Pentagon is, well, lying about not barring anyone because of their past reporting. Who have they barred? Why, a reporter from Stars and Stripes, just two months ago:
U.S. Army officials in Iraq engaged in a similar vetting practice two months ago, when they barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division because the reporter “refused to highlight” good news that military commanders wanted to emphasize.
Of course, Obama's continuity in using the Bush-serving professional manipulators only continues Bush's continuity with the Clinton Administration, which also used the Rendon Group to, among other things, do exactly what George Bush later did: peddle war-fomenting lies about Iraq. Of course, this was simply Bill Clinton's continuity with the policies of his predecessor, the other George Bush. (It sounds confusing, but it's really not; all you have to do is follow the policies -- and the money. The name of whoever happens to be managing the imperial war machine at any given moment hardly matters.) As SourceWatch reports:
Rendon was also a major player in the CIA's effort to encourage the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In May 1991, then-President George Bush, Sr. signed a presidential finding directing the CIA to create the conditions for Hussein's removal. The hope was that members of the Iraqi military would turn on Hussein and stage a military coup. The CIA did not have the mechanisms in place to make that happen, so they hired the Rendon Group to run a covert anti-Saddam propaganda campaign. Rendon's postwar work involved producing videos and radio skits ridiculing Saddam Hussein, a traveling photo exhibit of Iraqi atrocities, and radio scripts calling on Iraqi army officers to defect.
A February 1998 report by Peter Jennings cited records obtained by ABC News which showed that the Rendon Group spent more than $23 million dollars in the first year of its contract with the CIA. It worked closely with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition coalition of 19 Iraqi and Kurdish organizations whose main tasks were to "gather information, distribute propaganda and recruit dissidents." According to ABC, Rendon came up with the name for the Iraqi National Congress and channeled $12 million of covert CIA funding to it between 1992 and 1996. Writing in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh says the Rendon Group was "paid close to a hundred million dollars by the CIA" for its work with the INC.
And those millions keep on rolling in, no matter who sits in the White House. And why not? The group's founder, John Rendon, was a long-time political operative in the top levels of the national Democratic Party, while his eagerness to serve the imperial agenda has endeared him to Republican courtiers as well. SourceWatch again:
John Rendon began his career as an election campaign consultant to Democratic Party politicians. According to Franklin Foer, "He masterminded Michael Dukakis's gubernatorial campaign in 1974; worked as executive director of the Democratic National Committee in the Jimmy Carter era; managed the 1980 Democratic convention in New York; and subsequently worked as chief scheduler for Carter's reelection campaign." James Bamford reports Rendon and his younger brother Rick went into consulting in 1981.
These guys are wired from way back, and they are wired still. Rendon's Job 1 is to make the destructive and expensive imperial wars appear palatable to the yokels back home, so the rubes will keep sending their sons and daughters off to die -- and to kill, in vast numbers -- for the profit and privilege of the small, bipartisan American elite. Sure, our rulers squabble amongst themselves as they jostle at court and scramble for the choicest bits of roast suckling from the feast table, and it can get pretty vicious. But this is just a matter of personalities and factions. When it comes to actual policy -- militarism, manipulation, domination -- the watchword remains: continuity.
William Pfaff has the low-down on the empire burlesque going on in Barack Obama's "Af-Pak" war. The whole piece is well worth reading, but below are a few highlights, including the pearl of wisdom in the first sentence:
The problem with U.S.-sponsored elections in Asia and elsewhere in the non-Western world, as in Afghanistan Aug. 20, is that they are sponsored by the United States primarily to legitimize its own presence in the country.
This is a truth so self-evident that it should not even have to be said; yet such is the impenetrable ignorance and arrogance of the American political class (including most emphatically the corporate media) that it needs to be loudly shouted in every available media, for hours on end, day after day, in the wan hope that it might finally get through to our leaders and "opinion-formers."
And what is the fruit of Obama's "continuity" and expansion of the policy of his imperial predecessors? Back to Pfaff:
The new administration’s under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Judith A. McHale, met a group of Pakistani journalists, including Ansar Abbasi, an important commentator critical of U.S. policy. She spoke warmly of U.S.-Pakistani relations, and Abbasi politely listened, thanking her for coming. He then, according to McHale afterward, said, "You should know that we hate all Americans. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you."
Under Secretary McHale also reported that Abbasi went on to explain that Americans "are no longer human beings because (their) goal was to eliminate other humans." He said that "thousands of innocent people had been killed because (Americans) are trying to find Osama bin Laden."
