• Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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  • Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam Arms Embargo to Be Fully Lifted

    May 24, 2016 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Military

    obama


    What other nation on earth would signal its intent to “bury the hatchet, and what it believes to be the start of a new relationship, other than the United States, by lifting an arms embargo?


    The United States is rescinding a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, President Obama announced at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, ending what the New York Times called “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War.”

    “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”

    So, to sum up: the sale of weapons is a sign of normalization. Appropriate, in that that is what is normal in America’s foreign relations in the 21st century. Not whether a nation is an ally or adversary per se, but whether they are a customer for our defense industry. For example, Saudi Arabia. Sure, they fund Sunni terrorism globally and played a role in the horrible events of 9/11, but they are also one of America’s most prolific buyers of weapons, and so are courted.


    As for the arms ban being “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War,” one does wonder what the Vietnamese might have say about that.

    Started under false pretenses and brutally fought for unclear purposes, America’s war on Vietnam took a terrible toll. No one really knows, but estimates of the death count on the Vietnamese side run from half a million to a million and half. That is before you include the untold numbers who continue to die or suffer birth defects due to the prolific use of defoliants like Agent Orange. While the American deaths in the war were “voluntary” in the sense that America started the war and pointlessly continued it for years, the Vietnamese had no choice.

    To now say that bygones are bygones, and seal the deal with the export of American weapons into Vietnam, seems a new low in cynicism by a fading American Empire.



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  • Echoes of Vietnam, or Between Iraq and a Hard Place

    June 22, 2015 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.

    But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.


    In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

    Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.

    After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.

    It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

    It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.

    This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.

    The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.

    In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.


    We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.


    Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.

    Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.

    In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics

    One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.




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  • Book Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

    February 23, 2015 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.



    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

    We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

    The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.

    Vietnam as a Template

    Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

    — The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

    — Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

    — A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

    — Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.


    No More Vietnams

    Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

    The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

    Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.



    Post-9/11

    For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

    Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

    You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”

    How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • No, Obama is Not Spending $2.7 Mil on Communist Propaganda in Vietnam

    May 6, 2014 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    If ignorance was bliss, you’d think more people would be happy. In the media, ignorance just seems to make people angrier, and thanks to the Internet, we all get to listen to them.


    A number of conservative outlets have featured a story like this one, “Obama Spending $2.7 Mil to Broadcast Communist Propaganda to Vietnam.” The article quotes from somewhere (no attribution or link):

    The Department of Health and Human Services is spending $2,797,979 on a study that brings television to more than a dozen remote villages in Vietnam to study its impact on their culture and reproductive behavior.

    And concludes:

    Can we have a study in which we take away money from government bureaucrats in the United States while using government bureaucrats in Vietnam as a control group to see which country goes bankrupt faster? Instead we’re funding the broadcast of Communist propaganda to rural Vietnamese villages like the anniversary celebration of the Communist Party.

    Disclaimer

    Because I’m trying to dilute ignorance here rather than fan its flames, a disclaimer is needed. I am neither a conservative, nor a liberal, a libertarian, a Presbyterian, a Rastafarian or believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I support public leaders who might serve the public interest, and oppose those who don’t. So, denizens of the Internet, remain in your basements and do not accuse me of loving Obama or hating Obama. Only four more hours to your meds anyway, be strong for me buddy.

    Golden Fleece

    A Golden Fleece Award was presented each month by Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, from 1975 to 1987, to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending.

    One Award was given in honor of a $57,800 study of the physical measurements of airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. Another Award made fun of the money spent on insect sex.

    Basic research is often very important, and very easy to mock. The buttocks measuring was one part of data-gathering that led to safety equipment standards for aircraft. Fly sex research led to sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated a major cattle parasite from the U.S., saving the cattle industry $20 billion.

    Back to Vietnam

    The media claiming the U.S. is funding Red propaganda, and/or just throwing away money, are, not surprisingly, wrong.

    Reading the actual grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health (for only $705k; not sure where the $2.7 million number came from), we learn that the purpose has little to do with Commies:

    Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on television campaigns to promote population health even though we lack clear evidence of a causal link between television and family formation and reproductive health. Although a substantial research literature documents television’s effects, existing research is primarily associational; making it impossible to establish a causal direction or to eliminate the possibility that a third variable is responsible for the observed associations. In defending these existing research problems, many note that because television is so widely available, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to randomly assign members of a target audience to comparison and intervention groups.

    The idea of researching the impact of something at the cost of maybe millions to better spend billions seems to make sense. The idea of finding a place without any TV that is also safe to work in and somewhat accessible means that isolated hill villages in Vietnam are exactly the kind of location you need.

    We’re All Right

    Weird conservative media, you are wrong about the Vietnam study. People who think they should write in and criticize me for liking or hating Obama, you are too shallow to get this is all not about “liking” a leader anyway, plus of course the fact that Obama himself had nothing to do with an individual NIH grant. In the spirit of a happy ending, I for one feel much better knowing the government is spending at least some of my tax money on basic research, and thus maybe a tiny, tiny, tiny amount less on drones and the NSA.

    A fella can dream, can’t he?



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  • Review: Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

    April 25, 2013 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Military

    There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.

    Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.

    What Happened

    The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.

    What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.

    Until Now

    Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.

    But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”

    Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.

    America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”

    In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.

    Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam

    Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.

    As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.

    Accountability?

    Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”

    Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.

    The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.

    In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.

    Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Why COIN Failed in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan

    July 3, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    My former colleague Bill Johnson, himself a veteran of multiple COIN interactions on both the military and civillian sides, offer this insight:

    The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.


    The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.


    What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.


    Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Susan Rice: No More Vietnams, But in a Bad Way

    June 28, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Susan Rice, our ambassador to the UN and someone on the short list to replace Hillary as SecState in 2013, continues to set new personal bests in terms of ignorant statements. Describing (in her acid riddled mind) what makes Obama’s foreign policy distinct from that of its predecessors, Rice mooed:

    We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s.


    I could just throw out the old “Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” line here and hit the bar early, but Rice’s remark is so idiotic that I’ll skip happy hour for now (the sacrifices we make for country).

    Tom Ricks starts us off:

    Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

    Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.


    Rice again now:

    What frustrated me about the 2004 (John Kerry) campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’  And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ 


    Ok Susan, you ignorant bonehead, here it is:

    Vietnam echoes through everything we do because we are repeating mistakes. We should not invade countries that do not pose a threat to the US. We should not be in wars without a coherent objective. We should not create governments unsupported by their people and then kill Americans trying to prop them up. We should not spend our money and lives abroad when we have problems at home that need those resources. We should not borrow money to fund wars in ways that wreck our economy. We should not piss off the rest of the world unnecessarily with wars of choice. We should not see America’s power solely as the rampant use of military force. We should express a little more humility toward the world and be seen as a little less of a bully. We should stop inventing straw men (communists, terrorists) that feed the military-industrial complex and distract us from the real issues facing America. We should not ignore the lessons of history because they seem politically awkward in an election year.

    Bonus: We should not employ as ambassadors to the UN people so ignorant of history and so ready to throw away lessons for political positioning. You are, to paraphrase Robert Reich speaking of the Clintons, “the arrogance of power combined with the inexperience of youth.”

    Susan, this blog has spent a lot of time drawing lessons from Vietnam, so have a look before you ejaculate dumbness again.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • State Department Won the Vietnam War

    May 18, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Remember the Vietnam War? You know, the one from Rambo, the war that was supposed to stop Communism from rolling Asia like dominoes? Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? Kennedy? Johnson? Nixon? Bueller? The US fought in Vietnam in one form or another from the late 1950’s until we gave up in 1975 and lost. Helicopters on the roof of the Embassy, hippies taking over the country, some history stuff went down, babies.

    Vietnam was America’s first modern counter-insurgency war. There are a lot of definitions of counter-insurgency (COIN), but it boils down to a war that can’t be won and isn’t fought in the traditional Red Guys clash with Blue Guys and the winner seizes territory way, like Private Ryan and Tom Hanks did in World War II. A COIN struggle is characterized primarily by a “hearts and minds” struggle, a multi-spectrum approach to winning the loyalty of the people by protecting them, helping them, establishing a local government, that kind of thing. The failure to do this in Iraq is the subject of my book, and the ongoing failure to do this in Afghanistan will be the subject of some other person’s book to come.

    If you check Wikipedia or ask the Vietnam Vet next door, you’ll find out that we did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. If you want to read the best book written about how COIN and Vietnam, it is Street Without Joyby Bernard Fall.

    One of the crucial elements of the failure to win the real war in Vietnam was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, run by the same State Department that flopped in Iraq. Formed in 1967, CORDS was headed by a State civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer. CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the hearts and minds effort, including State, USAID, USIA and the CIA (who tagged on the remnants of the Phoenix Program, just because). CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam.

    So how’d that CORDS thing work out for ya’all? It failed in conjunction with the whole war effort. We lost the war. Nothing four Presidents said about Vietnam was true and tens of thousands of people died for no purpose. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, according to the State Department’s slick self-congratulatory monthly magazine (thanks taxpayers!), CORDS “was a success” and in fact somehow contributed to the defeat of the Viet Cong in the Delta by 1972, where per the State Department, the wiley Commies couldn’t even muster a squad-sized action. It is true– read it all here in the State Magazine (p. 16) you’re paying for anyway.

    The article is just spiffy, using words like “swashbuckling” non-ironically to describe State’s men in Vietnam, and claiming in 1967 State’s Vietnam Training Center was “the center of things” (1967 was the freaking “Summer of Love” so State thinking their Training Center was the center of anything is beyond nerd land.) We learn that many FS men “enjoyed their tours.” In fact, US military officers “watched in awe” as the first State Department troopers deplaned, just like in that movie Platoon no doubt.

    Here’s a keen description of precisely how State won the Vietnam War (those in Afghanistan now, pay attention):

    [We] would pick a house at random, politely ask if we could come in and chat, and enquire about the perspective of the resident on everything from the state of the rice crop to the price of cooking oil to the honesty of local officials.

    Dammit! Why didn’t we know that before spending $44 billion and nine years trying to solve Iraq and win that war! All we had to do was “politely ask.”

    OK, fun’s over. Here’s the problem. If State is still clinging to the bizarre idea that it succeeded in Vietnam, and propagandizing its own employees with the same, what hope is there that they will ever make any progress about the failures visited upon Iraq, and the failures now ongoing in Afghanistan?

    Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it we’re told. But those who make up their own versions of history to fit present political needs are simply doomed in advance.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Jeepers, If Only I was Vietnamese

    April 21, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State




    The State Department just can’t do enough for bloggers’ freedom overseas.


    Here is State social media superhero Alec Ross burning up the Twitter, for freedom:



    The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:

    (The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).


    Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What will be the Casus Belli for War with China?

    December 15, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Military

    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created.

    The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were not created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway.

    But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by North Vietnam. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq.

    In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by years of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same game, war decided on first, reasons ginned up later, were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    These wars, from the Maine to Iraq, had no Pearl Harbor. America was not attacked, it wanted to initiate the war itself, and created a false pretext for doing so. Unlike with the WMDs, there was no question the Japanese bombed Pearl and that this was an actual, unambiguous act of aggression. It did not require a lie or an explanation or some 1940s version of Colin Powell at the UN.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? Will it begin in Taiwan?

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover the economic, military, and political spheres. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the military industrial complex knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up its budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not muddy ground troops squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    And then boom! as certain as the sun rising in the east is red, last week Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the U.S. was in an “arms race” with China over the development of hypersonic weapons that can evade missile defenses. His boss Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin lambasted China over its pursuit of hypersonic weapons, saying the activity “increases tensions in the region.” America faces a hypersonic weapons gap.

    An arms race would be the best case scenario to come out of all the saber rattling over China. If that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war and needs a palatable reason?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China?

    You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Want War with China? You Can Help!

    December 8, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military, Trump


    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created. The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway. But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by the North. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    There are even historic breadcrumbs suggesting the U.S. purposely ignored warnings about an impending attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing it was soon enough going to war with Japan. Allowing the attack to happen was a good excuse to escalate America’s growing role supplying war material to Britain to outright combat, given the public’s reluctance to go to war absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event. They sank our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” Somebody better sink some damn ships!

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps from the sky on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, even threw in some tall tales about his cruelty to his own people and gassing the Kurds, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq. In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons to justify the war, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by two decades of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same scam — war decided on first, reasons ginned up later — were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, mostly a creation of a mini-Pearl Harbor events in the guise of “he’s gassing his own people.” Genocide is especially handy as the rhetoric can be recycled — never again, America has to believe in something, we can’t stand silently by. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? One report shows China just surpassed the U.S. in global wealth, one of Biden’s three tripwires.

