You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
“The time has come to act,” said President Obama today after previously asserting robustly that it was previously not the time to act. “And so, I have ordered airstrikes commencing immediately on ebola. We won’t stop until we have degraded, some other d-word I forgot and ultimately destroyed ebola.”
A White House source named Susan Rice, who asked not to be named because everytime she speaks on the record bad things happen to her, told members of the press Obama made the decision after conferring long into the night with his closest advisor, himself. “Barack told me that when times are tough you go with what you know, and for every crisis since near day one of this presidency, when something went wrong overseas our go-to response has been airstrikes. Libya, Iraq, Syria, wherever. OK, maybe not Benghazi. So, once we saw this piece last night on Colbert saying ebola was sort of a problem, the president ordered the attacks.”
“Not a big deal anymore really, we have an online form for it now he just fills out. Hit submit and boom, death from above b*itches! God I love it so!” said Ambassador Rice, drooling, as she was led from the room to be put down.
When asked how airstrikes would be able to defeat a virus, a White House spokesperson was quick to respond “Why’d you even ask that question– don’t you support the troops? We have been using airstrikes to defeat an idea, terrorism, and that’s worked out. I am told by experts– top men– that a virus is actually physically larger than an idea, so this should be a walk in the park for our brave military personnel.”
Other measures the president has undertaken include carpet bombing the city of Dallas, where America’s two indigenous ebola cases began. “At first I was kinda worried about dropping napalm on American folks,” said the president in an exclusive interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who repeatedly licked the soles of the chief executive’s feet during the session. “But you know, pretty much no other folks outside Texas give a crap what happens to Texas folks, so it seems to have worked out. And it’s not like the state was going to vote Democrat anyway.” Obama pointed to his own eyes, then out the window, saying aloud “I’m watching you Missouri. Clean up that Ferguson thing or we just might find us some ebola in the ash tray of your car and have to clean it up with a couple of smart bombs, ya’ hear?”
Several doctors contacted for comment expressed skepticism about the president’s plan to bomb ebola, but admitted if they could not get their own professional health staff to wash their hands and stop getting on airplanes after caring for infected patients, well, why not try it his way.
Military leaders, reached in bunkers just outside Baghdad where they were placing bets on whether they would die next week at the hands of an ISIS assault or the Iraqi Army mishandling its own weapons, simply sighed and reminded this reporter that “when that ebola thing goes south like this stupid motherf*cker of a war will, don’t you blame us.”
The ebola virus was last seen dancing a merry jig, laughing to itself about how easy it was to draw the U.S. deeper into its quagmire. “Excellent, excellent,” it was heard to mutter.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
As some readers may know, I am former employee of the Department of State, and after publishing a book critical of State’s efforts in the previous Iraq War We Meant Well, I was subjected to a year of legal battles, including threat of prosecution.
But standing up for your rights is a part of having those rights. A free society is based on a marketplace of ideas, that free speech thing we all learned about in civics class. We all need to hear from all sides to become the “informed citizenry” that Thomas Jefferson said was so essential to a democracy. And who better to enlighten the public about how their government really works than former federal employees, the people who were on the inside, now private citizens?
It would be wrong then for a former employer, as codified into its agency regulations, to expect its retirees to “refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” But that is exactly what the U.S. Department of State does.
They even wrote it down, stating (emphasis added):
Former employees are expected to refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.
Former employees are encouraged to make public appearances and write manuscripts for unofficial publication which constructively contribute to the interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government.
So let’s get this straight. Private citizens, who happened to once work for the State Department in some capacity, perhaps not even one directly connected to policy issues, are expected to not say anything in a public forum against the interests of the United States? And they are encouraged to say things that contribute to the objectives of the Department of State? Just ’cause?
Though this all smacks of some sort of Orwellian attempt to coerce, er, expect, a class of private citizens to propagandize, um, engage in activities, that use their authority and reputation as former State Department employee to promote only the side of a discussion that supports the government’s position, I’ll play along. I have to right, as a Good Citizen?
But I think the problem will be in how the State Department and I might differ on just what the “interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government” are that I am told because I once worked there I must support.
But let’s start with something we can agree on. The State Department’s Mission Statement says in part that the agency should seek to “Shape and sustain a… democratic world.” I agree.
But I disagree that admonishments to spew the government line as a private citizen, as State wants, contribute to that goal. Instead, I believe that exercising my First Amendment rights as a private citizen contribute much to democracy. Any exercise of rights strengthens a democracy, the same as any attacks on those rights diminish it. Bleating out the party line is for countries ruled by parties. Did you know that North Korea’s interests and objectives include claiming Kim Il Sung invented the television? I guess their former employees are encouraged and expected to write nice things in comments on YouTube and stuff about that.
Welcome to another episode of Post-Constitutional America, where the old rules do not apply. See something, say something, unless you used to work for the State Department and what you say does not agree with the government’s version of things.
But oh! Some feel that is too much, too dramatic. Fair enough. The whole problem is not that State can ever enforce these rules– they can’t– it is that they exist as a testament to how they think. It’s that whole idea of “loyalty” above all else, and of course the hypocrisy of saying how important dissent is while trying very hard to stifle it. At the end of the day such things erode employees. So many just kind of give up and stop caring too much about what they do and just glide through the motions.
BONUS: The same section of regulation quoted above also says “The State Department will be glad to furnish, upon request, advice, assistance, and copies of printed publications to former employees who wish to obtain information on particular subjects.” Or not. I have asked State for comment and “advice” on these regulations and have not received any response.
FYI: State has not contacted me personally about anything I have written. This article is based on State’s regulations. Whether currently enforced in some way or not, their existence is reason enough to call out.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Lovin’ It: Food Stamps
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full time at $7.25 is only $290. How do you live on that?
You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum wage employers count on you doing.
Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Walmart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance. Those dollar amounts are what low prices actually cost you.
Profits Before Poverty
Why else do many large companies like food stamps? Because poverty is big business.
Public benefits are now a huge part of corporate profits. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because beneficiaries were “a big part of our audience,” as one-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied against SNAP cuts, an indication of how much they rely on the money.
Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, allowing companies like Coke and Pepsi to pull in four billion dollars a year in SNAP money revenues. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps.
In a January 2014 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line. Walmart’s business risks, the filing said, include: “changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”
How much profit does Walmart make from public assistance? In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars, more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.
Others also profit well from food stamps. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In Florida, JPMorgan’s contract is worth $83 million, and in New York, it’s worth more than $112 million. Meanwhile, until recent changes, customer service for the JP Morgan EBT program was done via offshore call centers in India and Mexico who paid far below domestic wages.
So don’t believe anyone who says raising the minimum wage will automatically drive prices up. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart (or at McDonald’s, KFC, Target…), you are paying in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If the business paid a living wage, there could a lessening in demand for public assistance. At the same, give some thought to how much tax money is ultimately finding its way into the hands of a few large corporations via SNAP sales, another form of welfare, albeit the corporate kind.
