Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump's America

In formally accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump promised, “I will be your voice!”  And what a voice it was.  The fevered cheers from convention-goers and the lack of serious opposition to his candidacy from Republicans demonstrates that the latent fascism of the political right has been fully unleashed by Trump and embraced by his supporters.
This is our country’s first serious experience of fascism, but Trump meets most of the criteria used to define an ideology that reconfigured the political landscape of Europe during the 1930s, most famously and tragically in Germany and Italy, but with repercussions far beyond those country’s borders.  
Trump is an ethnic nationalist, who has increasingly sought to define citizenship in racial terms, whether by calling for special IDs for American Muslims, by questioning whether Latinos can serve in our justice system, or by using the classic language of “law and order” to excuse the indiscriminate deployment of state violence against black citizens long denied access to full citizenship rights.
Trump combines populist rhetoric with corporate policy in the tradition of 1920s and ‘30s European fascists.  He distracts his supporters from policies that will not serve their needs by inviting them to blame their fellow citizens--of different ethnicities or religions--for their ills.
Trump shares other fascists’ militarism, insisting that those rightfully clamoring for economic and civil rights within the U.S. should be met with violence, and that we should use torture, indiscriminate (and illegal) bombing campaigns, and other forms of terror to deal with complex international problems.  He admires the authoritarian character of regimes abroad.  And like the fascists of the 1920s and ‘30s, Trump is openly contemptuous of forms of international solidarity that have proven essential to keeping our world intact amidst a world of poisonous nationalism.  Far from perfect, internationalism has nonetheless allowed people to identify with each other across national boundaries, understand each other’s motives, and begin to address supra-national problems ranging from the conservation of biodiversity to the arms trade.
Trump’s convention speech was laced with talk of grievances and humiliation of the sort that animated fascists in Germany and elsewhere during the 1920s.  Even the candidate’s convention speech nods to the inequality plaguing our country were notable for how extraordinarily bad they were at diagnosing the causes.
Trump argued that “law and order” was the answer to all of America’s ills.  Outside of Trump’s brain, which isn’t all it’s made out to be, historical examples, experience, and logic point to unequal access to civil and economic rights as the true origin of our country’s problems.  
Trump shares with other fascists and authoritarians more generally the belief that people’s individual behavior should be forcibly modified in order to make a model nation.  Democrats--whether liberal, socialist, or otherwise--believe that rights are at the heart of any social contract, and that the realization of different combinations of those rights is what makes a good nation.
Trump shares with fascists his ready resort to violence.  Until he got too much grief from responsible media, he was encouraging his supporters to attack protesters at his rallies, and the violent undertones of his entire message inspired assaults on Latinos in public places.  He has bragged that he could murder people in the streets without his supporters batting an eye, suggesting that he would expect to enjoy similar impunity (perhaps very literally) should he take office as president.
Depending who in his party you ask, the first order of business in a Trump administration should be to either jail or kill his chief political rival.  The ambivalence of the Trump campaign and its supporters over the appropriate fate for Hillary Clinton is hardly unprecedented...there were disagreements within the Nazi Party about how precisely to dispose of social democrats and communists.  
There are those who use Trump’s lies about his foreign policy to excuse contemplating voting for him against Hillary Clinton’s neoconservatism.  Indeed, Trump has mounted a trenchant critique of Clinton’s foreign policy.  The problem with voting based on his critique is the same as with his economic criticisms: he’s a quack and a fraud, has misidentified the root causes, and has all the wrong answers.  Trump was a supporter of the Iraq war until things began to go poorly.  Trump’s rejoinder to Clinton’s real failings is to suggest that by magnifying her faults we can fix everything.
Clinton supports targeted drone strikes that go wrong, but Trump wants to carpet bomb the Middle East indiscriminately.  Clinton supports an engorged security state, but Trump does too, and has pledged to bring back the torture that Clinton always repudiated, and to murder people entirely unaffiliated with any terrorist organization.  Clinton’s diplomacy has not always been terribly skilful.  Trump thinks that participation in international organizations, trust between nations, rational negotiation, and care for the welfare of our global brothers and sisters are signs of weakness.  So did the fascists of the 1930s.
Anyone who thinks Trump represents some kind of benign isolationism is a fool.  Anyone who somehow thinks that by voting for Trump they are doing Syrian or Iraqi civilians a favor is deluding themselves.  
The repercussions of fascism are never confined by their host state’s borders, particularly when that host state is the world’s most powerful and well-armed state.  By nature, fascism is an ideological complex in constant search of new enemies.  Its toxic economics, its wild promises that stand at stark deviance with reality, its serial misdiagnoses of chronic problems, and its calculated fostering of domestic strife force it to seek out new victims, new scapegoats, and new groups destined for abuse or destruction.  It is unchecked by liberalism’s respect for difference or for law (however inadequate some of those laws might be at times).
Political parties of the left and center in Weimar Germany failed to recognize the seriousness of the fascist threat.  They let bad blood of the early 1920s and historical antipathy between liberals, social democrats, and communists prevent them addressing a common threat.  Conservatives meanwhile fancied that they could control the Nazis even if they gained power, and hoped to use them to weaken the center and left parties.  
We cannot credibly adopt their excuse of ignorance.
We have seen what fascist parties and powers do.  We have seen the terror that unleashing ethnic nationalism, militarism, and racism can wreak.  We can count the lives snuffed out by fascism, and many of our families have members who fought and in some cases died to extirpate fascism from Europe.
