October 29, 2009

Desperately Seeking Peacenik, Pot-Smoking Hippies

There were several issues I wanted to discuss in my previous post about Matthew Hoh and his resignation, but I finally decided I was unable to include them, primarily because they were off the track of my central argument. Since I published the earlier article, Hoh participated in an online chat at the Washington Post. (Many thanks to reader D.K. for alerting me to it.) In that discussion, Hoh made a number of statements that confirm all my major earlier points -- and he also offered some statements about a new subject that demand comment.

I. Give Me the Hippies. Please.

To begin, let's again note this passage from the Washington Post story about Hoh's resignation:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
I discussed the second paragraph in detail in my earlier post, showing why I consider it unspeakably awful. Here, I want to talk about the very first sentence: "I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love."

Many of those deeply opposed to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan seem to regard this statement as strengthening the case for the truth of Hoh's objections to U.S. strategy, as if to say: "See? Hoh isn't some drugged-out nutcase, who's opposed to war like some disgusting appeaser! He's not against all wars, just against this war! That's why we should listen to him!"

They appear to think this is a good argument. People should be careful about the premises they (perhaps) inadvertently accept in their eagerness to advance their case. I have a very different view of Hoh's statement. My immediate reaction when I read that statement has remained unchanged, and it is very simply this:

Why not? What the hell is wrong with that?

Hoh implicitly relies on the fact that what's "wrong with that" is so self-evidently obvious that it need not even be stated. Everyone -- or at least all respectable, serious people -- has nothing but contempt for those peacenik, pot-smoking hippies, so we don't even need to explain why. But, Mr. Hoh, and others who may be of like mind, yes, you do.

If a substantial number of people were seriously and consistently devoted to peace, and if they were genuine embodiments of compassion and empathy for others and urged everyone else to behave in the same way, the world would be an infinitely better place than it is now. And if such individuals did all this in a notably relaxed, non-confrontational way, so much the better.

So I repeat: What the hell is wrong with that? I could offer many more words about the highly dubious nature of a style of argument that trades on negative, cheap and lazy stereotypes and offers them as accurate and truthful judgments, but never mind all that. Fill in the details as you wish. I'll only wonder the following: if we're going to conduct public discussions in this manner, what might be said about a former Marine, "many of [whose] closest friends" are also Marines, who was "never more happy" than when he was "whacking" some bad "dudes" in a criminal war of aggression? Well, I'll leave it to others to say whatever they think appropriate about that. If I have to choose between the two stereotypes, give me the hippie any day. Please.

II. The Online Chat in General, and the Great Danger of the Arbitrary

As I read through the online chat, my major impression was how utterly conventional Hoh sounds. On many specific topics, he sounds no different from many politicians or other national leaders. It is certainly true that no other high level official has resigned over Afghanistan, but see my earlier essay for the reasons as to why I view that as ultimately meaningless given Hoh's overall views, especially his enthusiastic willingness to murder in other criminal wars of aggression. And with regard to Afghanistan, it's not as if Hoh is the only person raising these concerns about U.S. strategy. The fact that these objections are fairly well-known, and that many people oppose continued or increased U.S. involvement on those particular grounds, is one of the primary reasons that Obama has delayed an announcement on his decision regarding any future commitment for as long as he has. Moreover, Hoh's comments in the chat confirm one of my earlier arguments: that all of these facts about Afghanistan were easily accessible to any intelligent layperson long before this latest U.S. involvement, just as was true in Vietnam and in Iraq.

You can read the chat for yourself, and make your own judgment about this issue. But for me, the conventional nature of Hoh's statements and approach made me begin to wonder precisely why he resigned, and if there was some additional reason that he hasn't identified. It's not that I disbelieve him, for I have no reason to. But my question, one which only grew stronger in my mind as I read his comments, is: Why did he draw the line here exactly? Why not somewhere else? And, most importantly, why not in Iraq? But as we know, he was "never more happy" than when he "whacked" some bad guys in Iraq, although neither he nor any other U.S. personnel had any right to be there.

This underscores another of my earlier arguments: Hoh's objection regarding Afghanistan is basically arbitrary. No principle informs it. As I wrote:
The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent -- which it is -- but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level -- and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.
This is an issue of singular importance. Many manifestations of arbitrariness of this kind can be offered. I've written about one of them at length: those Democrats and liberals who vehemently opposed the Iraq invasion but approved and even encouraged Clinton's Balkans policy. See, e.g.: "The Truth Shall Drive You Mad: The Men and Women of the Empire of Death."