Higher prices? You’re already paying more than you think.
Luckily, if you’re among the 1 percent, you are not alone. Repeat that: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people ready to help you with the complications of owning more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens.
One such resource in your time of need is Bessemer Trust, a “Private Client Wealth Management” company. As a way of reaching out, they ran this print ad in the Sunday New York Times:
At Bessemer Trust, we believe maintaining wealth from generation to generation is the true art of wealth management. So we have a team of specialists targeted at precisely that… Our client advisory team helps prepare the next generation to responsibly guide your wealth… Our tax strategists help fend off a significant threat to your wealth… Let’s face it, history is littered with family names once associated with great wealth that now are mere footnotes. Everything we do is designed to keep you from becoming one of them. Call us. Minimum relationship $10 million.
Bessemer Trust is There for You
Indeed, on the company’s website, they do warn “Ironically, the more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.” So, here are some of actual quotes from the company about easing those complications:
– “Whether you are interested in creating a Family Mission Statement, setting up trusts, or establishing a foundation, we can work with you to reflect your family’s core values in your legacy plan.”
— “Reducing the erosion of wealth by implementing planning techniques designed to minimize taxes.”
— “Raising children with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be financially independent is a complex task for any parent, but wealthy families face a unique set of challenges… Do your children have the ﬁnancial knowledge to manage wealth? Do members understand the family’s wealth plan?”
— “Engaging and educating the next generation on wealth management issues can be a powerful way to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities life may offer.”
— ”Naming the potential risks to your family and property can be uncomfortable. But not taking the steps necessary to minimize your exposure can prove more onerous in the end.”
— “For many wealthy families, concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.”
The company also arranges “intimate gatherings with other families who face common issues” and has a special advisory service on Yachts and Private Aircraft to “help you understand and assess your personal travel options.” They can also “assist in evaluating the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.”
One Percent Problems
See, while you struggle with simple problems like paying the rent and scavenging dented cans of hobo beans to feed your feral children, the One Percent have real issues.
Apparently one of the most pressing issues for the wealthy, while admonishing the rest of us to work harder, stop being lazy and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is how to make sure their money gets passed on to their kids, so those kiddies do not have to work harder, stop being lazy or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This assures that while most of us struggle against glass ceilings of one sort or another to rise, rich kids are held safe by marble floors that prevent them from falling. And all thanks to folks like Bessemer Trust!
And kids today, amiright? While many of us hope to pass on skills to our own like how to kite a check and where to redeem aluminum cans for scrap value, the rich face the task of teaching their off-spring how to stay rich.
Another issue for the rich is making sure they and their children don’t have to actually work. That’s the whole idea cited above about “concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.” That means owning stuff, primarily stock. You most likely don’t have this problem, because less than half of Americans don’t own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock. Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock.
However, it is Bessemer Trust’s special services that really get to the heart of why being super rich is such a grind. I mean, who really has time to personally evaluate “the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.” Daaady, can you help me with my homework? It’s not fair, I have to evaluate all these club and resort programs by tomorrow and they’re so stupid and complex!!!
I for one am glad I don’t have to deal with stuff like that, and worry about whether my kids are prepared to continue my exploitation of the workers I
own employ. What a load off.
BONUS: All of the above is what companies like Bessemer Trust say without shame in public. Imagine what goes on behind their closed doors: “Welcome Mr. Van Buren. Please just leave your satchels of bullion over there next to the complimentary blood of virgins bar. Let me introduce Klaus, who will guide you through the ever-increasing and complex programs for acquiring fresh human organs for your next transplant. Oh, and I understand your daughter would very much like to see a poor child ritually slaughtered for her eighth birthday party. That would be Marie, who sorts those things out for our clients. Refreshment? We feature today a chilled glass of orphan tears.”
While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.
The Korean Central News Agency Schools You
North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.
So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:
Model for Human Rights
As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See "a shining city on a hill" claims by presidents from Obama back]
Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]
At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]
The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]
The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low-- the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]
All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here's a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]
The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don't make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]
Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here's the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here's one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]
The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]
Hail to the Chief
Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.
About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.
Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.
(Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)
(North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)
It can be hard to keep track of your money. You charge stuff and misplace the receipts, you forget to record a check written and before you know it, $12-14 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq. Even then, after one authoritative source thinks he’s found some of it, no one bothers to go get it.
Is it in Lebanon?
New information from the former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR) Stuart Bowen, reported by perhaps the bravest journalist alive today, James Risen, shows that of the multi-billions of U.S. dollars cash literally shipped on pallets (pictured) to Iraq in 2003, over one billion was traced into Lebanon (the other billions remain unaccounted for.)
Risen reports that in the first days after the fall of Baghdad and continuing for over a year, American proconsul Paul Bremer, on his own, somehow ordered $12-$14 billion (note the uncertainty factor of two billion dollars, itself a crime) to be sent to Iraq in the airlift, and an additional $5 billion was sent by electronic transfer. Some sources put the total as high as $20 billion.
Dollars and Nonsense
“We did not know that Bremer was flying in all that cash,” said the head of the Treasury Department team that worked on Iraq’s financial reconstruction after the invasion. “I can’t see a reason for it.”
The cash was literally delivered shrink-wrapped, on pallets, enormous bundles of Benjamins. Exactly what happened to that money after it arrived in Baghdad became one of the many unanswered questions from the chaotic days of the American occupation. We’ll never know.
Except maybe Bowen, who claims to have tracked $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (note the uncertainty factor of $4,000,000 dollars) to a bunker in rural Lebanon for safe keeping. An informant said the bunker also may have held $200 million of Iraqi government gold. “I don’t know how the money got to Lebanon,” Bowen said. “Billions of dollars have been taken out of Iraq over the last ten years illegally. In this investigation, we thought we were on the track for some of that lost money. It’s disappointing to me personally that we were unable to close this case, for reasons beyond our control.”
The Bush administration never investigated how that huge amount of money disappeared, even after Bowen’s investigators found out about the bunker in Lebanon. The Obama administration did not pursue that lead, either. Bowen’s team briefed the CIA and the FBI on what they found, but no one took any action. Even the Iraqi government has not tried to retrieve the money, and has kept information about the Lebanese bunker secret. When Bowen and his staff tried to move the search into Lebanon themselves, he met with resistance from the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Bowen himself was not allowed to travel to Lebanon, and two of his investigators who did travel were denied permission from the embassy to see the bunker. Bowen’s staff members instead met with Lebanon’s prosecutor general, who initially agreed to cooperate on an investigation, but later decided against it. In the words of one who has spent perhaps too much time in government, Bowen summed it all up by saying “We struggled to gain timely support from the interagency as we pursued this case.”
Of all the missing money, by 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government claim to have accounted for all but $6 billion of it, as if missing the target by six billion spaces is an OK result. And even that assumes one believes the Pentagon and Iraqi audit.
How’d All That Money Go Missing Anyway?