I was on the fence about supporting Hillary Clinton.  I find her domestic policy uninspiring, her international outlook disturbing, and her easy entanglement with unsavory interests and individuals off-putting.
But now is not the time to vote based on a desire to punish the right-wing of the Democratic Party.  The United States can survive four more years of tepid liberalism...after all, that has defined our politics for all but a short period for more than a century.  It is the source of most of our ills, but we know how to manage it and thanks to Bernie Sanders we will emerge from this election cycle with the knowledge that there is an appetite for something far better.  And if those of us on the left are vigilant and outspoken, we can mitigate the damage from another four years of neoconservatism.  
On the other hand, I don’t think that a racially, religiously, linguistically, culturally diverse country like ours can walk away intact from four years of Donald Trump’s fascism.  I don’t think our democracy can survive four years of presidentially-sanctioned, presidentially-protected, and presidentially-directed structural and physical violence targeting huge swathes of our population.  
We call what Trump represents by the name we know to fear from what its earlier proponents did to Europe.  And we must do what rational, responsible, and humane European political parties failed to do in the 1920s and 1930s and band together to give Trump and the Republican Party a tremendous defeat at the polls.  A small margin will inspire the fascist candidate to incite violence.  A landslide victory will have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton: it will be an endorsement of democracy against the deadly threat of fascism.  
We need nothing less in our moment of peril.  Fiat Lux.  

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Britain's Report of the Iraq Inquiry

The published report of the British inquiry into the Iraq War of 2003 is five times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I have a day job, so I read the 150-page executive summary.  The report was seven years in the writing, and many who followed its winding process assumed it would unearth little that was new.  Its line of questioning at public settings was anemic.  And it was released at the moment when Britain is facing a crisis about its place in Europe, when the Conservative Party is electing a new leader, and when the Labour Party is attempting to stage a coup against its own leader.
And yet despite the low expectations, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, more often known as the Chilcot Report after its lead member, has managed to make an impression.
Its focus was on British decisions to join the invading force, debates about Iraq’s WMDs, the legality of military action, and planning and execution for the post-invasion period.  In each instance the focus was on Britain, its government, and its armed forces, and so it is in Britain that the Chilcot Report’s findings will and should be most closely read and will seem most relevant.
Nonetheless, the Report’s conclusions should be essential reading for U.S. audiences because of the light they throw on the Bush Administration’s attitude toward Iraq, what existing intelligence suggested about the consequences of the war, and the lessons it might offer us in an election year when we scrutinize the pronouncements of national politicians.
I’ve outlined a number of core findings of the report below, grouped roughly into different categories:
Anglo-American Relations
Much of the document is devoted—at times deliberately, and at times unintentionally—to demonstrating how little leverage Britain actually had with the U.S., whether when it came to the timetable for war, planning for the aftermath, de-Baathification, or other matters.
This of course undercut a key component of Tony Blair’s argument, which was that by joining the invasion Britain could influence its course.  Blair also argued that if Britain declined to join the invasion, its relationship with the U.S. would suffer (51).  He argued as much even though intelligence assessments reassured him that British opposition to the war would not have had long-term impacts on the US-UK relationship (53). 
WMDs
The question of whether Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, what work had been done on its weapons program, and the kind of weapons it did or did not possess became central to the case for war, particularly in Britain and the United Nations, but also in the United States.  Who could forget Colin Powell’s breathless case to the WMD about the imminence of the threat Saddam posed to global stability?
The British Prime Minister’s office commissioned a report to warn the public about threats from WMDs associated with North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Iraq, and the Foreign Secretary pressured the report’s authors to emphasize why it was important to focus on Iraq.  “The paper,” he argued, “has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq” (70).  The U.S. national security establishment had knowingly inflated Iraq’s military capabilities for twenty years for political ends, but it is still difficult to understand how anyone could believe that Iraq’s program—assumed by experts to be largely dismantled, and with those experts having an opportunity to confirm as much—could be regarded to pose a more serious threat than those of Iran and North Korea, for example. 
British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction programme is active detailed and growing” (18), and President Bush warned that “the safety of the American people depended on ending the direct and growing threat from Iraq” (25). 
Saddam Hussein declared himself willing to open Iraq to renewed scrutiny, claiming that he had dismantled the country’s weapons program. His refusal to admit inspectors had been a cornerstone of the U.S. case for immediate war, and the foundation of Britain’s legal justification for joining in the war.
When Iraq committed to working with inspectors and claimed that it no longer had a WMD program, the U.S. cited this as proof that Iraq would not comply and a reason to escalate preparations for war, a truly outlandish reaction, however much Iraq’s claims should have been greeted with some skepticism (20-21). 
British intelligence judged that Saddam’s behavior was shaped first and foremost by a desire to avoid a U.S. attack, which created context for his willingness to submit his country to UN inspections.  The U.S. still bizarrely insisted on reading this evidence that he possessed a weapons stockpile.  And Tony Blair insisted that Saddam’s decision to accept inspections was inexplicable and therefore disingenuous.  Demonstrating a genuine lack of self-awareness, the centrality of self-preservation did not occur to Blair as a potential motive.
Moreover, the head of MI-6 testified that the U.S. and Britain conspired to “set the threshold on weapons inspection so high that Iraq would not be able to hold up US policy,” and also “would not countenance the use of benchmarks [in the course of UN negotiations] that risked delaying the military timetable” (29). 
The Report confirms conclusively that the British government’s focus on Iraqi WMDs at the expense of other national security threats “was not the result of a step change in Iraq’s capabilities or intentions” (71).  It was a political exercise. 
