Of course he can. Have a look at the latest trailer for the upcoming Oliver Stone movie, SNOWDEN, due out in September.
The Edward Snowden story is many things, but at some level, well apart from politics, it is a helluva thriller. Think of it: a young programmer, at great personal risk, figures out a way to gain access to a vast trove of very highly classified documents from one of America’s most secret agencies. He then discovers a way to beat all of NSA’s security to smuggle that information out of secure facilities. With the Feds no doubt on his heals, he finds his way to a foreign country, meets up with journalists, and reveals to Americans (and the world) that their own government has been illegally spying on them — reading their emails, listening to their calls, looking in their very bedrooms via hijacked webcams — for years. He then successfully eludes the full resources of the U.S. government and settles into a new life in Russia.
So if that isn’t suspenseful, then not much can be.
And it is hard to imagine a filmmaker more equipped to handle this story than Oliver Stone. Stone’s work has been all about creating narratives, often narratives contradictory to the mainstream, around significant historical and social events (Wall Street, W. Platoon, JFK). Snowden’s story may have found its natural storyteller.
The trailer looks good, and shows a movie that is structured as a thriller, but one with a larger message. This film looks to be an excellent addition to the conversations about the changes he brought to the United States, and the world.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
One of the defining aspects of traditional capitalism is that the Capitalist, that one percent guy from the Monopoly game with the top hat, spats and monocle, invests capital. That investment, in land, a factory, an oil well, creates value (the monies) for him, and jobs for the rest of us.
The idea is that because the Capitalist risks his money/capital, he is assuming the greater risk and thus deserves the greater gain. This has been the way things have worked since feudal lords controlled land and allowed sharecroppers to keep pennies on the dollar they earned for him, on through to when people built factories and opened stores.
Traditional capitalism is that stuff you slept through in Econ 101. Risk gain, employment, jobs, whatevers unless you live off an allowance from Daddy.
Until the arrival of the gig economy.
The Gig Economy
For those who are living off an allowance from Daddy, or are one of the eleven Americans who still hold a traditional “job” where you do stuff, get paid a regular salary not tied to how many sneakers you sew each day, and receive those “benefits” you once heard grandpa speak of, the gig economy is where you work piecemeal, get paid a few table scraps and have no benefits or job security because you really don’t work for anyone.
These “gigs” are almost always performing low-level services, such as delivering food to or driving around people much wealthier than you. Those people cannot be bothered to walk to a restaurant or pilot a motor vehicle or clean up their kids’/doggies’ poo, so you do it because you don’t have many other options in hope of earning something more than minimum wage.
The gig economy is sometimes also known as the 1099 economy, after the IRS form used to report non-employee earnings, or the on-demand economy based on the way people get or don’t get opportunities to work. No one knows how big this shadow economy is, given the shifting nature of the work and the cash payments sometimes involved. But it is big and it is growing.
The less-discussed game changer of the gig economy is that traditional capitalists no longer need to put much money at risk at all. In fact the companies behind the gig economy, the people who run Uber and the others, are economically viable because they offload their cost of capital — the investment and depreciation on cars and the cost of keeping a driver fed and healthy — onto the drivers, who are only willing to accept such a bad deal because the labor market sucks. See how that works?
And if that’s not problem enough, the cheaper wages paid (for example, by Uber) to drivers, and thus the cheaper rides, also drive business with capital structures which make social sense out of business. They can’t compete with “drive your car into the ground, make whatever you might get along the way while we cash in.”
And when you talk about driving these days, you’re talking about Uber.
Uber has succeeded in almost completely pushing its operating costs (absent the relatively small investment needed to run the app and backoffice) down to people who often can’t afford it but are lured into trying because the alternatives seem even lower paying.
To drive for Uber, you need a late model car, in great shape, with four doors. It doesn’t have to be a black sedan, but if it isn’t Uber will exclude you from a number of ride requests.
So where does someone without a lot of money get a late model black sedan? If they can afford it, they buy one, but that means laying out a lot of money and taking on some heavy credit up front. More than likely, however, what a budding Uber driver does is lease his black sedan from an Uber-suggested third party contractor. You’ll find them right on the Uber website. They’ll take an average $500 deposit to sign you into a three year lease running $300 a month. So that all adds up to a capital investment by the driver of $11,300 over three years.
Next capital cost to the driver is insurance, expensive insurance, because the cheap minimum stuff you buy off the TV ads is not going to cover you driving passengers around. Don’t worry, though, as Uber will sell you just what you need, albeit at $4,600 a year. That works out to $13,800 for three years.
And, hey, driver, you need to pay for licensing, gas, maintenance, fines, regular car washes, depreciation of your vehicle and all the other stuff. Over three years, let’s call it $5,000.
So overall, the cost for you to get a job with Uber is about $30,100 over three years. If you don’t have the cash on hand, and need to borrow it, add on 13% interest or more if using a credit card, maybe more for second-level sources for people who don’t qualify for good credit.
But wait — many jurisdictions are now demanding additional licenses from Uber drivers, claiming they are operating a business. One of the more extreme plans under consideration is in Newark, New Jersey. The city is looking at a $500 annual fee to operate in the city, $1,000 additional license to pick up and drop off passengers at the airport and Newark Penn Station, and a $1.5 million insurance coverage requirement.
If the driver fails to make any of those payments, s/he instantly becomes unemployed, unable to pay enough to have a job to earn enough to pay for that job. This is, in economic terms, an extractive process — a third party takes profit, leaves the true costs of capital to the workers, and when they fail, to society who will need to step in and provide food benefits as a last resort.
In addition to having to raise their own capital to essentially buy themselves a job driving for Uber, drivers face risks far above the simple “risk” associated with any “investment.”
In addition to the obvious risks of accidents, bad reviews, and good/bad weather that cuts the number of people seeking rides, perhaps the biggest financial risk to any driver is Uber itself.
Imagine a situation where there are 10 riders in a city, and ten Uber drivers. For argument’s sake, let’s say each driver gets one fare a night. Uber makes money on its 27% share of 10 rides. Now, increase the number of Uber drivers to 100 (which makes getting a ride easier and faster for quicker profit for Uber and protects Uber when drivers quit) while the number of rides stays at 10. That means 90 drivers make nothing each night. Independent of the number of drivers, Uber still makes the same money on its share of 10 rides.
In 2015, Uber doubled the number of drivers in the U.S. As of October 2015, the company had 327,000 active drivers, more than doubling the 160,000 that gave rides in 2014. Some of the new drivers are absorbed by growth in ridership, some are not.
The other risk is that Uber sets prices, which vary even though the driver’s costs do not. For example, in order to theoretically boast ridership, Uber lowered prices in New York City such that individual drivers saw an average decline in payouts of 15%. The company also experimented with rate cuts in 99 other North American cities.
UberPool is a new service where multiple customers headed the same way can “share” a car.
Imagine two Uber drivers each carrying a single passenger along the same route which results in a fare of $11. After Uber takes its brokerage cut as well as its “safety fee” (even though the company still has the poorest driver background checks in the taxi industry), each driver ends up with $8 each in pocket, while Uber ends up with $6, a 27% commission for Uber.
Now along comes UberPool, and these same two serial riders get picked up by a single driver. Since UberPool offers passengers a substantial discount for sharing a ride, that means each passenger now pays $6 (in this example). After Uber takes its commission, including the safety fee, the payout to the driver is $4 for each passenger, or a total of $8. So the driver makes the same amount, but Uber’s take of the overall $12 for this ride is also $4 – a 33% overall commission. So Uber makes a higher percent on UberPool rides, yet the driver makes about the same amount.
The other side of financial risk is financial return, what you get after investing capital. For Uber drivers, there is no realistic average. Take a look at one of the many online driver forums and you’ll see a range of claimed payouts so wide (from sub-minimum wage to thousands a week) that it is of no real value. Here is at least one reasonable breakdown of costs and payouts.
