Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Shadow Wars

by Duane Shank Sojourners                                                      21 June, 2012

A series of recent news stories, largely based on anonymous sources, reveals an emerging new U.S. military strategy. After more than 10 years of long, bloody ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is turning to what one report called "shadow wars." Rather than large numbers of troops on the ground, these wars involve covert intelligence and action, special forces units, cyberwar against computers, and a greatly expanded use of unmanned drones. They are undeclared, still largely secret, and unaccountable.

Beginning under President George W. Bush and dramatically escalating under President Barack Obama, the U. S. is now using drones in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), and has used them in two others (Iraq and Libya). Going by the names Reaper and Predator, firing missiles named Hellfire, the drones are responsible for thousands of deaths, including hundreds of women and children.

A lengthy report in The New York Times described a ritual by which people's names are nominated to be killed. A group gathered from the national security agencies meets every week or so to add new names to "an expanding 'kill list,' poring over terrorist suspects' biographies on what one official calls the macabre 'baseball cards' of an unconventional war." The list goes to the White House, where the president approves the names.

In Pakistan and more recently in Yemen, drone strikes are moving to what are called "signature" attacks, not aimed at specific individuals but at what are considered suspicious behavior "signatures" of al-Qaeda activity based on vehicles, facilities, communications equipment, and patterns of behavior. And the president has adopted a new method of counting civilian deaths all military-age males in the area of a strike are considered militants, unless there is posthumous evidence they were civilians.

Last week, the White House delivered its semiannual report to Congress on combat operations abroad. For the first time, it publicly acknowledged that the U.S. military has been taking "direct action" in Yemen and Somalia. The news report explained that "'direct action' is a military term of art that refers to a range of lethal attacks."

Another report revealed that "The U.S. military is expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator." In the past five years, about a dozen small bases have been constructed.

The surveillance is primarily run by Special Operations forces, working with private contractors. These forces also have teams that are assisting the armed forces in various countries, as well as teams that track and kill suspected terrorists, primarily in Yemen and Somalia. More than 100 military personnel are located at a Kenyan naval base, from which they launch raids in Somalia. Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are launched from U.S. bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Seychelles.

One part of this concern is simply that if the U.S. can justify its activities against other countries, our country will have no right to object when they do it to us. We are not the only country in the world with these capabilities. More than 50 countries are now believed to have unmanned drones, and some of them are developing programs to arm them. The ability to attack U.S. computer systems certainly exists. The potential for blowback is real.

But more fundamentally at stake is the power to make war. Our founders the writers of the Constitution were deeply wary about a too-powerful executive, and consciously vested Congress with the power to declare war. Yet the Obama administration, with its extraordinary claim of executive power, down to deciding who lives and dies, is making a mockery of what has been created to limit that power.

It is a time when, as Dr. Martin Luther King said about the war in Vietnam, "Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits [their] convictions, but we must all protest." 


Monday, 25 June 2012

Having More or Being More

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                   June 22, 2012

“Where is the life we have lost in the living?” asked poet TS Eliot nearly 80 years ago, in the pageant play The Rock. It is a good question for any era, because it invites us to pause and check what life really is all about. It is particularly pertinent to New Zealand today, since for many people workplace goals and pressures are constantly undermining the ideal of a healthy work-life balance.

For quite different reasons it is also a good question in relation to the thousands of people who cannot get a job, and for whom work-life balance is therefore a chimera. Work and all that flows from it is central not only to the economy, but also to the human enterprise. Evidence abounds that many New Zealanders are feeling the strain from working too long and too hard. They stay back in the office, take work home, keep abreast of a torrent of emails on their home PC, are pursued by cellphone in what should be their own time.

It would be fascinating to know the toll the over-work syndrome has taken in recent years in poor health, stressed family relationships, broken marriages, distorted values and warped personalities – and to know how many victims would recast their priorities if they could have their time again.

The problem, however, is not unique to us moderns. A better work-life balance is precisely what the ancient Hebrews were seeking through their Sabbath day of rest. Australian Jew Bernard Boas goes so far as to describe this as “man’s greatest invention”. It’s easy to see why.

The Sabbath arose out of a period when the Hebrews were cruelly exploited as slaves in Egypt. Wageless labour confers obvious benefits on the employer, so when their leader Moses tried to negotiate time out for a religious festival, the Pharaoh gave him short shrift.  “What do you mean by distracting the people from their labours?” he bellows. “Get back to work!” To rub the point home, and anticipating by 3000 years the current management mantra “more with less”, he demanded that the Israelites find their own straw to make their bricks in future, and still fill their daily quota.

Liberation came only when the Hebrews escaped across the Red Sea. For 40 years they roamed the Sinai Peninsula and during that time, as the Bible tells it, Moses received the Ten Commandments. High among them was to keep the Sabbath. Everyone was to benefit from this – even slaves and farm animals, a huge advance in ideas of fairness and justice. “You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox, your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger within your settlements.” It was also a day to remember the God who had delivered them from Egypt and made life as a free people possible.

