Friday, March 22, 2013

And Iran (so far away)

We know that the public embrace between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is merely for the sake of appearances.  When behind closed doors, their relationship is strained. Recall the infamous open mic incident between President Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy: “I can't stand him. He's a liar,” Sarkozy said. Obama replied, “You're tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day (source).” (Do they really need to talk on a daily basis?) During the 2012 presidential campaign, Netanyahu made it pretty clear that he was backing Romney (source).  
Here, you can actually see the clenched jaws.
Romney also tried his best to demonstrate that he would be a truer friend to Israel than Obama. During his famous trip to Jerusalem, he gazed admiringly at the prosperous city and remarked that the Israelis clearly had a superior culture to that of the Palestinian people, on account of their GDP being so much higher. (For Romney, a person’s wealth is the measure of his worth). 

These days, being enthusiastically pro-Israel requires an eagerness to bomb Iran. During the primaries, Romney and other Republican presidential contenders (with the notable exceptions of Rick Perry and Ron Paul) made it clear that they were dissatisfied with President Obama’s go-slow approach to taking military action against Ahmadinejad (source). 

Angela McGlowan of Fox News has even suggested that Americans must reject an assault weapons ban because we will need these weapons to fend off an invasion by Iranian troops (source). Because Iranians clearly have the means of launching an invasion half way around the world and still deal with tense regional issues closer to home.

Republican hawkishness on Iran was evident during the 2008 campaign. In an interview, “McCain took a vociferously hard line on Iran (and a similarly hard line on Senator Obama's understanding of the challenge posed by Iran). He accused Iran of not only seeking the destruction of Israel, but of sponsoring terrorist groups - Hamas and Hezbollah - that are bent on the destruction of the United States (source).” 

Hezbollah, as you may know, is a group of Lebanese who came together to oppose Israel after Israel invaded Lebanon. Hamas is a group of Palestinians who have pledged to fight until a Palestinian state, based on the borders that had existed prior to Israel’s military conquests of 1967, is recognized. Both groups have been labeled “terrorist” by the United States, and indeed, we should not forget that, in 1983, Hezbollah was responsible for killing American soldiers in Beirut.

I digress. The reasons for attacking Iran (according to McCain and many others) include Iran’s material support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But at the moment, the greatest concern is with Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program. During a speech before the United Nations, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that Iran was very close to achieving nuclear capability. 

Netanyahu’s performance reminded me of Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N., when he asserted that Iraq was very close to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. Recently declassified documents appear to suggest that the evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program was pure fabrication – not a mistake, as it was once alleged – but a deliberate campaign to convince the American people to stand behind a policy of unmitigated military adventurism (source).

Mr. Powell, holding a vial of nefarious yellow cake.
If the war in Iraq was not about weapons of mass destruction, was it about the events of September 11, 2001? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and Bush Junior have all admitted to the fact that there was never a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld said, in 2004, “To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two,” referring to Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda (source). Although, in 2002, he’d said that reports of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda “were accurate and not debatable (source).” 

Dick Cheney, as reported by CNN in 2004, believed that “the evidence is ‘overwhelming’ that al Qaeda had a relationship with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and he said media reports suggesting that the 9/11 commission has reached a contradictory conclusion were ‘irresponsible’ (source).” Later, Cheney would say that the evidence, “turned out not to be true (source).” 

Vice President Cheney with PM Netanyahu

During his March, 2003 press conference coinciding with the start of war with Iraq, President Bush mentioned the events of 9/11 a total of 8 times, and mentioned Saddam Hussein 6 times and Iraq 18 times, but never actually said that Iraq and 9/11 were connected (source source). He did say, “The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, show what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to confront threats wherever they arise. I will not leave the American people at the mercy of the Iraqi dictator and his weapons.”

In September of 2003, a poll revealed that 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11 (source). That same month, Bush finally acknowledged that Americans had misunderstood him, and stated that Iraq had no connection to 9/11 (source). But by then, there were already boots on the ground, and the only thing left for good Americans to do was support the troops.