Perhaps of even greater significance here is another essay, "The Lies in Your Head," and especially the excerpts from Jean Bricmont's, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. Bricmont traces the connections in policy between the Clinton administration's interventions in the Balkans and the Bush administration's war in Iraq, connections that many (if not most) liberals will not confront to this day. Certainly, the Bush administration offered multiple, shifting rationales for the Iraq invasion, only one indication that they never told the truth. (The truth was the drive to U.S. global hegemony, as explained by Higgs.) But it is also true that alleged "humanitarian" concerns were one justification put forth. For many liberals, such concerns were irrelevant in Iraq, but determinative in the Balkans -- and made intervention an absolute necessity in the latter case. Why that factor necessitated intervention in one case and not the other has never been satisfactorily explained, and it cannot be.

And humanitarian concerns are offered today in connection with Afghanistan, and Hoh mentions some of them in his chat. In fact, this argument is only another example of the camouflage used by the ruling class to disguise its true purposes. Just as our leaders will never willingly surrender the base at Bagram, so they were intent on establishing a major base in the Balkans, Camp Bondsteel. Humanitarian justifications had little or nothing to do with what was actually going on.

Even if we take the humanitarian argument on its own terms, it's incoherent, as Bricmont demonstrates at length. He writes:
During the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, a certain number of Western intellectuals fancied themselves following in the Spanish footsteps of Malraux, Orwell, and Hemingway. But, unlike their predecessors, they largely remained at home or ensconced in the same hotel, rather than entering the fray, while the International Brigades and the Spanish Republican Army were replaced by the U.S. Air Force. Now, nothing in United States policy indicates the slightest sincere concern for human rights and democracy. Assigning it the prime task of defending these values is strange indeed. Moreover, to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive vision of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, "surgical" wars. The example of Iraq shows that it is possible to know when a war starts but not when it will end, and it is totally utopian to expect an army that is under constant attack from guerrilla forces not to have recourse to torture in order to obtain information. The French used it massively in Algeria. The Americans used it in Vietnam and again in Iraq. Yet both the French and American torturers were citizens of "democratic countries, respectful of human rights" -- yes, but when they were at home, and in periods of relative social peace.
To make the point again: if you wish to oppose these immensely destructive wars, bombings and interventions, you must ignore all the superficial marketing and camouflage -- all the talk of "humanitarian" concerns, promoting "democracy," "regional stability," and so on -- and focus relentlessly on the intentionally and carefully chosen policy of U.S. geopolitical dominance. And that is the policy Hoh accepts in all its essentials. He argues only one particular war, and only on narrow, strategic grounds. He offers no opposition that can genuinely encourage change, which must always be opposition on principle.

III. The Immorality and Destructiveness of a Draft

As important as all these issues are, and I consider them very important, there is one critical respect in which they almost pale into insignificance when compared to Hoh's remarks on one additional subject. Here are Hoh's remarks on that topic:
Washington, D.C.: Would a little more thought go into the why of going to war, if the Congress actually had to declare war and that upon a declaration of war, the military draft was reinstated for the duration of said war?

Matthew Hoh: Absolutely. As a former professional military officer I am against the draft because I don't believe it leads to an effective military. However, as a private citizen I feel that a draft would engage our population in the debate. I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft.
These comments are both immoral and ignorant. Certain aspects of them are loathsome in the extreme. Let me explain why.

Compulsory national service of any kind, military or otherwise, attacks the idea of individual liberty on the most fundamental level. If you can be meaningfully said to have any rights at all, you must have the right to your own body and to your own life. Without those rights, no other rights are possible. How is it possible to maintain you have a right to speak freely, or a "right" to an education or a "right" to a job, if the State may forcibly wrest years from your life, and even order you into combat, perhaps to be killed? And for anyone who might speak of a "right" to health care and simultaneously advocate a draft, how can you entertain such a ludicrous argument even for a moment in any remotely sane universe? The government will keep you healthy and fit, precisely so that it might kill you? It's obscene.

I point you to two earlier discussions of this issue. In "On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility: The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit," I excerpted a magnificent speech by Paul Fussell. Toward the conclusion of my essay, I noted that Fussell mentions the draft (Fussell: "It is customary to maintain that American wars are all fought on behalf of freedom, but few notice that for the sake of freedom millions of young men are enslaved for years, Shanghaied by conscription into a life whose every dimension is at odds with the idea of freedom.").

