Feb 29, 2008

The Diplomacy of Buffoons

Condoleezza Rice talking in a closed system expresses sympathy for the death of a college student, general concern about the treatment of the citizens of Gaza and about deaths of Palestinian citizens. But it's generalized. Specific about an Israeli student, but not for the baby killed by the Israelis as collateral damage?

Not for two farmers killed in their fields last week when a tank artillery shell was fired. Collateral damage? Or perhaps Israel's high-tech version of the Kassams falling on Sderot? You can have bad intelligence or you can fire just to scare the hell out of the farmers, or you can fire off your homemade rockets and keep your fingers crossed that they will kill someone. Either way, who cares about really trying to figure out how to stop the violence on either side?

And then the final absurdity: the rockets must stop, she says, they must stop. So who is she going to talk to? She who immediately condemned Hamas when they won the elections and became the elected majority party of Gaza and the Occupied Territories. She who announced that Hamas was a terrorist organization so we don't deal with them. She who supported the Israeli withholding of funds legitimately due to the Palestinian government in the beginning of the collective punishment? She who failed to consider even talking to Hamas indirectly when they made back channel overtures and indeed even unilaterally ceased fire in the subtle hope that it might convince the Israelis and the US and the EU to recognize them and start just to talk?

Perhaps she thinks that even though Fatah is not in Gaza, but is in the Occupied Territories that Fatah can stop the rockets? Who stops the rockets? Can anyone? When she says the rockets must stop, who is she expecting to stop them? God? Does she ever think that the only way to stop them is to try to talk to the ones who are firing them?

This is the mind set that is equal to the passive voice, the disembodied sentences with no agents, the child in a Bill Cosby monologue that insists that "it broke." This is the voice of the esteemed citizen just stopped for speeding, "Don't you know who I am? Don't you know who is talking to you?"

Were it not so tragic, one could laugh uproariously at this madness, this diplomacy of buffoons. This is Bergson's definition of the comic: the rigid personality persisting in behavior despite the knowledge that her demand will not be listened to. The rockets must stop. If this is not a clear indication that as much as we loathe them we must talk to our enemies, then I don't know what further example is needed.

She will continue to make demands to the clouds, to the trees, to the stones. They are more liable to answer than Hamas or vengeful splinter groups in Gaza who fire the rockets in retaliation.

And while I am at it, the Kassam rockets—homemade, inaccurate, wounding or killing almost at random since they make it in the general direction of a town—they are the warfare of buffoons on the other side, people who cut off noses to spite their face. They are the gang that cannot shoot straight because they do not have the technology. They are the jerry-rigged terrorists.

These Kassams are opposed to Israel's almost accurate missile assassinations. I say almost accurate because they strike the targeted vans, or perhaps they hit an apartment in which the intended victims were thought to be, but might have left—during the moment between the intelligence and the button pushing the trigger pulling, but it just happens to kill some women and babies as “collateral damage” . . . ah yes, collateral damage, the cowardly euphemism that allows us not to give that techno-beast its proper name: state-sponsored terrorism.

Feb 27, 2008

"Occupation Corrupts"

Follow up to the previous entry—In the Cauldron of Injustice--

When you listen to Israelis who understand what their government is doing in the Occupied Territories or even to foreign policy experts who have no axe to grind except for peace and a peaceful settlement, you find general agreement on one notion: that the occupation of the territories, the continuation of settlement construction, establishment of outposts, demolition of homes, illegal appropriations of land and water rights, harassment at checkpoints, arrests, kidnappings, torture, detentions without charges, assassinations, artillery shellings, and brutal actions of the Israeli police and the IDF—I list the catalog because all of these things are going on all the time—the point of agreement is that these things are hurting Israel irreparably and working counter to their security.

A recent editorial in Ha'aretz bears this out, and makes the point that antiwar critics in the United States have been making for many years now: that Abu Ghraib was a symptom of the moral corruption that has been driving the leadership of this country in both foreign and domestic policy.