Troops who evidently did not get the proverbial memo re: Saddam and 9/11
But there was another reason to go to war with Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld claimed, in 2002, that Iraq was getting closer “day by day” to possessing nuclear weapons (source). The view was shared by Dick Cheney (source). This would matter to the U.S., if it were true, and if Iraq had been involved in international terrorism. 

Now, this may or may not be relevant to the question of the real motives behind the war(s) with Iraq, but in 2000, Saddam Hussein threatened to shut down the supply of oil to the U.S. (source). Libya had made the same threat in 2008 (source), and the leader of Libya met the same ghastly fate that befell Saddam Hussein. Iran, which is stategically located next to the Straits of Hormuz, is in a position to influence the supply of oil on a vast scale.

"Bush ... and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia."

-- David Frum, former Bush speechwriter and author of the "Axis of Evil" speech


All of this brings me back to Iran. The arguments for war with Iran revolve around alleged ties to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.  According to Prime Minister Netanyahu, the clock is ticking: before long, Iran will achieve its goal of producing nuclear weapons.

It may or may not be true that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein was foolish enough to believe that by falsely claiming to have weapons of mass destruction he could deter any attacks against his country. But as to this sense of urgency – that there is a ticking clock – it bears mention that the clock has been ticking for a long, long time. When Iran was ruled by the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s, the CIA warned that Iran was secretly developing a nuclear weapons capability. And at the time, the U.S. was regularly supplying Iran with highly enriched uranium. And shortly after the revolution of 1979, West German sources claimed that the Iranians were working on a nuclear weapons program (source).  

The Shah, by the way, was unloved by his people. Back in the 1950s, he became involved in a power struggle with Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq became extremely popular with the Iranian people by promising to share the country’s vast oil wealth with the people. However, Great Britain controlled most of the oil fields at the time, and their foreign intelligence service MI-6, with the help of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, saw to it that Mossadeq was toppled as were his plans to nationalize Iran’s oil wealth (source). There was some unrest at the time, and the Shad decided to live outside the country, but returned once things had settled down. In the 1960’s, the Shah banned political opposition, and when opposition groups formed anyway, he called them “terrorists.” Over the years, the Shah increasingly relied on suppression of free speech and the threat of arrest and torture by secret police (trained by the CIA and Mossad) to keep the restive population under control. An apologist for the Shah’s authoritarian regime commented that the Iranian people “prefer bread and security to freedom and want (source).”

For all that, President Jimmy Carter had nothing but kind words. He praised the Shah’s Iran for being an “island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world (source).”  And then, in 1979, the regime was overthrown and the new leadership was decidedly anti-American.  

President Carter and the Shah
In the 1980’s, Iraq was our friend because Iraq was an enemy of our enemy Iran. Donald Rumsfeld visited Saddam Hussein, shook his hand, and promised American support for his regime. During the decade-long war between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. covertly supplied both sides with arms, because the geopolitical chess masters realized that both Iran and Iraq had the potential to become powerful and influential in the Middle East. Israeli officials sought, and obtained U.S. approval to supply arms to Iran even though Israel viewed Iran as an enemy (source). During the Reagan era, there was both Iraqgate – referring to the administration’s illegal shipments of arms to Iraq, in violation of the U.S. policy of neutrality – and the Iran Contra scandal, where third parties were enlisted to smuggle arms to Iran.

Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, ersatz allies
The Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980, cost the countries as many as 1.5 million lives. The ostensible cause of the war was a dispute over territory. At the same time, “Saddam Hussein felt directly threatened by the Islamic revolution which had brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran the year before.” And the ayatollah, “for his part, saw Saddam as a brutal Sunni tyrant oppressing his country's Shia majority, and did not disguise his desire to see him toppled (source).”
As noted in the Israeli news source Haaretz (the editorial content suggests that not all Israelis are behind Netanyahu, thankfully), there is new information about the sordid dealings of the 1980s. “Recently declassified Pentagon documents reveal a strange, not to say illicit, 1980s operation called 'Tipped Kettle,' in which weapons stolen by Israel from the PLO in Lebanon were transferred to … to anti-American elements in Iran (source).”  