I then wrote:
About a draft, I will briefly note that most of its advocates and defenders will never acknowledge what compulsory national service of any kind actually is: slavery. If the government, backed by brute force and the threat of legal penalty (either imprisonment or in any other form), has the power to compel young men and women as to how they must spend several years of their lives -- and if the government can even order them into battle, perhaps in a cause they absolutely oppose, and possibly to be killed -- then individual rights have been obliterated at the most fundamental level. This kind of servitude to the state is slavery, pure and simple. Compulsory national service of any kind, including a military draft, is one of the greatest evils known to mankind, and it is no wonder that its defenders absolutely refuse to identify its true nature.
And in "Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil," and even though it was not the main subject of the essay, I explicitly drew a connection that many liberals seek to avoid:
In terms of the political theory involved, the basic question is a stark and simple one: if you cannot control your own body, what other rights can you possibly have? If your body is not yours, what does it matter if you can freely express your political and religious convictions? The principle involved is similarly simple: as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights, your right to control your own body is absolute. Period.


I must note that the same principle makes any kind of military draft or mandatory national service equally invalid, and equally destructive of individual rights. If the government can take control of your body for two or four years, and possibly even send you to your death, what does it matter if you have the right of free speech, or any other right? Liberals in particular ought to note that the argument is the same with regard to abortion and in connection with a draft or national service. If they want to engage in blatant contradictions, and support abortion rights and simultaneously advocate a draft or national service, they surrender any claim to intellectual coherence and consistency, and they will get precisely what they deserve. Tragically, many women and many other citizens will also suffer the consequences.
Now note the only objection to a draft that Hoh offers: as "a former professional military officer, I am against the draft because I don't believe it leads to an effective military."

Not that compulsory service destroys the foundation of individual liberty -- which it does. Not that compulsory service destroys lives and families, even if those who serve mercifully survive conflict. None of that even enters into the calculations. Hoh is against the draft because it's ineffective. Obscene is the only word that accurately describes an argument of this kind. Further note that this is the same argument that Hoh uses against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan: not that it's a war crime -- which it is -- but that it's ineffective. Moral principles would appear to have no place in Hoh's worldview.

(For those who will object to my argument about the immorality of a draft and how deeply wrong it is, perhaps noting that in 1918 the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the draft and held that it was not involuntary servitude, I will shock the children and note that the Supreme Court can, indeed, be profoundly wrong. I surely hope I need not remind readers of several instances of the Court's errors where the historical implications and costs, including human suffering on a vast scale, were beyond reckoning. But perhaps some have forgotten. They only concerned slavery, internment, and sexual acts in private between consenting adults, to name three.)

Hoh goes on to say: "However, as a private citizen I feel that a draft would engage our population in the debate. I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft." This represents massive historical ignorance. I will provide you one example that utterly destroys Hoh's contention: Vietnam.

Take a look at this timeline of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That involvement began at the conclusion of World War II, and it did not end until 30 years later. With the exception of the last two years, the draft was in force during all that time. (The specific form in which the draft was implemented somewhat varied during that time, but it was always in effect until 1973.)

Obviously, there was a growing antiwar movement in the U.S. during the 1960s, reaching its climax in the latter part of that decade, but I have yet to come across any evidence to suggest that those protests were a significant factor in the U.S. decision to leave Vietnam, as it finally did in 1975. In fact, I think three elements were most critical, and not one of them had anything to with the draft or antiwar protests. In general terms, this is how that argument goes. (I do not consider this a full proof, but I think the following is persuasive and supported by much historical evidence.)

By the early 1970s, the deep idiocy of the "domino theory" was becoming apparent, at least as far as Vietnam was concerned, even to those who had strongly believed in it. But even less than a decade earlier, many national leaders considered the domino theory to be a fully accurate prediction of what would happen if the U.S. left Vietnam. Remember Barbara Tuchman's description of Johnson's beliefs, and note her assessment at the conclusion of this paragraph:
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.
As the numbers of American troops in Vietnam rose, and as the casualties also increased, the undeniable costs became apparent. To be sure, in themselves such factors are no deterrent whatsoever to the ruling class in its relentless pursuit of its objectives.