The editorial, entitled “Something bad is happening to us”, details the corruption that was first revealed a few years ago by Breaking the Silence , a group of current and ex-IDF soldiers formed to work for peace and to tell Israeli
citizens what brutality has been and is being carried out in their name. Their keynote is "Occupation Corrupts." This past weekend, on Israeli television, a show called Facts broke the silence once again and backed it up with phone camera pictures. Here's a description from the editorial:
This time, it was regular soldiers in the Kfir Brigade. They exposed their backsides and sexual organs to Palestinians, pressed an electric heater to the face of a young boy, beat young boys senseless, recorded everything on their mobile phones and sent it to their friends. One of their "mischievous acts" was to test how long a Palestinian who was being choked could survive without breathing. When he passed out, the experiment was stopped. The soldiers described activities to "break the routine" that consisted entirely of abuse. It was enough for a boy "to look at us the wrong way" for him to be beaten.
The editorial ends with the same point we in the antiwar and progressive movement have been making for years:
Perfectly ordinary people, as the American psychologist said of the Abu Ghraib abusers, are capable of behaving like monsters when they receive a message from the top that it is permissible to abuse, beat, choke, burn, make people miserable and generally do anything that man's evil genius is capable of inventing to others who are under their control. Something bad is happening to us, they are saying in the Kfir Brigade. That "something" is the occupation.
Criticism of one's country is not unpatriotic; it certainly is not treasonous. A Democratic enterprise—or any enterprise for that matter—cannot long survive when it betrays basic principles and refuses to correct its course despite all the signs that it is sailing in the wrong direction.

Feb 26, 2008

Some moments in the Cauldron of Injustice

One of the reasons for my not having posted during the last of January and through February was due to my involvement in a conference presenting the Palestinian side of the question. That is, the "other side of the question" that you normally do not read in the mainstream media. It is not reported.

I have been following as best I can, the lack of real progress since the Annapolis peace conference in November--originally out a desire to follow George W. Bush's continuing buffoonery as he brings his disastrous destruction of this country's foreign policy to an end. After seven years of neglect, the man suddenly understands that maybe he should be doing something to wipe a little of the muck from his reputation and that of the Republican Party.

He is utterly incapable of wiping the muck from the Constitution, particularly the sections dealing with the duties of the Executive and the Bill of Rights. But nonetheless he pushed for 6 months to get the Annapolis Conference, the conference was held to much fanfare and hot air, and delegates from the Middle East countries did their damnedest to be optimistic. The optimism faded fast by the close of the first of the bi-weekly meetings that were to be held as a the major elements of the "peace process."

As usual, Israel has refused to show good faith by stopping the building of the settlements, continuing its collective punishment of the residents of Gaza, and its continuing arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians without due process. The Israeli government holds Fatah in the Occupied Territories responsible for stopping the violence coming from the only interested party kept out of the negotiations, Hamas, which threw Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. No control, but a demand for control.

Despite that the so called "Road Map" provides the steps for both sides, despite that the road map clearly calls for a halt to expansion of the settlements, Ehud Olmert has refused to call for a moratorium or end. His latest explanation is so myopically one sided and insensitive to the Palestinians that it would be laughable in its absurdity and irony if it were not so morally bankrupt.

Olmert has been visiting Japan, and in a press conference clearly indicated that he would not halt the settlement construction: I quote from an article in Middle East online from Monday, February 25, 2008:
"First of all it is difficult (to stop construction) because you are talking about living entities," Olmert told broadcaster NHK before his departure for Tokyo. "You are talking about people living there. They need to live, they need to express their desire to live. They have children, they want to get married, they want to have homes."
His insensitivity to the desires of normal Palestinians living under the oppressive occupation of their territory is worthy of George W. Bush. It comes from the same moral corruption that refuses to understand the other side of the question.

I always thought that in a dialogue, "we seek first to understand, then to be understood" as Stephen Covey put it. (I never thought I would be recommending one of the The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the Middle East peace process, but there you are.)

After reading Olmert's insensitive and almost peevish statement, it is very clear to me that he is just trying to grind the other side down and frustrate the Palestinians into another violent rebellion. This has become clear to the Arab nations as well. They have become so frustrated with the Israeli government's intractability that they are now discussing withdrawing their 2002 peace initiative--which proposed exactly what Israel has been demanding all along: recognition of their existence as a state and security for their borders.

Olmert will not change. The frustrated and foolishly violent splinters of Palestinians who keep sending rockets over the border does not appear about to change. The Israeli assassinations will not stop, nor will their collective punishment of the Palestinians. Nor will the ambitions of the most radical of the Zionists, whose stated aim is to drive the Palestinians off the land and into the surrounding countries.