“The assessed intelligence,” Chilcot wrote, “had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons” (74). 
To highlight the disingenuous nature of the focus on WMDs, Chilcot notes that “at no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined” by the intelligence or policy communities (76).  Until, at least, the invasion commenced, at which point “UK ministers and officials sought to lower public expectations of immediate or significant finds of WMDs in Iraq” (77).
Terrorism connection
In laying out the case for war, Blair focused intently not just on WMD, but on their capacity to fall into the hands of terrorists.  Iraq, he argued, represented a likely point of contact between rogue regimes like Saddam’s with WMD and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.  This anticipated nexus, Blair argued, “constitute[s] a fundamental assault on our way of life” (41).
In contrast, British intelligence assessed that collaboration between Al Qaeda and Saddam was unlikely, and could find no evidence to suggest any such collaboration (43). 
In fact, Britain’s MI5 chief said that her agency and colleagues had no immediate or medium-term concerns about the links between Saddam’s WMDs and terrorist aspirations (50).
Moreover, Blair knew “that an invasion of Iraq was expected to increase the threat to the UK and UK interests from Al Qaeda and its affiliates” (47).  Intelligence warned that “the greatest terrorist threat in the event of military action against Iraq will come from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists” (48).
Clearer still was the assessment that “Al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq.  The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war.”  Analysts noted the further danger that could result from the collapse of the regime (which they argued would worsen the WMD situation, if such weapons existed) (48).
MI-5’s director confirmed that a war against Iraq “would aggravate the threat from whatever source to the United Kingdom,” and noted that intelligence reports conveyed as much to the government (50).
Threat Assessment
The Blair government responded to all of this by compiling a dossier designed to make a comprehensive case for war.  This dossier was widely cited by the Bush Administration.  Subsequent criticisms of Blair involved claims that he and his aides “sexed up” the dossier to inflate intelligence.
Chilcot’s findings bear out the spirit if not the letter of the accusation.  The Report found that the intelligence language in the dense dossier itself was not changed.  But the intelligence assessments “contain careful language intended to ensure that no more weight is put on the evidence than it can bear.”  The care that went into the dossier was undermined by its political packaging.  In an introduction to the dossier—which was what most people read—Blair made much more dramatic claims about what the intelligence suggested and the action that it justified.
Blair didn’t “sex up” the document: he prefaced it with commentary that lied about its contents.  
Planning
British and American officials clearly knew that they faced adverse conditions in the aftermath of an invasion, one likely to exacerbate the security threats their war was supposed to avert.  Not only did Britain and the U.S. press on despite the warnings about the post-invasion security situation.  They chose to press on without engaging in preparations. 
British and American officials were warned that they would have to “provide security in a country faced with a number of potential threats, including: internecine violence; terrorism; and Iranian interference” (79).  Intelligence predicted the strong “likelihood of internal conflict in Iraq” and identified the significant “scale of the political, social, economic, and security challenge” (83). 
And yet in spite of British knowledge about the appalling state of U.S. postwar planning, the country declined to use its leverage or make its participation (genuinely valued for political reasons by the Bush administration) contingent on better planning (80). 
When interviewed by the Inquiry Commission, Blair whined that “with hindsight we now see that the military campaign to defeat Saddam was relatively easy; it was the aftermath that was hard.  At the time, of course, we could not know that.”
Chilcot disagreed, and was very clear that “the conclusions reached by Mr Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight” (80).
Legal Case
Unlike in the U.S., much British debate about the Iraq war revolved around its legality.  At the heart of this debate was evidence given by the Attorney General to both the British Cabinet and Parliament. 
The Attorney General’s advice about the legality of the war rested on Iraq’s alleged failure to “to comply with its disarmament obligations offered by resolution 1441”.  And yet in the Attorney General’s evidence, there was no explanation of “the legal basis of the conclusion that Iraq had failed to take ‘the final opportunity’” to comply.  Evidence available to a lay-person suggests that Iraq was in fact attempting to comply—not from the goodness of Saddam’s heart, but to avoid an invasion—but was facing sabotage and basic disbelief from Britain and the U.S., who in term hamstrung UN efforts to inspect (68).
Conclusions
These might be the most damning sentence in the entire document: “The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort” (47). 
The Chilcot Report makes dramatically clear that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a war of choice and a war of aggression.  This is not necessarily novel.
What does seem new is the intelligence context in which British and American leadership decided to undertake this war of choice and aggression.  They knew the risks.  Their intelligence made it crystal clear that this war would be followed by some combination of insurgency, civil war, and terrorism, and would create a power vacuum in Iraq.
Their intelligence told them that the invasion of Iraq would have no overall positive effect on the threat from terrorism.  Intelligence made it unambiguously apparent that their citizens would be in more danger from Al Qaeda in particular and terrorism in general if they invaded Iraq. 
Many of us guessed most if not all of this, and said as much at the time. 
But there is something chilling about knowing that the Bush administration and Blair government—and any member of Congress or Parliament who cared to get briefings—knew that invading Iraq was likely to create conditions of chaos and still chose not to plan for such chaos. 
There is something profoundly unsettling about knowing that officials in our governments knew that invading Iraq would make the threat from terrorism worse, and yet let slip the dogs of war. 
Whether their folly was due to their profound trust in their “gut” instincts, ideological convictions, or the hubris and exceptionalism that led them to believe that our nations transcended facts and evidence and the gravitational pull of cause and effect, the results have been catastrophic.