But as the toll grew heavier, a key element came into question: was Vietnam itself actually worth it? I consider it almost certain that if Vietnam held significant reserves of a prized natural resource, U.S. forces would still be there today in some numbers and form. In this respect, contrast Vietnam with Robert Higgs' description of the critical importance of Bagram in Afghanistan, and of a permanent U.S. base of operations in Central Asia (this is from a passage from Higgs that I excerpted the other day):
It comes as no surprise, then, that of all the unified commands, CENTCOM is the one in which, in today’s world, the U.S. empire’s rubber meets the road most abrasively. The command’s area of responsibility includes a great part of the world’s known petroleum and natural gas deposits, a preponderance of Israel’s enemies, and the places in which the George W. Bush administration has chosen to focus its so-called Global War on Terror. Of course, the region also includes Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been fighting for years, and, sandwiched between these two battlefields, Iran, where Dick Cheney and the rest of the neocons ardently desire to extend the fighting at the earliest opportunity.
The same factors that ultimately led those who determine U.S. foreign policy to abandon Vietnam ensure that the U.S. will not leave the CENTCOM area of operations for decades, if ever.

On the same point, I also note this statement from Barbara Tuchman, which is the sentence immediately following the paragraph set forth above: "The purpose of the war [in Vietnam] was not gain or national defense." By the early 1970s, both parts of that truth began to penetrate minds that had earlier been resistant to them. During this same period, another event occurred, one of immense importance historically and to the U.S. ruling class in particular.

Remember the year of Nixon's historic trip to China: 1972. As their previous justifications for the Vietnam catastrophe began to fall away, the ruling class realized that another route was advisable not only for strategic reasons concerning national defense, but because it would be hugely profitable for the ruling class, including many multinational corporations: engagement. We must recognize these truths about the ruling class: it is undeniably insatiable in its thirst for power and wealth and in its willingness to commit any acts to satisfy that desire, including the murder of vast numbers of innocent human beings, and it is ruthlessly determined -- and it also is not stupid. Nixon himself, as deeply damaged an individual as he was and as thoroughly detestable in countless ways, was similarly not remotely dumb by any measure, certainly not when it came to calculations of this kind. Peaceful engagement with China held the promise of many benefits, not least among them immense wealth for the ruling class, an obvious truth that events have borne out.

In the early 1970s, all of these factors came together in a way that recommended a different course of action altogether, and that was the course the U.S. finally followed. We can thus see that neither the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam following World War II, nor the increasing intensity of that involvement throughout the next two decades, nor the decision to finally abandon Vietnam in the 1970s, connected in any major way to opposition to the draft or to this particular war in the manner suggested by Hoh. The initiation of U.S. involvement and its growth occurred with the draft in place throughout that period, and the U.S. left Vietnam for very different reasons. If anything, the draft made possible the U.S. presence in Vietnam for 30 years. So the truth on this question is precisely the opposite of what Hoh suggests, at least insofar as this very significant historical example would indicate.

As to Hoh's contention that "a draft would engage our population in the debate," I can only say that I view this as approaching the delusional. If anything, a draft makes any government's decision and ability to engage in destructive "wars of choice" more likely, not less (and Vietnam is but one example of that principle). Moreover, the American public's astonishing, even sickening, ability to remain apathetic and immovable even when heinous crimes are committed by their government has almost certainly increased immeasurably in recent decades. If the endless crimes committed by the Bush administration demonstrated nothing else, they surely demonstrated that. As the Bush administration launched two wars, were there massive, ongoing demonstrations, protests or, most importantly, systematic acts of civil disobedience? There were a few large protests before the Iraq invasion (which were almost entirely ignored), but otherwise, there was nothing. As the Bush administration tortured, brutalized and regularly set aside the most basic protections of individual liberty, and did all this in broad daylight, did outraged citizens bring government to a standstill, demanding that these depredations cease? They did not.

And as for this: "I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft" -- there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is true. I credit that it is what Hoh hopes would be true, but that is not precisely the same thing. It is a common failing to confuse what we wish to be true with what is true, but it is one we should seek to avoid. Hoh would destroy the very foundation of liberty for a fantasy.

IV. Conclusion

To summarize my earlier arguments and what I have said here, especially for those who eagerly embrace Hoh because of his opposition to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but opposition offered only on narrow, strategic grounds: Yes, you have found someone who opposes continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but only involvement in its current form. Hoh fully shares the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy, and he has no objection in principle to wars of aggression. Moreover, we know from his own words and actions that he does not even view the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a war of aggression, when it indisputably is.

Beyond this, and of the greatest importance, Hoh explicitly supports a policy which would undercut individual liberty at the most fundamental level. The entire concept of rights would be gravely imperiled. And if compulsory service were ever reinstated, it would all but guarantee future conflicts and further senseless wars, with all their attendant suffering and death.