How did all that money go missing? That, at least, is something we know. U.S. officials claimed in the early days of the war that they didn’t have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified. House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials “used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds.” Meanwhile, Pentagon officials contended for years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records.
But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless. An inspector general’s report into the missing money in Iraq painted a picture of Pentagon officials digging through boxes of hard copy records looking for missing paper copies of Excel spreadsheets, monthly reports and other paper documents that should have been kept detailing what the money was spent on and why those expenditures were necessary. Apparently, there are no electronic records to back up the spending. It. Just. Went. Away.
Occam’s Bank Account
So where did all that money go? Here and there on the web you can find a conspiracy theory or two, but the obvious answer is usually the correct one. There are no doubt Dubai-based bank accounts of current and former Iraqi government officials swollen with cash, perhaps some accounts of American contractors and various U.S. officials as well. As for that bunker in Lebanon, well, your typical third world crew knows that you can only trust banks so far, and everyone needs a stash in case they have to bug out in a hurry and lay low while international terrorists hunt for you. Perhaps following a few more battlefield successes for ISIS inside Iraq?
War is Peace, Hate is Love, that kind of thing. Drone killings of wedding parties are for our freedom. NSA reading our Facebook stops terrorism. Congress cutting food stamps versus the Pentagon not being held even mildly accountable for trillions.
What? Here’s a report from Reuters:
The Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.
Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.
It will be a pretty big job to sort things out and account for the odd misplaced trillion or two. Reuters tells us:
No one can even agree on how many accounting and business systems are in use. The Pentagon itself puts the number at 2,200 spread throughout the military services and other defense agencies. A January 2012 report by a task force of the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of business leaders appointed by the secretary of defense, put the number at around 5,000.
But it’s OK, taxpayers, because in 2009 Congress passed a law requiring that the Defense Department be audit-ready.
By 2017. We’re doomed.
Inspire is an English language online magazine published since 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I just read the latest issue so you won’t get arrested doing so.
Aimed primarily at radicalizing youth audiences in the U.S. and Britain, the mag appears semi-regularly (twelve issues so far) online only, as a PDF, and is entirely in English. Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine shift among sometimes bad-English reporting, religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, and bomb making instructions.
Yeah, bomb making instructions. That’s the part that sort of is controversial, the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.
Inspire and al-Awlaki
The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon, gone-bad.
Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, thus ending his editorship, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.
Because reading/possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it online in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list or another, I’ll just offer the one link here to the full text if you want to read the whole thing. For me, if I’m not on some list already I haven’t been doing my job and should just go back to my true passion, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction.
Inside the Spring 2014 Inspire Mag
Things begin straight-forward enough with a note from the editor:
The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs! Therefore, as our responsibility to the Muslim Ummah in general and Muslims living in America in particular, Inspire Magazine humbly presents to you a simple improvised home recipe of a car bomb. And the good news is… you can prepare it in the kitchen of your mom too.
To be fair, the kitchen of your mom has to be stocked with some pretty unusual stuff to pull this off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There follows some quotes by famous people on news topics, most predictable. But one by a Muslim college student in the U.S. stands out:
I remember I had one professor that said that if he was in Iraq, he’d probably be on the other side. And I remember I was just looking at him thinking I’ll be in jail if I thought that.
A quote by another leaves you with the uncomfortable impression that these guys “get it,” saying the things we just don’t hear from our own media:
If we don’t change our stupid foreign policies, there will sooner or later be many more people overseas wishing to do this country harm! We’re already the most hated country in the world and through our own stupidity that will only get worse. Moreover, we’re spending ourselves into oblivion over this!
So while there is plenty of bloody jihad stuff written in Borat-level English, it isn’t all that way in Inspire. One wonders if this approach, accidentally humorous and purposefully serious, is not actually an effective way to speak to disaffected youth.
Despite my promise to you, I did not actually read every word of articles that began “Twelve years have passed since the blessed Battles of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania…” or asked “Is the modern Buffalo soldier worth a Labrador? Would the U.S. Army at least honor them with Dickin Medals?”
I sort of can figure out without getting 800 words in what the point of a piece that asks “Isn’t it saddening that Bo, Obama’s dog, dines with the tax payers’ money on better food than that of 100 million Americans?” But hah, Inspire, got you there. A lot of lower-income Americans are forced to eat the same dog food Bo does!
And see if you can puzzle out this one:
Obama is like a very thirsty patient that suffers from high blood pressure. As he becomes thirstier he finds a cup of salty water with salt crystals visible. To make the water drinkable, he has to get rid of the salt. So he stirs the water. As he stirs, the salt begins to disappear, this makes him very happy. Yes, the salt disappeared from sight, but the taste of the water became saltier. This is exactly what Obama is doing by the use of unmanned drones.
Things alternate like that for most of the magazine, kind of thoughtful stuff, weird unintelligible stuff, sort of parable, sort of makes sense maybe stuff, a lot of anti-Semitism and rants intermingled with Quranic quotes. But things get deadly serious when the topic turns to making and employing car bombs.
The magazine explains the bomb making instructions are “open source jihad,” to allow persons via the web to “prepare for jihad,” all from the comforts of home. I am not a chemist, but the details seem easy to follow, broken down into steps with photos to illustrate. Theory is tagged on to the practical; how explosive combustion works, how pressure is measured and so forth. Different ignition switches are discussed, depending on whether you seek a timed explosion or intend a suicide attack where you’ll trip the bomb manually.
You turn away with the impression that this is something simple enough that you could probably make it work.
It is made clear the type of bomb you’ll be making is aimed at destroying people, not buildings, and advice is given accordingly.
Closing the Pages
It would be unfair to close the pages of Inspire and say I felt anything but creeped out. I’ve tried to come up with something more intelligent sounding, but what starts as a laugh ends very seriously. Someone was very effective at making me walk away thinking they want to kill me.
So when you read other versions of what’s in Inspire, most of which focus on creating their own, new levels of fear-mongering or in belittling the magazine as “clumsy,” spare a thought to what the magazine is really achieving: it makes you afraid. That’s what good propaganda does, effectively get inside your head. Inspire is good propaganda.
Please join me at The Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space on Thursday, October 9, for an evening of reading, signing, and conversation in connection with my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.
The whole thing is just a small part of an exhibition called 25 ON HIGH: A Photographic Journey. My presentation, along with the exhibit, is part of Paging Columbus’ monthly reading series, which features literature about High Street and urban life. Selections for October 9 include Charles Dickens’ American Notes, Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, read by Dale Sparlin, Tracy Zollinger Turner and Jim Coe.
The 25 ON HIGH exhibit is well-worth the trip by itself. For over a year, 25 local photographers have traversed Columbus’ main thoroughfare, High Street, documenting faces, landmarks, overlooked alcoves and affairs of the street. Marshalled by Ohio State University Associate Professor Emeritus Clay Lowe, who walked the same stretch of road with his camera 40 years ago, this team exhibition tells the unique story of High Street as it lives and shifts through this moment in history.