Sabbath observance degenerated over the centuries into pettifogging restrictions on Orthodox Jews, while in Protestant countries a dour sabbatarian piety led to a shut-down of entertainment and sport as well as commerce. In some city parks children’s swings were locked on Sundays. A Presbyterian purist even denounced Sunday milk deliveries as a sin “on a par with prostitution and the opium trade”.

Those excesses have passed, but contrary ones have replaced them. Material wealth on a scale unimaginable to our forebears has not led to a more rounded work-life balance. Working through lunch-breaks, into evenings and at weekends is not seen as stupid, but as praiseworthy. Some career-driven women pass up the chance to have children. Wants become needs – in houses, gardens, cars, electronic gadgetry, travel, fashion – and there is always someone better off to measure oneself against and keep the pressure on to acquire more.

Jesus put in a nutshell the shortcomings of consumerism in an economics-obsessed society: “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?”  In other words, life is not just about having more: it is about being more. Over-work may satisfy the first of these, but it suffocates the second.

The spirit behind the Sabbath – to take time out for reflection and re-creation, to spend time nurturing and being nurtured by family and friends, to savour our existence and the Godness inherent in being alive – is as pivotal to a rounded life as ever it was.
In our modern, pluralist society that need not happen for everyone on the same day of the week. But it needs to happen nonetheless.

Rowan Williams pours scorn on David Cameron's 'big society'

Toby Helm and Julian Coman               The Observer                24 June 2012

The archbishop of Canterbury has denounced David Cameron's "big society", saying that it comes across as aspirational waffle that was "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable". The outspoken attack on the prime minister's flagship policy by Rowan Williams is contained in a new book, Faith in the Public Square, that is being prepared for publication. Passages from the book, obtained by the Observer, reflect the archbishop's deep frustration not just with the policies of Cameron's government and those of its Labour predecessors, but also with what he sees as the west's rampant materialism and unquestioning pursuit of economic growth. Williams also laments spiralling military expenditure, writing that "the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination".

But it is his suggestion that the big society – Cameron's personal vision of a more active civic society – is seen by people as a deliberate cover for plans to shrink the state that will be most controversial. On Saturday Cameron revealed he was considering scrapping most of the £1.8bn in housing benefits paid to 380,000 under-25s, worth an average of £90 a week, forcing them to support themselves or live with their parents. He also told the Mail on Sunday he might stop the £70-a-week dole money for the unemployed who refuse to try hard to find work.

Williams, who steps down in December writes: "Introduced in the runup to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, [it] has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised. Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

He suggests that ministers have fuelled cynicism over the Cameron vision by failing to define what the role of citizens should be. "And if the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity." A perception that the government is failing to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it pursues growth has spread since the chancellor, George Osborne's, decision to end the top 50p rate of tax on incomes of more than £150,000 a year in his March budget.

In a powerful section questioning economic assumptions that govern modern societies, the archbishop takes issue with the idea that growth, defined as increasing production, is necessarily a good thing. "Practically speaking, at the individual and the national level, we have to question what we mean by growth," he writes. "The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth… By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things."

No 10 said: "The launch of Big Society Capital in April is a concrete example of the government delivering on its plans – £600m to help create a funding model that is truly self-sustaining and that will help charities and social enterprises to play their part in building a bigger society."

He also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to "the nation state" rather than "the international Muslim community". "To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying," he writes. "Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state." 

Publisher Robin Baird-Smith said that the book was "a powerful, carefully reasoned rebuttal of Williams's critics. This is a book about religion in public life. “ a book of supreme importance."


RAF Bomber Command deserves to be remembered – with honesty

Richard Overy                            Guardian/UK                           22 June 2012

After almost 70 years, the 55,573 dead of RAF Bomber Command are to be honoured in a prominent memorial at the western end of London's Piccadilly. This is no straightforward act of remembrance. Fighter Command has been acknowledged in a variety of ways, stretching back to the window and chapel in Westminster Abbey installed more than 60 years ago. Bomber Command veterans were given no campaign medal, despite the scale of losses, and Air Chief Marshal Harris was passed over when others got their peerage.

The problem with remembering Bomber Command has always been the profound ambivalence felt in British postwar society about the ethics of wartime bombing. Opinion polls made during the blitz found respondents divided evenly on the question of bombing enemy civilians – 46% for, 46% against. After the publicity given to the bombing of Dresden, and the less well-known, but more deadly, bombing of Hamburg, postwar opinion found it hard to reconcile Britain's image of a just war with the killing of half a million enemy civilians.