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover economic, military, and political fields. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a good, old fashioned, bench clearing, global superpower showdown is needed, muscle tussling eagle vs. dragon for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the Deep State really knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up the defense budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” and all the other “gaps” with Russia exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not the muddy ground troops we squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    That would be the best case scenario and if that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war, as in Vietnam and after 9/11, and needs a palatable reason to be found?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China? You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals or disputed islands. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Three Questions to Ask About America Not Fighting a War with China

    December 1, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Military

    Before you read another story claiming war among China, Taiwan and the U.S. is getting closer, or relations are entering dangerous territory, or long-standing issues may soon be settled by any means necessary, ask yourself these three questions.

     

    Why Would China Attack Taiwan?

    Over the last decade Taiwan invested $188.5 billion in China, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven damn profitable. Why bomb one of your best customers?

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every Chinese one) why would China consider a war that would provoke the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. is $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi if not the whole power structure. An invasion is impractical. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with 200 mile range. Estimates are China would need to land a million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about only 1,000 men, and China currently has only three such ships. Its conscript troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British forces patrol the waters. Aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea could shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground. This is not Normandy. It is also not another of the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    No risk vs. gain calculation would end up concluding the best option was war. And discard the irrational actor scenario; Chinese leaders have always believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong, same with Portugal and Macau. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. One waits to win.

     

    Why now?

    In fiction one of the important tools is the Change Event, the thing that answers the question of why now? Why did the mild-mannered accountant suddenly become a vigilante? Oh, his daughter was kidnapped. So where is the “why now” part of China-Taiwan?

    One of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and the last shot fired was in the 1950s. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there, and briefly in 1979 during a border scuffle. China joined the Korean War only after the U.S. threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Xi’s reunification rhetoric is essentially the same as Mao’s.

    China is an autocracy (unchanged since 1949), and has not promoted things like free speech in Hong Kong or Tibet, never mind in Beijing or Shanghai. We don’t have to like that, but it is nothing new and has nothing to do with invading Taiwan. China did little when some of the leaders of the Tienanmen protests turned up in Taiwan, another worried over “why now” event.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Why Would Anyone Think the U.S. Would Not Defend Taiwan?

    Post-Afghanistan, some speculate the U.S. would not defend Taiwan. It makes no sense; if the U.S. stood on the sidelines as China attacked, that would end the post-WWII U.S. alliance system in Asia, and would temp war on the Korean peninsula. It would likely spur Japan and Korea to go nuclear. The global economy would fall into chaos and the dollar would collapse. Who knows what would happen to global supply lines.

    The Taiwan Relations Act (Biden as a young senator voted for it) says Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language was purposefully written by the parties concerned in 1979 to incorporate flexibility without being provocative, and cannot be read today as a signal of weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this.

    I have been in rooms with both Chinese and Taiwan representatives, and PLA and U.S. military personnel. Though sabers get rattled, particularly in front of the cameras, every action by every player assumes the U.S. will defend Taiwan. There is simply no ambiguity. When Joe Biden broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan it was one of the few honest statements by any politician in Washington.

    The U.S. has troops on Taiwan. The U.S. sells Taiwan some of our most modern weapons. Even as Xi spoke of reunification during the October political holidays the HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint operations in the China Sea. The U.S. is selling nuclear submarines to Australia to boast patrols in the South China Sea. The U.S. frequently conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises in the area. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its neutral stance on Taiwan. Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate war on China.

    China has no reason to and many reasons not to attack Taiwan. For 70 some years their relationship has become more open and more interactive. Strategic ambiguity — some call it deterrence — has worked. Nothing about any of that has changed.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Hiroshima, Syria, Wherever, What’s Different?

    November 23, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Syria

    America doesn’t want to know what happens in its wars. It wants to believe each war starts in righteousness, usually something as lofty a goal as freeing people from oppression or bringing them democracy. It then wants to believe our side is clean, as any force of righteousness must be. And then at some point it wants to forget about it all absent a few Business Class upgrades for soldiers flying home next week over Thanksgiving. But what happens when the truth, the overriding truth bigger than a single atrocity, peaks out from under the heavy cover of lies?

    You may remember America went to war in Syria in 2015 under Barack Obama. What was going to happen next there was a major campaign issue in 2016. The catch-phrase was whether either candidate supported “boots on the ground.” Trump, who did not overtly support that, did it anyway, and under now a third president some 900 Americans are still on the ground in Syria on a mission looking for a strategy. It would be surprising if one out of 100 Americans knew today we were still at war in Syria. Don’t ask Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate in 2016. During a recent Senate hearing on Afghanistan, he declared, “I am relieved that for the first time in 20 years, children being born in this country today are not being born into a nation at war.” It is doubtful Kaine or more than one out of ten thousand when told of the ongoing fight in Syria could explain why.

    So it is surprising to see the New York Times front page an investigation into a more than two year old U.S. air attack in Baghuz, Syria which killed some 80 women and children. Though the entire strike was preserved on drone video, a precise death count is unlikely because the three weapons dropped, totaling over 2,500 pounds of explosives, would have reduced most of the dead to a fine, pink mist. Hard to count that. The amount of explosives used against these undefended human targets in the open was roughly the equivalent of that carried by a B-25 into actual combat during WWII.

    The rest of the Times’ story is much the same story. The 2019 Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war, but was never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. A military legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military moved to conceal what happened. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and of course classified. Coalition forces quickly bulldozed the blast site to destroy any possible evidence. A whistleblower in contact with Congress lost his job. The New York Times pieced together what happened, detailed the coverup, and published the story last week. After the Times made its findings known to CENTCOM, a military spokesperson stated “We abhor the loss of innocent life” but stood by the airstrike as justified under whatever rules they were following. It is very unlikely anything more will come of all this.

    There is of course so much to be outraged over here but one realization is that good people were trying to report something very wrong through the chain of command and at every turn were blunted and thwarted. There seems to be no such thing as oversight or accountability. And yep, the whistleblower got burned.

    But the real outrage is the one not acknowledged by the Times. They treat this as if it is all new, headline stuff, the shock of civilian deaths, the coverup, the whistleblower himself the new target. But we refuse in our new righteousness over the cindered bodies of women and children to acknowledge it is closer to the norm than the exception. After nearly 1,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq in 2019, using 4,729 bombs and missiles, the official military tally of civilian dead for the year was only 22. As a State Department civilian embedded with the military during Iraq War 2.0 I saw many remains of buildings hit by airstrikes. It was very difficult to maintain the illusion that that building, the one with four floors and multiple apartments, had held only insurgents when it was obliterated some night.We choose to only use the word atrocity when we can pin it on a rogue platoon or a sadistic SEAL. But when it all scales up to the use of modern weapons against civilian clusters it turns into some sort of quasi-legal event to be debated and tsk’ed over in the passive voice. Were mistakes made? Can we find a way to reduce it all to some avoidable/unavoidable error, maybe by one pilot or one Special Forces operator who can be punished at little overall cost to the larger organization that put him in the position to screw up?

    We allow the United States to portray its wars as precise and humane because in order to sustain war on an Orwellian scale it is necessary to believe that. We need to believe every report of civilian casualties is investigated and the findings reported publicly, a model of accountability. We believe these things so dearly that we are shocked to read what happened with one airstrike in Syria and rush focus on the coverup not the killing.

    The preferred narrative sounds like a Netflix series log line “One man/A handful of brave reporters knew what was right and risked it all to expose the crime witnessed!” We want to miss the coverup of the coverup, the one that hides what happened in Syria was because we were at war in Syria against a dubious enemy under dubious rules of engagement for a dubious purpose and, to hell with it, people are just gonna die under those circumstances. Same as in Vietnam, same as in Fallujah, same as across dozens of Afghan wedding parties. It is a conversation about the difference between combat and killing. It is the conversation America has avoided since the day it proclaimed itself world policeman and unilaterally declared our right to be right simply because it is us doing it, whatever it might be. Thus in 2021 we still pretend Hiroshima was the exception and not the rule.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • The Worst Day of the Afghan War

    September 11, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military


    The Kabul airport suicide bombing was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan War since 2011. It was a terrible day, but begs the question: what was the worst day of the Afghan war?

    It is hard not to consider the Kabul airport suicide bombing the worst day; 13 Americans and maybe a hundred Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Did any have parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans?

    All of the dead were so close to safety after who knows what journey to that moment together, a hundred yards across the tarmac and into an airplane out. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes real life. But was it the worst day?

    Shall we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties in Afghanistan was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died.

    There were a lot of other worst days.  On June 28, 2005, 19 Special Operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members died in an ambush and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter went down in an effort to help.

    — On July 13, 2008 nine Americans and 27 others were wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

    — On October 3, 2009 eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at Combat Outpost Keating when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

    — On December 30, 2009 a Jordanian double-agent lured seven CIA operatives to their deaths in a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

    — On September 21, 2010 a Black Hawk helicopter went down in Qalat, killing five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, three Navy SEALs, and one support technician.

    — On April 27, 2011 eight U.S. airmen and one contractor were killed at the Kabul airport. A U.S.-trained ally Afghan Air Corps pilot became angry during an argument and began shooting.

    — The worst day might have been one out of the other hundreds of green-on-blue killings, incidents when an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of proof we had lost and refused to believe that until belief was forced upon us.

    — Or maybe the symbolically worst day was February 8, 2020 when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last “combat” deaths. In between those deaths and the deaths by the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostiles,” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days, too.

    — The worst day might have been have been the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star/poster boy who ceremoniously joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies.

     

    — Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Would either have been proud to give their lives those ways, knowing what we know now?

    Maybe the worst day was when some soldier back home, thinking his war was over, realized he had been conned, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and neither did his buddy who died among the poppies outside a village without a name. Maybe it was when he realized his dad had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim those killed at the Kabul airport were actually “lives given in the service of liberty.”

    Or the worst day might be tonight, when some American veteran tells his wife after a couple too many he is going out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 vets take their own lives each day. On August 16, the day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Administration Crisis Line saw a 12 percent increase in calls.

    Of course the Afghans had some worst days too, though no one really keeps track of those. The Kabul airport suicide attack must rank high. Or it could have been when the U.S. bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when a U.S. drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike killed 47. Another airstrike against a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The Wech Baghtu wedding party attack took 37 lives. An airstrike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. A U.S. drone strike that destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

    Because the big days for Afghans were often covered up instead of mourned, no one knows which was the worst day. We hide behind an Orwellian term too macabre for Orwell, collateral damage, to mean violence sudden, sharp, complete, unnecessary, and anonymous. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

    Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side via a simple body count is wrong, there were just so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly took place inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured people to death.

    We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, shackled to the floor, in a CIA black site, for freedom, although no one can really explain the connection anymore. He’d been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA board recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death but was overruled.

    Those worst days highlight, if that word is even morally permissible here, the long series of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam, and…) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance the U.S. could capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. That’s why we lost.

     

    Because it is so very hard to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and symbolically fetishize that, turn it into a token, a symbol of the greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to acknowledge. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted across the decades of war in Vietnam but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s diligent Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply best-known because it was the one where lots of photos were taken, not the worst. And that’s before we zoom out to see Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    So it may be with the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Maybe they deserve their place in the coda of the war, a way to summarize things. The pieces are all there: tactical fumbling by Washington, Americans out of place, civilians just trying to escape taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one saw or knows well disrupting carefully planned out global policy goals, sigh, again.

    There’s also the hero element, the Americans were innocents, killed while trying to help the Afghans (albeit help the Afghans out of a mess created earlier by other Americans.) And of course, following the bombing, a revenge airstrike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter) followed by another which killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knives” bomb which shreds human flesh via six large blades. They may claim a bit of history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?

     

    The Kabul airport suicide bombing may be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A blue ribbon committee might tear into what happened, the intelligence failure, some bad decision by a first lieutenant on where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but maybe even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too far into reports the U.S. knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to appease Britain’s needs.

     

    We miss the point again. The issue is to ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another kid or another dozen Afghans, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Special Immigrant Visas (SIV): A Brief, Sad History

    September 4, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.

    In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.

    Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.

     

    The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.

    During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.

    Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.

    What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.

    Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.

    Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.

     

    Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”

    But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)

    Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.