By declaring Hoh an ally, you might gain a momentary advantage, but it is an advantage as fleeting as the last vanishing rays of the setting sun. And when that very brief advantage has passed, the blood and the sorrow will remain, and they will be endlessly replenished into a desolate future.

October 27, 2009

The Denial Continues, and the Horror Remains Unrecognized

As soon as I read this Washington Post story about the resignation of Matthew Hoh, I knew I would write this article. The story is significant not only in itself, but also in the altogether predictable reaction it would elicit, particularly from those who criticize the United States presence and strategy in Afghanistan, and most especially from those who criticize our Afghanistan strategy most strongly. And I knew, before I read even one of those responses, that the reaction would miss or ignore what is most crucial to understand about Hoh's resignation and its meaning. In the event, everything I had thought proved to be accurate in every detail.

The opening of the Post story summarizes the key elements:
When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.

A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.

But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."
The critics of U.S. Afghanistan policy are uniformly heralding Hoh's resignation as a rare triumph of "principle" over narrower concerns with career and other personal goals. But as we shall see, such praise is undeserved, and even dangerous because of the issues it avoids.

I view Hoh's resignation as a positive development in only one very limited sense. If a sufficient number of U.S. personnel resigned, for reasons similar to Hoh's or even for no reason at all, if they simply resigned, the U.S. would be unable to continue its current policy. But that will not happen, not in the numbers required.

What about the specific reasons Hoh provides for his resignation? Several aspects of those reasons are noteworthy. Hoh explains them in his letter of resignation (pdf), and the Post story accurately summarizes the key points:
[M]any Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.


Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."
The first point to be made about this should be obvious, although this is a lesson that few political leaders or commentators ever learn. And the point is this: the U.S. could and should have known all of this before even one soldier set foot in Afghanistan.

This is not specialized knowledge accessible only to alleged "experts." It is information readily available to any reasonably intelligent person, provided he is basically responsible and recognizes the necessity of knowing what he is doing before he acts. These days, many writers are offering comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam; for the most part, those comparisons are notable for what they miss. On this particular point, remember this passage from Barbara Tuchman's analysis of the criminal catastrophe in Vietnam (from The March of Folly):
Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.
As is always the case in tragic and entirely avoidable episodes such as Vietnam, Afghanistan -- and, I emphasize, Iraq, and very possibly Iran next -- it is "[n]ot ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence..." that leads to disaster. The evidence is always available to those who will look, but policy which has already been chosen will override that evidence as required for States to achieve their aims.

I mentioned Iraq, and I will have more to say on that subject in a moment. But I wrote about this same mechanism of deliberately cultivated ignorance -- which, I stress, is not genuine ignorance at all, but a determination to set the evidence aside in favor of predetermined policy -- in "Sacred Ignorance," and in an earlier piece on the same theme, "Embracing Ignorance on Principle: And Still, We Will Not See." In the latter article, I summarized this intentionally cultivated "ignorance" as follows:
This determined refusal to look at and understand the relevant facts, including the crucially relevant history, is a significant part of the reason why Bush's repeated mantra that "everyone wants freedom," and moreover that everyone wants freedom in roughly the same form that we enjoy it, is so hollow and so unconvincing. It was not true in Vietnam, and it is not true in Iraq. Peoples' attitudes, objectives, alliances and enmities are uniquely shaped by their particular history -- not by ours, or by no history at all. And it is the latter that is unavoidably implied by the attitude revealed by Bennet in his article, and by the Bush administration: they seem to believe that "freedom" and "democracy" are abstractions that are plucked by people from the sky overhead -- and then applied by everyone in precisely the same manner, regardless of history, geography, culture and every other aspect of their specific lives.


[T]his is yet another reason why I maintain, as I explained yesterday, that we should leave immediately, or as close to immediately as we can -- and set a time limit of six months at the outside, for example, for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Not only are we a significant source of the ongoing violence, but we continue to refuse to learn about the nature of the Iraqis themselves, and what their perspectives and their aims are.
Of course, we are not leaving Iraq, and we are not leaving Afghanistan. U.S. forces may be reduced or their particular composition may be altered, but we are not leaving.

Hoh's identifications of the reasons for the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan are certainly true, but I repeat that all those reasons have been readily apparent for years and even decades, if only those who fashion and implement U.S. policy cared to acknowledge them. But a more fundamental problem in analysis arises at this point: none of these reasons for failure have anything whatsoever to do with U.S. policy or why our leaders are so insistent on pursuing it.