During the war these doubts were covered over by repeated assurances in parliament and from RAF spokesmen that only military targets were ever attacked. Once it was clear that the central residential areas of cities were the intended target, it became more difficult for the bombing to be absorbed into the popular memory of the war, while, with Fighter Command's role in the Battle of Britain and the blitzed British, there was no problem at all. Seventy years later, the gulf still exists between those who see British bombing as an unfortunate lapse from an otherwise morally secure war effort, and those who think that bombing was entirely ethically justified as a response to the blitz and the need to end the war by any means against an evil and dangerous enemy.

The argument is not, of course, as simple as that. The aircrew who are to be honoured with the new memorial did not volunteer to bomb city centres and kill civilians indiscriminately. At every briefing they were told about the industrial and military targets that lay within the area they were told to bomb. Yet recollections by surviving crew make it clear that, in this, one of the harshest environments of the war, exposed to continuous danger not once, but 30 times if they survived (and most did not), their moral reference points were their immediate comrades on board and the other flyers around them, not whatever might be happening, invisibly, on the ground.

There is a real sense in which the crew of Bomber Command were victims too, sent out against distant targets, by commanders who knew that survival rates were poor and that the military-industrial targets were a mere front for a deliberate policy of killing civilians and destroying the civilian milieu, a policy developed during the course of 1941. This policy was shielded from the public and from the crews, because it raised awkward questions. It was felt that the greater moral failing would be to abstain from using every means to end the war and preserve British lives.

Two wrongs do not make a right. If German bombing of civilians was wrong, so too was British. Those who made policy understood this. Yet it was possible for the RAF chief of staff, Charles Portal, to suggest to Churchill, Roosevelt and the assembled combined chiefs at Quebec in August 1943 that the RAF hoped to kill 900,000 German civilians without raising any demur among western leaders except over its feasibility. If Eisenhower had made this one of his operational pledges when the allied armies arrived in Germany, he would have been pilloried. Somehow bombing created a moral blind spot that allowed airmen to do to the enemy population what soldiers could not.

The opening of the Bomber Command monument is perhaps a moment to try to find some common ground over this unresolved element of Britain's wartime legacy. There is a good case for recognising the sacrifice of the 55,000-plus who died, just as we remember the wasted dead at the Somme or Passchendaele. But it is surely time that the ethical subterfuge in pretending that city areas were militarily justifiable targets, was confronted honestly.

While allowing the dead of Bomber Command at last to share in the common status of wartime victims, the responsibility of those who shaped and approved of British bombing strategy and urged it on to ever higher levels of destruction cannot be sidestepped. The military will do whatever they are ordered or permitted to do according to the directives they have been given; it is those who give the permission who need to be held to account. 



Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence

By Walter Wink                       Pub. By Ekklesia/UK                       21 May 2012

The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with cartoons. I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.

Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is a world in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength, these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society. It is as earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.

No other religious system has even remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. Nor does saturation in the myth end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence, but rather a years-long assimilation to adult television and movie fare.

Not all shows for children or adults are based on violence, of course. Reality is far more complex than the simplicities of this myth, and maturer minds will demand more subtle, nuanced, complex presentations. But the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programmes. It is as if we must watch so much “redemptive” violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple.

Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.

[Excerpts from a long article] http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml

© Walter Wink was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He died recently, but his legacy of thought in these and other areas continues to resonate widely.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org), an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers)

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Burma's long road from military state to democracy

Steve Crawshaw                             Independent/UK                                        15 June 2012

The arrival of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Oslo today marks both the end and the beginning of an extraordinary journey. There can be no more powerful example in the world today of how quiet, persistent courage against all the odds can pay remarkable dividends, producing change which for many years seemed almost unthinkable. But not everything has changed. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself has rightly noted: "A little bit of scepticism is in order."

For more than two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi has responded to the repression of the ruling junta – including 15 years of house arrest and an apparent assassination attempt – with a quiet insistence that justice for her country must eventually be achieved. Now, the government has embarked on a reform programme which many thought would never come to pass. Credit must go to President Thein Sein, who may yet prove to be his country's FW de Klerk. Above all, credit goes to the serenely defiant Aung San Suu Kyi herself and the persistence of ordinary Burmese.

When photographer Tom Pilston and I travelled to Rangoon to interview Suu Kyi for The Independent 14 years ago, it proved one of the most memorable trips of my life. People were eager to talk and paralysed by fear. A student who spoke warmly about Aung San Suu Kyi broke off: "Please forgive me. We are so afraid." A shopkeeper began a friendly conversation, then started trembling. With a sad bow, he asked me to leave: "Informers are everywhere." Making contact with the "Chief Destructionist" (as the official media liked to describe her) was forbidden. After our meeting, we were questioned, strip-searched and deported. "You can talk to anybody. But you can't talk to Aung San Suu Kyi.” said one of the officers. Because? "She disagrees with the government."