    None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.

    There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?

    That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Military, Trump


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What the Pentagon Papers 50th Anniversary Means

    June 26, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

     

    It was a humid June on the east coast 50 years ago when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers. The anniversary is worth marking, for reasons sweeping and grand, and for reasons deeply personal.

    In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government history of the Vietnam War, to the Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters feared prosecution under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge had invoked prior restraint and shattered the 1A.

    In a legal battle too important to have been written first as a novel, the NYT fought back. The Supreme Court on June 30, 1971 handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United Statesand the Times won the Pulitzer Prize. The Papers helped convince Americans the Vietnam War was wrong, their government could not be trusted, and The People informed by a free press could still have a say in things. This 20 year anniversary rightfully marks all that.

    Today, journalists expect a Pulitzer for a snarky tweet that mocks Trump. In our current shameful state where the MSM serves as an organ of the Deep State, the anniversary of the Papers also serves as a reminder to millennials OnlyFansing as journalists that there were once people in their jobs who valued truth and righteousness. Perhaps this may inspire some MSM propagandist to realize he might still run with lions instead of slinking home to feed his cats.

    The 50th anniversary of the Papers is also a chance to remember how fragile the victory in 1971 was. The Supreme Court left the door open for prosecution of journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, have kept the feds exercising discretion in not prosecuting the press, a delicate dance around an 800-pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government, particularly under Obama, has meanwhile aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who leak to those same journalists.

    There is also a very personal side to this anniversary. When my book, We Meant Well, turned me into a State Department whistleblower and set off a wall of the bad brown falling on me, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg sent me two of his books, unannounced, in the mail.

    He wrote a personal message inside each one, explaining to me what I was doing was hard, scary, and above all, a duty. It changed me and my understanding of what was happening to me. I wasn’t arguing procedure with the State Department and grubbing for my pension, I was defending the First Amendment itself. I wrote Dan a thank you note. Here’s some of it.

    Thank you for sending me copies of your books, and thank you even more for writing “with admiration for your truth telling” inside the cover flap of one. I am humbled, because I waited my whole life to realize today I had already met you.

    In 1971 I was 10 years old, living in Ohio. The Vietnam War was a part of our town’s life, same as the Fruehauf tractor-trailer plant with its 100 percent union workforce, the A&P and the Pledge of Allegiance. Nobody in my house went to war, but neighbors had gold stars in their windows and I remember one teacher at school, the one with the longer hair and the mustache, talking about Vietnam.

    It meant little to me, involved with oncoming puberty, but I remember my mom bringing home from the supermarket a newsprint quickie paperback edition of the Pentagon Papers. There of course was no Internet and you could not buy the Times where I lived. Mom knew of politics and Vietnam maybe even less than I did, but the Papers were all over the news and it seemed the thing to do to spend the $1.95. When I tried to make sense of the names and foreign places it made no impact on me.

    I didn’t understand then what you had done. While I was trying to learn multiplication, you were making photocopies of classified documents. As you read them, you understood the government had knowledge early on the war could not be won, and that continuing would lead to many times more casualties than was ever admitted publicly.

    A lot of people inside the government had read those same Papers and understood their content, but only you decided that instead of simply going along with the lies, or privately using your new knowledge to fuel self-eating cynicism, you would try to persuade U.S. Senators Fulbright and McGovern to release the papers on the Senate floor.

    When they did not have the courage, even as they knew the lies continued to kill Americans they represented, you brought the Papers to the New York Times. The Times then echoed the courage of great journalists and published the Papers, fought off the Nixon administration by calling to the First Amendment, and brought the truth about lies to America. That’s when my mom bought a copy of the Papers at the A&P.

    You were considered an enemy of the United States because when you encountered something inside of government so egregious, so fundamentally wrong, you risked your own fortune, freedom, and honor to make it public. You almost went to jail, fighting off charges under the same draconian Espionage Act the government still uses today to silence others who stand in your shadow.

    In 2009 I volunteered to serve in Iraq for my employer of some 23 years, the Department of State. While I was there I saw such waste in our reconstruction program, such lies put out by two administrations about what we were (not) doing in Iraq, that it seemed to me that the only thing I could do — had to do — was tell people about what I saw. In my years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled only with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid hid their flaws.

    What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing (the waste), and what we were saying (the chant of success) was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not nerveless bureaucrats. It wasn’t Vietnam in scale or impact, but it was again young Americans risking their lives, believing for something greater than themselves, when instead it was just another lie. Another war started and run on lies, while again our government worked to keep the truth from the people.

    I am unsure what I accomplished with my own book, absent getting retired-by-force from the State Department for telling a truth that embarrassed them. So be it; most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems.

    But Dan, what you accomplished was this. When I faced a crisis of conscience, to tell what I knew because it needed to be told, coming to realize I was risking at the least my job if not jail, I remembered that newsprint copy of the Papers from 1971 which you risked the same and more to release. I took my decision in the face of the Obama administration having already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, but more importantly, I took my decision in the face of your example.

    Later, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden would do the same. I know you have encouraged them, too, through your example and with personal messages.

    So thank you for the books you sent Dan. Thank you for your courage so that when I needed it, I had an example to assess myself against other than the limp men and women working now for a Department of State too scared of the truth to rise to claim even a whisper of the word courage for themselves.

    Fast-forward to 2021. In these last few years the term “whistleblower” has been co-opted such that a Deep State operative was able to abuse the term to backdoor impeachment against a sitting president. The use of anonymous sources has devolved from brave individuals speaking out against a government gone wrong into a way for journalists to manufacture “proof” of anything they want, from claims the president was a Russian spy to the use of the military to create a photo op in Lafayette Park.

    On this anniversary we look at individuals like Ellsberg and reporters like those at the Times and know it is possible for individuals with courage to make a difference. That is something worth remembering, and celebrating.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • CIA (Dis)Information Operations Come Home to the US

    May 29, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA

     

    Reporters joke the easiest job in Washington is CIA spokesman. You need only listen carefully to questions and say “No comment’ before heading to Happy Hour. The joke, however, is on us. The reporters pretend to see only one side of the CIA, the passive hiding of information about itself. They meanwhile choose to profit from the other side of the equation, active information operations designed to influence events in America. It is 2021 and the CIA is running an op against the American people.

    Leon Panetta, the Director CIA from 2009 to 2011 explained bluntly his CIA did influence foreign media outlets ahead of elections in order to “change attitudes within the country.” The method, Panetta said, was to “acquire media within a country or within a region that could very well be used for being able to deliver a specific message or work to influence those that may own elements of the media to be able to cooperate, work with you in delivering that message.”

    The CIA has been running such information ops to influence foreign elections since the end of WWII. Richard Bissell, who ran the agency’s operations during the Cold War, wrote of “exercising control over a newspaper or broadcasting station, or of securing the desired outcome in an election.” A report on the CIA in Chile boasts the Agency portrayed its favored candidate in one election as a “wise, sincere and high-minded statesman” while painting his leftist opponent as a “calculating schemer.” At one point in the 1980s foreign media insertions ran 80 a day.

    The goal is to control information as a tool of influence. Sometimes the control is very direct, simply paying a reporter to run a story, or, as was done in Iraq, simply operating the media outlet yourself (known as the Orwellian Indigenous Media Project.) The problem is such direct action is easily exposed, destroying credibility.

    A more effective strategy is to become a source for legitimate media such that your (dis)information inherits their credibility. The most effective is an operation so complex one CIA plant is the initial information source while a second CIA plant acts seemingly independently as a confirming source. At that point you can push information to the mainstream media, who can then “independently” confirm it, sometimes unknowingly, through your secondary agents. You can basically write tomorrow’s headlines.

    Other techniques include exclusive true information mixed with disinformation to establish credibility, using official sources like Embassy spokesmen to appear to inadvertently confirm sub details, and covert funding of research and side gigs to promote academics and experts who discredit counter-narratives. The academics may never know where their money comes from, adding to their credibility.

    From the end of WWII to the Church Committee in 1976, this was all just a conspiracy theory. Of course the US would not use the CIA to influence elections, especially in fellow democracies. Except it did. By its nature reporting on intelligence always requires one to work with limited information. Always give time a chance to explain.

    Through Operation Mockingbird the CIA ran over 400 American journalists as direct assets. Almost none have ever discussed their work publically. CIA documents show journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations. The New York Times alone willingly provided cover for about ten CIA officers over decades and kept quiet about it. Such long term relationships are a powerful tool, so feeding a true big story to a young reporter to get him promoted is part of the game. Don’t forget the anonymous source who drove the Watergate story was an FBI official who through his actions made the careers of  cub reporters Woodward and Bernstein. Bernstein went on to champion the Russiagate story. Woodward became a Washington hagiographer. Ken Dilanian, formerly with the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and now working for NBC, maintains a “collaborative relationship” with the CIA.

     

    That’s the tradecraft and the history. The problem for America is once again the tools of war abroad have come home. The intelligence community is currently operating against the American people using established media.

    Some of it can’t be more obvious. The CIA always planted stories in foreign media for American outlets to pick up. The Agency works directly with Hollywood to control movies about itself. Turn on any of the advocacy media outlets and you see panels of former CIA officials. Journalist Matt Taibbi even created a list (and since ex-‘s need agency clearance to speak, all are of the officially approved class.) None is more egregious than John Brennan, former Director CIA, who for years touted Russiagate when he knew from information gathered while he was still in office it was all a lie.  The uber-lie that Trump was dirty with Russia was leaked to the press most likely by Brennan in January 2017 as the kick off event to the info op still running today.

    Brennan’s role is more than speculation. John Durham, the US attorney leading the ongoing “how it happened” Russiagate investigation into the intelligence community, has requested Brennan’s emails and call logs from CIA. Durham is also examining whether Brennan changed his story between his public comments (not under oath, say anything) and his May 2017 testimony to Congress (under oath, watch out for perjury) about the dossier. Reporter Aaron Mate is less delicate, laying out the evidence Brennan was “a central architect and promoter of the conspiracy theory from its inception.” Even blunter is Senator Rand Paul, who directly accuses Brennan of trying “to bring down a sitting president.”

     

    It was all based on nothing but disinformation and the American press swallowed every bit of it, turning the op into a three year tantrum falsely convincing a vast number of citizens their nation was run by a Russian asset. Robert Mueller, whose investigation was supposed to propel all this nothing into impeachment hearings, ended up exercising one of the last bits of political courage Americans will ever see in walking right to the edge of essentially a coup and refusing to step off into the abyss.

     

    The CIA is a learning institution, and recovered well from Russiagate. Details can be investigated. That’s where the old story fell apart. The dossier wasn’t true. But the a-ha discovery was since you’ll never formally prosecute anyone, why bother with evidence. Just throw out accusations and let the media fill it all in for you. The new paradigm included let the nature of the source — the brave lads of the intelligence agencies — legitimize the accusations this time, not facts. Go overt and use the new, unexpected prestige of the CIA as progressive heros to substantiate things.

    So in December 2017 CNN reported Donald Trump, Jr. had advance access to the WikiLeaks archive. Within an hour, NBC’s Ken Dilanian and CBS both claimed independent confirmation. It was a complete lie, based on fabricated documents. How do you confirm a lie? Ask another liar.

    In February 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) briefed the House Intelligence Committee the Russians were election meddling again to favor Trump. A few weeks earlier, the ODNI briefed Bernie Sanders the Russians were also meddling in the Democratic primaries in his favor. Both briefings were leaked, the former to the New York Times to smear Trump for replacing his DNI, the latter to the Washington Post ahead of the Nevada caucuses to damage Sanders.

    In June 2020 The New York Times stated CIA officials concluded the Russians “secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops.”  The story ran near another claiming Trump had spoken disrespectfully about fallen soldiers. Neither story was true. But they broke around the same time Trump announced his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, aimed at discouraging pro-military voters.

    Earlier this month The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, claimed the FBI gave a defensive briefing to Rudy Giuliani in 2019, before he traveled to Ukraine. Giuliani supposedly ignored the warning. The story was “independently confirmed” by both NBC and The New York Times. It was totally false.

     

    The American system always envisioned an adversarial role for the media. One of the earliest challenges to freedom of the press was the Colonial-era Peter Zenger case, which established the right of the press to criticize politicians free from libel charges. At times when things really mattered and even as other journalists hid under their beds, men like Edward R. Murrow worked their craft to preserve democracy. Same for Walter Cronkite finally reaching his opposition to the Vietnam War, and the New York Times reporters weighing imprisonment to publish the Pentagon Papers.