Leaving aside the forum posters who are just lying for whatever reason, the variables of driving for Uber are such that averages are not really possible. One of the few variables under the driver’s control is number of hours worked, and many of those who claim high weekly payouts also claim to drive 12 or more hours a day. Leaving aside the not inconsequential question of whether you feel it’s safe to catch those guys 11.5 hours into their shift, it leaves the economic question of how many hours a week it takes in the gig economy to earn a decent living.
The New World Order
Unlike conventional labor, where one starts at zero on day one and begins earning money, or traditional self-employment where in return for capital investment one keeps 100% of the profits, the gig economy’s main point is that people working for places like Uber start behind, maybe $10,000 in the hole after they secure a car, insurance and all the rest. Uber, however, begins profiting from the driver’s labor immediately, and loses nothing when the driver is pushed aside.
All of the gain, none of the risk, in the New Economy where people pay for their own jobs.
What other business is there where the Capitalist takes almost no risk, invests no capital, and pushes all that down on his workers alone, while raking in money? Oh, rights, pimps. Welcome to the gig economy.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the New York Times the so-called “28 pages,” a still-classified section from the official report of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, may be released to the public as early as this summer. The full 838-page report, minus those pages, was published in December 2002.
The pages detail Saudi Arabia involvement in funding the 9/11 hijackers, and were classified by then-President George W. Bush.
So what do they say?
The 28 Pages
Richard Clarke is the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States. He is best-known for trying to warn the George W. Bush administration that a terror attack was imminent in the days preceding 9/11. As late as a July 5, 2001, White House meeting with the FAA, the Coast Guard, the FBI, Secret Service and the INS, Clarke stated that “something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”
Here’s what Clarke said at a security forum held this week in New York about what those 28 pages will reveal:
— 9/11 hijackers and Saudi citizens (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Al Hamzi met in San Diego with several other Saudis, including one who may have been a Saudi intelligence agent and another who was both an al Qaeda sympathizer and an employee of the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles.
— The CIA also made contact with Midhar and Hamzi in San Diego, and unsuccessfully tried to “turn them,” i.e., recruit them to work for the United States. The CIA did not inform the FBI or others of this action until just before 9/11. (In a 2009 interview, Clarke speculated that the CIA would have used Saudi intelligence as an intermediary to approach the two al-Qaeda operatives.)
— The 28 pages may include speculation that the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs funded mosques and other locations in the U.S. used by al Qaeda as meeting places and for recruitment.
— The rumors that Saudi charities and/or the spouse of then-Saudi ambassador to the United States Bandar bin Sultan (who went on to be director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014) directly funded the 9/11 hijackers per se are “overblown,” according to Clarke.
However, elements of Saudi charities and the ambassador himself did regularly provide funding to various Saudi citizens in the United States, for example, those needing money for medical care. It is possible that the 9/11 hijackers defrauded Saudi sources to obtain funds, but less clear that any Saudi government official knowingly funded persons for the purpose of committing 9/11.
Alongside Clapper, Clarke too believes the 28 pages will be released to the public within the next five to six weeks.
Others have suggested more clear ties between the hijackers and the Saudis, including multiple pre-9/11 phone calls between one of the hijackers’ handlers in San Diego and the Saudi Embassy, and the transfer of some $130,000 from Bandar’s family checking account to yet another of the hijackers’ Saudi handlers in San Diego.
Not the What, But the Why
Should the full 28 pages be released, there will no doubt be enormous emphasis placed on what they say, specifically the degree to which they implicate elements of Saudi Arabia and/or the Saudi royal family in funding or supporting the 9/11 hijackers. If the CIA contact with some of the hijackers is confirmed, that will be explosive.
But as pointed out in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (below), after the what is the why, and that answer has the potential to affect the future, not just document the past.
— Why were the pages classified in the first place (who benefited?) and why did they stay classified now into a second administration, some 15 years after the events they discuss took place?
— Why did the United States allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status? That Ministry’s existence goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup.
The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes, citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”
Only one official in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs inside the U.S., Fahad al-Thumairy, was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists. That was in 2002.
— Why does the U.S. still allow allow officials of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to work in the U.S. under diplomatic status?
— Why did the American government not arrest Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national and employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco. Although he drew a salary, according to the New Yorker he apparently never did any actual work for the company during the seven years he spent in America. Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy and with the consulate in Los Angeles; he was widely considered in the Arab expat community to be a Saudi spy, though the Saudi government has denied that he was.
— Why did the CIA not reveal its contacts with the two 9/11 hijackers? Who benefited?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.
America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.
“The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.
But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.
Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”
The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.
Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.
A defense contractor hired mercenaries from Africa for $16 a day to guard American bases in Iraq, with one of the company’s former directors saying no checks were made on whether those hired were former child soldiers.
The director of Aegis Defense Services between 2005 and 2015, said contractors recruited from countries such as Sierra Leone to reduce costs for the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He said none of the estimated 2,500 boys recruited from Sierra Leone were checked to see if they were former child soldiers who had been forced to fight in the country’s civil war.
They were considered merely cheaper options to fulfill contracts to defend U.S. bases in Iraq, enabling Aegis to realize higher profits.
Aegis had contracts from the U.S. government worth hundreds of millions of dollars to protect bases in Iraq. It originally employed UK, U.S. and Nepalese mercenaries, but broadened its recruitment in 2011 to include Africans as a cost-cutting/profit raising measure.
I am saddened to say the use of children in this capacity in Iraq was an open secret. The guards at the forward operating base where I was located in 2009-2010 were obviously very, very young, often carrying weapons nearly their own height. They were kept isolated and segregated from the Americans so the two groups could not speak, ensuring the secret was nominally kept as everyone looked the other way.
That child soldiers were present in this capacity was (to my knowledge, first) mentioned in my 2011 book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (in the chapter titled “Tribes.”) Our military children happened to be from Uganda, not Sierra Leone, suggesting the practice was wide spread.
In some happy news, in 2010, the mercs guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were primarily from Peru, and appeared to be all adults.
BONUS: The recruitment of African mercenaries and, more specifically, former child soldiers, is the subject of a new documentary (video clip, below) by Mads Ellesoe, a Danish journalist who spent two years researching the subject.
One of the things that defines great art is not only that it hangs around for a long time, that people still want to see a play hundreds of years after it was first performed or read a book that was written thousands of years ago, but that that art morphs and develops alongside our own lives changing, not only staying relevant, but becoming more relevant as we ourselves change.
And so to Bruce Springsteen and, in this case, Thunder Road. The amazing supercut you see above spans 41 years of Bruce performing the same song, seamlessly arranged in chronological order. There’s Bruce in the 1970s all young and brash, there’s the buffed up Bruce of the 80s, the introspective Bruce of the 90s forward. Along the way E Street Band members come and go, most notably Clarence Clemons (RIP) and newcomers like Nils Lofgren and Springsteen’s wife. The presence of the latter in the band speaks much to the changes of time.
But there is also that song.
I’m gonna play the old guy card here and say I was in high school when I first heard Thunder Road. Living outside Cleveland, Ohio, we found Born to Run on our radio a bit earlier than most folks outside of the Jersey Shore itself. At a time in my life when music was dominated by pop garbage and metal (both have their place), here was a song that put into words what I wasn’t able to do myself: the need to get out of a town full of losers, the promise of talking a pretty girl into climbing into your car and taking off to, well, anywhere, that sense of something out there you needed to see.
Some 40 years later, I still listen to Thunder Road, having left that town, seen some of what there was to see, but at the same time knowing maybe I’m not that young anymore, and that there are some roads I am probably just not going to get down. In an era of cynical politics, the line about waiting on a savior to rise from the streets rings strong, yet also sad.
I think I can hear it in Bruce’s lyrics, I’m certain I can see it on his face and hear it in his voice, and I’m glad he stays (virtually) on the ride with me, desperate and hopeful at the same time.
Won’t paying for Bernie’s healthcare make us pay higher taxes like in Europe?