Aung San Suu Kyi worried aloud about the "brutality" that we would face when running into the arms of the waiting plainclothes intelligence agents. In reality, of course, we were treated with kid gloves. It is Aung San Suu Kyi and her compatriots who have faced the brutality for decades. Yet even after the lethal repression of the "saffron revolution", the huge and peaceful protests of 2007, the UN Security Council – in a pattern that has again become all too familiar – was eager to look away from the bloodshed.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she could not go to Oslo to receive it. She was still under house arrest, after her party had won 80 per cent of the seats in elections the previous year. Even as her husband Michael Aris was dying of cancer in 1999, she was unable to be with him. He was denied a visa to Burma; she knew that if she left the country, she would not be allowed to return. Her arrival reminds us that astonishing battles can be won, even in circumstances where the pessimists have long since given up on change.

In Dublin she will receive Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience award. Amnesty International announced the award in July 2009. Only the bravest optimist would have dared at that time to suggest that she would collect the award herself, as an elected member of the Burma parliament, less than three years later. Her trip to Britain next week will include many moments of rejoicing. But this is no simple fairytale, for Burma or for Aung San Suu Kyi. Political pressure remains important, to ensure that reform continues. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released. But hundreds more, including many prisoners of conscience, are still behind bars. Khin Kyi, to take just one example, is still serving a 15-year sentence.

Nor is there any hint of the accountability that is needed for the crimes of past years. Amnesty International has repeatedly documented crimes against humanity in the conflict in the ethnic border areas. And yet abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians in the north have dramatically increased after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire.

These will be astonishing days to remember, as we see the impossible become real. But for Burma to become a country where the rights of all are respected, the journey has only begun.


Steve Crawshaw is Director of the Office of the Secretary General of Amnesty Internationalwhttp://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/steve

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Is the Secret War in Yemen and Somalia Secret No Longer?

Obama openly described ‘direct action’ – military operations – in both Yemen and Somalia.

by Chris Woods                            Pub. by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism                            June 17, 2012

In what is being viewed by some as a significant move towards greater transparency, President Obama has officially acknowledged for the first time previously secret US military combat operations in Yemen and Somalia. The US military has been mounting aggressive combat operations in both countries for some years. Attacks began in Somalia in January 2007, and in Yemen in December 2009. The Bureau monitors operations in both nations, and its data suggests that as many as 180 combat strikes may have taken place in both countries. However until now the US would not even admit that such attacks occurred.

The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

There were similar references to operations in Somalia, with the President noting that in ‘a limited number of cases, the US military has taken direct action in Somalia against members of al-Qa’ida, including those who are also members of al-Shabaab, who are engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests.’ Previously any such details were reported only in a confidential annex to the reports, with US officials refusing to confirm or deny even the existence of military strikes – an increasingly bizarre stance given the widespread reporting of such operations.

The Wall Street Journal noted that much of the impetus for the partial disclosure came from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the paper also noted that ‘officials said details about specific strikes in Yemen and Somalia would continue to be kept secret.’

Continued confusion. The Bureau is one of the few bodies to monitor secret US combat activity in the two countries. In Somalia, between 10 and 21 US strike operations have killed up to 169 people. And in Yemen, the Bureau has recorded 44 confirmed US attacks – with as many as 106 additional strikes. Total Yemen casualties are between 317 and 879 people killed. That range is necessarily broad because the Pentagon will presently not clarify whether attacks are the work of US or Yemeni forces.

The US military has variously used airstrikes, naval bombardments and cruise missile strikes in the two troubled nations. US military drone attacks only began in 2011. The CIA also operates its own drone fleet in Yemen – and those operations remain classified.

The unexpected move by Obama is the latest in a series of transparency moves by the administration. It came three days after 26 members of the US Congress wrote to the president raising serious concerns about the covert drone strike programme. The politicians – including two Republicans – wrote:

The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have. They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, while welcoming Obama’s partial declassification of military strikes in Yemen and Somalia, called for further disclosure: ‘The public is entitled to more information about the legal standards that apply, the process by which they add names to the kill list, and the facts they rely on in order to justify targeted killings.’

Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the New York Times: ‘While any voluntary disclosure is welcome, this is not much of a breakthrough. The age of secret wars is over. They were never a secret to those on the receiving end.’ 



Dangerous Games in Syria

by Eric Margolis EricMargolis.com                                                                                 June 17, 2012

NEW YORK – America’s most vital national security concern is to maintain calm, productive relations with Russia. The reason is obvious: Russia and the United States have thousands of nuclear warheads targeted on each other. Many are ready to launch in minutes. Compared to this threat, all of America’s other security issues are minor. Avoiding confrontations with a major nuclear power is obvious. Yet the United States and Russia are ignoring such common sense in their increasingly heated war of words over Syria’s civil war.