    In each of those instances the handful of reporters who risked everything to tell the truth were held up as heroes. Seeing the Times fighting for its life, the Washington Post co-published the Pentagon Papers to force the government to make its case not just against a rival newspaper, but the 1A itself.

    Not today. Journalism is today devoted to eliminating practitioners unwilling to play the game. Few have been targeted more than Glenn Greenwald (with Matt Taibbi as runner up.) Greenwald exploded into a journalistic superhero for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s NSA archive, founding The Intercept to serve as a platform for that work (Greenwald’s downfall parallels Julian Assange, who went from liberal hero for exposing the foundational lies of the Iraq War to zero when his Wikileaks was demonized for supposedly helping Donald Trump.)

    Greenwald’s criticism of the media for accepting Deep State lies as truth, particularly concerning Russiagate, turned him into a villian for progressives. MSNBC banned him, and other media outlets ran stories critical of him. Then something very, very odd happened to make it appear The Intercept outed one of its own whistleblower sources. Evidence suggests the source was a patsy, set up by the intel community, and exposed via Matt Cole, one of The Intercept journalists on this story. Cole was also involved in the outing of source CIA officer John Kiriakou in connection with torture claims. Either way new whistleblowers will think twice before turning to The Intercept. Greenwald recently quit the site after it refused to publish his article on Hunter Biden’s ties to China unless he deleted portions critical of Joe Biden.

    Greenwald seems to have figured out the intel community’s game, writing “the most significant Trump-era alliance is between corporate outlets and security state agencies, whose evidence-free claims they unquestioningly disseminate… Every journalist, even the most honest and careful, will get things wrong sometimes, and trustworthy journalists issue prompt corrections when they do. That behavior should be trust-building. But when media outlets continue to use the same reckless and deceitful tactics — such as claiming to have ‘independently confirmed‘ one another’s false stories when they have merely served as stenographers for the same anonymous security state agents while ‘confirming’ nothing — that strongly suggests a complete indifference to the truth and, even more so, a willingness to serve as disinformation agents.”

    Democracy has no meaning if people simply vote uninformed, as they are propagandized. It will be sport for future historians to mark the thing that most pushed America into decline. Seeing decades of success abroad in using info ops, the CIA and others turned those weapons inward. So seeing her Deep State meddle in presidential politics, simultaneously destroying (albeit mostly with their cooperation) the adversarial media, while crushing faith in both our leaders and in the process of electing them, will certainly be a top qualifier.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.

     

    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.

     

    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.

     

    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • The Future is Hawaii

    April 24, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Democracy, Economy


     

    I have seen the future. It looks a lot like Hawaii. What I saw there (absent the beautiful beaches, confused tourists, and incredible nature) was a glimpse of the future for much of America.

    COVID paved the way for internal travel restrictions — Americans moving around inside their own country — never before thought possible, or even constitutional. Hawaii, an American state, had to decide if they accepted American me, much as a foreign country controls its borders and decides which outsiders may enter.

    Hawaii required a very specific COVID test, from a “trusted partner” company they contract with, at the cost of $119 (no insurance accepted.) To drive home the Orwellian aspects of this all, after receiving the test kit I had to spit into the test tube during a Zoom call, some large head onscreen peeping into my bedroom watching to ensure it was indeed my spit. And now of course, after clicking Accept several times, my DNA information is in Hawaiian government hands along with whoever else’s name was buried in pages of Terms of Service. I was rewarded with the Scooby snack of an QR code on my phone.

    Hawaii used to offer the option of skipping the test and doing quarantine on-island. However, they now pre-screen at major airports and so no QR code, no boarding. And for those who don’t think good, today it’s a COVID test, tomorrow other criteria may be applied. Aloha!

    I will add that all the extra health screening at the airport made me a little nostalgic when I finally got to the bombs and weapons detecting set up by TSA. Just like the good old days when we worried about Muslim terrorists instead of each other turning our planes into flying death tubes, I was checked to make sure I was not carrying more than 3 ounces of shampoo. It felt… quaint to remove my shoes alongside everyone else, millions of pairs a day, all because some knucklehead failed to explode his shoe bomb and was subdued by other passengers 12 freaking years ago. For old times’ sake I prepared mentally to subdue my fellow cabin mates. The nostalgia was driven home as the TSA screener made everyone remove their mask for a moment to verify the face matched the ID picture except Muslim women, ensuring every non-Muslim woman passenger got to exhale a couple of COVID-era breaths into the crowd. Viva!

     

    The future in Hawaii strikes you as soon as you clear the airport into that beautiful Pacific air. It smells good in patches, but in fact there are growing masses of homeless people everywhere; the unsheltered homeless population is up 12 percent on Oahu. Coming from NYC I am certainly not surprised by the zombie armies, but these people live outside. You can’t escape them by surrendering control of the subway system, or by creating shelters in someone else’s neighborhood. The homeless here live in tents, some in gleefully third world shacks made of found materials, others in government-paid shanties creatively called “tiny houses.”

    Some make solo camp sites alone on the sidewalk, some create mini-Burning Man encampments in public parks. I’d like to say the latter resemble the migratory camps in Grapes of Wrath, but the Joad family could still afford an old jalopy and these people cannot. The Joads were also headed to find work; these people have burrowed in, with laundry hanging out, dogs running among the trash, rats and bugs happily exploring the host-parasite relationship. These folks stake out areas once full of tourists on Waikiki, and in public spaces once enjoyed more by locals. Drugs are a major problem and whether a homeless person will hassle you depends on which drug he favors, the kind that makes him aggressive or the kind that makes him sleep standing up at the bus stop.

    The future is built around the homeless, literally. My business was in the Kakaako area, once a warehouse district between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, now home to a dozen or more 40 story condos. They are all built like fortresses against the homeless. Each tower sits on a pedestal with parking inside, such that the street view of most places is a four story wall. There is an entrance (with security) but in fact the “first floor” for us is already four floors above ground. Once you’re up there, the top of the pedestal usually features a pool, a garden, BBQ, kiddie play area, dog walking space, all safely out of reach from whatever ugly is going on down below.

    If you look out the windows from the upper, most expensive floors, you can see the ocean and sand but not the now tiny homeless people. They become invisible if you’re rich enough. Don’t be offended or shocked — what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? Macroeconomics isn’t a morality play. But for most of the wealthy the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created. Never mind stuff like those bars on park benches that make it impossible to lay down. The architects in Kakaako have stepped it up.

    These heavily defended apartments can run lots of millions of dollars, with most owners either coming from the mainland U.S. or Asia. They will live a nice life. Most of them work elsewhere, or own businesses elsewhere, which is good, because the future in Hawaii does not look good for the 99 percent below. It’s inevitable in a society that is constantly adding to its homeless population while simultaneously lacking any comprehensive way to provide medical treatment, all the while smoothing over the bumps on the street with plentiful supplies of alcohol and opioids.

     

    Hawaii’s economy may be the future. Very little is made here. As making steel and cars left the Midwest in the late 2oth century, so did Hawaii’s old economy based on agriculture. It was cheaper to grow food elsewhere and import it to the mainland. The bulk of pineapple consumed in the United States now comes from Mexican, Central and South American growers same as steel now comes from China, and the few pineapple fields in Hawaii are for tourists. Hawaii now depends on two industries: tourism and defense spending. And both are controlled by government.

    Tourism accounts directly for 24 percent of the state’s economy, more if one factors in secondary spending. The industry currently does not exist in viable form, with arrivals down some 75 percent. Unemployment Hawaii-wide is 24 percent, much more if you add in those who long ago gave up looking or are underemployed frying burgers. Much is driven by COVID. Will those ever recede? No one knows. When might things get better? No one knows. The decisions which control lives are made largely in secret, by the governor or “scientists,” and are not subject to public debate or a state congressional vote. One imagines a Dickensonian kid in hula skirt asking “Please sir, may we have jobs?”

    Everyone knows Pearl Harbor, not only once a major tourist destination but also a part of direct Pentagon spending which pumps $7.2 billion into Hawaii’s economy, about 7.7 percent of the state’s GDP. Hawaii is second in the United States for the highest defense spending as a share of state GDP, and that’s just the overt stuff. Rumor has it the NSA has multiple facilities strewn around western Oahu with thousands of employees. All those government personnel, uniformed or covert, do a lot of personal spending in the local economy, much as they do in the shanty towns which ring American bases abroad. Everyone relies on local utilities like water, power, and sewers, and those bases need engineers, plumbers, electricians and others. Many are local residents either directly employed by DoD or working through contracts with private companies. The point is even more then tourism, this large sector of the economy is controlled by the government. At least they’re still working.

    Another important sector of the Hawaiian economy is also government controlled, those who live entirely on public benefits. Benefits in Hawaii are the highest in the nation, an average of $49,175 and untaxed. For the last 9 years Hawaii spent more on public welfare benefits, about 20 percent of the state budget, then it did on education. More than one out ten people in Hawaii get food stamps (SNAP), though the number is higher if you include free lunches at school and for the elderly. Fewer working people means fewer tax paying people, so this is unsustainable into the future.

    Who owns the future? The government in Hawaii owns the land. The Federal government owns about 20 percent of everything, and the state of Hawaii owns some 50 percent of the rest. Do Not Enter – U.S. Government Property signs are everywhere if you take a drive out of town. There are also plenty of private roads and gated communities to separate the rich from the poor, but the prize goes to Oracle owner Larry Ellison who owns almost the entire island of Lanai, serving as a gatekeeper inside another gatekeeper’s turf. For the rest of the people, homeownership rates in Hawaii are some of the lowest in the nation.

    The good news (for some…) is in the future whites will be a minority race in all of America. They already are in Hawaii. Asians not including Native Hawaiians make up 37 percent of the population, with whites tagging in at 25 percent. Local government, some 55 percent of the jobs, is dominated by people of Japanese heritage. Japanese heritage people also have the highest percentage of homeownership, 70 percent. Almost all have a high school diploma, and about a third have a four-year college degree.

    The well-loved mainland concept of “people of color” fades quickly in Hawaii, where Japanese color people are a majority over everyone else. And unlike in some minds, people in Hawaii are very aware that the concept of “Asian” is racist as hell, and know the differences among Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Things are such that local Caucasian and Hawaii Democratic Congressman Ed Case said he was an “Asian trapped in a white body” and meant it as, and was understood in Hawaii as, a good thing and was echoed by Case’s Japanese-American wife.

    White supremacy has clearly been defeated here, though I am not sure BLM would be happy with how that actually worked out without them. On a personal note, I will say as a white-identifying minority I was well-treated by the police and others. I was not forced to wear one of those goofy shirts or add an apostrophe to words while in Hawai’i against my cultural mores, so there may be hope yet in the future I saw.

     
     
     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What Keeps Canada Safe at Night? Joe Biden?

    March 12, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Democracy, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria

     

    We know what keeps America safe at night — rough men on the walls stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm, duh. But what about Canada? Or say, Cambodia or Bolivia?

    This is by way of trying to figure out why Joe Biden bombed Syria and derailed the resumption of the Iran nuclear accord, and why he has called off, delayed, or stalled further withdrawals from the places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria along the bloody trail of the old Global War of Terror. Canada (along with Cambodia, Bolivia and most others) never sent any of their rough men to most of those places to begin with, absent Afghanistan where some Canadian forces were deployed until 2014, a long 7 years ago. The peak was only about 2,000 soldiers anyway. Canada maintains a handful of small foreign outposts, mostly to handle logistics. They’re not fighting anyone anywhere.

    The U.S. famously has some 800 bases strewn around the globe, with troops in 150 countries, and boasts its special forces during any given week are deployed in 82 nations. Many of those Sneaky Pete’s are killing people in those places without the knowledge of the “host” country. Last year they operated in 72 percent of the nations on this planet, including 13 African nations. Can you name them? Why were Americans risking their lives in Burkina Faso? So we can sleep better?

     

    Few expected much from Joe Biden foreign policy wise, and he has delivered. About a month into office he bombed Syria. The ostensible justification was the target was not “Syrian” but 22 people associated with Iran. Militias in Iraq allegedly under Iran’s control killed an American contractor in Erbil so the bombing in Syria was retaliation for that. This was not only supposed to be a legal, moral, and ethical act by the Home of Democracy (c), it was supposed to have accomplished something toward Americans being safer. It did not; a U.S. airbase in Iraq was rocketed a few days later.