Not likely. Here’s what Hillary doesn’t want to tell you.
Free or very low-cost universal health care is available to citizens of all the countries marked in green, below, as well as China, North Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, left off for some reason:
You’ll see the U.S. stands alone. Somehow our nation, alone among industrialized nations and some not so industrialized, has yet to figure out how to find a why to provide affordable healthcare for all of its citizens.
One of the arguments posited is that the U.S. is too big for some poncy European system to work, but of course China and Russia are bigger. Another is that quality of care suffers, but people in Japan have some of the longest life spans in the world, and things are pretty good across Europe.
But the argument that seems to stick best in America is that such “utopian” healthcare schemes are simply too expensive, that taxes over there are so much higher than in America.
So keeping in mind that most of the places that offer free or very low-cost universal health care also offer free or very low-cost college (how’s it feel that a degree at Podunk State U costs more than Oxford University — about $12,000 a year for UK and EU students?),
And, most of those other countries have dollar-adjusted higher minimum wages. And they save extraordinary amounts of money that in the U.S. end up being spent on social welfare and public health for people who are unhealthy because they can’t afford to see a doctor.
But let’s look at some tax figures:
Oops. The average U.S. income tax rate is actually higher than some of those places.
And of course in the U.S., in addition to federal income tax, we also pay state and sometimes city tax. And Social Security/Medicare tax of 7.65% And property tax, sales tax and taxes/surcharges on cell phones, airports, hotels, restaurant meals and on and on. And of course other countries also have other taxes; the point is Americans are already paying a lot of taxes and getting damn little in return.
And on top of that, we also pay (those who can afford it…) for health insurance. For 2012, the annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage averaged $15,745, up 4% from 2010, with workers on average paying $4,316 toward the cost of their coverage. And of course those premiums paid do not include deductibles and co-pays.
And prescription medicine costs. Americans pay more for drugs than anyone in the world. Drug prices in the United States are often up to 10 times more expensive than in almost all other developed countries.
And that is how Bernie Sanders comes to the conclusion that even if taxes rise, the single-payer health care system he proposes would save an average American family of four almost $6,000 per year.
Think about it. Doctor’s orders!
Food stamps are for hungry people, which we should not have in America. There are of course cheaters, just like there are wealthy people who cheat on their taxes. The tax cheats won’t starve to death, or see their children go hungry, but released drug felons in many states will.
It used to be that when you served your time for a crime, your “debt to society” was considered paid, and you were ready to re-enter society. But for many released drug felons, the punishment continues long after they leave jail.
The felony drug ban is a Congressional-mandated lifetime restriction on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; note the word family there) and food stamps (SNAP) for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony, unless states opt out. In states where the ban applies, a person released from a prison sentence are denied basic assistance at a time of extreme vulnerability.
A study by The Sentencing Project found that in the 12 states that impose the lifetime ban, an estimated 180,000 women alone are impacted. If you include the other 24 states that impose a partial ban, the number of people affected is significantly higher. And since law enforcement is happily conducted with racial bias, people of color are disproportionately denied assistance.
The felony drug ban can be traced back to the 1990s, when politicians of both parties sought political gain by getting “tough on crime.” Senator Phil Gramm , the sponsor of the ban, argued that “we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the nation’s drug laws.” After just two minutes of floor debate, the measure was adopted by unanimous consent as part of the 1996 welfare “reform” legislation.
Of course there are other post-prison punishments on felons. The most significant is that few employers will hire an ex-felon, and more employers than ever now run mandatory background checks even for lousy minimum wage jobs. Pell grants are not available for felons, and most schools will deny them financial aid, ensuring most can’t receive the education they need to get back on their feet. Men and women with prior drug convictions are also typically denied public housing and other benefits. A lot of banks won’t deal with a felon.
Now, let’s see a show of hands out there.
Who thinks making a man or woman unemployed, hungry, potentially homeless and without a chance at education is going to reduce the chances s/he won’t recommit a crime? Nope, it’s just damn mean and stupid.
A team of North Korean election monitors left New York City in disgust, claiming that democracy was “dead to them.”
Following a long series of primary election issues across the United States, where local scams, manipulated caucuses and voter disenfranchisement ran wild, the United Nations requested the North Koreans provide a team of election monitors (above) to oversee the highly-contested New York primary. In choosing North Korea for the job, UN officials cited the “great similarities between the North Korean and American systems.”
“You people make me sick,” said team leader Kim Young Hee, spitting onto a homeless man living inside LaGuardia Airport who was clawing at his socks for nourishment. “All we hear on your stupid Voice of America shortwave broadcasts and smuggled laser discs of old American Idol shows is democracy this, democracy that from you capitalist pigs. Then we arrive and what do we find? A paper ballot-based voting system right out of the 1950s, run by ignorant old people who have no experience, little training and too much free time. In Pyongyang, they’d be working in the uranium mines, not hassling first-time voters and African-Americans!”
Comrade Kim went on to cite the unequal application of voter ID laws, the way polling sites were shifted around without notice, and the fact that some 150,000 registered voters in New York were left off the polling lists and were thus unable to vote. He also could not score Hamilton tickets after being promised by a guy in the men’s room “he’d be right back with change”, but said he would leave that out of his report to the UN.
“And all this when less than half of your eligible voters even bother to show up? In North Korea, we have 100% voter turnout every election, and stuff runs like clockwork. The Party would be locking up whole families of the officials involved in this kind of clusterfutz. Now, I’ll admit, we have only one candidate running like your Republicans do, but seriously, you’re America, the people who found a way through your ‘fast food’ to feed the masses even cheaper than we do in North Korea. Jeez people, you don’t have this computerized yet? Hell, we do, using a 286 Gateway PC running a pirated copy of DOS 4.0. Losers.”
Wiping a healthy dollop of dog crap off his shoe after having set foot on a New York sidewalk (“I’d eat the bastard for that if we were back home”) Comrade Kim reminded his American handlers that if for some reason Dear Leader Trump lost in November, he’d always be welcome in Pyongyang.
Heading into its sixteenth year, with no endpoint in sight, America’s longest war is its least talked about.
Afghanistan has not come up in any Republican or Democratic debate, except perhaps as one of a list of countries where Islamic State must be destroyed (left out is the reality that no Islamic State existed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, who, by the way, are still not defeated.)
For her part, the only mention of Afghanistan from Hillary Clinton is a vague statement last year of support for Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves the White House in 2017. Bernie Sanders’ web site has a long series of statement-lets that generally say things have not worked out well in Afghanistan, but stays away from much of a stance.
Republican front runner Donald Trump, least at first, was more honest on the situation. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to stay because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.”
However, once it was clear no one wanted to handle the truth, Trump quickly walked his statement back, denying that he had characterized U.S. entry into Afghanistan as a mistake and said he had only talked about Iraq.
As the United States appears prepared for an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, what really is the situation on the ground 15 years in?
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, had a few thoughts on what has been achieved in those years, all at the cost of an estimated 149,000 Afghan deaths, alongside 3,515 American/Coalition deaths. No one really knows how much the U.S. has spent in dollars on the war, but one reasonable guess is $685 billion.
Sopko, in remarks recently at Harvard University “The Perilous State of Afghan Reconstruction: Lessons from Fifteen Years” said:
— Conditions are not, to put it mildly, what we would hope to see 15 years into a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign.
— Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel.
— Other consequences of insecurity are less headline-grabbing, but are still evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. Late last month, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education was quoted as saying 714 schools have been closed and more than 2.5 million children were being denied schooling, mainly because of the war.
— Bombings, raids, ambushes, land mines, and temporary seizures of key points can all serve to undermine the government’s credibility and affect security force and popular morale.
— Security is where most of the U.S. reconstruction funding has gone, about 61% of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002, or $68 billion.
— As a result of the U.S. military draw down in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has lost much of its ability to collect reliable information on Afghan security capability and effectiveness. We continue to rely on Afghan reporting on unit strengths, a concern because the rolls may contain thousands of “ghost” personnel whose costs we pay and whose absence distorts realistic assessments of Afghan capabilities.