The US and its allies have been actively trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria for over a year. They have been pouring arms, money, communications gear and fighters into Syria to take advantage of a popular Sunni uprising against the Alawite-dominated regime.

Washington’s intervention in Syria is driven by its obsession to undermine Iran by bringing down its most important Arab ally. Israel, which exerts enormous political pressure over US Mideast policy in an election year, sees destabilizing Syria as a triple win: a blow to its arch enemy Iran; a blow to Syria’s efforts to regain its strategic Golan Heights that Israel captured in 1967, then annexed; and wrecking the key backer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose presidential ambitions are increasingly evident, accused Russia of selling MI-24 helicopter gunships to Syria. Russia angrily denied the charge and asserted that US anti-riot gear was being used against demonstrators across the Mideast.

Washington scourged Syria for attacking civilian targets. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The same week, the US-installed president of Afghanistan pleaded with Washington to stop its air strikes that are killing many civilians. Pakistan’s feeble government begged Washington to halt its drone attacks. The angry Russians could have added that the US has been buying rocket-armed Russian-made MI-17 combat helicopters from them for use by Afghan government forces, and using helicopter and AC-130 gunships in Afghanistan. Or citing US sales of advanced Apache attack helicopters to Israel that were used to attack civilian targets in Gaza.

Syria has long been a close ally of Moscow. US attempts to overthrow the Assad regime were sure to infuriate and alarm Moscow, which sees US plots everywhere to undermine Russia. The Kremlin must find a way to answer the US challenge or lose face. Meanwhile, another US-Russia fracas is brewing up in the Caucasus. Relations between the two great powers are still raw due to the 2008 mini-war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Washington helped overthrow the former Georgian government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the so-called “Rose Revolution,” replacing him with close US ally, Mikhail Shakashvilli.

The new Georgian leader quickly turned his small Caucasian nation into a base for US and Israel intelligence and military operations. In 2008, Shakashvilli foolishly picked a fight with Russia. US warships were moved into the Black Sea, setting of a war scare in the region before tempers cooled. Now, the US is back playing the Great Game in the Caucasus while the Georgia feud still simmers. This time it’s in oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has become a key American and Israeli ally. The Baku regime just bought $1.6 billion worth of Israeli arms.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, a close Russian ally, have been warring for a decade over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. This obscure conflict is heating up again as Russia and the US back opposite sides. CIA has been busy for some time trying to stir up Azeri separatists in northern Iran. The US and Israel might use Azerbaijan as a base to attack Iran. As if Russo-American relations were not bad enough, US Republicans demand President Barack Obama “get tough” with Moscow. Threats fly back and forth over the planned US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe that enrages the Kremlin.

Provoking or antagonizing Russia over areas that are of no vital US strategic interest is dangerous and childish. Moscow and Washington should be seeking peaceful resolutions in Syria and the Caucasus, not playing silly Cold War games. Hopefully, Presidents Obama and Vladimir Putin will sit down and talk some grown-up sense when they meet at a summit this week in Mexico.

© 2012 Eric Margolis http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/06/17-0

Monday, 18 June 2012

Whitewashing Black History

Gary Younge                                Guardian/UK                                           1 February 2012

"Every human being at every stage of history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society," writes the late, renowned historian EH Carr, in "Society and Individual" from What is History?. "Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. The individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless."

That does not entitle people to their own facts. But if history were simply a collection of facts, we could get computers to do it. It's not. The historian's task is to sift, arrange, prioritise and contextualise those facts to produce a narrative that is not just accurate but plausible, clear and intelligent. "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them," argued Carr, in another essay, "The Historian and his Facts", almost 50 years ago. "It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all."

Black History Month, which begins today in the US, gives us all a chance to rescue stories that have been discarded, correct stories that have been mistold and elevate stories that have been downplayed. Recent events in Tucson, Arizona pose a direct threat to the very logic on which Black History Month now stands. The Tucson Unified School District, where 60% of the students are Latino, will today be forced to shut down its Mexican American studies program or lose as much as $14m of funding from Arizona state. A few weeks ago, officials went into schools and "confiscated" seven books from the classrooms deemed to promote "ethnic resentment". Among them were several classics including Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 years, by Bill Bigelow.

"This is a book that has sold over 300,000 copies and is used in school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta, and from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine," Bigelow told the New York Daily News. "It offers teaching strategies and readings teachers can use to help students think about the perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum … Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, who has championed the book banning and the abolition of Mexican American studies in Tucson, argues the curriculum fosters "ethnic resentment" and advocates "racial solidarity". "What we want to do is to create a society in which everybody is working for a better tomorrow," he said.
The other key supporter of the ban, Arizona attorney general Tom Horne, insists the problem with Mexican American studies is that discrimination is a "downer". "We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity and that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper recently. "Not teach them the downer that they're oppressed and that they can't get anywhere and they should be angry against the government and angry against the nation."