While Abbasi's reading of Pakistani sentiment might be accurate, he is of course incorrect in his final observation. Of all the many reasons why Americans are killing thousands of innocent people, "trying to find Osama bin Laden" is not one of them. Does anyone believe that if Osama bin Laden was found tomorrow -- dead or alive -- the Terror War would suddenly stop? The Terror Warriors long ago gave up even the pretense that the war in Afghanistan is about "getting" bin Laden. We hear different justifications for the continued churning of the war machine practically every day. As Pfaff notes, the new line, apparently, is that we are killing thousands of innocent people -- and losing handfuls of our own soldiers every month -- in order to build a public health system in Afghanistan and help provide more business opportunities for Pakistanis.
This is the line now being trotted out by Obama's hand-picked high poobah of Af-Pak affairs, Richard Holbrooke. As Pfaff notes:
Holbrooke ... told an audience in Karachi that the U.S. under President Obama wants to see an improvement in the lives of Pakistanis, and more business opportunities for them as well....
Twelve days earlier, in Washington, Holbrooke had held another press conference, accompanied by many from his team in Pakistan. The purpose was to explain to the American television audience that the mission in Afghanistan is to kill or capture drug traffickers, help farmers grow food instead of poppies, build a public health system, build "civil society" there, and in general rebuild the country.
What's more, Holbrooke seems to think that our drone missiles, our military bases and our bombings of weddings and funerals are all integral parts of a Muslim Reformation:
Ambassador Holbrooke expressed the ambition to add a spiritual dimension to his efforts in the region. He said the religiously motivated enemies of the American presence in Asia "present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. And we need to combat it." (Surely he has his theology badly confused?)
But of course the reason why Holbrooke's "theology" is confused here is because he is not trying to make actual sense with his words. He -- like his boss, and all the other servants of Ares in the American elite --is merely making vaguely agreeable noises to obfuscate the blood-and-iron reality of empire in action. They want loot, power, and obedience -- but they can't come out and say it. And so we will continue to hear, from Republican and Democrat, from conservative and progressive, lie after lie after lie about "building" freedom and democracy and rights and law and prosperity and security by "killing thousands of innocent people" in broken and volatile lands.
As'ad AbuKhalil points us to this press release from Human Rights Watch, detailing an ongoing campaign of torture and murder against Iraqi homosexuals (and "suspected" homosexuals and men considered not "manly" enough). The killings are being carried out by the sectarian extremists unleashed by the American invasion – including agents of the American-installed government. As HRW reports:
Iraqi militias are carrying out a spreading campaign of torture and murder against men suspected of homosexual conduct, or of not being "manly" enough, and Iraq authorities have done nothing to stop the killing...
The 67-page report, "‘They Want Us Exterminated': Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq," documents a wide-reaching campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture of gay men that began in early 2009. The killings began in the vast Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, and spread to many cities across Iraq. Mahdi Army spokesmen have promoted fears about the "third sex" and the "feminization" of Iraq men, and suggested that militia action was the remedy. Some people told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces have colluded and joined in the killing....
The killers invade homes and pick people up in the street, witnesses and survivors said, interrogating them before murdering them to extract names of other potential victims. They practice grotesque tortures, including gluing men's anuses shut as punishment. Human Rights Watch spoke to doctors who said that hospitals and morgues have received dozens of mutilated bodies, living and dead.
"Murder and torture are no way to enforce morality," said Rasha Moumneh, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "These killings point to the continuing and lethal failure of Iraq's post-occupation authorities to establish the rule of law and protect their citizens."
HRW also points out that the killings and torture violate even the most fundamentalist understanding of Sharia law, which the perpetrators are claiming to enforce.
In his brief post on the report, AbuKhalil goes on to make this pertinent observation:
Good for Human Rights Watch for issuing this report. I just hope that they notice that the American invasion of Iraq has killed Iraqi gays, lesbians, heterosexuals, and asexuals alike.
Yes, when you destroy a society by aggressive war, when you kill more than one million innocent people (out of a total population of 25 million: a kill rate of one out of every 25 Iraqis), when you dispossess four million innocent people, when you join with your local puppets in a savage war of ethnic cleansing, when through invasion and prior years of near-genocidal sanctions you eviscerate one of the most secular states in the Middle East, when you empower violent religious extremists to further your own agenda of domination, this is what you get: the eruption of the human mind's most savage instincts and blind fears, set loose in a maelstrom of degradation.