— Fifteen years into an unfinished work of funding and fighting, we must indeed ask, “What went wrong?” Citing instances of full or partial failures, is part of the answer. But no catalog of imperfections captures the full palette of pathologies or root causes.
A lot of chew on there. Perhaps at some point the media, the voters, or the next debate moderators might inquire of the candidates what their current thoughts are.
As the presumptive U.S. presidential nominees emerge, at least for now — Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats — more and more friends from abroad have started asking me to explain how a person like Trump could get so far, so fast, given utter lack of experience.
A few also ask questions about Hillary’s qualifications, mostly centered around the money flow from Wall Street, and the “donations” from foreign governments into the Clinton Foundation. Many from places where corruption is more surfaced recognize what is happening perhaps more clearly than Americans.
What I try to explain is that the success of Trump and Clinton, especially over the candidates they have defeated, is based on the same dark spot inside the American body politic now: our society is motivated by fear, and fear produced the 2016 versions of candidates Trump and Clinton.
For its faults — referring more to the American Soul than the American government — the pre-9/11 United States was a relatively hopeful place. Despite the underbelly of prejudices and the crushing of the middle class, there was a sense that things might get better, or at least not worse. War? The last big one was Desert Storm in 1991. Nobody would claim society was perfect, or even uniformly good, but it was different than now.
Then across the span of a day, September 11, 2001, America changed. We became, as a nation, afraid.
We were afraid of enemies most Americans had heard little about. We were afraid of what might happen next. We were afraid of an attack against the shopping mall, the school, the tiny place in our tiny town that didn’t show up well on most local maps, never mind one bin Laden might use. Our fears were carefully curated by opportunistic people in two successive administrations, who used that fear to manipulate democracy itself. They turned America’s vast spying apparatus inward, imposed a global gulag archipelago of torture sites and secret prisons, and institutionalizing the drone wars.
Amid the various causes and justifications, that it is all about oil, or empire, what it is all about at the root level is fear. Fear of the latest bogeyman, fear screeches of groups on YouTube are real, and that they are ready to strike what we now all call the Homeland. That word never existed in America prior to 9/11.
America lost its guts. We’re scared of scary things we can’t see and can only identify as monsters, like a child alone at night who hears every noise and assumes the worst.
So into that setting emerges the presidential candidates that had to emerge, our first true post-9/11 candidates, the ones who picked up on the fears of Americans as a predator catches a scent.
Donald Trump speaks pointedly to America’s fears — Mexicans swarming to take our jobs, trade agreements that will hand China the keys to the store (“They’re killing us!”), and weaknesses that allow Islamic State, Putin, the Iranians, and all the rest, to wait coiled on our borders. Afraid? Then you need Trump on that wall, you want him on that wall, for it is only because of rough men like him that you’ll be able to once again (“Make America Great Again”) sleep peacefully.
Trump’s form of fear-mongering is basically from the same toolbox every autocrat and dictator has used since government was invented. Trump plays on what one can call “positive fear,” fear of what will befall us if he is not there to stop it.
While Hillary Clinton is no stranger to calling up global demons, the biggest fear she plays on is American’s fear of change.
Clinton is well on her way to defeating Bernie Sanders by convincing Americans they do not want the same comprehensive health care system every other evolved nation on earth has, that they do not want the no-cost higher education most/all of Europe and Asia profits from, and that Americans do not want a political system less subject to influence buying. She told Americans she alone would continue decades of mediocrity, because there really was no other way. Convincing people to vote against their own self-benefit is not easy, but fear is a powerful motivator.
Clinton’s fear-mongering is more subtle than Trump’s. The fear she sells is not so much of something (Islamic State, Putin), but fear of the unknown, a kind of “negative fear.” So, despite the often ineffective health insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act, she tells supporters her opponent might even see that taken away if he reopens a debate with Republicans. She brushes off concerns about big money influence saying if it was good enough for Obama, then why change that?
The rest flows quite naturally. It is little surprise that both candidates are shaping a meme that while you may not like or even wish to support them actively, you should vote for them anyway, for fear that the other one will win.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, either Trump or Clinton will take the White House, and fan the flames; fear requires regular booster shots, each one bigger than the last. And that should in fact make the rest of us very, very afraid.
So once again people from The World’s Most Frightened Country (C) fully overreacted to nothing. One of the 230 million people worldwide who speak Arabic happened to be on an airplane and happened to use one of the most common expressions in his language.
Hilarity ensued. Bigoted, frightened, discriminatory hilarity, in keeping with the American Way.
UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, above, whose family fled Iraq in 2002 after his diplomat father was killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, was booted from a Southwest Airlines flight and questioned by the FBI after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic. Makhzoomi was flying home from attending a dinner at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council with Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon when he stopped to make a call to an uncle.
Makhzoomi explained he was talking on the phone with his uncle and, as he said goodbye, he used the phrase “inshallah,” which translates as “if God is willing.” The student said that after hung up, he noticed a female passenger looking at him who then got up and left her seat.
Moments later an airport employee made Makhzoomi step off the plane into the arms of security officers. Makhzoomi was told the woman thought he said “Shahid,” meaning martyr. Because in-shal-lah and sha-hid sound the same, at least to a dumb ass who speaks no apparent Arabic and likely learned the term shahid when it was last mispronounced on AM talk radio.
The student was told he would not be allowed to get back on the plane. Security officers searched his bag again, asked him if he had any other luggage he was keeping “secret,” and publicly felt around his genital area and asked him if he was hiding a knife.
“The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me and the humiliation made me so afraid because it brought all of these memories back to me,” Makhzoomi said. “I escaped Iraq because of the war, because of Saddam and what he did to my father.”
Makhzoomi said the FBI questioned him about his family, and about his phone call and what he knew about martyrism. The FBI informed Makhzoomi that Southwest would not fly him home. He later booked a flight on another airline, arriving home nine hours later than expected.
According to Southwest Airlines, the student was removed because crew members decided to “investigate potentially threatening comments made onboard our aircraft.”
I am very proud to call these two people friends:
— Jesselyn Radack, who blew the whistle on Department of Justice malfeasance in the handling of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Jess went on to become a key part of Edward Snowden’s defense team (full disclosure: Jess was also one of my lawyers in my own whistleblower struggle with the State Department.)
— Tom Drake, who blew the whistle on NSA domestic spying in the years right after 9/11, and who is cited by Edward Snowden as an important example as he decided whether or not to further expose the unconstitutional acts of the National Security Agency. In return for his truth telling, Tom was rewarded by being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a tactic the Obama administration has now used seven times against intelligence whistleblowers, more than all previous administrations combined.
We had a terrific lunch, and if only the walls could talk…
Rules are for fools, and in this case the fools in question are you, me and what’s left of the American democratic system. Obama, in an interview, basically made it clear nobody is going to indict Hillary Clinton for exposing classified material via her unclassified email server, even if it requires made-up rules to let her get away with it.
The president’s comments in an interview last Sunday that “there’s classified and then there’s classified” made clear he imagines national security law allows for ample, self-determined fudge room when exposing classified material.
Does Over-Classification Matter?
In case you are still not sure, nope, that is not the way the law works, and everyone (including me, for 24 years) who has held a security clearance knows it.
Obama’s and Clinton’s defenders claim that much of what Hillary exposed was over-classified, and perhaps some should never have been classified at all. Maybe. After reading documents at the Top Secret level and above over more than two decades I can say, sure, sometimes it seemed odd that something was regarded as as secret as it was.
That said, one’s personal opinion is not relevant. The document is what it is and one is bound to handle it appropriately. The same rules apply to the lowest new hire to the highest officials. Just because the secretary of state, or the president, does it does not make it legal.
Clinton mishandled two broad categories of documents, those classified by her own State Department and those classified by other government agencies, such as the CIA. Had she believed that the documents were wrongly classified, she had recourses for both sets. She did not act on those available recourses.