I would argue that the most important contribution of the Chilcot Report is that it has allowed us to understand clearly that Bush and Blair, along with their neo-conservative fellow-travelers, embarked on a war based not just on faulty logic and misplaced priorities, but with the full knowledge that they were putting the citizens they were supposed to serve in grave danger and were about the plunge Iraq into incredible depths of violence from which it and its people have yet to emerge.  

Neo-Cons Respond to Iraq Inquiry

This week saw the release of an explosive report into the most consequential event of the twenty-first century.  I am not, of course, talking about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail habits (irresponsible but not criminal).  Rather, I am referring to the seven-year inquiry into the British government’s decision to join the U.S. in invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.  
As most people recognize, that war of aggression not only drove Saddam Hussein from power, but generated a state of chaos and violence that has since spiralled well beyond Iraq’s borders.  The invasion created a new staging ground for Al Qaeda, gave rise to ISIS, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Sir John Chilcot, who headed the inquiry, made no bones about the historic nature of British participation in the war that began in 2003 and continues to shape the destinies of tens of millions of people around the world.  “For the first time since the Second World War,” he wrote, “the United Kingdom took part in an opposed invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state.”  
Chilcot’s report concluded that British Prime Minister Tony Blair misled his party and the public about intelligence relating to Saddam Hussein’s capacity to threaten British and American security, and engaged in bad-faith diplomacy, undermining weapons inspections and pledging his support to Bush long before he secured any commitment from parliament.  In short, although Chilcot did not say as much, the results of his inquiry make a compelling case for Blair having conspired to wage aggressive war, one of the war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg.
Even Blair sought to respond to this all soberly at a press conference, self-serving though it was.  Not all defiant defenders of the ill-judged, illegal, and immoral war responded with any sort of gravity, however.  
On twitter, David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W Bush, wrote, “US-UK invasion offered Iraq a better future.  Whatever West’s mistakes: sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves.”
I’m not sure whether to conclude that Frum is a moron or a psychopath, but his dramatic re-writing of history, flawed understanding of agency and culpability, and abject refusal to come to terms to the horrors perpetrated by the bipartisan coalition of neo-cons led by the dangerous administration he served is instructive.
The US-UK invasion of 2003 was in no way a choice, “offered” to Iraqis.  Iraqi citizens--outside of a few expats--had no say as to whether they wanted the combined armed forces of the United States and Britain to beat their country to a pulp.
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain launched a campaign of “shock and awe” against Baghdad, turning swathes of the city into rubble?
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain pursued a violent occupation that disrupted and destroyed the provision of basic services like sewage, water, and power?
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain broke up core state institutions without bothering to consider the role that those institutions played in holding together a society plagued by different historical experiences, different confessional identities, and different regional allegiances?
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain installed a colonial governor and sent an occupying army roving the streets of the country they had just “liberated”?
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain swiftly privatized core spheres of the occupied territory’s economy, depriving Iraqis of the ability to fashion a political-economy that addressed their battered state’s needs?
What was the better future on offer to Iraqis when the neocons in the U.S. and Britain turned Iraq into the frontline of their brutal, ill-judged, interminable war of terror by creating conditions ripe for the expansion of Al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS?
What was the better future on offer to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were killed in the course of the invasion and its aftermath, thanks to the decisions of neocons in the U.S. and Britain?
Of course individually and collectively Iraqis made decisions that worsened their plight.  But their agency was always circumscribed by the presence and power of the U.S. and British troops who ransacked and ran the country.  Iraq was launched on a particular trajectory by the 2003 invasion, and Iraqis had limited ability to alter the course of that trajectory when their country’s infrastructure and institutions had been deliberately destroyed, and when their cities and roads were occupied by two of the world’s most powerful armies and swarming with private contractors.
For Frum to praise the logic of U.S. and British intervention--in the aftermath of a damning and incriminating report--and to blame Iraqis for everything that followed suggests not just historical and political ignorance, but the basically sociopathic character of the neo-conservatives and their international policy

I hope that voters and politicians who supported the Iraq war and other conflicts like it will look seriously at the findings of a lengthy and thorough investigation and think about the repercussions of their support.  Retreating into an imperial, ideological bunker in the face of such a disastrous conflict only ensures that we will continue to execute foreign policy along deeply flawed, violent, and immoral lines.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why We Must Discuss the Iraq War in 2016

I recently opened my copy of Andrew Bacevich’s America’s War for the Greater Middle East: a Military History.  Bacevich is an excellent writer and an historian of U.S. foreign policy who served in the military.  America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a kind of capstone work that seeks to outline 40 years of foreign policy in relation to a particular part of the world.  It promises to be an engaging and convincing read.
But it is also making me think about the relative absence of substantive foreign policy discussion in our presidential election and politics more generally, and the extent to which the international crises of our day—aside from the climate crisis—can largely be traced back to the war against Iraq launched in 2003.
That war was critical not only because of the principles underpinning it and the destruction it caused.  It was also the first real campaign of the global “War of Terror” launched by the Bush administration.  President Obama’s language might have changed, but for nearly 16 years the United States has been fighting global conflicts untethered from any particular geography, but also from reality and the realm of cause-and-effect.
The war on Iraq was critical because as the administration geared up for conflict, bipartisan support for the war and a culture of violent patriotism cowed the media when it came to asking critical questions about national security, a state of affairs that has largely endured to the present.
The war was based on what I see as the truly terrifying neo-conservative conviction—shared by prominent members of both political parties, as demonstrated by the neo-con “thinkers” moving to back Clinton’s presidential bid.  Namely, the United States has both the right and power to re-make the world in its own image, using whatever means are necessary.
