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). 
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.  
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).
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.