With documents originally classified by her State Department, Hillary had the authority to declassify them herself while Secretary of State (both Obama and current SecState John Kerry still hold that authority and could declassify any of Hillary’s redacted emails right now with the stroke of a pen.) The thing is if Clinton did choose to declassify a document, she would have had to follow procedure, including seeking internal recommendations, make her action public and of course be willing to release the document newly-declassified. She did not do any of that.
For the other agency documents, Hillary did not have the authority to declassify them. Only the CIA, for example, can declassify a CIA document in this process. Hillary did however have the authority to request a review aimed at declassification by the originating agency. She did not do any of that.
No Blood, No Foul?
In addition to his made-up assertion that “there’s classified and then there’s classified,” Obama disingenuously stated Hillary did not expose any information of value to America’s adversaries and so should suffer not sanction, the national security equivalent of no blood, no foul.
The Federal laws that control classified information, up to and including the Espionage Act, do not require proof that the disclosed material aided America’s adversaries, or that the information even reached America’s adversaries. Motivation to disclose the information is also not considered relevant, whether than motivation was sincere whistleblowing or inadvertent mishandling. Guilt is based on the disclosure alone. This is why Chelsea Manning was not allowed to defend herself in this way, and why Ed Snowden believes he cannot have a fair trial in the U.S.
Snowden had the last word on Obama’s statements.
“If only I had known,” tweeted Snowden. “Anyone have the number for the Attorney General?. Asking for a friend.”
Like every American city in the Age of the 99 Percent, Los Angeles has a significant homeless problem.
Full-on shantytowns are now a feature of LA’s urban landscape, with colonies of desperate men and women setting up camps, and building shelters out of tarps, wherever they can find safe space to do so. The city’s homeless population rose 20% over the last two years, now estimated at 26,000 human beings, fellow Americans.
What to do about such a problem? Build affordable housing? Increase shelter outreach? Provide mental health and substance abuse counseling? Job training? Compassion for those less fortunate?
The Los Angeles City Council approved a law Wednesday that limits the possessions of homeless people to what can fit in a 60-gallon trash bin. The measure spoke to the will of the people, passing on a 13-1 vote, with some hippie councilman opposing. Another city councilman, who voted for the law, said the measure “balanced the city’s need for safe and clean streets with homeless people’s personal property rights.”
As long as those personal property rights are limited to what the LAPD, acting on behalf of the well-to-do, can easily throw away.
But some good news: the council backed off even stricter rules that would have limited homeless people to what they could carry in a backpack. But the law allows the city to clamp down in this way in the future without further public discussion.
Under the new measure, the city can impound homeless people’s “excess personal property” after providing 24 hours’ notice. The city will store the items for 90 days, during which time the owners can claim them. But they cannot evade further confiscation by moving the items to another public area, the ordinance says.
With no advance warning, the city can seize and impound a tent that has not been taken down during the day. Bulky and contaminated items can be seized and discarded without warning. Wheelchairs, crutches and walkers are currently exempt.
“We recognize this is just one step forward to address the homelessness crisis,” said the president of the Central City Association of Los Angeles.
Why, next thing you know the LAPD will just start putting rounds downrange and deal with the homeless in what will no doubt be called the final solution, of freedom.
(FYI: The photo above is my own, taken in New York City’s Washington Square Park; the one below, of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, was taken by someone else)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow envoys from the G7 visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park on the margins of their summit meeting this week.
Kerry was the highest ranking American government official to visit the Peace Park, the memorial dedicated to the victims of the world’s first nuclear attack on August 6, 1945.
U.S. officials are considering a visit to Hiroshima by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama during his trip to Japan for the G7 in late May. Obama, in 2011, expressed some interest in being the first sitting American president to visit the city, but never purused the plans.
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter did visit Hiroshima in 1984, albeit as a private citizen after leaving office. Other high-level American visits have been scattered only over recent years; then-U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima in 2010, the first U.S. ambassador to ever do so. In 2011, in another first, the United States sent a (lower ranking) official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki. Current ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended the Hiroshima memorial service to mark the attack’s 70th anniversary last year.
Kerry, like his official predecessors to Hiroshima, expressed empathy for the dead without acknowledging culpability for the thing that killed them, almost as if it was an act of nature, or that someone else had done it.
Regarding those predecessors, note the dates; the first American ambassador to visit Hiroshima wasn’t until 2010, 65 years after the atomic bombing. Kerry’s visit, 71 years after the attack, occurred only in the company of his G7 colleagues, and not on the highly-symbolic day of August 6.
All countries get their own history wrong to some degree, and careful retrospection, absent that built into enforced penitence such as was applied to post-WWII Germany, is rare.
Yet as the only nation to use nuclear weapons, and to have used them against near-wholly civilian targets, and having used them under circumstances of arguable necessity, one might expect, 71 years later and now full-allies with Japan, some modicum of introspection by the United States. Absent some academics and “peace advocates,” that has never happened.
In the United States, sometime after with the public announcement in 1945 of the atomic bombings, the message was kneaded into public consciousness that the bombs were not dropped out of hatred, revenge or malice, but of military necessity. The attacks did not reflect American evil, but were merely an inescapable and ugly necessity of a war we didn’t start.
The bombs, we were told, saved millions of lives that would have been lost in a land invasion. Both American and Japanese souls would have perished in that invasion, which seemed to characterize the atomic attacks as almost to the benefit of Japan, in that we killed fewer people that way. The bombs were just the lesser of two evils, it was war, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far from the first places civilians were targeted. An undercurrent is more disturbing — they deserved it, life is cheaper over there for Orientals. One way or another, there is a consensus woven into the American narrative that there was simply no choice.
The deeper cause of a lack of introspection seems to lie in a national meme that no moral wrong was committed, and thus no internal soul-searching is necessary. The U.S. is obviously not alone in this way of thinking, and Japan itself is quite guilty of failing to look deep into itself over the atrocities committed in China, Korea and elsewhere during WWII.
But “everybody does it” is obviously the kind of excuse five-year-olds use, and unworthy of the United States. And while other nations committed terrible actions in the Second World War, it is only the United States that has gone on to continue making war on a grand scale; over a million killed in Vietnam (no one knows for sure), an estimated million in Iraq (no one knows for sure), and somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million in Syria (still accruing.)
Never mind Korea, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Haiti, Grenada, Central America, Afghanistan and the others, plus the new twist, global drone wars. Along the way were documented American threats to use nuclear weapons to break the Berlin Blockade, to defend South Korea, to smite the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to “win” in Vietnam and to save Israel during the Yom Kippur war, as well as other situations use was considered. The U.S. continues to maintain a deployed nuclear arsenal well-beyond any defense needs and in grand excess of that possessed by other nuclear powers.
Perhaps some of those atomic threats are historically arguable, and some may have been more bark than intended bite, but in toto it is hard to dismiss America’s willingness to again use nuclear weapons; indeed, talk of “tactical nukes” comes up in many discussions of what to do if Iran were to develop its own atomic capability. In each threatened use of nuclear weapons, however accurate the delivery and however intended for a military target, the vast power of the bombs ensures civilians deaths and mass, indiscriminate, destruction. Those factors have not been a deterrent to nuclear threats and plans, and have certainly not deterred conventional warfare.
Such thinking is a product of lack of introspection, a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right. John Kerry is an intelligent man, an educated man who has been to war. Perhaps, as he mumbled platitudinous talking points on his visit to Hiroshima, an additional thought or two about the real meaning of his very late presence there crept in?
Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?
You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.
The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.
But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.
Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.
Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.
Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.
As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.
Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.
The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.
Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then re-trained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.
As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, re-trying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.
What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?
The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.
Despite advances in medicine, technology and education, the longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans has widened sharply. You want to talk inequality? Talk about this.
The poor are losing ground not only in income, but also in years of life, the most basic measure of well-being. In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. By 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.