    Imagine Chinese aircraft flying halfway around the world and killing 22 people in Detroit in retaliation for something that happened in, wherever, Thailand. That OK? Whatever nations are looking to China for “leadership” (one of the things Biden was to restore after Trump broke it) might not be sure. China is an interesting example, because they did not retaliate against the United States for bombing their embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. As in 1988 when an American cruiser shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board, Washington just said it was a mistake so no retaliation was necessary. The world is encouraged to accept America alone does bad things for good reasons. Or no reason at all. Talk about uniqueness.

    If I thought like a Canadian, I would find it difficult to understand why the U.S. has to fight everyone. It is very hard to imagine America has enemies who need killing in 72 percent of the nations on earth. Or maybe not — after decades of invading, bombing, and regime changing, maybe they really do hate us. The relationship between the U.S. bombing people and people not caring for the U.S. seems unclear to Joe Biden and most of his predecessors, however.

    Thinking like an American, the ostensible reason for all this bombing seems to be Hitler. He’s why we couldn’t support Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea and no other president has even tried for 20 years, and why Biden seems reluctant to revive the Iran nuclear accord. In 1938 olde timey British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain got hoodwinked by Hitler. No American president wants to be Neville Chamberlain. So every bad guy in the world, whether Slobo Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, the cabal that runs Iran, Hugo Chavez, Castro even dead, is Hitler.

    It follows every friction point is Munich 1938 and the only way to deal with it without appearing Chamberlain-level weak is to attack just one more country. When actual fighting cannot be on the table, presidents are content with crippling sanctions, a kind of economic Guantanamo, as have been in place against Cuba since about when the Beatles first came to America, before that with North Korea, and since roller disco was popular in the case of Iran.

     

    It works for us, at least as far as politicians are concerned. They don’t look like Neville Chamberlain. They hardly ever suffer any consequences. There is absolutely no demanding of accountability (the new Washington watch word) for any act of war committed by any American president, including those who lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and created a global torture system the actual Hitler would have been happy to have franchised. Foreign policy in general is not a constraint on policymakers, because most of the public doesn’t care about it (quick, find Burkina Faso on a map.) Those that do care usually are pretty supportive of America’s wars, love the troops and all that. Washington and the media help out, spending most of a decade messaging “we have to be at war” post-9/11 for example, and that poo stain doesn’t wash out easy. The thing that finally turned the country against the Vietnam War, the draft of nice white middle class kids, is gone. Also gone are the waves of body bags, as much of modern killing is death from way above.

    The other reasons Joe Biden bombed Syria are equally familiar and equally false. We have backed away from “we need to protect the oil” since the first Bush Gulf War in 1991 though the phrase had a good run. Still out there is some version of “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” No one has invaded the U.S. since 1812, and when push came to shove on 9/11 a bunch of guys with box cutters worked around the $305.4 billion 2001 military budget. People on the left used to talk about “The American Empire” but even that has turned out to be pretty weak; we don’t imperially profit by raping conquered lands as a proper empire does. Where is our Raj? Our Opium War? Our rubber plantations and breadfruit farms? America got no oil from Iraq and no minerals from Afghanistan.

    We instead mostly wreck places (Libya and Vietnam come to mind) and then abandon them, or grab a little land for yet another overseas base. Americans sometimes talk like it’s all a great game of Risk, but war to simply grab resources and territory isn’t how things have worked for a long time. Other justifications? Ask any still living Iraqi how “spreading democracy” worked out. Stopping various genocides comes up from time to time, though when a real one came along in Rwanda the U.S. wasn’t up for it. And, oh yeah, Biden is the leader of the free world. Was there a vote, because if so it’s likely Andrea Merkel would have won. Did American get tasked by all other good countries to protect them, as if Canada couldn’t build a nuke if it wanted one and who is threatening them anyway? The Canadian military could invade Burkina Faso if they wished to. They just don’t wish to.

    The fall back justification since 1945 has been the myth that the U.S. is engaged in some global muscle-tussle to be the most powerfulist place. It used to be just Russia, but lately China seems to be the one we imagine challenging us everywhere while still owning the largest foreign share of American debt and making nearly everything sold in our stores. When was the last time China shot at us, never mind invaded us? Some may even remember we already defeated globalist Russia once before (Google “the Cold War, we won.”)

    Military spending does absorb over half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, meaning more money is spent on the Pentagon than on schools, infrastructure, climate, research, and diplomacy combined, so that may also have something to do with all this. Fun fact: in addition to leading the world in bombing, America is also the leading global arms dealer.

     

    Most of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team are brutalist left-overs from the Obama administration, the one that invaded Libya and set the ball rolling in Syria and Ukraine. They’re needed in 2021 about as much as mimes at a funeral. Head of the gang is Victoria Nuland, who worked to start her own war in Ukraine a few years ago. Supporting her are Tony “Global Policeman” Blinken and Susan Rice, she of invading Libya fame.  Maybe they and the others of the Class of 2016 will finally have those full-on wars  have always wanted but a stronger president like Obama sort of resisted. Bloody Nuland says more wars are basically a requirement. She co-wrote an article titled “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire,” proclaiming “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” With policy friends like this, it’s clear why Biden bombed Syria and will do more of that kind of thing as opportunities arise.

    “America is back,” Biden bleats at every opportunity. What that means America is back to business as usual, and that means people abroad are gonna die. Blame Canada.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Jeffersonian or Springsteenian Democracy?

    February 23, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    That Super Bowl commercial could have been so much worse. 

     

    “This is Bruce ‘Born to Run’ Springsteen, and when I’m driving down Thunder Road in my Pink Cadillac listening to some Radio Nowhere looking for a Red Headed Woman, I know these aren’t my Glory Days any more. So it ain’t no sin to be glad for Cialis. Come on up for The Rising!”

     

    Or imagine Springsteen promoting a reverse mortgage, or some prescription drug with an X and Z in its name, ending with Bruce saying “Check with your doctor, and tell ’em the Boss sent ya.”

     

    I can forgive Bruce for recycling footage and the same damn clothes from his Western Stars movie in that Super Bowl commercial. I’ll give him a pass for the faux accent which no one in New Jersey, or maybe anywhere in earth orbit, actually sounds like. I’ll even forgive his semi-annoyed tone (“I’ve told you people all this before but I guess I gotta go over it one more time.”) And no worries about whether Bruce sold out or not. Of course he did. He has always been clear (see his autobiography and Broadway show) that he is mostly an actor playing a character called “Bruce Springsteen.”

     

    What I can’t overlook is Bruce is just wrong. The answer does not lie in Americans reaching the middle, as Bruce sternly instructs in his infomercial, but respecting the end points on either side as valid positions.

     

    Let’s start with the Boss himself. Despite all the guff shoveled around the media about Bruce avoiding politics for so long, that has never been the case. Very early in his career Springsteen appeared at the No Nukes concerts. Not the “let’s have some nuclear power plants but not too many” concert. His opposition to the Vietnam War grew to opposing America’s jingoistic wars broadly. His stance on economic inequality is the cornerstone of his songbook — think Nebraska and Ghosts of Tom Joad. He supported BLM before it had its own initials; remember American Skin (41 Shots) from 2001?

     

    Bruce has also always been about partisan politics, scolding the Reagan administration throughout the entire Born in the USA album, and actively campaigning for four Democratic presidential candidates. He even joked-not joked about moving to Australia if Trump was re-elected.

     

    A guy who calls himself The Boss has never been about seeking the middle, as he says is our goal in his commercial. He has always taken positions, proudly and clearly. And that is more than OK, it is what America should be about.

     

    The Founders made clearer than a ringing Clarence Clemons sax solo vigorous debate was critical to their vision of a democracy. They baked that into the Constitution via the First Amendment, ensuring free speech and the right to assemble. And no middle ground there — it says “Congress shall make no law…” and with narrow exceptions the Supreme Court has kept it that way for a couple of hundred years.

     

    The Founders had no problem with compromise when that seemed the best they could do; in the extreme they even bargained enslaved human beings into being counted as only 3/5 of a white man. But the thrust was never toward a goal of 50-50, a simplistic Springsteenian middle ground instead of the balanced Jeffersonian one. The founding documents gave equal powers to very unequal states. The whole sloppy mess of democracy is full of 2/3 of this and majority that.

     

    There would come very different ideas on once established things like whether women could vote. But after a robust process women got the vote, an extreme position. There was no meeting in the middle, say granting women a partial vote, or only letting them vote in national elections. The key is the mass of Americans accepted the result, and the ladies getting the vote seems to have worked out for us all.

     

    When we try to meet in the middle we usually end up with most people unhappy. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court tried to hit some theorectical middle in granting nearly unfettered abortion rights in the first trimester, giving the states more decision making for the second, and leaving third trimester abortions as the very difficult decision they are. The results were that from the instant the opinion was issued one side demanded even freer access to abortion while the other tried to make access difficult at every step. Roe is settled law but not a settled issue.

     

    Contrast that with the decision by the Court to allow same-sex marriage. One side of that debate just plain lost, and the country moved on to the sideshow of arguing about baking cakes for the receptions. Meh.

     

    What is missing today in the majority of our Red-Blue is neither side understands the process. The goal is no longer to debate and resolve and move on. Today there is little respect for the other side and no empathy, just contempt and disgust. Their opinion is not only wrong, it is insane, dangerous, bonkers, a literal threat to our survival as a nation. How many times did we hear about the end of the rule of law, the end of democracy, fascism via racism, and that the Reichstag was burning during the Trump years?

     

    More than anyone’s ideas being wrong, we see him or her as a horrible person just for holding those ideas. The goal today is not to beat the other idea on the playing field. It is to cancel the speaker, deplatform him, hunt him down, demonize him, make it so he can’t find a job, burn his books, smite him with Terms of Service, eliminate his ideas if not the speaker himself. Or maybe impeach him as a private citizen, strip away his right to run for future office, force him out of his own house in Mar-a-Lago, and I don’t know, hear the lamentations of his women. The middle ground is a killing field.

     

    We end up believing that accepting the results of an election is optional if our candidate loses. We take “credible accusation” as a new standard, but only of course when it produces our desired results. Doxxing someone online or assaulting them in a restaurant is justified if he commits thoughtcrime. It has gotten to the point where even journalists have joined the scolds and censors to crusade against the First Amendment today to silence an opposing view without a thought to what will happen tomorrow to their own ideas when the wind shifts.

     

    So Bruce, would you take another crack at this commercial? You can keep the same B-roll images, even that kinda silly cowboy cosplay outfit (would a 20-year-old you have worn that into a seaside Jersey bar?) but let’s rewrite the script:

     

    “We demand diversity now in everything but thought and don’t see the irony. We’re in danger of losing what we strived and fought for, respect for different opinions. Don’t work toward the middle. Who has risked everything for a half-baked compromise? Anyone ever washed a rental car? No, you think hard, and you stake out a position, knowing the other guy is doing the same. Then you talk it out, you argue, you stomp your feet, write Op-Eds, and organize protests. You don’t repress speech you disagree with, you listen to it, then counter its ideas with better ones.

     

    “Then you turn it over to the wise tools the Founders granted us. They differ from issue to issue. So an election, or a Senate vote, or a court decision. And then you accept that outcome with neither celebration nor triumph and you respect those whose ideas didn’t make it. That’s our common ground.

     

    “It’s not about trying to all think the same way. It is about grasping for a higher rung because we don’t. We all live in one country and we all in the end want a life where we can care for family, do honest work, and join in this prayer for our freedom. The messy, awkward, slow way forward is well-marked for us.

     

    “Also, please buy this Jeep. Patty’s on me to put in a new pool at home before spring.”

     

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Bad Arguments the Left is Using to Destroy Conservative Speech

    January 14, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America


     
    Some Bad Arguments the Left is Using to Destroy Conservative Speech

    The graced haiku of the First Amendment was defeated in this current age not by jack booted thugs but by Terms of Service.

    It wasn’t supposed to be this way. From 1984 through every dystopian movie, as well as the sordid history of real dictatorships past, the loss of free speech was supposed to come from the top down. A powerful man crushes the press, brown shirts take over TV stations, that sort of thing. Nobody foresaw the loss of free speech in a once great democracy would come – by popular demand – from many of The People themselves.

    But that is what is happening in these extraordinary times here in Post-Constitutional America. Before this, the other great losses of rights once confirmed in blood followed dark tradition: after killing four Americans by drone, Barack Obama’s attorney general claimed the president’s personal deliberation constituted enough due process to satisfy the Fifth Amendment. Exaggerated fear of terrorists saw the Fourth Amendment rights to privacy obliterated by the NSA and welcomed by the frightened masses.