The event is Thursday, October 9, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at the Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130, Columbus, OH 43215. The Space is in downtown Columbus, and not on the Ohio State campus.
Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.
Since this will be my only chance to speak in Columbus, please come join me at the Urban Space!
You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.
Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.
The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960’s.
The infrastructure is old and tired but can’t be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.
The subway might be faster, but the segment I’d use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.
The subway isn’t really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America’s busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn’t yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don’t reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.
On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on “affordable” condos priced at over two million dollars.
The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can’t bully into following America’s security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.
Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible “groups” to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline’s biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It’s a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a “convenience fee,” a fee you pay to buy something else.
On the plane everyone speaks in a bully’s (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won’t take off, and it’ll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can’t congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that’s what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here’s half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.
Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can’t miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been “gentrified” as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn’t New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.
In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don’t really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don’t get paid much)?
The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don’t have. You don’t have to be an economist to see how it can’t really work, do the math, but you’ll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.
There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city’s life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.
Oh, these are “first world problems.” That’s the point, true to a point, but indeed America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn’t nostalgia; it’s history.
America also has its third world problems– lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.
First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.
I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”
I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?
The Sons of Iraq
Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)
We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.
In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.
I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.
False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.
When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.
U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.
The Grandsons of Iraq
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.
It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle
The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.
One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.
Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.
Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.
Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.
Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.
On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.
If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
Apocalypse Then — And Now
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
“Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.
“We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”
When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”
“For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”
“And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”
The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.
A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.
“You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.
Barack Obama told Americans every worker deserves to know “if you lose your job, your country will help you train for an even better one.” A nice sentiment,and politically safe; it’s just the wrong answer. Those “better jobs” don’t exist, and training doesn’t create jobs. Despite all that, every year the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on job training, with little impact. What’s the right answer?
In 2007 then-candidate Obama visited Janesville, Wisconsin, location of the oldest General Motors plant in America. Echoing his current promise to support unemployed Americans with job training, Obama proclaimed “I believe that, if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.” However, two days before Christmas and just about a month before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because most residents either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. Congress paid for a $2 million retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools, a century ago, to teach new immigrants the skills they needed to work at GM.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs for the most part simply became trained unemployed people, rather than untrained ones. Having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” or training in new welding techniques did not automatically lead to a job in those fields. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees (the United States graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014.) Of those that completed some form of training, nearly 40 percent did not find work. And those in Janesville who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. A look at Craigslist job ads for the town shows one ad for heating and ventilation work, with a demand for three years experience. Under “General Labor” the work is for janitors, newspaper delivery and things like light manufacturing at $8.50 an hour.
Obama’s calls for job training also belies the fact that the government already spends approximately $18 billion a year to administer 47 job training programs. The actual value of those programs remains unclear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only five programs assessed whether people who found jobs did so because of the program and not some other cause. In addition, the GAO learned that almost all training programs overlap with at least one other training program. “Federal job training sounds like something that should boost the economy,” writes the Cato Institute, “but five decades of experience indicate otherwise.”
The panacea myth of job training crosses party lines. The GAO reported that in 2003, under the George W. Bush administration, the government spent $13 billion on training, spread across 44 programs. Job training may again be on the GOP agenda, even if the parties differ on the details. Politically, some sort of job training just sounds good. The problem is that it won’t really help America’s 10.5 million unemployed.
So the $18 billion question is: if training is not the answer, what is?
Jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. The 2008 recession wiped out primarily high and middle wage jobs, with the strongest employment growth in the recovery taking place in low wage employment, to the point where the United States has the highest number of workers in low wage jobs of all industrialized nations.
There are many possible paths to better-paying jobs in America whose spending power can spark a “virtuous cycle.” That would mean more employment leading to more spending and more demand, followed by more hiring. One kickstarter is simply higher wages in the jobs we do have. For example, recent Department of Labor studies show that the 13 states which raised their minimum wages added jobs (at higher wages of course) at a faster pace than those that did not. On a larger, albeit more contentious scale, are options such as a WPA-like program, changes to tax and import laws to promote domestic manufacturing, infrastructure grants and the like. There’s $18 billion to work with for a start.
No matter the path forward, the bottom line remains unchanged: Training does not create jobs. Jobs create the need for training. Anything else is just politics.
My thanks to the organizers, sponsors and especially the 400-some people who came out to hear me yesterday at the Louisville Idea Festival 2014. Thanks also to Kris Kimmel for inviting me, and to Ellen McGrit for handling the Q&A.
Talking about economic disparity, the myths of our economy that encourage people to act against their own self-interest and the Great Game that allows a tiny percentage to own– and control– the remaining 99%– can be heavy going, and often less than pleasant conversation. My hat’s off to the people of Louisville for working through it with me, challenging my conclusions with good questions and most of all, hearing me out.
I hope to see you all again next year for Idea Festival 2015!
Following my discussion about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, at the always-excellent IDEA Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for 2014, I promised links to the articles and statistics mentioned. This will allow anyone who heard my talk to fact check what I said, and comment below.
Here they are, along with the written text of the speech.
Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).
Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.
I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.
Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.
He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.
In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”
Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.
Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.
I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.
My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”
Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.
Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.
The problems in America’s creaky infrastructure started Friday morning when Brian Howard, an FAA contractor, wandered into the radar facility in Aurora, Illinois that serves Chicago’s O’Hare airport, one of the busiest in the world. Howard, seen on surviellance video dragging a suitcase and can of gasoline that did not seem to alarm anyone, then set the center on fire in an apparent suicide attempt. Paramedics said a shirtless Howard was in the process of slicing his throat with a knife when they found him in the basement of the burning facility. The fire destroyed 23 of the center’s 29 computers.
The result was chaos: Massive flight delays and cancellations at one of the nation’s busiest airports could last for up to two weeks. On Sunday, more than 700 flights in and out Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport were canceled, bringing the number of scrubbed flights to 2,000 since Friday’s sabotage. Even as of Monday, three days after the attack, O’ Hare and nearby Midway Airport were running at only 60 percent capacity, mucking up air traffic across the United States and causing millions of dollars and lost revenues.
It was on Facebook
The attack did not take place without warning. “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU (Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center) and my life,” Howard wrote on Facebook. His account has since been taken down. The Facebook message was posted to Howard’s wall a half-hour after he entered the facility, from inside, and one of Howard’s relatives sent the message to local police.
The incident “is no terrorist act,” the Aurora police quickly announced to the media.
See Something, Do Nothing
So let’s sum up a bit while we’re all stuck here waiting for our flights:
The NSA, who monitors our social media to stop terrorism, misses this. A guy with access to an important radar facility states his intentions clearly and publicly online to take it out. That guy with critical access is just another contractor. Nobody working with the guy notices he seems to be slipping mentally, nobody sees something and says something. The guy then shows up at the facility dragging a suitcase and a can of gasoline, wanders into a sensitive area and proceeds to set a fire. Nobody seems to notice this for awhile. Whatever fire suppression equipment is in place to protect this vital infrastructure fails to save 23 of the 29 computers needed to control air traffic over America’s second-busiest airport, and repairs will take more than two weeks.