And still, the urbane, educated, civilized, "progressive" president can stand before the world and declare that America's military rapine of Iraq is "an extraordinary achievement." And so it is. And so was the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Trail of Tears, the liquidation of the "kulaks" and many other epiphanies of human civilization. But to be extraordinarily evil is not usually considered something to brag about. That Obama can do so without batting an eye is a telling indication of moral degradation of our own society.
"I offered up my innocence/I got repaid with scorn" -- Bob Dylan
Scott Horton at Harper's points out two recent cases that underline a central tenet of perhaps the the most powerful and pervasive factions in America's judicial history: the "movement conservatives" who largely congregate in the Federalist Society, and whose god and high priest is the radical extremist and torture apologist, Antonin Scalia. And what is that central tenet? That the need of the state to put its citizens to death outweighs and overrules the actual innocence of wrongfully convicted individuals.
The first cast Horton considers is "the appeal of Troy Davis, a Georgia athletics coach tried and convicted of the murder of an off-duty policeman working as a security guard at a Burger King. Following the conviction in 1991, seven of the witnesses who testified against Davis recanted, several of them fingering the last major witness to appear against Davis as the actual killer." Several lower courts, packed with "movement conservatives" rejected the pleas for considering the new evidence for innocence. But this week, the Supreme Court sent the case back to Georgia with orders to hear the damn case already and look at the evidence.
But this commonsense application of hundreds of years of Anglo-American jurisprudence sent Scalia into one of his patented hissy fits. In a stinging dissent, he wrote:
This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.
As Horton notes:
In other words, Scalia’s Constitution does not guarantee a man who has been convicted and sentenced to death – but who is actually innocent – a review of his case.
Of course not. The right of the powerful and the privileged to cow the rabble with the ever-present threat of execution by an implacable state obviously takes precedence over milksoppy considerations like "justice." In fact, if the state is shown to have the power to execute demonstrably innocent people, that's all the better; the very irrationality of such an approach makes people even more cowed, more uncertain -- and thus less likely to upset the gilded applecart of their betters.
But the little godling is by no means alone in his bloodthirsty philosophy. Horton then cites the case of Sharon Keller, the top criminal judge in Texas, now on trial for refusing to accept paperwork for a stay of execution request, despite a Supreme Court ruling that day which called the convicted man's punishment into question. Her reason for refusal? The defense lawyers, who had encounted a computer breakdown, asked to submit their request after 5 p.m. Keller's answer? "We close at five." The man was killed.
As Horton notes, Keller too has been explicit in her belief that the state's judicial machinery of death is more important than innocence. He cites the NY Times:
In 1998, Judge Keller wrote the opinion rejecting a new trial for Roy Criner, a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and murder, even though DNA tests after his trial showed that it was not his semen in the victim. “We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent,” she later told the television news program “Frontline.” “We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important.”
It certainly is. The power of the state rests ultimately on the finality of death, and its ability to impose it -- on its own citizens, and on the citizens of the world, whenever and whereever the dictates of domination and privilege require.
P.S.Of course, it's not surprising that movement avatar Scalia scorns the interminable workings of legal processes that gum up the power of the state. For Scalia believes that the state derives its power from God; it is His scourge and minister, and not some namby-pamby democratic assemblage of free citizens. As I noted in the Moscow Times yea these many years ago now:
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the ludicrous and illegal ruling that appointed Bush to the presidency, declared in the theological journal First Things that the state derives its moral authority from God, not the "consent of the governed," as the Declaration of Independence would have it.
Rejecting that old reveler in licentiousness, Thomas Jefferson, Scalia proclaims that government "is the 'minister of God' with powers to 'revenge,' to 'execute wrath,' including even wrath by the sword." He rails against the "tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government" and "foster civil disobedience." Approvingly, he cites the Apostle Paul: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." (Unless, of course, the Dominators need a "regime change" somewhere. Then the "powers that be" suddenly lose their divine ordination.)
A judge who believes that the state exists to "execute God's wrath by the sword," eh? Scalia would obviously be more at home with the jurisprudents over in Qom than in the heathenish precincts of a secular republic.
P.S.S. But as I noted here a while back, we should not scorn Scalia entirely. For in his public defense of torture last year -- in which he relied heavily on the venerable legal authority of Jack Bauer and "24" -- he actually provided us with an elegant mechanism for prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Gonzalez and the whole gang for their crimes, without any messy "constitutional crisis" or the need for special prosecutors or any other extraordinary measure. I'm still waiting for some legal group - or even a local prosecutor -- to pick up the ball Scalia inadvertantly left on the ground and run with it.