Social justice advocates have launched a teach-in campaign, "No History is Illegal", starting today to protest the measure. They should have our full support. One of the most salient lessons of black American history is the effectiveness of solidarity. Arizona could set a dangerous precedent that might be used against women's studies, queer studies and, yes, Black History Month. These measures seek not to teach history but to preach nationalist mythology, aimed at raising not so much open-minded critical thinkers as blind patriots.

"One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted or skimmed over," argued African American civil rights champion and intellectual WEB Dubois. "We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell us the truth." 


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Costs and Values

by Ian Harris                          Otago Daily Times                          June 8, 2012

Did anyone else, I wonder, stir uneasily at the Treasury’s pre-Budget reflection on the benefits of smoking? Benefits to the economy, that is, certainly not to smokers. Not only will the increase in the excise tax on tobacco swell the Government’s coffers by $400 million over the next four years, but thousands of smokers who persist will die sooner, saving billions in health care they won’t need and superannuation they will never get.

Couple that with renewed concerns about national superannuation as the post-war baby boomers grow grey and retire, add murmurings that those billons would be better spent on the young, and it appears that New Zealanders’ values are tilting away from an emphasis on social well-being to the predominantly economic.

Treasury officials aren’t crude enough to say so – perhaps it didn’t even enter their heads – but the subliminal message of their fiscal analysis of smoking, readily extendable to pensioners, is: “If you want to do your bit for the country, kindly die.”

Of course such chilling advice does not figure in public policy. But it would be a logical outcome of an insidious change that has happened in many countries over the past 30 years. Countries with market economies have been gradually morphing into market societies. The difference between them is huge. Market economies centre on whatever can be freely bought and sold, with market forces determining supply, demand and price. Governments target policies toward ensuring that economic activity really does serve the needs of people.

Market societies, by contrast, absorb the values of the competitive marketplace, and as far as possible apply them to all social institutions. Instead of the economy serving the people, the people serve the economy – and lose value when they do not. In market societies the broader human values that have long characterised those societies are eroded. On this theme Michael Sandel, who teaches moral and political philosophy at Harvard University, writes: “A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organising productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour.”

(Sandel will be familiar to many through his series Justice, just ended on TV7. Market values seeping into public broadcasting are set to axe the channel on June 30, and with it valuable programmes like his.) Sandel says that as market values become supreme they crowd out or degrade non-market values that are worth caring about. He cites the incursion of market values into health, education, family life, the environment, art, civic duties, criminal justice, public safety and recreation, and says: “These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.”

Market reasoning appeals superficially because it is non-judgmental. But judgement is essential.

“Our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price,” says Sandel. “It has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.”

The so-called “silver tsunami” is one area where economic considerations threaten to crowd out non-market values. That will intensify as superannuation becomes payable for longer and longer beyond the present eligibility age: scientists seeking to manipulate genes to retard ageing, or to prolong life by periodically replacing worn-out body parts, predict a new normal life-span of 125 to 150 years. In a world where the population is already ballooning, that would be an achievement but not a virtue. And it would impact hugely on future generations.

But the debate should also focus on quality of life, the contribution older people make to families and communities, and the wisdom many bring to discussions from their life experience. As Australian legal and medical ethicist Margaret Somerville says, “Elderly people who are able to remain curious about life, God, art and the world, and who believe they are making a contribution, have much to teach us.” Each life is to be valued not by what a person earns, spends, pays in taxes or costs the Government, but for its intrinsic quality.

Religions especially place the highest value on human life, without distinction between rich and poor, healthy and ill, smart and slow, children and the elderly. Instead they see in everyone the possibility for enrichment of the personality through nurturing life’s moral and spiritual dimension. Markets must always be subordinate to that.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Price of Inequality and the Myth of Opportunity

by Joseph Stiglitz                               Pub. by Project Syndicate                               June 6, 2012

America likes to think of itself as a land of opportunity, and others view it in much the same light. But what really matters are the statistics. Nowadays these show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country. America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or worse. The trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.

It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but a closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence – either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).

Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. Those at the top, in such cases, are enriched at the direct expense of those at the bottom. All of the benefits of growth have gone to the top. America has become a country not “with justice for all,” but rather with favoritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

Market forces, of course, play a role, but markets are shaped by politics; and in America, with its quasi-corrupt system of campaign finance and its revolving doors between government and industry, politics is shaped by money. For example, a bankruptcy law that privileges bankers and impoverishes many at the bottom. In a country where money trumps democracy, such legislation has become predictably frequent. But growing inequality is not inevitable. There are market economies that are doing better, both in terms of both GDP growth and rising living standards for most citizens. Some are even reducing inequalities.

America is paying a high price for continuing in the opposite direction. Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used. Many are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.

Most importantly, America’s inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not “with justice for all,” but rather with favoritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

America can no longer regard itself as the land of opportunity that it once was. But it does not have to be this way: it is not too late for the American dream to be restored.