Israel Defense Force troops posing with captured guns

Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time, was Israel's deputy ambassador to Washington, D.C. and was personally involved in the Iran-Contra affair (source). And shortly after, in 1986, he wrote Terrorism: How the West Can Win. In it, he labeled Libya, Syria, and Iran “terrorist states” and therefore legitimate targets of military intervention. The label "terrorist" must be viewed with suspicion, because it can -- and has been -- abused for political purposes. Instead, look to the facts, and Syria's location next to Lebanon, to understand Netanyahu's concern. 

This post isn't intended to demonize Israel -- Netanyahu's views aren't shared by all Israelis. And it is the Israel-based company Better Place that offers one of the more practical solutions for reducing dependence on oil (see here). 

What I've hoped to show in this article are the connections linking oil, military adventurism, and the propaganda machine used to disguise the true motives behind Middle Eastern wars. And most of all, the case of Netanyahu demonstrates how the propagandist abuse of the word "terrorist" and the destruction of civil liberties go hand in hand.

In 1995, Netanyahu wrote, “The ideal of an absolute civil liberty – whether a ‘leftist’ liberty such as absolute free speech or a ‘rightist’ liberty such as the absolute right to bear arms – should be tempered by political realities … when a society tries to grant such pockets of unlimited freedom, it provides the proverbial 99 percent of normal citizens with supposed ‘rights’ that they neither want nor need (Fighting Terrorism, p. 42).” The remaining 1 percent of citizens will find ways to abuse the rights they have been granted, and will become – if left unchecked – a “seething menace.” For Netanyahu, the right to due process is an impediment to a country that seeks to combat terrorism. The right not to produce self-incriminating testimony is an impediment to combating terrorism. Free speech is an impediment. He can say or think what he likes, but these are not American values. `

For further reading: Harvard University Press
Alienated Left     The Guardian talks with former Shin Bet head

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Rare Bird

Yes, I’ll admit that I got a charge from Rand Paul’s filibuster. I don’t care if he’s a Republican or if he reads a passage from Ayn Rand every morning before breakfast. I don’t care if his filibuster was designed to raise his profile for a future presidential bid. I will applaud anyone who stands up and says, “I don’t care for the erosion of the rights of Americans to due process. I don’t care for the military conducting domestic law enforcement activities. I don’t care for a lawless executive.” Even if it’s a dog who finally decides to go on the paper instead of the carpet, you have to give it a biscuit, and reward the behavior in the hope of seeing more of it.

But the real surprise to emerge from Rand Paul’s filibuster is the reaction he got from John McCain. In an unmistakable allusion to Paul and his allies, McCain said, “it’s always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone (source).” This is surprising because, usually, Republicans show an impressive level of party loyalty. They nearly all vote the same way on legislation. They’re willing to forgive Todd Akins for not brushing up on his reproductive biology. They’re even willing to defend the quality of Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention. And when erstwhile Republican heroes like Chris Christie succumb to a man-crush and walk hand-in-hand with President Obama, they are resoundingly ostracized and disinvited from social gatherings.
Digoutius wacciosus

But there’s more. McCain also said, “People are astonished that President Obama is doing many of the things that President Bush did. I’m not astonished. I congratulate him for having the good judgment to understand we’re at war,” he said. “And to my party, I’m a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war (source).”

Shortly after he was thrashed by President Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, it seemed like Senator McCain would remain deeply bitter about the experience. He was gracious in defeat, but it was graciousness-with-gritted-teeth. It was “don’t make me say another kind word about the president because I may explode” graciousness. But now, McCain is praising President Obama for how well he is upholding the Bush legacy. Maybe, in a couple of months, he'll have forgotten all about Benghazi and will be praising President Obama for military action in Syria or Iran. Because, we are at war, and the enemy list changes every other day. And the scary thing is, liberal democrats hardly seem to notice.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Woodrow Wilson and the Oligarchs

To mark the occasion of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913, exactly a hundred years ago, this post will touch on his life and times. And some attention will be given to what might have been.