And when you see articles in the American press about the children in Sderot, the southern Israeli town, wounded by Kassam rockets, you feel bad. You wish that the Palestinians would have enough intelligence and sense to stop their violence. And then you feel worse when you see that the daughter of a Palestinian family, coming out of a store after buying her mother a present, was hit in the back of the head by a rubber bullet and died three days later without regaining consciousness.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), not surprisingly, deny that they used the rubber bullets. They do admit to using tear gas canisters against some young people throwing stones nearby. The Israeli residents of Sderot ask that Ehud Olmert come spend a day or two with them to experience their fear.

And the father of the dead girl is a member of a Palestinian-Israeli group of ex-Palestinian fighters and former soldiers in the IDF. You will see the wounded Israeli children mentioned on the news and in the American and Israeli press, but you will find the story of the dead Palestinian girl only in the Palestinian news services and the International Herald Tribune.

The usual complaint from supporters of Israel when one presents information about the Palestinians' hardships is that the "other side" is not being told. Well, the Palestinian story, here in this country, IS THE OTHER SIDE.

So now you have both sides. Which do you respect more? Ehud Olmert or the Palestinian father? Don't ask me.
I have my bias. I am the father of two daughters in a privileged and safe community. Olmert has two daughters and two sons, and his wife is a strong supporter of Peace Now. His older daughter is an outspoken supporter of Machsom Watch, the Israeli woman's group that monitors checkpoints and confronts IDF soldiers about abuses against the Palestinians. That was the story according to Newsday in March of 2006. What they think two years later is an open question. I suspect they haven't changed much.

Demand peace, non-violence, and intelligent negotiations from both sides.

Feb 25, 2008

Blogging on the Run

Skimming along quickly this evening after a night at the movies—a disappointing but thrilling Vantage Point (Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker) with a fatal plot flaw causing the disappointment. I won't ruin it for you, but it's a character imperfection based on Liberal wish fulfillment.

I love information that comes from the ground view. That's why whenever I see the name Nir Rosen as the author, I always read the piece. His latest, “The Myth of the Surge” is in Rolling Stone. It is a good corrective to the official party line that has been swallowed hook line and tin squid lure that the surge has been working. I recommend it very highly.

As I write the phrase “the official party line” I think to myself that this is what it must have been like for people in the Soviet Union before the first sprinklings of glasnost. Well, a bit of an exaggeration, we are not that far into the forest yet, and so I suppose my real situation is in more in tune with the late I.F. Stone: “All Governments Lie.”

More on that point later when I do some more discussion on Joe Stieglitz, and asymmetrical intelligence.

One of the concerns I have about the Democratic candidates centers around foreign policy. Of the two candidates (did Mike Gravel ever officially drop out of the race?), neither is able to say what they really intend to do. In campaigning, particularity on foreign policy is the death kiss. They fear alienating their supporters or a particular segment of potential voters, or they fear leaving themselves open to an attack of “swiftboating.” We are not going to be educated by the candidates themselves.

We can however, get an education from people like Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. Just listening to him is an education, but if you really want some realistic thinking about the current policy issues, listen to this interview with him on Antiwar Radio. Catch the interview here.

Scott Horton (“the other Scott Horton”) asks some leading questions and then has the sense to sit back and let Clemons talk. He is a valuable mentor, and if you have any interest in the US's place in the world, listen hard to what he says, particularly when he makes the point that the Bush Administration has diminished our place in the eyes of the world, and that we must understand that this has happened. He is particularly good in the second half when asked to comment on the foreign policy advisers that Barack Obama is relying on.

One anecdote stayed with me. Clemons recently visited China and asked one of his Chinese foreign policy people what China was up to. The answer? Something to the effect of “we are thinking up ways of distracting the United States with small Middle Eastern countries.”

Ain't it the truth!

Feb 24, 2008

The Cost of Moral Corruption: $3 Trillion,

As we used to say in the insurance business, and that's just the minimum.

I can remember a little over two years ago that Joe Stieglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, former chief economist for the world bank, and Linda Bilmes, an economist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard projected the costs of the Iraq war at between $1.2 and $2 trillion dollars in their paper “The Economic Costs of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years After the Beginning of the Conflict.” Just to establish context, this was in response to official government estimates that the cost of the war was going to be about $500 billion dollars. (The paper can be found here.)