This shockingly arrogant imperial logic has had and will continue to have devastating consequences for our world and our country.
The war on Iraq had immediate and violent consequences: it resulted in a massive (and uncounted) death toll of Iraqis, and the deaths of more than four thousand U.S. soldiers.
The war in Iraq destroyed much civic and physical infrastructure in Iraq.  The country was hardly a model of good governance under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule.  But by destroying institutions and infrastructure, the United States obliterated the social glue that, with Saddam’s authoritarianism, had held a diverse society together.
We are seeing how the destruction of or absence of strong public institutions in our own country creates conditions in which people are liable to turn against each other.  Iraq was and is no difference, although the nature of the Baathist regime, the region’s history, and the relative novelty of Iraq itself made its disintegration particularly bloody.
As the largest and most full-fledged war of the post-9/11 era, the Iraq war led the U.S. to the “dark side.”  Our security state and military embraced—to varying degrees—torture, secret prisons, rendition, and a host of despicable and illegal activities that have gone largely unpunished.  Our own state terrorism discredited the Bush administration’s claims to be waging a moral war for progress, and has made our soldiers and citizens targets for retaliation.
The war took a massive financial toll on our country, worsening the condition of our economy, warping the priorities in successive Bush-era budgets, and leaving us with fewer resources to cope with the devastating financial crisis that capped his disastrous terms in office.  The discrediting of the traditional powerbrokers in the Republican Party along with the neo-conservative wing of the Democratic Party helped to create an opening for the rise of the Tea Party.
More inclined to save their skins than to learn lessons, Democratic supporters of and advocates for the war embraced a feeble narrative that criticized the war as poorly planned and executed.  This allowed them to whack the Bush administration for partisan gains, while getting off the hook for the flawed principles and ideological underpinnings of their votes and subsequent foreign policy advocacy.
Because our military were stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, we became averse to conventional ground wars, and began to fetishize—particularly under the Obama administration—drones and aerial bombardment as the best tools for fighting “terror” and policing our global empire.  These tools and the nature of their deployment have led to less accountability, the erosion of legal processes, state secrecy, and an abstraction of the methods of waging war from their consequences on the ground, meaning we are less willing to take responsibility for what unfolds when we change a government from the air or launch drone attacks.
The logic of the war on terror having largely gone unquestioned, the war on Iraq and derivative conflicts across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia have drawn a host of other states into a global war of terror.  This has several consequences.  First, the clash of civilizations rhetoric meets international terrorists on their preferred ground.  Secondly, by requiring a massive military response to every act of terror anywhere, it ignores the root causes of terror.
The expansion of the war of terror creates violence and hardship for people around the world.  But it also permits governments in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia of dubious legitimacy to conflate local terror groups that have very specific grievances and agendas with more global terrorist organizations.  This grants those governments license to use violence against their own citizens on the basis of dubious claims, and often has the effect of forging real links between local and international terror where none previously existed.
This occurred most obviously in Iraq itself, where our war created a vacuum perfectly-constructed for Al Qaeda, providing the terror organization with a larger stage and a new haven from which to project itself, as well as the legitimacy that came from taking part in a fight against American occupation.
The war on Iraq also created the conditions for ISIS to flourish, with lethal consequences for millions of Iraqis and Syrians. 
ISIS’ success in exacerbating the Syrian civil war and resurrecting a multidimensional civil war in Iraq is also the cause of the refugee crisis facing Turkey, which will have serious consequences for the country’s people, politics, and already-eroding secular model.
Refugees fleeing the aftermath of failed U.S. foreign policy to the European countries that subsidize our failures are also directly imperiling the viability of Europe’s welfare states.  The destruction of the most enduring, revolutionary, and peaceful political-economic developments of the 20th century is something in itself to be mourned.  But the crisis is also propelling the rise of nativist and fascist parties in Europe and will contribute to undoing the hard-won moves toward continental unity.
Politicians have variously sought to address the Iraq war by referring to a “mistaken” vote, poor information, somebody else’s ill-will, or poor-management.  The fact, of course, is that plenty of people with some understanding of history, politics, the Middle East, etc, predicted most if not all of this.
And the scale of the repercussions, the continuing catastrophe they represent for the world, and the moral, economic, and conceptual straitjacket they impose on our own country clearly require deeper introspection and accountability, as well as answers from those who supported this disastrous war and continue to seek power. 
Both presidential candidates supported the Iraq war (although one of them lies regularly about this), and then found unconvincing ways to disengage from responsibility.  Unconvincing in the case of Trump because he advocates bombing campaigns, torture, and a foreign policy driven by toxic nationalism.  And unconvincing in the case of Clinton because she backed similarly-premised if smaller-scale interventions in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and is the preferred candidate of neo-con “intellectuals.”
I know Democrats who will respond to this by saying that the two candidates are not equally bad, and so to harp on about Clinton’s foreign policy is to aid Donald Trump.  But I care less about Clinton’s margin of victory than I do about the lives of people around the world, and if we shudder at the thought of a Trump presidency it is also worth wondering how many more disasters on the scale of Iraq our world can survive.
I hope that anyone who believes it possible to walk and chew gum will spend at least some of the coming months (and likely years) thinking about the premises underpinning our foreign policy, and the potential of a bad decision taken under those premises to cause so much destruction and violence.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Britain's EU Exit

“Keep Calm and Carry On” has proved little more than a fairytale facade as panicky Britons wholeheartedly embraced a toxic mix of nationalism, racism, and irrational rhetoric.