New research offers even more horrifying numbers. Economists found for men born in 1920, there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled, to 14 years.
The serfs are dying. The castle-owners are buying themselves more years.
Poor health outcomes for low-income Americans have dragged the United States down to some of the lowest rankings of life expectancy among industrialized nations. The Social Security Administration found, for example, that life expectancy for the wealthiest American men at age 60 was just below the rates in Iceland and Japan, two countries where people live the longest. However, for Americans in the bottom quarter of the wage scale, their life expectancy is closer to that in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The gap in life spans started widening about 40 years ago, when income inequality began to grow.
Earlier in the 20th century, trends in life spans were of declining disparities, because improvements in public health, such as the invention of the polio vaccine and improved sanitation, benefited rich and poor alike. The broad adoption of medication for high blood pressure in the 1950s led to a major improvement for black men, erasing a big part of the gap with whites. But medical improvements can also drive disparity when they disproportionately benefit affluent Americans; for example, cutting-edge cancer treatments.
Imagine that — in one of the world’s richest countries, people die simply because we can’t find a way to provide them good healthcare as does the rest of the civilized world.
In America, we have a very crude understanding of social welfare programs. For most Americans, anything the government gives to its people (i.e., us) to keep us healthy, fed and educated, is a “handout” to lazy people who don’t deserve it.
Helping each other, using our tax money for us, as does most of the civilized world, is somehow wrong. In America, we’d prefer you starve to death, quietly if possible, as the rest of us are binge watching Netflix whilst eating Doritos.
Doritos we worked for, dammit. Albeit at our minimum wage jobs at Walmart, but whatever.
And with that, welcome to that rotting greenish boil head otherwise known as Oklahoma, where the Republican Party compared Americans receiving food stamp benefits to park animals fed by the public.
In the since-deleted Facebook post, the Oklahoma GOP offered a “lesson” by comparing the distribution of food stamps to 46 million Americans to a policy of the National Park Service to discourage the public from feeding animals “because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”
Party Chairman Randy Brogdon offered a faux-apology in another Facebook post: “I offer my apologies for those who were offended – that was not my intention.”
Which is hilarious and clear proof he was dropped on his head as a child by his alcoholic mother, because of course it is obvious that comparing needy people to animals is offensive to absolutely everyone. Even a park animal could see that.
This also isn’t the first time the GOP has compared Americans to animals. In 2014, South Dakota Senate candidate Dr. Annette Bosworth’s posted a nearly identical post to her Facebook campaign page:
FUN FACT: A very large percentage of food stamp recipients are children (“cubs”), the elderly, and disabled people. Maybe it’s time to thin the herd.
Every candidate shouts about job creation, and some talk about the recovery from the last recession. Every month the Department of Labor releases new statistics about how many jobs have been created, improvements in the unemployment rate, and on and on.
There are parts of the society and the country where some of that is even partly true. But for about 20% of our states, it is not even partly close. An awful lot of the good news is just a numbers game.
Data compiled by the Associated Press shows ten U.S. states still have not regained all the jobs they lost in the Great Recession, even after six and a half years of “recovery,” while many more have seen only modest gains.
The figures are one more sign of the economic inequality, the one field America remains the undisputed global leader. The on-the-ground reality of negative job growth is why many Americans feel the economy has passed them by, and fuels support for angry candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Wyoming has three percent fewer jobs it did when the recession began. Alabama’s job total post-recession is -2.7 percent, followed by New Mexico at -2.6. New Jersey (Chris Christie!) has one percent fewer jobs than it did at the end of 2007, and Missouri is just below its pre-recession level. The other five losers are Mississippi, Nevada, Maine, Connecticut, and West Virginia.
Among the other states, several show only small gains past pre-recession job totals. Illinois, statewide with a population of over 12 million, has only 8,600 more jobs than it did in December 2007. Arizona’s job count is up just 9,200 with a population of six million (not counting illegal aliens.) And Ohio (Kasich!!!) has added just 58,100 jobs with its population of almost 12 million. Those gains are more or less (it’s less) statistically insignificant.
The states that saw the highest rates of job growth tell the story of the last few years. Some of the biggest gainers include:
Washington DC is a big, big winner, with significant growth from America’s largest employer, the federal government, all fueled significantly by the very profitable War of Terror.
The oil and gas drilling boom lifted North Dakota’s job count by more than 20 percent, though falling energy prices have caused significant layoffs in the past year. Need to check back with North Dakota in a year or two.
Texas has also benefited from the energy boom, as well as greater high-tech hiring in cities like Austin.
Utah and Colorado have also benefited from fast-growing information technology companies. Colorado especially has a large aerospace (read: defense) industry, so good for them.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the flailing U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is the belief that any group willing to fight ISIS must support at least some U.S. goals, and that any group not ISIS is better in the long run than ISIS.
Such a viewpoint ignores the near-infinite complexities of Middle East alliances and politics, ignores the well-known reality that any group that does, in part, support the U.S. also needs to simultaneously prepare for when the U.S. one day suddenly picks up and leaves, and allows very dangerous weapons to exfiltrate out of the semi-right hands into the really wrong hands.
The video below shows the Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuda (KSS), which is also known as the Battalion of the Sayyid’s Martyrs, cruising around in an American-made M1 Abrams tank (at around the 16-second mark of the video). The video surfaced on SOFREP, a very pro-U.S. military website that states it is run by Special Ops veterans.
About those KSS guys with our tank.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) are an Iraqi Shia militia formed in 2013 to protect “Shia shrines across the globe” among other fun things. It militarily supports the Assad Government in Syria, and has close ties to the Badr Organization. The Badr’s are some nasty people who excelled at killing Americans, with Iranian help, during the 2003-2010 Iraq War 2.0.
The U.S. has since 2010 been supplying the government of Iraq with M-1 tanks. The Iraqi government is denying their involvement with KSS, and claims “not to know” how they obtained the U.S.-made tank. Tanks, of course, are just darned hard things to keep track of.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, “We have received assurances from the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements. If we receive reports that U.S.-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy to address any confirmed issues — up to the highest levels, if necessary.”
The best news of all (it is not the best news) is that if Iranian-connected militia loyal to Assad have M-1 tanks, that means the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, at a minimum, have access to any M-1 technology they might wish to inspect or reverse engineer, or sell on the global black market.
This war just keeps getting better (it is not getting better.)
Are international trade deals, such as NAFTA and the TPP, good for America, or bad for America?
The answer is yes, depending on who you ask.
What Are NAFTA and TPP?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are examples of the type of broad-based, large-scale international trade agreements now discussed by American presidential candidates with the same tone of voice used to speak of that wet soup in street gutters. Indeed, even discussing the subject of whether they are good or bad for America may be little more than an academic argument at this point; Trump has sworn to make no new trade agreements and says he will not support the TPP. Hillary is a little cagier in her response, but, for the record, for now, says she too will not support TPP.
But let’s slow things down a bit, and look into that key question, of how things like NAFTA and the TPP might affect Americans. After all, candidates do occasionally say one thing during the campaign, and another when actually in office, right?
International trade deals are agreements between countries, often groups of countries, that are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”
So, if widgets made expensively in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit to flow into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.
There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.
You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect is tough.
Want to see for yourself? Here, and here, and here, and here are articles from smart people who can’t figure out if NAFTA has been a good thing or a bad thing. It is not that simple. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.
The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used in English to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
Most everyone can agree that NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. The problem is that for many Americans, in the words of historian Morris Berman, that rising tide lifted all yachts, and not all boats.
Allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or at low tariff cost moves manufacturing jobs out of the United States. No argument there among economists. The current celebrity case, cited by several candidates, is that of Carrier. Carrier just sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They may or may not pass on some portion of those savings to American consumers. They have put Americans out of work.
Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.
Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all. The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, as all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.
Patterns do emerge, and the American people know they’ve been had at the expense of corporations that do indeed benefit from international trade agreements. Many Americans see that average workers and thousands of communities have been screwed by trade agreements which put them in direct competition with low wage workers around the world.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott says he knows. He claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.