Well, I for one feel safer. ISIS (al Qaeda, Khorasan, the Legion of Doom) really doesn’t have to create massive, complex Bond-level plots. They need only sit back and allow insane American contractors to go about their business. In the spirit of America, we’ll roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves, darn it.
One of the exceptional things about Post-Constitutional America is how instead of using the traditional tools of an autocracy– secret police, torture, mass round ups– the majority of Americans have given up their rights willfully, voluntarily, almost gleefully. The key tool used by government to have accomplished this is fear-mongering.
Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. It plays a very important evolutionary role after all; the first folks who learned to fear lions and tigers and bears tended to live longer than those who were slower learners. Fears from childhood about heights or spiders often stick with us forever. So using fear of terrorists and other bogeymen has proven to be the most effective tool of the world’s first voluntary national security state and its coalition partners in scariness.
The post-9/11 months are nothing but a master class in fear-mongering. Condoleezza Rice’s oft-quote statement about not wanting to wait for a mushroom cloud over America to be the smoking gun of terror is near-Bond villain level evil genius. The 2003 Iraq War was sold in large part on fear-mongering over fake nukes, fake biological weapons and a fake hunt for WMDS.
A few recent examples illustrate how the work continues. Because nothing is better to keep fear alive than a regular flow of refreshers (watch out behind you, a spider!).
The Australians have proven excellent students of the American model. After a single phone call from one purported jihadi in the Middle East to a purported jihadi in Sydney suggesting a random beheading would be a fine terror act, the Aussies kicked off the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history, with full world-wide media coverage of course, all of which resulted in the arrest of one 22-year-old. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it showed that “a knife, an iPhone and a victim” were the only ingredients needed for a terrorist attack.
B.S. Factor: Between 2009-2010 (last statistics located) 257 Australians were killed domestically, many with knives. None of those cases involved the largest manhunts in Australian history. Drunken dingos seem more a threat to citizens than terrorists, perhaps even with an iPhone and a knife for the dingo.
The British are loosely joining the coalition against ISIS in Iraq, based largely on the beheading video of a single Brit hostage (beheading videos of two American hostages have also been an effective fear-mongering tool in the United States recently.) Since most westerners do not visit the Arabic-language web sites where such videos widely appear, this form of fear- mongering requires the assistance of the main stream media, who appear more than happy to assist by re-running the videos in an endless loop.
B.S. Factor: In 2013, 6,193 Brits died abroad. Very few cases even made the news in a small way.
Back here in the U.S., higher-level encryption built directly into the new iPhone caused much concern among law enforcement, who will have a harder time mass-monitoring the communications of all Americans as they have freely done for the past decade or so. FBI Director James Comey at a news conference already focused on ISIS terror threats said “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.” He cited specifically kidnapping cases, in which exploiting the contents of a seized phone could lead to finding a victim, and predicted there would be moments when parents would come to him “with tears in their eyes, look at me and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t’ ” decode the contents of a phone.
B.S. Factor: We could find no statistics on how often decoding the contents of a phone alone resolved a kidnapping case. We also note that even if the FBI or the NSA could not actually break the iPhone encryption, existing, working tools unaffected by encryption such as triangulation geolocating, standard GPS, cell tower tracking, Stingray intercepts, call logs, email logs, cloud contents, and web searches can provide a wealth of data remotely, without even the need to seize a physical phone.
OMG: Americans May Be Killed By Terrorists
Obviously the uber fear-mongering are the pervasive streams of warnings about “almost executed” terror plots inside America. Whether told “if you see something, say something” on a bus, strip searched in the airport or hearing about one pseudo-plot after another on the news, the meme is that danger lurks everywhere in the United States.
B.S. Factor: Since 9/11, as few as 16 Americans here in Das Homeland has been killed by terrorists, almost all fellow Americans. On the high end, some claim the death count is about 100, but that includes murders at abortion clinics not everyone would call terrorism as far as traditional government fear-mongering is concerned.
Maybe more terrifying than anything else, in America you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. That’s a broad average; it is higher if you are a young African-American male.
To be fair, fear-mongering in general, and fear-mongering over terrorism, have a much longer history of use by autocrats than what has been employed since 9/11. One national leader in fact said “The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. The public will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened.” That was Joseph Stalin.
So yes, there is indeed much to fear.
On the Alan Colmes radio show we talked about some of the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq and Syria, and how the future of the region can only end in chaos.
We also discussed where ISIS came from, why the State Department went after me after writing We Meant Well, and what it really means to “rebuild” Iraq.
Listen to the full audio here.
The ISIS First Sergeant spat into the sand. “These new suicide bomber Western recruits just ain’t what they used to be. Shoot, I quit al Qaeda for ISIS just to get away from this amateur crap and here I am stepping in it again for ISIS.”
“Once upon a time,” said the grizzled veteran who will be played by Clint Eastwood if we can afford him in the movie version of this article, “you got some good people signing up for the suicide corps. Sure, they arrived at training here as pasty kids from the American suburbs, but they trained up right and blew up real nice. Made me proud. Now, look at this pack of maggots I’ve got to work with. Can’t even remember to wear their reflective safety belt over the damn dynamite-packed suicide vest.”
“After we put an ad on Craigslist specifically asking for Americans to join jihad as suicide bombers, I got like 4,000 emails overnight. Every one said the kid had just graduated with an English degree, had massive student loans and was willing to do anything as a start. Fair enough, but then the little twerps started asking about benefits and ‘work-life balance.’ Work-life balance, are you freaking kidding me? It says ‘suicide bomber’ right in the job description. Give me a break. I gotta admit though, when I mention the 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven after only one week at work, they do perk up. Does Google offer that?”
Still, the sergeant admitted, his challenges with the new recruits are hard to overcome.
“They do complain about everything. Until about three months ago, nobody ever asked me for whatever the hell sriracha sauce is to add to the rotten goat meat we serve. But yeah, our pita bread is gluten free, mainly because we have to make it out of sawdust since the American sanctions cut off most wheat imports. But the hilarious one is always ‘where can I charge my cell phone?’ Don’t these bozos even watch the news? Cell phones attract drones like rotten goat meat attracts flies, which, by the way, are another featured menu item here.”
But the worst is yet to come for the sergeant.
“I have a huge wash-out rate. And our basic training is only like four days long. Day One we practice writing wills, and they do OK. Day Two is when they sign over all their assets and as much of their parents’ money as they can. Again, no problem, as that’s just like the student loans they are familiar with. Day Three, the guys spend ten hours pushing the one button on our new model practice suicide vests over and over. A bunch fail at that, claiming in four years of college they never had to do any ‘manual labor.’ I tell them it’s like a video game controller, and that helps a few. The last day is the big wash-out. As a final exam the recruits have to swing across some monkey bars and jump through a ring of fire in black pajamas.”