The endless appeals to "spreading democracy," fostering "stable governments," and all the rest are nothing but marketing and public relations. They are the camouflage for the actual purposes of our government's actions. You can dissect and demolish those purported justifications for U.S. policy all you wish; our leaders don't care about any of that, no matter how successful your demolition efforts are, because all of that is completely irrelevant. But our leaders and most commentators do love the marketing, so with only very rare exceptions, their analysis and even their criticisms remain on this superficial level.

The actual reasons that drive U.S. policy aren't hidden. Again, the evidence is spread before you in plain sight: all you have to do is look at and understand it. I discussed the general contours of U.S. foreign policy for over the last hundred years in a piece just the other day: "The Empty Establishment: No One's Home in an Intellectual Wasteland." With regard to our presence in Afghanistan, a presence which will continue in one form or another for decades to come barring unforeseen developments (or possibly a regional conflagration, which would most likely be set off by a U.S. attack on Iran), I direct you to an invaluable article by the indispensable Robert Higgs. The article first appeared over a year ago, and I've been meaning to discuss it ever since.

I strongly recommend you read every word of it, several times at a minimum: "CENTCOM's Master Plan and U.S. Global Hegemony." For our purposes here, these are the critical paragraphs:
Many people deny that the U.S. government presides over a global empire. If you speak of U.S. imperialism, they will fancy that you must be a decrepit Marxist-Leninist who has recently awakened after spending decades in a coma. Yet the facts cannot be denied, however much people’s ideology may predispose them to distort or obfuscate those facts.

How can a government that maintains more than 800 military facilities in more than 140 different foreign countries be anything other than an imperial power? The hundreds of thousands of troops who operate those bases and conduct operations from them, not to mention the approximately 125,000 sailors and Marines aboard the U.S. warships that cruise the oceans, are not going door to door selling Girl Scout cookies. United States of America is the name; intimidation is the game.

Of course, the kingpins who control this massive machinery of coercion never describe it in such terms. In their lexis, American motives and actions are invariably noble. Listening to these bigwigs describe what the U.S. forces abroad are doing, you would never suspect that they seek anything but “regional stability,” “security,” “deterrence of potential regional aggressors,” and “economic development and cooperation among nations.” Inasmuch as hardly anybody favors instability, insecurity, international aggression, economic retrogression, and mutual strife among nations, the U.S. objectives, and hence the actions taken in their furtherance, would appear to be indisputably laudable.

Yet, from time to time, a U.S. leader lets slip an expression so revealing that it warrants a thousand times greater weight than the vague, mealy-mouthed banalities they routinely dispense. I came across such a statement recently. In seeking funds in 2007 for construction of a $62 million ammunition storage facility at Bagram Air Base, Admiral William J. Fallon, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), referred to Bagram as “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia.”

Pause to savor this phrase for a moment; let it roll around in your mind: CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia. What an intriguing expression! What dramatic images of future U.S. military actions it evokes! But can those actions be anything other than the very sort that empires undertake? Ask yourself: why does the U.S. military anticipate conducting operations in Central Asia, a region that lies thousands of miles from the United States and comprises countries that lack either the capacity or the intention to seriously harm Americans who mind their own business in their own national territory? Indeed, what is the U.S. military doing in Central Asia in the first place? Have you ever heard of “the Great Game”?

When the Army sought the funds for the new ammunition storage facility at Bagram again this year, its request echoed Admiral Fallon’s sentiments by stating: “As a forward operating site, Bagram must be able to provide for a long term, steady state presence which is able to surge to meet theater contingency requirements.” The statement’s reference to “a long term, steady state presence” would seem to be especially revealing because it takes for granted that U.S. forces will not be leaving this part of the world any time soon. Giving even more weight to this interpretation, Congress approved not only the $62 million for the ammunition storage facility, but also $41 million for a 30-megawatt electrical power plant at Bagram, a plant large enough to serve more than 20,000 American homes.

Along the same lines, Lt. Colonel John Sotham, commander of the 455 Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, which is now stationed at Bagram Air Base, recently described a number of improvements his squadron is making at the base, looking toward giving it “a more permanent footprint.” He added: “It’s pretty clear that the U.S. Air Force will be at Camp Cunningham [a living area at Bagram] and involved in the fight against terrorism for a very long time.” He relished the opportunity to “help drive Bagram from expeditionary to enduring!”