    What Americans once saw as our highest values became luxuries that in a time of fear, first 9/11, then Trump, the country believed it could ill afford. Justice, fairness, and free speech became a risk, their indulgence a weakness.

    Among the rights lost, free speech is arguably the most dear. Without free speech people stop thinking, losing all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy, good ideas defeating bad ones in the marketplace of the mind. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own, falsely labeling dissent as disloyal, insubordinate, seditious, insurrectionist, and ultimately unlawful.

    Any discussion of free speech must acknowledge despicable people and their ideas have always existed. These people will use any freedom they have to promote the worst of ideas. Yet it is equally important to remind how at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against or for one politician or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornographic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history. The times when America stepped back from free speech – the WWI era Sedition Act, the McCarthy Years – are not the years we are proud of.

    Trumpism, neo-Nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, QAnon, Pepe, and the racists is sadly nothing new. Indeed many of those groups in different forms have been around for decades. What is new is Leftists are aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. Those tools which directly offend the Bill of Rights include violence, suppression, censorship, and twisty quasi-legal reasoning about incitement and sedition. In addition are the tools of the bully, including misuse of the No Fly List to ban pro-Trump travelers for their political beliefs, “canceling” by mustered mobs, and blacklists to bar people from earning a living due to their politics.

    But something else new turns up the dial: technology, coupled with the metastisization of new global media unabashedly willing to take advantage of not being under the control of the 1A. Combine that technological reach with liberal autocratic zeal all hidden behind the justification that Because Trump, Nazis, white supremacists, etc. the ends justifies the means and you have trouble. The justification is Everything Is Different and the old rules don’t apply. The democratic ideal of free speech is now a threat to democracy.

    The literal first shot was fired, er, thrown, at the Trump inaugural. Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the movement Spencer promoted. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence but…” and then go on to condone violence if it was directed against “Nazis.” It only got worse. In 2021 the Leftists of social media cheered the shooting death of unarmed Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt at the hands of the Capitol Police. “She earned that bullet…” read one typical remark. “Don’t forget that she was participating in a domestic terrorist attack!”

    Another popular sentiment which echoed from 2017 into 2021 is to claim violence is justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people also suggest punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.” It was if half the nation had simultaneously flunked AP Government.

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley, Ohio State, Penn State, and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    The undergirding philosophy was in place. The stage was set for a series of arguments to sate the desire to restrict speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do or not hold up.

     

    The First Amendment Only Applies to Government

    The First Amendment only applies to government, and so corporations are free to censor, restrict or shut down speech altogether.

    Short Answer: True. The interplay between the 1A and corporations like Facebook is the most significant challenge to free speech in our lifetimes. It can only be resolved by a landmark Supreme Court challenge.

    Until very recently no entity existed that could censor at scale other than the government. The arrival of global technology controlled by mega-corporations like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon brought first the ability the control speech and soon after the willingness to do so. The rules are their rules, so we see the permanently banning the president of the United States from tweeting to his 88 million followers while allowing the Iranian and Chinese governments to speak freely to those same people. At the same time Trump was suspended from social media for inciting violence Twitter allowed the hashtag #HangMikePence to trend. Violence in one location is a threat to democracy while similar violence is valorized if under a BLM flag.

    The ability of a handful of people nobody voted for to control the mass of public discourse has never been more clear. It represents a stunning centralization of power. It is this power which negates the argument of “why not start your own web forum.” Someone did – Parler – until Amazon withdrew its server support, and Apple and Google banned the app, and silenced them. The same thing happened to The Daily Stormer, driven offline through a coordinated effort by multiple tech companies, and 8Chan, deplatformed by Cloudflare (Parler is suing Amazon under antitrust laws to regain its platform, and may seek a new provider in the interim.)

    Try an experiment. Google “Peter Van Buren” with the quotes. Most of you will see on the first page of results articles I wrote four years ago for Leftist outlets like The Nation and Salon. Almost none of you will see the scores of weekly columns I wrote for The American Conservative over the past four years. Google buries them, like they never even happened. Try the same on the tiny DuckDuckGo search engine and the conservative articles appear.

    Currently safe from the 1A as private companies, and with the legal shield of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, there is nothing to stop Twitter and the others even as new technologies create new opportunities to control speech. The election of 2020, when they hid the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop from voters, and the election’s aftermath, when they banned the president and other conservative voices, was their coming-of-age moment, the proof of concept for media giants. Many on the Left cheered the companies’ actions. No surprise. Presciently, Senator Chris Murphy, seeing the power available, had earlier demanded social media censor even more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy.”

    While there are few things to currently prevent corporate censorship, whether for their own purposes or as a proxy for the Democratic Party as Murphy demands, there are some counter-veiling legal currents which recognize the need to extend the 1A.

    One victory confirmed the status of social media, when the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting sex offenders from using Facebook. Justice Kennedy wrote in Packingham v North Carolina social media is now part of “the modern public square” so denying access violated the First Amendment. The Court concluded in a separate case “public access cable TV channels constituted a public forum, notwithstanding that they were operated by a private company.” Recognizing new media, even if administered by private companies, as the modern equivalent of the public square is an important step.

    The next step is recognizing the civic responsibility of those providing public forums as part of the process of chipping away at the public-private divide shielding the big media companies.

    The Supreme Court recognizes two categories of public fora: traditional and limited public forums. Traditional public forums are places like streets, sidewalks, and parks. Limited public forums are not traditionally public, but ones the government has purposefully opened to some segment of the public for “expressive activity.” By inviting the public to Facebook for comment, the government transforms a private place into a limited public forum which should be covered by the 1A. The Court only requires a “forum” for 1A purposes “to be private property dedicated to public use” or when the government “retains substantial control over the private property.” Like how the government cannot censor public library books even if the library is located in a private storefront.

    In other words, by providing a public forum Facebook, et al, assume a new role. It seems reasonable that some protections for the public speech there be offered. They may not apply to Aunt Lisa’s cat pictures but should apply to her posting in favor of some local legislation on the ballot.

    Bottom Line: Pretending a corporation with the reach to influence elections through the forum it provides is just another company that sells stuff is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. There are legal arguments to extend limited 1A protections to social media. Section 230 could be amended. However, given Democrats disproportionately benefit from corporate censorship and current Democratic control of the government, no legislative solution appears likely.

    Hope rests instead with the Supreme Court expanding the 1A to social media, as it did when it grew the 1A to cover all levels of government, down to the hometown mayor, even though the Constitution specifically only mentions Congress. The Court has long acknowledged the flexibility of the 1A in general, expanding it over the years to acts of “speech” as disparate as nudity and advertising. But don’t expect much change any time soon. Landmark decisions on speech, like those on other civil rights, tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

     

    Free Speech May Provoke Violence (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim conservative speakers who use anti-LGBT or racist slurs to fire up their audiences can be banned or shut down. They say such speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theater.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are purposefully restrictive, and well-codified. Most pundits and politicians come nowhere close. This excuse is over-used.

    The Fire! line from Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

    “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”

    The full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. Words in these decisions have hyper-specific legal meanings, often defined through multiple cases, which is why simply Googling a term and passing judgment on its vernacular via Twitter usually is wrong.

    This interpretation of the First Amendment imposed restrictions on speech. But Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer opposing WWI to stop free speech, not protect it. The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was better understood not as a 21st century test but to simply mean that while the First Amendment is not absolute, restrictions on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio (below) that refined the modern standard for restricting speech past Fire! But Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theater” line sticks around as a kind of inaccurate shorthand.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what was being said leading to harm, then in a later case moved the bar even higher. Offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone. People who cite “fire in a crowded theater” miss the fact that a more nuanced version of restrictions followed which currently controls speech.

     

    Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can insult people by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Often words are carefully chosen to inspire and promote hate or to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Hate speech per se does not exist in American law. Free speech means just that, with carefully limited restrictions sketched out by the Court.

    Brandenburg v. Ohio (Clarence Brandenburg was a KKK leader in Ohio who used the N-word with malice) precludes hate speech from being sanctioned as incitement to violence unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech.

    A hostile reaction of a crowd does not automatically transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not alone a basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker. The speaker had to clearly want to, and succeed in, causing some specific violent act to take place. Intent in particular is purposely hard to prove.

    The Brandenburg test is the Supreme Court’s final statement to date on what government may do about inflammatory speech that seeks to incite others to lawless action. It was intended to resolve the debate between those who urge greater control of speech and those who favor as much speech as possible before relying on the marketplace of ideas to sort things out. Yet corporate censors have simply created their own definition of incitement, with Twitter suppressing the speech of 70,000 users simply for retweeting material with “the potential to lead to offline harm” under its Orwellian named Civic Integrity Policy.

    A second type of speech is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech: “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace… [and is] “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The law is similar for sedition. Sedition broadly refers to seeking to overthrow the U.S. government by force. It is intimately tied to the concept of free speech in that any true attempt at overthrow will need to be preceded by persuasion, rabble rousing, and the stirring up of crowds. The line between criticizing the government and organizing for it to be overthrown is a critical juncture in a democracy.

    Current law requires the government prove someone conspired to use force. Simply advocating broadly for the use of violence is not the same thing as violence and in most cases is protected as free speech. For example, suggesting the need for revolution “by any means necessary” is unlikely to be seen as conspiracy to overthrow the government by force. But actively planning such an action (distributing guns, working out the logistics, actively opposing lawful authority, etc.) could be considered sedition.

    All of this may soon change, however. Joe Biden and other Leftist thinkers have been active considering new laws against “domestic terrorism” which will likely draw from and enlarge the current definition of sedition, so expect to hear more about all this. The new laws may seek to define beliefs such as “whites are a superior race” not as bad science or an unsavory opinion but as an actual threat, an illegal thought. Proposals include prohibiting people with such beliefs from joining the military or law enforcement.

    The upshot is apart from some very narrow exceptions the obligation to free speech exists independent of the content of that speech. This is one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There is no need for protection for saying things people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive. Free speech is not needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful stuff someone can imagine. The true tests for a democracy come at the edges, not in the middle.

    That is why it should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both BLM and Nazis to say what they think, but it apparently does not. Some 69 percent of American college students believe hate speech (defined as “language intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be (unconstitutionally) banned.

    A professor at New York University wrote plainly, albeit as if he was unaware of the Constitution, “Freedom of speech means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned… [I]nvoking a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.”

    The good people at NYU who believe in censoring speech have some opposition. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas,” understanding free speech is not an ends but a means in a democracy. Justice Louis Brandeis held people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas. It’s the law.

     

    What’s Said May Provoke Violence (Public Safety)

    The idea a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become a go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkeley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling a conservative speaker.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Such thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the black protesters from the KKK. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet. The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude language (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBT gathering. The Court held:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases as diverse as Occupy to a Christian group bringing a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival. The court has long recognized content-based regulation of speech in a public forum is permissible only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having an unpopular person speak are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech.

     

    Free Speech May Be Challenged by the Heckler’s Veto

    Another misargument is the Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Some on the Left feel while someone may have a right to speak, someone else has the right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, online or off.

    Legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob, online (for example, via hacking or denial of service attackers) or offline? Protesters cannot unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights.

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a disruptive situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is illegal.

    It is nearly professional suicide today to defend rude or racist speech on principle, that the right to speak exists almost fully independent of what one says. It is easy in divided post-Trump America to claim the struggle against fascism (racism, misogyny, white supremacy, etc.) overrules the old norms.

    But imagine your views, which today match @jack and Zuck’s, change. Imagine Zuck finds religion and uses all of his resources to ban legal abortion. Consider a change of technology which allows a Russian or Chinese company to replace Google in dictating what you can read. Instead of the outright glee the Left showed over the end of Parler and the misuse of the already evil No Fly List against Trump supporters in DC imagine the same used against something you personally believe in. Imagine the criminalization of certain thoughts and beliefs.

    There may be some hope. The American Civil Liberties Union warned the suspension of Trump’s social media accounts revealed “unchecked power.” The ACLU said the decision could set a precedent for big tech companies to silence less privileged voices if they chose. Once a leading voice for unfettered speech, the ACLU started applying a “woke” political litmus test to its chosen fights during the Trump years. It seems the organization finally figured out that censoring speech anywhere, even with Trump, is a threat to speech everywhere.