“I personally think our modern, hi-tech suicide corps is past that kind of thing, but the mullahs love it, and we somehow always end up featuring it in the recruitment videos your American media plays over and over again for us. I can’t tell you how many times in the NCO mess I hear ‘well if it was good enough for us in the Taliban in the old days, it’s good enough for these kids now.'”
“You wanna know how hard this job really is? My most motivated class of recruits all turned out to be CIA agents, and I had to behead each one myself after some supply clerk ganked up the curved knife requisition order. And then when I finally do train some kid into a spit-shined suicide bomber, he’s never around long enough to mentor the next group. See how it sucks to be me?”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force involved in the training of Americans to kill Muslims by remote control using drones described the scene above as “barbaric.”
You see, Ray just beat down, in court, Hillary Clinton, the State Department, and a small part of Post-Constitutional America.
Who is this Guy?
McGovern is a changed man. He started out in the Army, then he worked for the CIA from the Kennedy administration up through the first Bush presidency, preparing the president’s daily intel brief. He was a hell of a spy. McGovern began to see the evil of much of the government’s work, and has since become an outspoken critic of the intelligence world and an advocate for free speech. He speaks on behalf of people like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Ray McGovern was put on the State Department’s Diplomatic Security BOLO list– Be On the Look Out– one of a series of proliferating government watch lists. What McGovern did to end up on Diplomatic Security’s dangerous persons list and how he got off the list are a tale of our era, Post-Constitutional America.
Offending the Queen
Ray’s offense was to turn his back on Hillary Clinton, literally.
In 2011, at George Washington University during a public event where Clinton was speaking, McGovern stood up and turned his back to the stage. He did not say a word, or otherwise disrupt anything. University cops grabbed McGovern in a headlock and by his arms and dragged him out of the auditorium by force, their actions directed from the side by a man whose name is redacted from public records. Photos (above) of the then-71 year old McGovern taken at the time of his arrest show the multiple bruises and contusions he suffered while being arrested. He was secured to a metal chair with two sets of handcuffs. McGovern was at first refused medical care for the bleeding caused by the handcuffs. It is easy to invoke the words thug, bully, goon.
The charges of disorderly conduct were dropped, McGovern was released and it was determined that he committed no crime.
But because he had spoken back to power, State’s Diplomatic Security printed up an actual wanted poster citing McGovern’s “considerable amount of political activism” and “significant notoriety in the national media.” Diplomatic Security warned agents should USE CAUTION (their emphasis) when stopping McGovern and conducting the required “field interview.” The poster itself was classified as Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU), one of the multitude of pseudo-secret categories created following 9/11.
Violations of the First and Fourth Amendments by State
Subjects of BOLO alerts are considered potential threats to the Secretary of State. Their whereabouts are typically tracked to see if they will be in proximity of the Secretary. If Diplomatic Security sees one of the subjects nearby, they detain and question them. Other government agencies and local police are always notified. The alert is a standing directive that the subject be stopped and seized in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause that he is committing an offense. Stop him for being him. These directives slash across the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unwarranted search and seizure, as well as the First Amendment’s right to free speech, as the stops typically occur around protests.
You Don’t Mess with Ray
Ray McGovern is not the kind of guy to be stopped and frisked based State Department retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights in Post-Constitution America. He sued, and won.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund took up the case pro bono on Ray’s behalf, suing the State Department. They first had to file a Freedom of Information Act demand to even get ahold of the internal State Department justifications for the BOLO, learning that despite all charges having been dropped against McGovern and despite having determined that he engaged in no criminal activity, the Department of State went on to open an investigation into McGovern, including his political beliefs, activities, statements and associations.
The investigative report noted “McGovern does seem to have the capacity to capture a national audience – it is possible his former career with the CIA has the potential to make him ‘attractive’ to the media.” It also cited McGovern’s “political activism, primarily anti-war.” The investigation ran nearly seven months, and resulted in the BOLO.
With the documents that so clearly crossed the First Amendment now in hand, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund went to court. They sought, and won, an injunction against the State Department to stop the Be On the Look-Out alert against McGovern, and to force State to pro-actively advise other law enforcement agencies that it no longer stands.
McGovern’s constitutional rights lawsuit against George Washington University, where his arrest during the Clinton speech took place, and the officers who assaulted and arrested him, is ongoing.
Watch Lists in Post-Constitutional America
McGovern’s case has many touch points to the general state of affairs of post-9/11 government watchlists, such as No-Fly.
The first is that it is anonymous interests, within a vast array of government agencies, that put you on some list. You may not know what you did to be “nominated,” and you may not even know you are on a list until you are denied boarding or stopped and frisked at a public event. Placement on some watchlist is done without regard to– and often in overt conflict with– your Constitutional rights. Placement on a list rarely has anything to do with having committed any actual crime; it is based on the government’s supposition that you are a potential threat, that you may commit a crime despite there being no evidence that you are planning one.
Once you are on one watchlist, your name proliferates onto other lists. Getting access to the information you need to fight back is not easy, and typically requires legal help and a Freedom of Information Act struggle just to get the information you need to go forward. The government will fight your efforts, and require you to go through a lengthy and potentially expensive court battle.
We’ll address the irony that the government uses taxpaying citizens’ money to defend itself when it violates the Constitutional rights of taxpaying citizens another time.
Donating to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Persons wishing to donate to The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund may do so online. I have no affiliation with the organization and do not benefit in any way from donations.
Full Discloure: I do know and respect Ray McGovern, and was once the subject of a State Department Be On the Lookout Alert myself, following these remarks I made about Hillarly Clinton. I have been unable to ascertain the status of my own BOLO alert but believe it is no longer in force. The State Department refuses to disclose any information to me about my status.
The searches would often be destructive, and intended so. Some of the time the point was to seize incriminating “revolutionary” materials, many times the point was simply to harass and threaten people the Crown feared and wanted to send a message to. It was in direct response to such invasions of freedom that the Founders wrote in the Fourth Amendment “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
Posse Comitatus Act
Fast-forward to 1878, in the Constitutional America Era, when, in the wake of the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus Act was passed into law. The Act limit the power of the federal government to use the armed forces of the United States to enforce state laws, though the general interpretation evolved to limit severely the use of federal troops for law enforcement purposes.
While both Bush and Obama weakened the Act to allow for troops to deploy (Bush) domestically and arrest civilians (Obama) in the wake of terrorist acts, the general idea remains intact. There are plenty of law enforcement agencies, local and federal, around to enforce the law. When the home town cops can’t handle it, the FBI can step in, not the military.
Old Rules Do Not Apply
Despite that clear background, it comes as little surprise that here in Post-Constitutional America, the old rules do not apply, even on a small scale.