It comes as no surprise, then, that of all the unified commands, CENTCOM is the one in which, in today’s world, the U.S. empire’s rubber meets the road most abrasively. The command’s area of responsibility includes a great part of the world’s known petroleum and natural gas deposits, a preponderance of Israel’s enemies, and the places in which the George W. Bush administration has chosen to focus its so-called Global War on Terror. Of course, the region also includes Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been fighting for years, and, sandwiched between these two battlefields, Iran, where Dick Cheney and the rest of the neocons ardently desire to extend the fighting at the earliest opportunity.
This is the general policy that Obama continues, and that he will continue into the foreseeable future. He made his intentions clear from the beginning of his campaign, and nothing has changed. Nor will it, certainly not insofar as Obama is concerned:
Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.
So all of the feigned bafflement and incessant caterwauling about the supposedly indecipherable actions of the United States -- Why, oh why, did we invade Iraq?, and Why, dear God, are we in Afghanistan? -- represent only the capitulation of the purported critics to precisely those arguments U.S. leaders hope you will engage. They want you to spend all your time on those arguments, because they're only marketing ploys having nothing at all to do with their actual goals. As I said the other day, if you want to stop this murderous madness -- and I dearly hope you do -- forget about what they say their goals are (fostering "democratic" governments, “regional stability,” “security,” and all the associated claptrap), and focus on the real problem: the carefully chosen policy of U.S. geopolitical dominance over the entire globe. On the day Obama announces the scheduled closure of at least one-third of the U.S.'s worldwide empire of bases, I'll believe he's serious about altering any of this, and not a moment before. He never will, and you know he won't. (I myself would prefer the closure within three to six months of three-quarters of them at a minimum. But contrary to some of my critics, I actually do reside in this world, and not the one I would prefer.)

Higgs' argument and those I consistently make explain the U.S. presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in countless other places around the world. And Iraq returns us to Matthew Hoh, and why his resignation is ultimately meaningless. In fact, it is much worse than that. To underscore the very limited nature of Hoh's protest, consider the conclusion of the Washington Post story:
If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."
In this passage, you see how even Hoh supports the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy. He refers to "combat forces," but this is deceptive terminology, which I analyzed in detail when the same device was used in connection with Iraq. And Hoh urges "more support for Pakistan," and "more pressure" on Karzai -- that is, he recommends continued and even greater involvement in countries that should not concern us because they do not threaten us, but he suggests we alter the emphasis and particular form of our involvement. This is tinkering around the edges, and it does nothing to address the actual problem.

But the worst is this passage earlier in the story:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
The critical facts are few in number, and remarkably easy to understand: Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any serious manner. Our leaders knew Iraq did not threaten us. Despite what should have been the only fact that mattered, the U.S. invaded and occupied, and still occupies, a nation that never threatened us and had never attacked us. Under the applicable principles of international law and the Nuremberg Principles, the U.S. thus committed a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. Those who support and continue the occupation of Iraq are war criminals -- not because I say so, but because the same principles that the U.S. applies to every other nation, but never to the U.S. itself, necessitate that judgment and no other.

While it may be true that some "dudes" threatened Hoh's life and the lives of those with whom he served, Hoh could never have been threatened in that manner but for the fact that he was in Iraq as part of a criminal war of aggression. In other words, he had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. And if he had not been, he would never have been in a position to "whack[] a bunch of guys."

Hoh joined the U.S. military voluntarily. He was obliged to understand this. Ehren Watada understood it, and he therefore refused to go ("My participation would make me party to war crimes."). Without further information, I decline to pass a definitive, final judgment about the meaning of Hoh's actions in Iraq, for the complicated reasons explained in, "No, I Do Not Support 'The Troops.'" But I must acknowledge that this particular statement of Hoh's, especially his casual dismissal and even celebration of his willingness to murder people in what is, in fact, a criminal war of aggression, is a profoundly bad sign, and very likely an irreparably negative indication of his views. For those who repair to one argument in particular, please note that I discuss the "following orders" defense in the earlier essay. But as I noted there, almost all writers (including even those of the liberal-progressive variety) will recognize the invalidity of that defense in certain well-known historical instances of its use, while they simultaneously seize on it eagerly when they seek to deny moral autonomy to U.S. soldiers. "American exceptionalism" has many guises, and that is only another of them. Ehren Watada and the other individuals who emphatically said, "No," and who meant it even on pain of severe punishment, should be our honored guides on this question.