What I found most important in their analysis back then was that they had included estimates of costs to take care of returning military casualties from the war, and other costs unrecognized by the usual government or mainstream media commentators. For example: hiring contractors to do work previously considered “soldierly” has increased costs, as have the cost of bonuses to retain trained soldiers who are thinking they could leave the army and become a contractor; or in another area, the loss to society of the full employment and productivity that would have been contributed had a soldier not been wounded and disabled; another was the money paid to oil producing nations for the oil to keep the war vehicles running: money which does not go into the economy of the US.

According to Stieglitz, he and Bilmes even adjusted their estimates downward a bit to account for the “benefits” of the war, such as that we no longer had to patrol the “no-Fly Zone” since Saddam was defanged. (For a good commentary on the paper, here's an excellent interview of Stieglitz by Charles M. Young in Rolling Stone.)

But of course, that was 2006. Two years later, it's not surprising to see that the estimated cost of the war has increased, but the increase appears to me to be disproportionately large. In the latest estimate, Stieglitz and Bilmes project the cost of the war to be $3 trillion dollars.

Their estimates are presented briefly in the Times (London) online in a guest editorial called “The Three Trillion Dollar War”. The piece is a quick view of their new book, of the same title, to be published in March, 2008 in the US. (It comes out this month in England, which accounts for the Times online including the cost of the War in Iraq in terms of the cost to Great Britain.)

What is astounding is that the direct costs of the war—not including the costs of taking care of the injured veterans, for instance, or other items yet to be accounted for, now exceeds the cost of the 12 year Vietnam war by about 30%, is ten times the cost of the first Gulf War, twice that of the First World War and is exceeded only by . . . well, let Stieglitz and Bilmes tell you in their own words :

The only war in our history which cost more was the Second World War, when 16.3 million U.S. troops fought in a campaign lasting four years, at a total cost (in 2007 dollars, after adjusting for inflation) of about $5 trillion (that's $5 million million, or £2.5 million million). With virtually the entire armed forces committed to fighting the Germans and Japanese, the cost per troop (in today's dollars) was less than $100,000 in 2007 dollars. By contrast, the Iraq war is costing upward of $400,000 per troop.

But remember, this is only the DIRECT cost of the war: the equipment, the ammo, the fuel, the bombs, the planes, the payment of salaries to the soldiers. The information that the Pentagon does not account for, the information that we can estimate by taking into account the overall impact of the war and our commitments to our soldiers—disability payments for the rest of their lives and the cost of medical care, for instance, or the cost of borrowing money to finance the war, to finance those disability payments, is tremendous.

You get the picture.

(Always keep in mind that The Bush administration--unlike FDR, and just like LBJ--has refused to raise taxes on those who could afford it (and the majority of whom probably strongly supported the war).

The information that is not entirely revealed, is not made transparent to us, must be ferreted out and highlighted by Stieglitz and Bilmes. Thank them for detailing the lack of transparency in our government on this criminal war.

The saddening thought is what Stieglitz and Bilmes say at the very end of their update:
A $3 trillion figure for the total cost strikes us as judicious, and probably errs on the low side. Needless to say, this number represents the cost only to the United States. It does not reflect the enormous cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq.
Of course. Our government omits and forgets and disregards much. The candidates for President forget to talk about it—or they consciously avoid talking about it.

Only Dennis Kucinich, the conscience of the Democratic Presidential race, mentioned it when he had his limited chances to speak. Only Dennis Kucinich, for instance, mentioned that we have an obligation to pay war reparations to the people of the country we illegally invaded.

And how do you begin to calculate these reparations we owe in the greatest moral sense but will never ever get around even to calculating? What has been the cost to the Iraqi people? What will be the cost?

Here's one of them. Back in September Bill Moyers interviewed George Packer and Debra Amos, and Packer talked of the plight of Iraqi immigrant families:
When you talk to Iraqis now compared to at the beginning of the war they no longer say in six months things will get better as they used to or in a year things will get better. They now say in two decades. In other words, for an Iraqi, not really in my lifetime. It will be my children that see a better Iraq. That means they're making decisions now about what they have to do with their families in order to ride out a 20 year horror. And that means they're not going back to Iraq.
No, left out of the cost, as Stieglitz and Bilmes write, is the cost to the families of the dead Iraqis, the cost of the destroyed infrastructure, the cost of corruption and murder, the uncountable costs to the over Four Million refugees and internal refugees. It brings tears to my eyes to think of the injustice we are responsible for. There is no end to it. The accounting is obscured at the same time that it is open ended.