During the campaign for the 1912 presidential election, Woodrow Wilson contended with three rivals: incumbent William Howard Taft, a Republican, Eugene Debs, a socialist, and Theodore Roosevelt, one-time president and member of the Bull Moose Party. One of the key issues driving the election was how to respond to the extreme concentration of wealth into the hands of a few oligarchs. The American people had witnessed, during the Panic of 1907, a stock market drop of 50%, a wave of bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in unemployment and understood that the reckless behavior of the oligarchs was largely to blame. J.P. Morgan was at the heart of the disaster, but he is remembered for having later stepped in to alleviate the crisis. 

As novelist Owen Johnson described the months leading up to the panic, “A period of swollen prosperity had just ended in which Titans had striven in a frenzy for the opportunity had spilled before them.” And “The public, which understands nothing of the secret wars and hidden alliances of finance, had begun tremulously to be aware of the threatening approach of a ... catastrophe.”

Both Wilson and Roosevelt described themselves as “progressives.”  As progressives, they opposed the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, but did not favor the radical solution (nationalization of industry) offered by the socialists. 

Wilson's plan to combat the concentration of wealth was to institute the Federal Reserve, with the idea that the Reserve could act to limit the concentration of wealth by influencing interest rates and the money supply, and imposing capital reserve requirements. The move to establish the Federal Reserve was known then as the Aldrich Plan, and had been written with the secret cooperation of Morgan Bank and other Wall Street oligarchs. Having the benefit of hindsight, we know how well this idea has worked. 

Roosevelt advocated for a federal commission to regulate monopolies by closely monitoring their accounting practices, forbidding excessive profit-taking and imposing rules for hours, wages, and working conditions. He believed that “the enslavement of the people by the great corporations . . . can only be held in check through the expansion of governmental power.”  

Some historians believe – and I am inclined to believe – that Wilson’s presidency did not serve the country well. 

Wilson sponsored the Espionage and Sedition Acts, prohibiting interference with the draft and outlawing criticism of the government, the armed forces, or the war effort. Violators were imprisoned or fined. Some 1,500 people were arrested for violating these laws, including Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party. The Post Office was empowered to censor the mail, and over 400 periodicals were deprived of mailing privileges for greater or lesser periods of time (source).
After a series of labor strikes, race riots, and anarchist attacks, Wilson supported the deportation of left-wing activists, raids on political groups, and the arrest of thousands. Wilson’s “legacy of repression lasted for decades”; his administration’s violation of civil liberties would provide a precedent for McCarthyism in the 1950s (source). 

In reviewing Theodore Roosevelt’s writings, it is tempting to imagine how American history would have turned out if, instead of Wilson, had he won the election. If one looks at the popular vote, Roosevelt had been competitive.  The final tally was Wilson, 6,296,284 votes (435 Electoral Votes); Roosevelt, 4,122,721 (88 Electoral Votes); and Taft, 3,486,242 (8 Electoral Votes) (source). If he had prevailed, the two-party duopoly we have in the United States might not have solidified to the extent that it has. A different approach would have been taken to rein in the excesses of Wall Street. He had been an advocate of universal health care. 

Why did Roosevelt lose? There are likely several reasons. For example, the Bull Moose Party lacked the organization of the democratic and republican parties. The republican vote was divided between Roosevelt (a former republican) and the incumbent Taft. I will suggest that another factor in Roosevelt’s defeat was his outspoken support for women’s suffrage. 

After the election, Wilson bowed to political pressure and began supporting the suffrage movement. But in 1912, he was known as the man who said that the prospect of universal suffrage is “at the foundation of every evil in this country” and confessed to experiencing a “chilled, scandalized feeling” whenever he saw a woman speak in public, and saw the place of women as “supplement [to] a man’s life (source).”

Obviously given his views on the subject, Roosevelt had little political support from anti-suffragists. Despite his legendary machismo, in campaign literature he was presented as effeminate, dressed in women’s clothing, obsequious before the demands of detested blue-stockings. These depictions suggest a sexist mentality at play. It is sobering to think that the reactionary beliefs of sexist men might have had a role in the outcome of the election, and a grim testament to the fact that we get the government we deserve. 

Please visit here for a related post on suffragists.