In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens shows that while the most privileged Americans have benefited from cost-savings due to trade, increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.
A Broader View
Of course there are dissenting opinions; another economist cautions “to understand how dismantling trade barriers helps the country, we also need to take a broader view of the American economy, and not focus solely on disruptions and lost jobs in particular sectors.”
And that makes sense, if you believe economics is about money.
But if one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good, or bad, for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.
Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for your part of America.
Evil is participatory, says interviewee David Harris at the beginning of a documentary in progress about Vietnam-era draft resisters, The Boys Who Said No!
Evil continuing depends on people joining in, and the first step to stopping it, he continues, is withdrawing your own participation. So Harris said no to the Vietnam-era draft, and went to jail for it.
The Boys Who Said No!
The Boys Who Said No! is set during the late 1960s and early 70s, when thousands resisted conscription at the risk of federal prison. Unlike those who evaded the draft by fleeing to Canada, getting various deferments, or resorting to violent protest, the subjects of this film chose civil disobedience.
It was a costly decision.
An estimated 500,000 young men evaded or refused to cooperate with the draft, and 3,250 went to prison for their beliefs, the largest mass incarceration of war resisters in U.S. history. The film tackles this broad narrative mostly through the story of David Harris (who spent three years in Federal prison for refusing to be drafted, and for encouraging others to do the same) and his wife, folksinger Joan Baez. Interviews with many other draft resisters round out the narrative.
As part of understanding the Vietnam era, the film also reviews the history of the draft, and opposition to previous drafts, and the Vietnam war. Resistance to the war is tied into the larger civil rights movement, two sides of the same coin in opposing unjust actions by the government, with the inclusion of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. visiting Joan Baez and those jailed for blocking the Oakland Draft Board in 1967.
How Do You Say “Vietnam” in Arabic? Iraq
To a younger audience, the film is perhaps a bit funny, guys with weird hair and unhip clothing burning whatever draft cards were. For a cynical generation, it is as easy to dismiss the value of individual action as it is wrong to do so. Indeed, the actions of one person alone can amount to little. But as an interviewee says, you never know who’s watching. The Boys Who Said No! illustrates how one can become two, two can become ten, and over time they together remind you all that sand on the beach was once a rock.
The Boys Who Said No! thus resonates strongly today.
It offers an answer to the question of what courage is in a modern world: not only choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, but being willing to pay the price for acting on conscience, for a good bigger than oneself. And in that definition, the actions of men like David Harris and the thousands who joined him in refusing the draft, become clearer. The path they put themselves on leads in a straight line through whistleblowers Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Drake and Binney (NSA), Manning and Assange (Iraq War), Kiriakou and Sterling (CIA) and Snowden.
Acts of conscience never go out of fashion, and a country never has enough examples. That’s what makes a film like The Boys Who Said No! more than historical document.
To many today the war in Vietnam seems as old as the battles at Gettysburg and Antietam. But think about this: Vietnam was a war started on false pretenses (U.S. ships attacked in Gulf of Tonkin, Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq), built on deeply flawed fear (Communism will overtake Southeast Asia, a caliphate will engulf the Middle East), a faux-threat to the United States/Homeland (Communists on the beaches of California, Islamic terrorists in your town) and the strategy of extraordinary means spent for limited ends. Very, very similar comparisons apply to America’s war in Central America during the 1980s.
And before you dismiss that by saying the struggle against Islamic terror is “different,” remember this: history shows those who resisted the war in Vietnam, and that in Central America, turned out to be right.
The Boys Who Said No! is currently in production, but in need of additional funding for completion. Take a look at a 17 minute excerpt, and visit the project’s website, Facebook, or Indiegogo page if you wish to contribute.
A Bit More
The Boys Who Said No! was directed is Judith Ehrlich, who won an Academy Award nomination for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The producer is Christopher C. Jones, who at age 17 refused to register for the draft, was arrested and served nine months in federal prison. As the documentary is not complete, my comments above are based on previews and clips I have seen.
The film takes its title from a 1960s poster showing Joan Baez’ sisters sitting on a couch with the caption “Girls say yes to boys who say no.”
The next time a candidate or reporter asks during a debate about education or healthcare “But how are you going to pay for that?” I would like the person being questioned to respond “The same way we find money to pay for Iraq.”
So maybe it would just be better for Flint, Michigan to claim it is under attack by ISIS instead of just being poisoned because no one has the money to fix America’s infrastructure.
See, each month, Iraq’s government pays out nearly $4 billion in salaries and pensions to the military and a bloated array of corrupt public-sector workers. But with more than 90 percent of government revenue coming from oil, it is bringing in only about half that as crude prices plunge. Some Iraqi officials and analysts say the government might struggle later this year to pay the seven million people on the public payroll, which could trigger mass unrest.
As a sign of the times, Iraqis are facing more nominal charges every day. Hospitals, which have long treated Iraqis free of charge, have introduced fees, for example, even for those visiting sick relatives.
For Iraq, the decline comes in the midst of an already destabilizing war. There are bills for reconstructing flattened cities destroyed for freedom, and assistance for the 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced over the past two years, with more expected to come.
So — good news, at least for Iraq — the United States is stepping in with U.S. taxpayer money to make sure the country can continue military spending while it seeks international loans.
So, while there is apparently no way anyone can conceive of to pay for fixing America’s infrastructure, making higher education affordable, reducing healthcare costs or any of those other icky socialist thingies, there is money for Iraq!
BONUS: No one really knows how much money the U.S. has already spent in Iraq, but it is way over two trillion dollars.
BONUS BONUS: The golden eagle shown above was paid for by the American taxpayers in 2010 as part of the reconstruction of Iraq. The area where it is shown is now devastated by the current fighting. I took the photo myself.
“Oh, I have no idea at all officer,” Hillary said.
“You were speeding. Clocked you right here.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Hillary said.
“Well, you did. You broke the law, you did something unsafe, you endangered others, you set a poor example for your whole organization, you compromised security.”
“Well, everybody does it,” Hillary said.
“No, they don’t. Most people drive safely.”
“Well, my predecessors at least did it,” Hillary said.
“Maybe once or twice on AOL, but for four years on your scale in the 21st century? And so what? Wrong is wrong. ‘Everybody does it’ is an excuse for five-year-olds.”
“Um, there was no law against it at the time,” Hillary said.
“Yes there was. Your own State Department, as well as common sense, was clear on that. Exposing classified material is against the law.”
“OK. I just did it for my own convenience,” Hillary said.
“That’s no excuse. Your convenience is not the deciding factor, especially where important things are concerned.”
“You’re just picking on me because my name is Hillary,” Hillary said.
“No, I’m talking to you because you did something wrong.”
“This is all just partisan stuff,” Hillary said.
“No, it is not. The FBI is not partisan, nor the Justice Department. Neither are two Inspectors General.”
“Well, I didn’t know there was anything wrong at the time, the road wasn’t marked,” Hillary said.
“Speeding is speeding. There’s a school over there. Someone with your years of driving should know what the speed limit is. Even if it is not posted, it is pretty clear what the right thing to do is. That’s it, isn’t it? Even if things fall just short of criminal, there is the right thing and the wrong thing.”
“But why does it matter?” Hillary said.
“It matters because of judgement. We have to trust you. We can’t monitor you all the time, and we can’t have someone in your position falling back on excuses, and then new excuses when those fall through. Someone in your position needs to be held to higher standards than simply ‘not currently indictable.’ You want to be a leader, you have to do it better than others, not try and slip by on excuses. You want to represent us, want us to trust you with our nation and indeed our lives. You have to be more, be better, set an example far beyond where you are now.”
“Hah, hah, I’ll just later wipe my driving record clean, with a rag!” Hillary said.
“And you can’t laugh it off. Madam, this is very serious business and if you think it is only about
“None of that matters,” Hillary said as she sped away, flipping her middle finger at the law.