    Censorship is inherently wrong. People demand it when it supports their point of view (anything to dump Trump) but can’t seem to understand it will never stop there. As one former ACLU director explained “Speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.

    Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. It’s messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right, from the government or from corporate actors.

     
     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Cleaning Up Biden’s Leadership Leftovers in Iraq

    January 9, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Trump

    As Trump leaves office the only president to have not started a new war since WWII, and Joe Biden, who supported so many of America’s wars, including voting for and (vice-) presiding over the second and third Iraq Wars, heads into office, the talk is again what should be the most terrifying words anyone outside the U.S. could hear: American Leadership. Thing is, we haven’t really cleaned up the leftovers from the last bout of such leadership yet.

    President-Elect Biden pulls no punches about how he feels about Trump’s lack of war, saying “Trump has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.”

    ‘Merica, hells yeah! In a 2015 speech SecState-nominee Antony Blinken employed some version of the word “leadership” 16 times. Biden himself wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Last week, when he introduced his national security nominees, he said that “America is back, ready to lead the world.” Let there be no doubt in foreign policy terms leadership is the happy-talk, bipartisan, and benign euphemism for America First nationalism. And that usually means some sort of war. Biden already has his warriors in place from the Obama years: Bloody Susan Rice, Blinken at State, Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense. There will be others filling in the mid ranks as those principals call in their former deputies, who call theirs. Turn the leadership dial up to 11 and burn the house down!

    The problem with America’s leadership spurts is that they are often left uncompleted. They are played for U.S. domestic political consumption and thus appear in four year bursts, and leave behind a mess someone else has to clean up when those politics shift. Worst of all, no one in America seems to ask those nice foreigners overseas who are about to be freed, liberated, encouraged to revolt, or otherwise enlightened by the arrival of the American Empire if they indeed want any leadership today.

    So maybe before spewing out any new leadership, Biden could start by cleaning up some of the leadership he and others left behind. Start with Iraq.

     

    Quick, Jeopardy-style, when did the Iraq War end? Correct answer of course is “What is never.” America wrecked the place from the air in 1991, then invaded by land in 2003. Those American troops mostly left in 2010, then returned in 2014, and loiter like last year’s dropouts in the high school parking lot in unknown but relatively small numbers today. The American Embassy in Iraq, physically still the size of the Vatican and once the largest embassy in the world in diplomatic headcount, sits mostly empty with a security guard-to-diplomat ratio that would embarrass any Twitter warrior.

    You would wish that was all, but the horrors of the Iraq Wars are such that even bodies already buried find their way to the surface. Among the many U.S. atrocities few today know about (Google “Haditha Massacre,” “Mahmudiyah rape,” and if you don’t know what happened there, “Abu Ghraib torture”) loom the Nisour Square murders.
    On a hot as hell September 16, 2007, Blackwater mercenaries hired by the State Department as security killed 17 Iraqi civilians, including two children, and injured 20, in Nisour Square, central Baghdad. The U.S. lied and prevaricated for years, until finally the truth slithered out that none of the Iraqis were armed, the Blackwater guys panicked, and their so-called defensive fire was beyond any legitimate rule of war. The State Department tried to intervene, allowing the defendants to claim State’s own Diplomatic Security officers had offered them on-the-street immunity in return for later recanted testimony (Nisour Square wasn’t the only time State lied to cover for Blackwater.) It took seven full years until four Blackwater employees were convicted in a U.S. court. All four were pardoned by Donald Trump in December 2020.
    “That was years ago” say many of the same Americans willing to connect a police shooting today to the first slaves arriving on this continent in 1619. Though the average American might remember something bad happened with Blackwater, every Iraqi knows what Nisour Square stands for: American invasion, false promises of freedom, arrogant use of power. The same way Vietnamese know My Lai and thousands of other such incidents whose names never made it into the American press. Or perhaps how the remaining scraps of the Lakota people still reference Wounded Knee. No reckoning allowed save the marvelous sleight of hand of America’s fragile memory.
    I’ve been to Nisour Square. It is a giant roundabout, a confusing place made worse by the Iraqi practice of driving with total disregard for traffic laws if not physics and, at the time, the American convoy practice of never slowing and never stopping for any reason. The place smells of diesel fuel and the cheap gas the old Iraqi cars ran off. There’s a perpetual blue-gray haze over the intersection. It is so noisy there most people would not have been aware of the attack, at least until Blackwater started using grenades against civilians.
    At the very beginning of my Iraq tour with the State Department Blackwater provided my security. They were bullies. They grab-assed women. They were sloppy with their weapons. You could practically get a contact high off the steroids they used just by hanging around. Count on them to wear the most expensive sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man bracelets, tactical hair gel), a bit like Jersey Shore rejects. Aryan and dudely. In my book I called them “a frat house with guns.” It is easy to imagine how it all happened.
    The Trump pardon of Blackwater personnel for their role in the Nisour Square killing was a grotesque mistake Biden will shrug off as if he had nothing to do with it. But the absolute lack of focus on what put those Blackwater killers and their State Department charges in Nisour Square in the first place — the lust to exert some American Leadership and reform the MidEast — assures it will happen again. The rest of the world knew this was all wrong long before Trump. Does Biden?
    Biden’s foreign policy does not start at zero on Day One. All the good American leadership failed to do lingers. Even while the physical infrastructure damage from Iraq War I keeps water and sewage resources to third world standards, the Iranian-installed government which took over after the chaos of War II 2003-2010 remains in power. The anti-ISIS War III campaign of 2014 created tens of thousands of internal refugees in Iraq, mostly Sunnis the majority Shia government blames for ISIS’ initial successes, and many of them are about to die.

    Years after the destruction of ISIS at least one million Sunni civilians remain in government-run displacement camps. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, backed by Tehran, has made shutting the camps a priority. Initial closures have already left more than 100,000 people homeless as winter comes and the pandemic continues.

    The Iraqi government plans to soon close the remaining camps, forcibly return the Sunnis to their villages. It will be a bloodbath. In many cases the places they came from still resemble the ruins of Dresden; there physically are no homes. Other Sunnis already know their Shia neighbors took what property they once held and have nothing to return to. The worst off face retribution for siding with ISIS, or because rumor says they did. Memories are long in the Middle East. Revenge reaches across generations. Blood for blood. The best scenario awaiting a few is to become a permanent underclass in Shia Iraq, ripe for exploitation by whatever Sunni group replaces ISIS which replaced Al Qaeda because across three wars of leadership the U.S. never resolved the underlying core issues in Iraq and just made them worse.

    The Obama-Trump leadership strategy was medieval: kill people until there was no Sunni-supported Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath, expedience over morality. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq War III of 2014 onward: there would be no political follow-on, no nation building. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi actions. Genocidal-scale events that might have once set American front pages atwitter aren’t even worth a tweet today. Whatever happens in Iraq to the displaced persons, the U.S. is not involved.

    Americans demanded answers when Trump sent refugees back across the border to Mexico to await processing, but remain willfully ignorant of the hundreds of thousands of internal refugees created by American actions left to disappear somehow in Iraq. But in a way perhaps this is hardly worth noting. It is part of the American way of leadership, arriving unwanted in some third world nation with promises to liberate and then leaving when that war turns into an unwanted child. And so our wars leave behind the children, refugees in Iraq and elsewhere, literal unwanted kids from Vietnam. We walk away from the destruction we create, having burned out the jungles in Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and turned functioning countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq who dare bark at the American Empire into failed states.
    When Joe Biden speaks of the need for American global leadership, perhaps he should first talk to those we have already left behind.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • America in Black and White

    December 18, 2020 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Democracy

    The New York Times was startled to learn pre-COVID America’s 614 billionaires were worth a combined $2.95 trillion. As the Dow hit record highs last week, there are now 650 billionaires and their combined wealth was now close to $4 trillion.

    It is kind of neat that big-names in places like the NYT have finally noticed the state of economic inequality in America, albeit for all the wrong reasons (something else endemic to instead blame on Trump as he goes out the door.)

    In the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, American billionaires’ wealth grew by a third during the worst of COVID. Where’d all their new money come from? You, paying interest up to the Lord of Manor. For example, Dan Gilbert, chair of Quicken Loans, was worth $7 billion in March; he now has $43 billion. It takes a lot of poor people to sustain that amount of wealth at the top. Listen for the sucking sound as the cash moves.

    If like the NYT you are only figuring this out now you are way too far behind to really matter. A tiny percentage of Americans own, control, and benefit from most everything; call it one percent but a large number of the one percent are just slugs and remoras (hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers, etc.) who feed off the crumbs left by the .01 percent You know a handful of the real rich names — Bezos, Gates, Buffet — but only because they own public facing companies. Most of the others prefer less public lives while they control the public. And silly you, you worried that it was the Russians who stole the election.

    Now to talk about conspiracy theories is to imply that something “different” happened, that the system did not work as usual and as intended; for example, instead of an election the president was assassinated to change of who was in charge. The term conspiracy has kind of a bad feel to it. So let’s not call whatever happened this autumn to elect Joe Biden a conspiracy. But here is what happened, so see if you have a better word.

    The corporate media owned by that .01% spent four years attacking Trump. Then it sent information about Hunter Biden that would have changed the election down the memory hole, and policed social media to Joe’s advantage. Corporate pharma, also owned by the same people, held back announcement of Covid vaccines until just after the election. And guess what — “something” happened again in Democratic primaries that started with some of the most progressive candidates since Henry Wallace to instead push a politician known as the Senator from Mastercard into the White House, where he promptly filled his Cabinet with the same old thinkers corporate America liked from the Obama years. A highlight is Janet Yellen at Treasury, who helped run the massive corporate bailout that created the .01 percent out of the one percent after the Great Recession. No wonder Biden told donors “nothing would fundamentally change” for the wealthy when he’s in charge.

    One of the reasons economic inequality has ramped up to where it is after a slow remaking of society in the 1970s has been a clever manipulation of the people most impacted by it. Naturally, they first need to be divided so they will not work together. That was so simple it is genius: poor people of color are victims of racism and can’t climb up until that’s all cleared up, while poor white people are too lazy and stupid to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Encourage the POC to feel jealous of the chances the dumbs whites throw away and blame the whites for racism. Get the white folks to believe POC live off handouts. A trick as old as mud, set two sides against each other. As long as racism, the fate of the Rust Belt, and economic inequality are separate topics talked about by different people (blacks, whites, and socialist hippies) nothing changes.

    Please don’t think this is too original a thought. Lyndon Johnson pretty much gave the basic thesis statement in 1960 years before he kicked off the War on Poverty, in Appalachia, for the poor white people who were then the Democratic base. Johnson said “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” The final step is to make it impossible to talk about any of this.

     

    There’s a new book out, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America.”  There’s a new movie out of an old book, Hillbilly Elegy. The National Review has its own white trash story  and the MSM has made parachuting its elite columnists into the Heartland to write thought pieces into a sub-genre that could sit aside Business and Sports on the masthead. Whatever all those writers think their point is, their point ends up being poor whites are very different than poor blacks.

    The whole poverty-class cosplay industry got a meth-like boost in 2016 when east coast liberals tried to find another reason why Donald Trump won after their friends and fellow journalists snatched up Russian interference. Blaming Putin of course petered out after a three year run, about as long as Hillbilly Elegy took to move from book to movie. Why the fascination with white trash?

    Poor white people are a stand in for poor blacks. Kinda by proxy, the way the movie M*A*S*H* set in Korea was really criticism of America’s war in Vietnam. White liberals can say anything they want about Appalachians, stuff they can’t get away with saying about blacks.

    Nick Kristof of the New York Times, visiting Jackson, Kentucky, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of school because improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits. These benefits have accrued over various feel-good administration gestures to the point where they are are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders in eight-year-olds. But Kristof wins for accidental honesty: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”

    Next up is Kevin Williamson, because his Big White Ghetto is one of the newest books which says the same thing as all the others. Williamson writes, for example, without controversy “welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place.” Now imagine the exact sentence with a little tweak — “welfare has made parts of New York City into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the black underclass in place” and imagine all hell breaking loose on Maddow that night. Imagine if Ta Nehisi Coates, instead of making a career out of cataloging black victimhood, said “Get off your asses, brothers. They hiring at KFC.”