Yesterday, British voters opted to leave the European Union, the project with origins in a post-World War II desire to bind together the economies of European countries out of a classic liberal belief that states that traded with each other would not go to war against each other.
Britain was a latecomer to the EU's predecessor organizations (it joined the common market in 1973), but in 1975 its public voted by about 67% to remain a part of the expanding project.  However, there were always dissenting voices, in the early days most notable on the left.  Since the late-1980s, however, hostility toward the European Union manifested itself most frequently and violently within the right-wing of Britain's Conservative Party.  Margaret Thatcher stoked a sense of British exceptionalism in the late-1980s that fed the "Eurosceptic" wing of her party, who held her successor John Major hostage for much of the 1990s.  
Back in government since 2010, the Conservative Party's internal drama became the business of the nation and a continent.  Anti-Europe hysteria helped to drive the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party.  Powerless in the British parliament, UKIP sent representatives to the European parliament, and made the Conservatives worry that they were at risk of being outflanked on their far right.  Prime Minister David Cameron pandered to his party's far right and promised a referendum on the question of Britain's EU membership.  
During the campaign, he further relaxed control over his party, allowing some of its most charismatic and least responsible members to campaign for the British exit (Brexit).  Cameron announced his resignation this morning, having failed to persuade the public to continue their country's productive participation in Europe, but he bears significant responsibility for the result that ended his premiership.
Not only has he pandered to the far right of his party, only realizing this morning that there are consequences for indulging extreme nationalists.  His economic fundamentalism and crippling austerity have been responsible for creating conditions of economic uncertainty that left Britons more receptive to the xenophobic, racist, and jingoistic language of the pro-Brexit campaign.
Because although Britons parted way with most of their empire 60 years ago, the deep strain of racism and exceptionalism that was both essential to empire-building and a legacy of its position at the heart of Britain’s political-economy, remains strong.  Britons were happy to take migrants from the former empire when they needed to staff their new public services in the aftermath of the Second World War, but have largely taken a harsher tone since.
The expansion of the EU and the opening of borders and markets within Europe created great anxiety about an influx of "scary" eastern Europeans.  And Britons reacted churlishly to requests that they join other European states in taking in refugees from conflicts that they and the U.S. have generated and fueled with their neocolonial ambitions.
Brexit campaigners, backed by the most powerful and irresponsible media in the country, used racism, xenophobia, a narrative of British exceptionalism, and some highly dodgy economics to persuade the public to abandon the EU.
I would be the first to admit that the European project is deeply flawed.  EU institutions (as opposed the consequences of EU policies) feel remote to many on the continent, can be highly undemocratic, have done great violence to small nations, too often embrace neoliberal economics, and have not successfully integrated political, social, and economic institutions.
But the EU has also facilitated human mobility; cross-continent connections between students and universities; funding and resources for research and development; regulations that however much they might offend some business leaders have real and positive consequences for people’s health, safety, and livelihoods; and the emergence of an identity that transcends poisonous and murderous nationalism.
In practical, economic terms, EU membership also made some sense for the British economy.  While commentators are fussing over a plummeting Pound, longer-term economic consequences outside the realm of finance seem likely to be more serious.
A responsible campaign would have been for reform of the European Union.  It would have targeted the still too unrepresentative nature of its governing bodies, its embrace of facets of economic neoliberalism, and similar features.
But the right-wing politicians who led the Brexit campaign made it about an exit rather than reform, and about an obsessive sovereignty rather than equality or the welfare of Britons and their fellow Europeans.  UKIP and the Conservatives are in no way committed to policies of economic and social equality, and so they were in no position to criticize the EU from a point of principle.
They argued that they could follow a Norwegian model of strong ties to Europe with a greater degree of sovereignty.  But it is easier to negotiate such favorable conditions while making a partial entry than while storming off in a huff.  And Norway has recognized that it cannot reap benefits of EU ties without also making good on its responsibilities, whereas the entire logic of the Brexit campaign was to forswear British obligations to the EU.  British voters might find that they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Nor did they use reasoned arguments with any basis in fact.  Their campaign was one of misinformation that pandered to the public’s basest instincts.  Like the fascist demagogues on the rise in the United States, they made a series of claims with no relation to reality, repudiated fact-based knowledge, and relied on generating a panic.
The Brexit campaigners claimed that they would save 350 million pounds per week by Brexiting, and that they would throw all of this into Britain’s popular National Health Service.  No sooner were the results clear last night than they were repudiating the claim.
Michael Gove, a British cabinet member who made his reputation as a man of sober (if unkind and often unreal) numbers, as a responsible technocrat, campaigned for the Brexit by comparing actual experts to the Nazis.  In the aftermath of the vote, he crowed that the public have had enough of experts and their facts and reality-based policymaking.
Boris Johnson, the jingoistic, racist, lazy former mayor of London who is angling for the premiership, joined UKIP leader Nigel Farage in leading a campaign of shameless fearmongering.  This morning Farage celebrated an “independence day” that had been won “without a single bullet being fired,” while Johnson predicted a glorious future after their collective rhetoric incited the deadly shooting and stabbing of a Labour member of parliament campaigning against the Brexit.  
Like most historians, I’m wary of morning-after predictions.  But the Brexit will have serious consequences for the economic circumstances of Britons, for the existence of the United Kingdom (Scottish voters preferred to stay within the EU and are likely to hold another referendum on their continued membership in the UK), and for the future of the EU and other transnational endeavors.  