Every travel story about North Korea reads the same:
We went to North Korea voluntarily, and were shocked to find that we couldn’t like hang out at clubs with everyday Koreans, and the dudes there, like, spied on us.
And we couldn’t use WhatsApp or take selfies anywhere we wanted, or like mock the hell out of the fat guy who dictates the place LOL. It’s like so oppressive and I’m so glad to be back in the U.S. where sh*t is totally free, I mean literally, bro.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
So here’s another one, from the New York Times who should know better but clearly had space to fill or something. This story not only drops the mic on the usual tired *ss tropes about North Korea, but it is written by a Korean-American so offended by the bad Korea she can barely contain herself spewing dumbbuttery.
The writer, “Marie” Myung-Ok Lee, has a lot to say.
She opens with this:
North Korea recently sentenced Otto Warmbier, an American college student and tourist, to 15 years of hard labor. Not surprisingly in the surveillance state to end all surveillance states, there are security camera images of Mr. Warmbier trying to steal a propaganda sign from an off-limits area of the hotel. In photographs from the trial, he seemed utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted.
Let’s unpack that.
“Security camera images of a theft?” This is a surprise? Hell, every minute of my life in America is captured on security cameras, “Marie,” and yours, too. My apartment building has them in the halls and public areas, the police have them on the streets, the stores I shop in have them everywhere and the NSA uses my webcam to look into my bedroom.
As for Warmbier looking “utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted,” the dude tried to steal something. What did he expect to happen to him, a pat on the back? You get prosecuted for theft anywhere in the world. Sure, 15 years is heavy, but we all know the North Koreans won’t keep him that long. At least he’s not a black guy in America, where he’d risk being beaten or shot for “resisting arrest” after his crime.
Later in her article, Marie is outraged she can’t photograph what she wants to, because Government. I’d invite her here in the Homeland to take her camera out to snap a few photos at the nearest military base or nuke facility in her state, and see how the guardians of freedom react. Better yet, let her be beaten by a cop who objects to her exercising her right to film him doing his duty beating up peaceful protesters for “resisting arrest.”
On her way out of North Korea, Marie discovers her luggage was searched, and expresses her shock and outrage, that sense of being violated.
You’re right Marie, that certainly doesn’t happen in America. Except in major subway systems like New York and Washington DC where the cops do “random” bag searches as a condition of riding. Or at the airport where full-body scanners are employed on children, the elderly and the disabled.
As someone who, during my whistleblower fight against the State Department, found myself “randomly selected” for detailed searches by TSA, and who has friends on the No Fly list with no explanation offered, and who is aware how the U.S. government detained and searched and confiscated the electronics of journalists like Laura Poitras because she covered Edward Snowden’s story, yeah, f*ck yeah, I can understand that sense of being violated.
Only I didn’t need to go all the way to North Korea for it. I just had to open my eyes here at home. And yes, I understand about “matters of degree,” but caution that it is just a matter of degree, and the North Koreans have been in the police state game longer than the U.S. has. But we’re catching on.
Look around; there’s no place like home.
Iraq, the failed state that over 4,600 (and counting…) Americans died to free from some evil tyrant 13 years ago, is still ranking high internationally in something. Unfortunately, that something is corruption.
A couple of other places where America has been intervening for freedom also made the list.
Germany’s Transparency International released its newest corruption index for 2015, and as usual Iraq was on the list. The ten worst countries in its new study were Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Iraq, Venezuela, and Guinea-Bissau.
Seven of those nations held the same worst ranks last year. Iraq received the same score that it had for the last two years.
Most Corrupt Countries On Transparency International Corruption Index 2015:
2. North Korea
5. South Sudan
In Iraq, corruption is rampant throughout the state. The ruling elite use graft and bribes to maintain their patronage systems, their militias, and to enrich themselves. That’s also the reason why there is no real push to end it; if one top official was taken down it would threaten all the rest.
According to experts, that’s despite repeated promises by the prime ministers, the complaints of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and protests that occur almost every year demanding action on the issue. Current U.S.-chosen Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, for example, announced a reform program in August 2015 that was supposed to address corruption, but he was focused more on building up his own base and going after his rivals than actually addressing the problem, and nothing substantive was done. No one, including America, wants to seriously touch the golden goose that keeps the Iraqi good times going.
BONUS: See who else is on the top ten corruption list? U.S. occupied Afghanistan is No. 3. Libya, where the U.S. overthrew another evil tyrant with no follow-on plan, is No. 7. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan are all places with active U.S.-led miniwars afoot.
It is almost as if there is a pattern here…
Your State Department loves loves loves #socialmedia. They will use it now to defeat ISIS, maybe also the Taliban, by making a #TeeVee show for Afghans saying ISIS, and maybe the Taliban, is bad.
It will only cost $1.5 million of your taxpayer dineros, so be sure to pay the IRS on time this year.
And the show will star Taylor Swift.
No, no, just kidding about Taylor Swift, but the other stuff is sadly, pathetically true.
To understand this, you need to understand the State Department. The Department is made up of a few old people in senior positions, and lots of young people (“millennials.”) Think of the old people as your sad, old dad after a divorce, bugging you to explain to him stuff like Tindr and Molly that wasn’t around when he was “dating” but now suddenly seems like something he needs to “get down with.”
So that’s what happens inside State. Old people are told to stop ISIS somehow. They ask the young staffers about this social media gadget they read about in AARP magazine and the young people, none of whom have a rat’s butt worth of overseas knowledge but have lived their whole lives within a media bubble, tells the olds “Let’s do something social media, or make a TV thing we can show on YouTube. We’ll get, like, seriously, a zillion hits. Anti-ISIS will go, literally, viral, you know.”
The State Department old people will not understand any of that, but it will brief well when they talk to their even older bosses, and BOOM! policy is made. And the great thing is that no one else has figured out how to defeat ISIS, so when this latest venture fails, no one will be too upset with State.
But back to the details of this latest innovation.
The day after the attacks in Brussels (timing is everything), the State Department posted a $1.5 million grant proposal to develop “a television drama series that addresses the issue of countering violent extremism among young people in contemporary Afghan society.”
The rest of the proposal:
This grant will fund the development and broadcast of a television drama series in which young people grapple with everyday frustrations and lack of opportunity, while growing and learning through new experiences. The drama will be grounded in reality but will also contain compelling creative content (i.e. storytelling, resonant narratives, strong characters, sophisticated production, etc.). In short, it will strive to be entertaining while challenging viewers to engage in critical thinking by placing characters in situations where they are faced with a choice: support universal values of tolerance and peace or be drawn into the dark world of extremism. The characters will be aspirational and will provide positive role models for young people facing similar dilemmas. The program will be amplified through social media and other means.
The same day the State Department dove into the soap opera business, Hillary Clinton said at Stanford University that beating ISIS “means waging online battles with extremists. To discredit their ideology, expose their lies and counter their appeals to potential recruits in the West and around the world.”
Ok, sure. This is the same State Department that spent $630,000 of your money buying “likes” for its own Facebook pages. Or dropped an unspecified amount making Gangnam video tributes when that was a thing.
The overall problem with these ventures is that the State Department believes at its core that most/all young Muslims are simply sold on jihad as if it was just another clever online meme, or maybe a product. Why, if that is the case, one can simply make a better Tweet, a cooler hashtag or a better commercial and everything will be better. See, it’s the medium, not the message.
In essence, instead of seeing young Muslims reacting to the American destruction around them with deeply held feelings, State thinks they are just as shallow and empty-headed as its own staff. #Fail
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.
In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.
And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.
Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?
That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.
In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”
Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.
Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.
As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.
In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”
Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.
And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.
So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.
Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?
In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”
At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”
Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.
In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.
Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.
If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”
What do we want from the Middle East?
In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”
Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.
In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.
What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?
Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.
Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”
Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.
Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?
In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”
Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.
The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”
The answer is a resounding no.
See You Again in 2020
The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.
Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?
Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.