Joseph E. Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 for research on the economics of information.

© 2012 Project Syndicate

Sunday, 3 June 2012

We are sleepwalking into the Drone Age

Obama’s policy of killing 'militants' in Pakistan may go down well in the US, but it is provoking an extremist backlash abroad.

Clive Stafford Smith                                  Guardian/UK                                         2 June 2012

Last October I was at a jirga in Islamabad where 80 people from Waziristan had assembled to talk about the US Predator drones that deliver death by Hellfire missile. A jirga is the traditional forum for discussing and resolving disputes. The tribal elders were joined by their young sons on a rare foray out of their region to meet discuss the killing. The isolation of the Waziris is almost total – no journalist has been to Miranshah for several years.

At our meeting I spoke as the representative westerner. I reported the CIA claim that not one single innocent civilian had been killed in over a year. I did not need to understand Pashtu to translate the snorts of derision when this claim was translated. During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated "four militants". In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt's house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other "militants" – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

Last week officials in the Obama administration talked to the New York Times about the "Secret Kill List" drawn up for drone assassinations. Democratic strategists in an election year calculate that the article will prove a vote-winner, dispelling any notion that Barack Obama is soft on terror. Mitt Romney dubbed Obama "Dr Strangelove" back in 2007. It may have been a rare, perceptive insight. A decision by the smartest man in the room is only as good as the information that he receives, and no matter how accurate the shiny new missile, if it's aimed at the wrong person it will hit the wrong target.

It is easy to understand how the CIA slaughtered Tariq and many other innocent victims. Those who press the Hellfire buttons are 8,000 miles away and are dependent on local "intelligence". Just as with Guantánamo Bay, the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify "terrorists". Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody, reporting that he is a militant? Too many "militants" are just young men. At least 174 have been children.

The New York Times reports that Obama first embraced a policy of taking no prisoners in order to avoid the embarrassing sore of Guantánamo. Then he accepted a method for assessing casualties that "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants" unless there is explicit posthumous proof of their innocence – because they are probably "up to no good". While Obama's policies may go down a treat in the US, they are fomenting radicalism abroad, not only undermining our way of life but provoking an extremist hydra with many more heads.

The dearth of US domestic criticism is astounding. The last time a president indulged in an illegal bombing campaign in the sovereign territory of allies (Richard Nixon in 1969, in Cambodia and Laos), the policy nearly got included in the articles of impeachment. The Vietnamese capitalised on the backlash, helping to impose the genocidal Khmer Rouge on Cambodia, and a single-party regime that endures 40 years later in Laos.

Ultimately, Mitt Romney faces a dilemma: what must a Republican candidate do to outflank the extremism of his Democratic opponent? The rest of us must be concerned as well: we are sleepwalking into the Drone Age, and few people are debating the dire consequences. 


Clive Stafford Smith is director of the charity Reprieve

This Cruel Austerity Experiment Has Failed

While the human cost of economic stupidity is all too visible, the world's leaders are paralysed by their dogma
by Will Hutton                         Guardian/UK                                       June 3, 2012

Last week produced some brutal evidence of where we end up when we place finance above economy and society. The markets are now betting not just on the break-up of the euro but on the arrival of a new economic dark age. Policymakers are paralysed by the stupidities of their home-spun economics. It could hardly be more sobering. Signs of the crisis range from Athen's soup kitchens to Spain's crowds of indignados protesting in the streets against austerity and a broken capitalism. Youth unemployment is sky-high. Less visible is the avalanche of money flowing into hoped-for safe havens in the US, Germany and even Britain.
Virtually everywhere you look there are signs of a weakening world economy. At home, manufacturing suffered its biggest plunge for three years, and this in an economy already suffering its longest depression since the 19th century. American jobs growth is petering out. Unemployment in Europe averages 11%. Even China witnessed a sharp fall away in factory activity in May.
Yet none of this should be a surprise. We live in the aftermath of one of the biggest financial and intellectual mistakes ever made. There was a blind belief that in a free market banks could not make mistakes. Free markets didn't make mistakes – only clumsy bureaucratic states made economic mistakes. Or so they said. Financial alchemists, guided by the maxims of free market fundamentalism, could make no such errors. Except that they did. The result was the financial crisis of 2008. All the gains were privatised, and all the losses were socialised. The much-maligned state had to step in and clear up the mess left behind by the private sector.
This is no solution. Overstretched banks have become more cautious about lending new cash. So as banks stand aside from their crucial function of generating credit, governments and central banks must step in to generate the demand that has now disappeared. But they have not done so to a sufficient degree. The dominant ideology of the day – from the same roots that delivered the crisis – forbids it. A consensus continues to claim that the state is the source of economic bad. The state threatens enterprise, invites damaging taxation, and is the root cause of spreading inflation. The state must balance the books just as the private sector must.
This is a first-order moral and economic mistake. Human beings need each other for mutual support. In economic terms this means that no individual, either as a person or a company, can manage existential risk by themselves. That risk needs to be shared, otherwise the risk is not accepted. It is governments who provide the means through which we express our social obligations and pool our risks. This is the heart of Keynesian economics – a different set of moral and economic propositions than those which prevail. Today we can see an almost laboratory experiment on a global scale of why Keynes was right and his detractors wrong.
The choice is stark. To commit to decades of economic stagnation, the break-up of the eurozone, the risk of trade protection and autarchic economic policies, the dismantling of the west's social contracts, the imposition of high unemployment and the political fallout that will follow. Or to change course. The technical means are relatively simple. Governments must replace targets for inflation with targets for the growth of prices and growth of output combined. Central banks should inject money into their financial systems by offering to buy new bank loans to support new investment, new innovation or new infrastructure – helped by partial government guarantees.
Will any of this happen? The west is at a cross-roads, and although such proposals will be fiercely opposed by the British, German and American right they need to be beaten back. After all, it is their ideas that have brought us to this pass. It is not too fanciful to argue that the future of western capitalism depends upon how this argument plays out – and how quickly, if at all, there is a change of course.       © 2012         [Abridged]  
William Nicolas Hutton is an English writer, weekly columnist and former editor-in-chief for The Observer. 