I hope it doesn’t spell the end of a European project which, however flawed, was based on the idea of larger forms of solidarity, cooperation, and socio economic progress.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tony Blair Revisits Iraq as Neocons Prepare to Return to Power in DC

You might remember former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as George W Bush’s brighter half, the man with the tan charged with selling the President’s war of aggression against Iraq.  Unlike Dubya, Blair could pronounce three and four syllable words, but his clipped tones that went down well on American television didn’t mean that those words were necessarily true.
Blair’s case for war was several fold: first were the claims about weapons of mass destruction.  Then there were the claims about weaponry that could hit London in 45 minutes.  And finally there was the humanitarian justification.
For Iraqis who saw the Bush-Blair coalition kill several hundred thousand of their fellow citizens in a campaign of “Shock and Awe” that destroyed infrastructure and institutions, making a wreckage of civil society and introducing greater economic uncertainty than existed under Saddam’s brutal if predictable regime, the humanitarian logic must now seem like the worst of the many bad jokes in Blair’s repertoire. 
Blair, once the fresh face of the “new” (neoliberal) politics, left office in something like disgrace, and has spent his post-premiership making lots of money, advising dictatorial regimes, and fixing the Middle East.  I think I once saw him get an honor guard on the tarmac of an airport in Lilongwe, where he was presumably dipping in to offer a few minutes of highly-expensive advice of doubtful quality.
Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party, opposed the Iraq war, and was proved prescient in his criticisms.  He also declined to lend his support for increased British military intervention in Libya, and is wildly popular with the party’s grassroots, who have about as much time for Tony Blair as I do for root canals.
Blair, who comes across as comically insecure, undoubtedly resents Corbyn’s popularity and his repudiation of Blair’s neo-conservative, evangelical strain of bloody interventionism.  That partly explains his recent attack onCorbyn, which was breathtaking for its chutzpah and ability to re-write history:
“I am accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein—who, by the way, was a war criminal—and yet Jeremy is seen as a progressive icon as we stand by and watch the people of Syria barrel-bombed, beaten and starved into submission and do nothing.”  Blair compared his own “politics of power” to what he characterized as Corbyn’s “politics of protest.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with Blair’s outburst.  But one is struck by its petulance, and the impression that this is Wee Tony complaining about how Bad Jeremy is more popular with the other kids.  Or the idea—which has echoed around many a schoolyard—that Saddam started it and that somehow excuses Wee Tony from helping to engineer the destruction of a state and the deaths of thousands of people.
Of course, Blair isn’t accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein, a byproduct of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He is accused of being a war criminal for engaging in a “common plan or conspiracy” to wage “aggressive war,” something that has been well-established as a crime since the Nuremberg Trials that put Nazis on the dock.
He is accused of being a war criminal because he massaged intelligence in collusion with the Bush administration to engineer a war of aggression.  The early stages of the war generated huge civilian casualties, destroyed infrastructure, and dismantled institutions.  In the course of the conflict and the broader War of Terror, Blair’s intelligence services facilitated the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to be tortured.
Blair would clearly prefer to see Britain and the U.S. launch an attack on Syria in the name of humanitarianism.  But the kind of humanitarian relief he practiced was notable for how little relief it offered.  The invasion of Iraq, far from enhancing the lives of Iraqis, plunged them into deeper chaos and uncertainty, led to the proliferation of international terrorism, and created ISIS, a monstrosity that has a central role in violence in Syria and Iraq today.
Few proponents of mindless, aimless intervention pause to check their compulsion to act and ask whether the intervention they propose would actually improve the lives of the people they are acting to protect.  “Do no harm,” should be the first requirement of any intervention, and President Obama wisely decided that as frustrating as it might be, there was no path to such an intervention in Syria.
This, together with Corbyn’s disinclination to use blunt instruments to solve complex problems, infuriates Blair, partly because it repudiates his doctrine and partly because it leaves his approach to Iraq looking increasingly indefensible, irresponsible, and lonely.  And that matters because next month will see the publication of the interminably delayed Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq.  The wording and judgement of the document is likely to be as anemic and tame as the commission’s questioning of Blair and members of his government.  But it will nonetheless call attention to Blair’s sorry legacy in the Middle East,
There is some irony in Blair’s continued descent and humiliation at the very moment of one of his ideological heir’s triumphs.  Hillary Clinton, who yesterday won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, is a confirmed compulsive interventionist.  The neoconservative’s supporters haven’t let themselves be overly troubled by her bloody legacy or cartoonish worldview.
Whatever the Chilcot report has to say, Clinton’s election, and the spate of ill-considered acts of state violence it promises are likely to offer some solace to Blair.  It would be too much to hope that he could read of Clinton’s wars from a cell in the Hague, babbling to his jailer about the injustice of it all and how much he hates that Bad Jeremy while asking Dubya to pass him his gruel.  Instead we all have to prepare ourselves to offer what scrutiny and criticism we can to Clinton and the neocons whose return to power in D.C. will ensure that Blair’s violently righteous, idle-minded, imperial world view lives on.  

My Challenge to Clinton's Supporters

Congratulations to Clinton’s supporters on their candidate’s victory in the election of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.  I hope that whether or not they decide to support Hillary Clinton in the general election that supporters of Bernie Sanders will recognize that according to party rules (however undemocratic), Clinton will be a legitimate nominee.
However, I have significant misgivings about an ostensibly progressive party nominating a candidate with an international policy track record and platform that consists of radical, violent, and dangerous views.  I share these misgivings with other progressive voters, and joined others in making them known during the primary process.