    Or try this one: “The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live,” says a former high-school principal who spoke with Williamson in Kentucky.” Imagine your favorite conservative talk radio host saying “the problem among blacks is the government gives them checks, but never teaches them how to live.” Shall we talk about single moms in Appalachia whose baby daddies cook meth or shall we talk about deadbeat black dads who cook meth in the South Bronx? Write a book about the former and you’ll vie for a Pulitzer. Try that with the latter without making it a how-to on victimhood and Oprah will skin you alive on the TV.

    Here’s some evocative street scene talk about Appalachians: “Jimmy is attached to one of the clusters of unbusy men who lounge in front of the public buildings in Booneville — ‘old-timers with nothing to do,’ one observer calls them, though some of those ‘old-timers’ do not appear to have reached 30 yet, and while their Mossy Oak camouflage outfits say ‘Remington,’ their complexions say ‘Nintendo.’”  How far would a writer get with: “Tyron’e is attached to one of the clusters of unbusy men who lounge in front of the hookah shops in Compton — ‘old-timers with nothing to do,’ one observer calls them, though some of those ‘old-timers’ do not appear to have reached 30 yet, and while their NBA jerseys say “LeBron” their complexions say “Nintendo.”

    Or less serious but basically a taste of the same, remember SNL’s serial skits of Appalachian Emergency Room, featuring comical rednecks with comical injuries; one ongoing character came in with all sorts of things stuck up his anus. It was as if the Beverly Hillbillies image of rural people had never been updated. Imagine if Amos and Andy were still on, or maybe just a new series called Ghetto Emergency Room featuring hilarious episodes of gunshots and ODs.

    A forced viewing of Hillbilly Elegy showed it is to truth what hemorrhoids are to pleasant mornings. Just when you would think they had exhausted every “hick in the big city” cliche they pull out the old one where the protagonist gets invited to a fancy dinner party and is intimidated by which of the multiple forks to use. “What to Do” with all the forks was fully explained in the movie Titanic dinner scene, where the exact same scenario took place. Also there is always the church trick, just kneel when other people do. Or figure a guy like the main character in Elegy who went through an undergrad education, the Marine Corps, and got into Yale would puzzle it all out. This use of cliche for poor, dumb, white characters is routine. I wonder how many movies that feature poor, dumb, POC trying to make it would dare do the same. That’s be racist, right, mocking a ghetto kid for not knowing White Manners, whereas anything goes with slack jawed yokels. Even street-smart Eddie Murphy in Trading Places ultimately turned his lack of White Manners into an advantage. Imagine the Elegy guy saving the day at Yale in a tobacco spitting contest!

    Among the other terrible things about the Elegy movie (and the book, but less so) is a near total lack of empathy for any of the characters. They are all presented as terrible people, and all their problems are their own fault and made worse by their own actions. They are not presented in any way as victims of larger forces (such as racism or urban gentrification), as is common in stories like this about POC (think Boyzz in the Hood or Do the Right Thing.) There is no leavening poor white problems. Even the shared drug problem, same stuff, cheap crank, is treated differently. Black folk are victims of some white conspiracy, maybe even the CIA, to keep them down by flooding the ‘hood with narcotics. White trash? They have no self-restraint. Same as them using abortion as a cure for recreational sex.

    We tend to forget the War on Poverty started in Appalachia, under Lyndon Johnson in 1965, aimed at poor whites. It failed to help them, as it failed to help blacks as the program later grew. Too much welfare of the wrong kind without real jobs to back it just created generational dependencies. But we can only talk about one demographic group that way.

    That seems to be the take away from another new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. After an exhaustive study of decades of data, author Robert Putnam concludes the many gaps between blacks and whites — education, health, employment, financial — narrowed between 1940 and 1970, driven by the Great Migration into northern industrial jobs. Then around 1970 black life fell into a decline which continues today. Putnam is right as far as he goes, but he misses the big picture in his race to blame racism. From 1940 to 1970 the lives of all lower class Americans of all races improved, especially up north where what became the Rust Belt was once the manufacturing center of the universe. Everyone rose, and fell, the same. Real, adjusted wages were never higher for all Americans then in 1972. But the The Upswing only follows part of the crowd down.

    Putnam and so many others ignore how economic insecurity engulfs more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60. Pessimism among whites about their economic future is today at its highest point since 1987. More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks. Buchanan County, 99 percent white in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute places, with poverty at 24 percent.

    So today we are allowed to mock one failed group as dumb Trump rednecks and treat them as subjects of a nature documentary. Blacks, they’re victims with the president elect still two-stepping around comments on reparations due. Don’t expect much progress for either group until we are allowed to talk openly about both. Try saying all American lives matter and you risk a broken nose. And wake me when a book called Urban Elegy becomes a best seller.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Biden’s Revenge

    December 5, 2020 // 0 Comments

    Posted in: Democracy

    AOC should talk. In fact, she has. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Trump sycophants” should be held accountable for their “complicity in the future” and wants their Tweets archived, preserved as evidence presumably for some sort of people’s revolutionary tribunal. AOC is just one of many who want some. The talk in Washington is about revenge. It is not pretty.
    There’s a separate Trump Accountability Project designed to ensure “members of the Trump administration responsible for loosening the guardrails of our democracy are not rewarded in the private sector.” A WaPo columnist wrote the people helping Trump now should “never serve in office, join a corporate board, find a faculty position or be accepted into polite society. We have a list.” During the McCarthy years that was known as a blacklist; you’ll never work in this town again, comrade. Other people are simply estranging themselves from the Trump-supporting parents who raised them. Some suggest truth-and-reconciliation commissions.  The NYT wonders out loud if America Can Restore the Rule of Law Without Prosecuting Trump?
    Some have even  fantasized Trump will be arrested as Biden is inaugurated, complete with a tense face off between the Secret Service protective detail and the arresting FBI agents as Trump tries to flee. But never mind blacklists or shunning (“Will Manhattan’s Elite Really Spurn Ivanka and Jared?” gushes a headline) the real blood people want to be spilled would occur in the judicial system. Release the DOJ hounds. Replay the Nuremberg Trials. The goal is vengeance: in the minds of the werewolves Trump and his extended family belong in jail — for something, maybe just for being them, or destroying democracy, kids in cages, soul of America battered — and if somehow that is not possible then they should be driven into poverty.
    Keeping in mind that Trump was not responsible for the Holocaust, tyranny, totalitarianism, gulags, secret police disappearances, genocide, apartheid, a torture regime, offshore penal colonies, gassing his own people or the like, the calls seem a bit extreme. But in many ways we live in extreme times, so what are the chances President Biden would release the full force of the American system against his former rival?
    Zero.
    The simplest explanation is persecuting, humiliating or prosecuting political opponents after they lose is third world stuff. Biden won. There is no political value in dancing on Trump’s grave or in the criminalization of policy differences. Carter didn’t try it with Nixon, Bush I pardoned not prosecuted six Reagan White House officials who were involved in the Iran-contra affair, Bush II didn’t prosecute Lyin’ Bill Clinton, and Obama didn’t do it with George “The Torturer” Bush and his henchmen. Despite leading chants only weeks ago of  “lock her up,” even Trump didn’t do it when he had the power to try. Biden has a full plate and the last thing he wants is for some politically-motivated prosecution to ensure all wounds are kept open. Nope, nobody is throwing Baby political advantage out with the Trump bathwater.
    Biden also knows he can’t unring the bell. If he goes after his predecessor he’s next, when the sides inevitably switch again. Mindful of the failures of Russiagate and impeachment (absent being “saved” by COVID those bungles should have cost the Dems the election) Biden also doesn’t want to start with a non-win. Any prosecution of Trump will be endlessly tied up in questions of privileged conversations, sealed records, and evidence fights, followed by loyalist hearings into Hunter and His Most Excellent China Deal. You think Biden and his DOJ wants to have that stink on their shoes heading into the 2022 midterms (and yes they are already thinking ahead)? Yeah, also, it’s time to heal or whatever.
    No, the real wet dreams for revenge rest with the Southern District of New York (SDNY; led by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance but ultimately controlled by Biden’s Department of Justice) and failing that, the New York State Attorney General Letitia James. The former already failed in 2012 to indict Trump’s children after they were accused of misleading investors, and faced judicial rebukes in the past for sloppy work and political motivations. The latter is beloved by progressives as an angry woman of color with a habit of talking bad ass. Either way the narrative runs like this: both offices have been compiling nasty stuff against Trump, held back only by custom which prevents them from indicting him as long as he’s the president. As of January 20 he is open game. In addition, if they can press New York state level charges, those are exempt from any federal pardon Trump might get from himself or from Mike Pence through some president-for-a-day 25th Amendment witchcraft.
    Leaving aside the untested law surrounding self-pardons, as well as double jeopardy concerns (NY’s laws there are among the strictest in the country; SDNY already failed in its prosecution of Paul Manafort based on double jeopardy) related to anything to do with impeachment or something under IRS audit, and the questions of jurisdiction and extradition (Trump is a Florida citizen) the forces of good have got to have something they can actually prosecute Trump for. An actual crime. Being an evil president or making mean decisions on immigration do not count in actual courts (and good luck finding an impartial jury.) The biggest problem with all this desired vengeance is the same thing that failed Russiagate; it is based on an assumption Trump must have done something wrong. The creation of a “crime” such as drove the impeachment only worked because of a partisan House willing to play along. The New York state system is no such kangaroo court, and affords defendants far more protections than federal courts. There are strict rules governing evidence that can be presented to a grand jury, and even minor procedural errors can result in indictments being thrown out. “If you’re a white-collar defendant, you’d rather be in New York State court than in federal court any day of the week,” said SDNY’s former top deputy.
    That said, a politically-minded prosecutor can always find some way to file charges for the show value, even while knowing the case will disappear on motions. But the hope is beyond a media event like that, somewhere in the complex finances of the Trump Organization lies a smoking gun. The problem with that for anything tax/finance related, one must remember the IRS and the New York Department of Revenue have had Trump’s taxes for decades. Whatever the SDNY hopes they show, the IRS, Treasury, FBI, NY state, NJ Gaming Commission and who knows who else already has seen them, or could have if they had suspicions, and for decades have not prosecuted Trump. The current IRS audit of Trump has been ongoing since 2010 and there is nothing to indicate it will conclude anytime soon. The IRS also tends to conclude cases by asking for money, as criminal fraud is very difficult to prove. In tax-fraud cases, prosecutors are required to prove misconduct was intentional by the principal, a high bar. A jury might wonder if Trump’s daughter’s consulting services were worth $740,000, but if Trump argued he valued them at that level, that could constitute a viable defense against fraud even if the deduction was ultimately disallowed. Trump’s teams of accountants also gives him personal cover for many potentially fraudulent claims.
    Another idea is Trump misvalued some New York real estate to obtain loans, a civil offense at worst usually settled with new assessments or a fine. The city of New York assesses a value to each property for tax purposes. Nearly every property owner in NYC believes his assessed value is too high and pushes back, to the point where this is not even handled by a court, instead through a tax commission grievance process. Owners want a lower value to pay less tax, except when they approach a bank for the equivalent of a refi loan, when they want their property to seem more expensive to secure a bigger loan. It is the bank who then decides what a property is worth to them as collateral, via their own due diligence. It is always complicated, as much art as science; beyond the usual valuation factors of location, location, location, some buildings in New York are iconic, or famous for their brand name (coug, cough, “Trump”), what history they represent, etc. Some just have nice views. Sometimes the bank is generous because in return for the loan they’ll secure some other business of value to them. Over-valuing/under-valuing real estate in New York City is sport, but as a crime is so much not ado about nothing it is not going to send anyone to jail. Imagine the yawns as a grand jury listens to accountants explain Trump’s tiered exemptions, and how their value is subtracted from the DOF assessed value to calculate a taxable value which is then multiplied by the current tax rate for the specific assigned property class. Tomorrow we’ll talk about easements going back to when Mayor Koch was in charge!
    That leaves Stormy. Michael Cohen would be the star witness in this Last Great Hope. At his 2019 televised hearing Cohen displayed a check for $35,000 from Trump to him, which was supposedly part of $130k paid to Stormy Daniels (there is at least one other woman, Karen McDougal, as well) under a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to keep quiet about her affair with Trump. This one seems to have it all — lurid details, opportunities for the media to run bosomy photos of Stormy, and a recycling of all those Godfather references when Michael the Consigliere, the Fixer Cohen takes the stand. A case built around events predating the Trump presidency dependent on the testimony of gold digging porn star and a disbarred felon lawyer trying to sing his way out of jail that a grand jury will sign off on? As the kids say, it’s complicated. Complicated enough it deserves its own article, next week.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.