The Grim Reaper

by Robert C. Koehler                             Common Dreams                              May 31, 2012

The poison seeps slowly into the future. No one notices. “The Obama administration,” the Wall Street Journal informs us, “plans to arm Italy’s fleet of Reaper drone aircraft, a move that could open the door for sales of advanced hunter-killer drone technology to other allies . . .”

I can’t quite get beyond the name: Reaper drones? “General Atomics, later developed the larger Reaper,” John Sifton wrote last February in The Nation, “a moniker implying that the United States was fate itself, cutting down enemies who were destined to die. That the drones’ payloads were called Hellfire missiles, invoking the punishment of the afterlife, added to a sense of righteousness.”

When we murder by drone, we may be both perpetuating an inhuman, bureaucratic control over random enemies and, at the same time, satisfying an age-old lust to play god. We’re using the most advanced technology we possess to engage in behavior of shocking moral stagnancy. As the war on terror moved from righteousness to quagmire, the inflammatory religious rhetoric was reined in, supplanted by far more politically correct propaganda: looking for weapons of mass destruction, promoting democracy and women’s rights, etc. Church and state were neatly separated and the war went on.

But not only did we justify the war on terror with a multitude of lies, we never really excised the religious, or “crusading,” fervor behind it. Evangelical Christianity has made huge incursions into the U.S. military in recent years, thus helping to unite apocalyptic, 12th-century, true-believer passions with the soulless neutrality of ultra-high-tech weaponry. The vengeful God lives!.

My concern is the advancement of drone technology, not what we call it. But if in our terminology we’re equating the American military with supernatural beings — the Grim Reaper and a vengeful, punishment-spewing God that has no moral qualms about mass murder. In other words, is the nation, at least at a subconscious level, being driven by the worst of old-time religion?

When we murder by drone, we may be both perpetuating an inhuman, bureaucratic control over random enemies and, at the same time, satisfying an age-old lust to play god. We’re using the most advanced technology we possess to engage in behavior of shocking moral stagnancy. What this prefigures is the future of war. Drones, wrote Richard Falk in an essay for Foreign Policy Journal, “seem destined to be central to operational planning for future military undertakings of the United States, with sharply escalating appropriations to support both the purchase of increasing numbers and varieties of drone.”

And Ed Kinane, writing at Voices for Creative Nonviolence about the remarkable utility of drones, lamented: “Such distancing and such unaccountability almost guarantee mission creep. Mission creep means an easy slide into perpetual warfare. How juicy for General Atomics and the other corporate war profiteers!”

This is part of the grim, dark future the Reaper brings us — perhaps more disturbing, Falk writes, even than nuclear weaponry, whose “catastrophic quality . . . operates as an inhibitor of uncertain reliability, while with drones their comparative inexpensiveness and non-apocalyptic character makes it much easier to drift mindlessly until an unanticipated day of reckoning occurs by which time all possibilities of control will have been long lost.” He adds: “As with nuclear weaponry, climate change, and respect for the carrying capacity of the earth, we who are alive at present may be the last who have the possibility of upholding the life prospects of future generations.”

Such urgency can bring with it an unbearable pessimism. I insist on believing that the worst of human instincts are precariously balanced by the best. A passionate rejection of violence and economic injustice is spreading globally and manifesting politically, even if it remains beyond the awareness of the U.S. corporate media to grasp and report. That shouldn’t be a reason for giving up. 


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/05/31-1