Yet in perhaps a tiny but significant decision, an appeals court ruled federal authorities had shown “a profound lack of regard for the important limitations on the role of the military in our civilian society” when they allowed the U.S. Navy to scan the computers of every citizen in the state of Washington fishing for evidence, any evidence of any crime, that could be turned over to local cops. The court so wished to admonish the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) for overstepping regulations that have evolved from the Posse Comitatus Act that it took the unusually strong step of excluding the computer evidence in any new trial of a child pornographer. “The extraordinary nature of the surveillance here demonstrates a need to deter future violations,” said the ruling.
What happened? An NCIS investigator charged with online surveillance allegedly to protect naval facilities in Washington state, determined that his scope included electronic monitoring of the whole state and its entire civilian population. Since Navy families had kids, and/or because Navy personnel could be child pornographers, the NCIS argued extending the surveillance away from terrorism to scanning for kiddie porn had a legitimate military-related purpose. It is unclear if the employee acted on his own with no supervision, or acted under orders; neither is a good scenario.
The NCIS spook set loose in Washington state with a computer tool called RoundUp on the Gnutella peer-to-peer network known to be favored by child pornographers to exchange illegal images. Gnutella allows a direct connection between multiple personal computers in lieu of a single server, so that tracking down and eliminating the “source” of files is much more difficult. The RoundUp software (a similar product is called GridCop) identifies computers on a peer-to-peer network by their individual Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Investigators then work backwards to determine which service provider (such as Verizon) hosted the IP address and subpoena the provider for the name and address of the account holder. Investigators can then apply for and execute a search warrant for the computer and arrest the owner.
Tech Point: RoundUp works by detecting known child porn files that have been identified in investigations based on cryptographic hash algorithms, or hash values, which are unique numeric identifiers generated based on the content of digital files. Duplicate files will usually have the same hash value even if users rename files.
The FBI and local cops are doing this kind of thing all the time; the big deal in this case is that the agency at work is the U.S. Navy, which, under Posse Comitatus, is not supposed to be involved in such law enforcement. That is the illegal part, and the part that raises serious questions in an already nasty Post-Constitutional environment about what parts of the body of law the federal government will follow, and which parts it will ignore. That is not how a democracy works.
More on the Specific Case
The short version is that after actively monitoring the entire state for well, whatever it could find, the NCIS found one alleged child pornographer.
NCIS gathered evidence, turned it over to local police, who obtained a warrant based on the Navy search to legally “reacquire” the evidence (see also parallel construction, where the NSA and DEA use a similar illegal process.) The owner of the computer was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography, and is now serving an 18 year sentence at a federal prison. He appealed, claiming the evidence against him was obtained illegally, and the court threw the evidence out. The case will likely be retried. Without the actual evidence of child porn images, prosecutors have little to work with. The feds may appeal the decision. The convicted man remains in jail
Nobody likes child pornographers. As a parent, I wish every one of them would be fully, legally prosecuted and punished. But before you say “Well, NCIS did a bad thing, but in the end a child pornographer may be let off scot-free, which is worse” remember it was in fact the illegal acts of the NCIS that tainted the evidence and which themselves will see the guy walk if that is what happens. Bad law enforcement does not create good results. Walking all over the law to enforce it does little good for our society, and outright contempt for the law, as exhibited by NCIS, is evil in a society that once claimed to be a democratic example to others of the rule of law.
“Letting a criminal go free to deter national military investigation of civilians is worth it,” the judge in this case wrote. “[This] amounts to the military acting as a national police force to investigate civilian law violations by civilians.”
Deterrence may indeed be the order of the day. The NCIS case above surfaced only after the specific person convicted appealed, and had legal help smart enough to ask where the evidence against him came from. We know nothing about the extent of NCIS spying on civilians in Washington state, whether or not this is NCIS policy, and whether or not such spying, rogue or not, takes place in other states with military facilities. The NCIS employee at fault in Washington did say a colleague in Georgia was doing the same thing, so there is reason to wonder outside of just raw speculation. Those might have been good questions for the judges who decided the case, or the journalists who covered it, to ask.
As for the NCIS, a spokeswoman declined to talk about whether the service has undertaken similar wide searches for child pornography offenders in other states with a significant Navy presence, like Florida, Virginia or California.
Lastly, there are law enforcement agencies directly charged with hunting down child pornographers, armed with the same tools or better than NCIS. The FBI comes to mind. So where were they while one NCIS person was free-lancing an assault on the Posse Comitatus Act and the Fourth Amendment?
Tough times call for desperate acts…
Proving or disproving his allegations will be an uncertain thing. One thing that is certain is that people will claim he is nothing more than a disgruntled employee with an agenda. I don’t think so. Because once I was also there.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing Wednesday, the focus was on the Secretary of State’s role in securing American embassies and consulates abroad. Maxwell did not testify, and may or may not be eventually called to speak publicly to the Committee, but his allegations loom in the background.
I’ve met Maxwell, talked with him, though he did not confide in me. When you join State, you serve whomever is in the White House and like me, Maxwell worked Reagan through Obama. “For any Foreign Service Officer, being at work is the essence of everything,” Maxwell told a reporter after he was ultimately pushed into an early retirement following State’s internal review of the Benghazi debacle. In 2013, Maxwell spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Oversight Committee, and kept quiet about the bombshell information. Maxwell impresses as a State Department archetype, dedicated to the insular institution, apolitical to the point of frustration to an outsider, but shocked when he found his loyalty was not returned.
Whistleblowers at State
He has revealed what he knows only two years after the fact. People will say he is out for revenge. But I don’t think so. As a State Department whistleblower who experienced how the Department treats such people, I was there, and there is not a place anyone readily wants to be.
My own whistleblowing seems minor compared to something that might alter the race for the presidency. With 22 years at State, I spent twelve months leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq. The staggering incompetence and waste of taxpayer money I saw, coupled with the near-complete lack of interest by the Department I found trying to “go through channels,” lead to me write a We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People book exposing it all. The response was devastating: my security clearance was pulled, my case was sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution, I was frog-marched out of my office and forbidden to enter any State Department facility, I was placed on a Secret Service watch list as a potential threat to Mrs. Clinton, the pension I earned over a long career was threatened and only after the intercession of some of the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden was I “allowed” to retire. My case appeared in Glenn Greenwald’s column. All over a book that discussed history, and named no names.
Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower
For whistleblowers to go public, there is a calculus of pain and gain, and that takes time. You try to go through channels; Congressman Jason Chaffetz says Maxwell first told lawmakers his full story privately some time ago. Then you wait in hopes the information will come out without you, that someone else might speak up first, you hint at it hoping someone will take the bait, and instead see faux investigations and bleats about “it’s just politics” further bury it.
There was a two year gap between much of what I saw in Iraq and my public coming out. The same was true for Snowden and other whistleblowers. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to turn your own life, and that of your family’s, upside down, risking financial ruin, public shaming and possibly jail time. It is a process, not an event. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, how far your actions will follow you. Fear travels with you on your journey of conscience. In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. Ray Maxwell examples to learn from. He likely calculated he needed to securely retire from State before taking Team Clinton head-on.