More to come . . .

Feb 23, 2008

Report from Afghanistan

Sarah Chayes—former Monitor Radio, Paris-based freelance reporter, and NPR reporter, whose work was always admirably hard-nosed and of high quality—stopped reporting in 2002 and returned to Afghanistan to at the invitation of the uncle of Hamid Karzai, and worked in Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group founded by Karzai's brother. She left that post after less than a year but has stayed, at great danger to herself, to help form a cooperative--the Arghand Cooperative--that produces fruit, nut and botanical skin care products. She is a brave woman. Only Bill Moyers would even think of having her on to get the story about her work in Afghanistan. The interview presents unique viewpoint on the conflict in Afghanistan and most importantly suggests why the efforts of the United States and NATO are going badly.

It is not the story you get from the mainstream media. Her reporter's eyes are still sharp and her analysis of the situation on the ground will help educate the American public.

Catch it here and watch it a couple of times if you can. Here's the final moment, the question asked by a Bill Moyers who is almost embarrassed to ask it, admiring her dedication and fearing for her survival:

BILL MOYERS: There's a thin line. As I listen to you, there's a thin line we sometimes walk, we human beings, between hope and folly. . . Are you very close to that line?

SARAH CHAYES: I don't think that hope is relevant. I think determination is all that counts. You just have to try. It doesn't matter if you hope you're going succeed or not. You have to keep trying.

She is a brave woman. After you see her speak out passionately about her life and her work and criticize the situation on the ground, you have to wish her well and, like Moyers, have the hope that she will survive.

Feb 21, 2008

What hath unregulated Corporate Socialism wrought?

Writing in The Nation online, Nancy Cleeland in “The Incredible Shrinking Paycheck” reports on the analysis of recent Bureau of Labor Statistics information. The analysis, by Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, indicates that the “grim news” was worse than he expected.

I just thought it might be helpful to pass on to you this revealing chart:

Bernstein sees three forces contributing to the decline in wages: wage growth has slowed for American non-managers, about 80% of the workforce; inflation is picking up, spurred by higher gas prices and a rise in food prices; and last, employers are cutting back on hours as the economy shrinks. Since the economy is continuing to slump and prices continue to rise, the trend will continue, and as our paychecks purchase less, we will cut back on spending. Rough weather ahead . . .

Except of course, for the managers and the entrepreneurs in the financial sector and elsewhere. Remember that the top ten percent of the population owns an enormous share of the country's entire wealth to begin with. This includes the people who put together the unregulated, unsupervised, irresponsible—in some cases probably criminal—hornswoggle of sub-prime mortgages, later sold off by the mortgage lenders to financiers, who in turn sliced and diced and rebundled them into what are now seen to be almost worthless securities.

As a result, the banks who bought the subprime-based securities are in trouble, having to write off the losses on their balance sheets. The big guys, like Citicorp and Mellon/Bank of New York, and others not only here in the states but all over the globe. And governments are bailing them out. Here in the US the banks have hit the Federal Reserve for $50 billion in new money to support their balance sheets.

What else is new? We paid for the Savings and Loan crisis. And despite his outspoken criticism of the economy and the political scene right now, Lee Iacocca insisted that the government had to bail out Chrysler a few decades ago.

Of course, the financiers and brokers have already scooped up their bonuses and commissions. They have put their money into foreign currencies, gold, or cash have no responsibility imposed upon them. Now they are waiting for "buying opportunities" in the market, including the foreclosed properties in the neighborhood across town or out in San Bernardino.

No one of them is guiltless, and I am sure that there are Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians who have made their money off the scam. Not to mention some closet anarchists. But the subprime securities crisis has eroded the dollar. The wartime economy has borrowed its way into war. The “Haves and the Have-mores”--the president's favorite people--have made out like bandits. And most of us are shuddering when we fill up the gas tank.

Perhaps it will make us walk more or ride a bike. But as you do watch out for backwash of the Cadillac and Hummer SUVs. That's the first sign of the rough weather ahead. It will tousle your hair and jostle your determination.