The response of Clinton supporters who engaged was almost uniform in its dismissal of these concerns.  Some of them said that foreign policy doesn’t occupy the minds of voters, and so even if you agreed with the concerns, there was nothing to be gained from voicing them.  Others made the argument that Donald Trump and the other Republicans were worse, suggesting that it was futile to try to change the dangerous ideas of a Democratic candidate and that instead of trying to improve the outlook of the world for 2017 we should take solace in knowing that fewer people around the world would die in a Clinton presidency than in a Trump one.
Still others criticized Bernie Sanders’ rather incoherent foreign policy views.  His platform might have been deficient in that respect, but that was in no way an answer to the criticisms of Clinton’s platform.  And others went straight to the dishonest deployment of guilt, suggesting that to contemplate not supporting the nominee because of her horrific record was tantamount to support for fascist Trump.
But now we seem to be in a position wherein our party has nominated a candidate who has a history of support for aggressive war, a form of war that the U.S. condemned as early as the Nuremberg trials.  As Secretary of State, in every Obama administration cabinet debate about the use of force, Clinton came down on the side of violence.  She regularly voiced her support for authoritarian regimes and the “stability” they represent, failing to recognize that this short term stability often leads to chronic, long-term problems of the kind we have seen explode in the Middle East.
Clinton has offered support to colonial governments in Morocco (in relation to its colony in Western Sahara) and Israel (in relation to its occupied Palestinian territories).  In the case of a latter she has torn up the most basic rules of diplomacy and offered a state unconditional backing, giving it a license (and also the funds and weaponry) to pursue actions that violate international law and the rules of war, degrade the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians, imperil its own citizens, and endanger the United States public by association.  Clinton has also tried to silence critics of the Israeli state by accusing them of uniform anti-Semitism.
Clinton has attacked whistleblowers and journalists, offered unconditional backing to a prying security state, and has endorsed the Obama administration’s use of drones in a form of state terror that mimics the profiling and violence on our own country’s streets.
Many of Clinton’s supporters celebrated the aggressive attack on Donald Trump’s radicalism in Clinton’s recent speech on national security in San Diego.  But in that same speech Clinton embraced the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” that underpins many of our country’s worst foreign policy blunders of the last half-century or more.  
Clinton said, “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void. Then they’ll be the ones making the decisions about your lives and jobs and safety – and trust me, the choices they make will not be to our benefit….The truth is, there’s not a country in the world that can rival us. It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger, more durable, more entrepreneurial than any in the world. It’s also that Americans work harder, dream bigger – and we never, ever stop trying to make our country and world a better place.”
I’m hope that Clinton doesn’t actually believe this baby-simple vision of the world, and I hope that she is less ignorant than her words suggest about history and human motivation and the range of social contracts to which people are party around the world.  There are few things more grating than someone obviously intelligent and accomplished saying such transparently stupid things.  But her words about our cultural and economic superiority make her cartoonish public view of the world not only insulting to people who work and dream and craft democratic societies all around the world.  They are also insulting to the members of a progressive party who have given Clinton their backing.
I think that most of us believe in self-determination, in the capacity of all individuals to shape their lives, and in the universal character of humanity.  
If we do believe in those things, we should be more than offended by Clinton’s argument that Americans should be able to shape other people’s lives around the world because of our own superiority, but that those people cannot shape their own or others’ lives.  We should reject the idea that our own social contract and political economy is by an article of faith superior to those that exist everywhere else in the world.  
This extraordinary arrogance, which leads to a power imbalance between the U.S. and other countries that mimics the imbalances and inequalities within our country, is destructive and can be traced to the growth of ethnic nationalism, scientific racism, social darwinism, militarism, and imperialism in the nineteenth century.  It is appalling that the leader of the Democratic Party should be a standard-bearer for these ideas in the twenty-first century.
Many Democrats were incensed by George W Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq, his militarism, and his arrogant nationalism.  They were critical of the methods of torture and terror that his administration adopted to combat international terrorism.  But most of those same Democrats sat quietly as the Obama administration perfected its own methods of terror, persecuted journalists, attacked whistleblowers, presided over the deregulated growth of the security state, and advanced radical arguments about oversight and war.  
This most nauseating and pathetic display of partisanship led to great loss of life, the proliferation of international terrorism, and an emboldened security state.  It also signalled that there is no electoral penalty for embracing neoconservative terror and radical ideas about American cultural superiority and impunity.
I hope that Democrats don’t make the same mistake now that Hillary Clinton is the party’s nominee.  I wish that all of her supporters would take a moment now and--publicly or privately--communicate with the Clinton campaign indicating what I hope to be their disquiet about her international policy track record and prescriptions.  Those supporters remained deafeningly silent in public during the primary--the best occasion for attempting to reform a candidate’s position--and now have an obligation to do all that they can to moderate the toxic, immoral, and irresponsible views of their nominee.  
For a variety of reasons, people seem to see politics as a zero sum game, where critiquing Clinton must inherently strengthen Sanders or Trump.  But out in the real world, this myopic view of politics has consequences for the people whose lives could be bettered or saved by constructive criticism of one’s own candidate.  People who have every much a right to a decent, safe, and protected live as do American citizens.
I’ve got an offer for Clinton supporters...I’ll back your candidate in the general election in spite of my misgivings because of the danger posed by the fascist Donald Trump if you give your word that you will work hard during Clinton’s candidacy and presidency to reform her international policy.  Your silence might make sense from a strategic domestic standpoint, but it has real consequences for the lives and livelihoods of the people who populate the “rest of the world” that Clinton deems so culturally and economically “inferior”.  Those people are our brothers and sisters and are ill-served by your silence.  

Deal?