Why It Matters
Now of course much of this is politics, in all its forms, though non-political questions about Benghazi still exist, especially as America resumes war in Iraq with its largest embassy vulnerable. Politics still do matter, and are indeed inevitable, as the measure of candidates needs to be taken. Among other things, their view of whistleblowers is important.
Document reviews at State following some significant event are not unheard of; an office affected needs to recap how it got to where it is. Conducting such a review in secret, on a Sunday, with some of the Secretary’s most senior advisors personally overseeing things, is unheard of. The details of Maxwell’s story ring true, the place, the procedures. Checks of State Department entry and exit records and room use requests should establish the basic facts. Proving what happened at that document review will be much, much harder, and will focus in large part on Maxwell’s own credibility.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Is Maxwell a disgruntled employee with an agenda? Possibly, but whistleblowers act on conscience, not revenge; the cost is too high for that, and in this day revenge is available much cheaper via a leak or as an unnamed source. Going public and disgruntlement often coincide but are not necessarily causal. You can be both bitter and a truth-teller. Knowing what the right thing to do is easier than summoning the courage and aligning one’s life to step up and do it.
I think Ray Maxwell is credible. I don’t think his timing suggests he is not. We’ll see, paraphrasing Clinton’s own words on Benghazi, if it really matters anymore, and what difference does it make.
My sincere thanks to the nice folks at the North American Independent Bookstore Association (NAIBA) for hosting me at their 2014 Fall Conference September 20 in Northern Virginia.
I was able to meet A LOT of independent bookstore owners, and am grateful for the time they gave me to talk about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
Independent bookstores have been a big part of the success of my books, and I look forward to working with you all in the coming months.
My thanks also to the friendly people of Chesapeake and Hudson for helping me throughout the day to sign books.
I hope to see many of you again, either in your stores, here online or at next year’s NAIBA conference!
The people I am talking about in my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent seem illusive here on the East Coast; in New York, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.
In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. Ok as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.
The View from Ground Zero
The story is different when I talk in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory that closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”
I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.
But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.
Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.
Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at 12 to 15 percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.
Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.
Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting 20 percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.
This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two-year-old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter — feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol — and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms without cash would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handlebars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.
The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.
Historians of the Constitutional Era of the United States (1789-2001, RIP) will recall the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that used to protect Americans against unreasonable and unwarranted searches.
The Supreme Court had generally held that searches required a warrant. That warrant could be issued only after law enforcement showed they had “probable cause.” That in turn had been defined by the Court to require a high standard of proof, “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”
The basic idea for more or less over 200 years: unless the government has a good, legal reason to look into your business, it couldn’t. As communications changed, the Fourth evolved to assert extend those same rights of privacy to phone calls, emails and texts, the same rules applying there as to physical searches.
That was Then
It was a good run. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the people’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Folks, as our president now refers to us, should not have to fear the Knock on the Door in either their homes or The Homeland writ large.
In Post-Constitutional America (2001-Present), the government has taken a bloody box cutter to the original copy of the Constitution and thrown the Fourth Amendment in the garbage. The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden are, in that sense, not just a shock to the conscience but to the concept of privacy itself: Our government spies on us. All of us. Without suspicion. Without warrants. Without probable cause. Without restraint.
The government also invades our privacy in multiple other ways, all built around end-runs of the Fourth Amendment, clever wordplay, legal hacks and simple twisting of words. Thus you get illegally obtained information recycled into material usable in court via what is called parallel construction. You have the creation of “Constitution Free” zones at the U.S. border. The Department of Justice created a Post-Constitutional interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that allows it to access millions of records of Americans using only subpoenas, not search warrants, to grab folks’ emails by searching one web server instead of millions of individual homes. Under a twist of an old “privacy law,” doctors disclose your medical records to the NSA without your permission or knowledge. SWAT raids by local police designed to break into African-American businesses on harassment expeditions are also now OK.
The Center of It All: Executive Order 12333
The most egregious example of such word-twisting and sleazy legal manipulations to morph illegal government spying under the Fourth Amendment into topsy-turvy quasi-legal spying is the use of Executive Order 12333, E.O. 12333, what the spooks call “twelve triple three.” The Order dates from 1981, signed by Ronald Reagan to buff up what his predecessors limited in response to overzealous law enforcement activities. The Gipper would be mighty proud that his perhaps most lasting accomplishment was legalizing surveillance of every American citizen.
Back to today. Despite all the secret FISA court decisions and as yet uncovered legal memos, most collection of U.S. domestic communications and data is done under E.O. 12333, section 2.3 paragraph C.
Specifically, the one sentence that the government believes allows them to bypass the Fourth Amendment says the intelligence community can “collect, retain, or disseminate information concerning United States persons” if that information is “obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation.”
So, the work-around for the Fourth Amendment is as follows: NSA collects massive amounts of data on foreigners, often by hoovering up every fragment of electronic stuff flowing around the U.S. it can. So, while purportedly looking for a single terrorist email enroute to Yemen (“the needle”), the NSA collects every single email from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (“the haystack.”) Thus, any American’s emails caught in that net are considered to have been collected “incidentally” to the goal of finding that one terrorist email. The NSA claims that the Executive Order thus makes its mass-scale violations of the Fourth Amendment legal.
Oh and hey reformers: Executive Orders by one president stay in force until another president changes or negates them. We could have one at work today written by George Washington. What that also means is that Congress, should they regain consciousness, can’t change an E.O. Congress could in theory pass a law making the contents of an E.O. invalid, but that presumes someone in Congress knows the order exists and what it says. Many E.O.’s are classified and if they are not, such as 12333, the legal documents behind them and FISA interpretations of them, likely are.
Again, as a historical note, executive orders– basically dictates from the president– once did not trump the Constitution. However, in Post-Constitutional America, they do.
As for this realization we have come upon, E.O. 12333, well, we’re all behind the curve. Edward Snowden, while still at NSA, wrote a now-famous email to the spy agency’s legal advisor, asking specifically whether an Executive Order has more legal force than an actual law passed by Congress, or indeed the Constitutional itself. The NSA’s answer was a bit convoluted, but said in a pinch the Constitution wins (wink wink), even while acting as if the opposite is true.
As General Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, said in a blistering blast of Newspeak, “I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we’re doing is reasonable.”
Ask Obama This Question
So let’s make it simple: Journalists with access to the president, ask this question directly: Why is E.O. 12333 being used today, interpreted by the FISA court or any other means, stating that the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens is “reasonable,” and thus no warrant is required for the surveillance to continue and remain constitutional under the Fourth Amendment?
Of course getting an answer out of Obama will not happen. After all, he is the Constitutional law professor who studied the document the same way a burglar learns about an alarm system. TO BREAK IT BETTER.
BONUS: The stuff above is real amateur-level writing on E.O. 12333. When you are ready to dig in deep, get over to Marcy Wheeler’s blog. She is the smartest person working in journalism today on the subject. My debt to her is hereby acknowledged.