The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent -- which it is -- but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level -- and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.

Against all this, read Glenn Greenwald on Hoh's resignation. Greenwald begins by praising Hoh's action in precisely the terms that I anticipated would be the reaction from critics of U.S. Afghanistan policy: "Hoh's resignation is remarkable because it entails the sort of career sacrifice in the name of principle that has been so rare over the last decade, but even more so because of the extraordinary four-page letter (.pdf) he wrote explaining his reasoning." Greenwald focuses on Hoh's explanation of the reasons for the failure of U.S. policy, but he mentions none of the issues I discuss above.

And then comes the most revealing passage of all:
Hoh told The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung that he's "not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love" and that he believes "there are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," adding: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." Plainly, there's nothing ideological about his conclusions; they're just the by-product of an honest assessment, based on first-hand experiences, of how our ongoing occupation of that country is worsening the very problem we're allegedly there to solve.
In his use of the word "ideological," Greenwald appears to mean that Hoh's criticisms regarding Afghanistan are not driven by some predetermined, superficial political opposition. Instead, in Greenwald's view, Hoh's position is "an honest assessment, based on first-hand experiences..."

Greenwald considers this a good aspect of Hoh's more general position, in that it strengthens Hoh's particular criticisms of Afghanistan strategy. But as I explained above, all of Hoh's observations could and should have been understood long before our engagement in Afghanistan began, just as they could and should have been understood in Vietnam -- and all of the same reasons apply to Iraq as well. That Hoh cannot or will not see the application to Iraq of the issues he himself identifies is only one symptom of his inability or refusal to come to terms with U.S. policy and its actual motives and purposes. And that Greenwald glosses over all of this, and all of the arguments about Iraq set forth above, is another instance of the same inability or refusal to grapple with the much more basic problems in U.S. policy -- precisely those problems that all but guarantee another and possibly even worse future disaster with Iran, or North Korea, or some other country that is rarely mentioned today.

For me, the worst omission on Greenwald's part is his failure to comment on [what is most significant about]* this statement from Hoh: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." I urge you to consider again the arguments as to why the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq constitute an ongoing series of monstrous war crimes, and how Hoh's actions are only one part of an incomprehensibly awful larger criminal project. But Hoh "was never more happy" than when he "whacked a bunch of guys" -- "guys" that neither Hoh nor any other U.S. soldier should ever have been in a position to kill. And Greenwald finds none of this worthy of even momentary interest.

Yet in that single statement of Hoh's, and in all the assumptions that underlie it and all the policies to which it necessarily leads and to which it will lead again as long as those policies remain unaltered, lies a world of endless horror -- a world of agony, dismemberment, maiming, torture, of countless personal tragedies and lives forever changed and ended, and of growing instability and threats that are increased by U.S. actions. As long as the forces that drive U.S. policy are ignored or denied, as long as we do not engage this argument on those terms that are most crucial -- and as long as we will not identify the nature of U.S. actions for what they are, and in these instances, they are war crimes -- these horrors will continue without end.

In preparing this essay for publication, I happened to see just moments ago the final paragraphs of the post in which I included the Tuchman passage set forth above (a longer Tuchman excerpt will be found in the earlier entry). I wrote this over two years ago, and it tragically remains true today:
When we come upon a murderer covered with the blood of victims who never threatened him, we do not defend him by appealing to his "good intentions" or by claiming that "he meant well" -- at least, we do not if we seek to remain civilized.

In terms of its foreign policy of aggressive, ceaseless, violent interventionism, the United States has been a murderer of this kind on the world stage for over a century. And our ruling class continues to state repeatedly, in a manner demanding that we credit the assertions, that their infernal and bloody work is far from done.

*The phrase in brackets was added only for additional clarity, although this meaning should be entirely clear in the context of the immediately preceding discussion.

October 26, 2009

Contemplating a Different World

[An important Update now added at the conclusion.]

I agree with IOZ's major points here, and I want to offer these additional thoughts.

By way of personal background: I haven't called myself a libertarian for several years. Even when I did, I wrote about what I called "contextual libertarianism," and that essay explains why I considered that approach so crucial. The essay proper was first published in November 2003, which seems a lifetime ago. In terms of how my ideas have progressed (and, I would hope, improved, but you will properly judge that for yourselves), the introductory comments I added to that post two years later were only another stop along a longer road. My view of both libertarianism, certainly as represented in contemporary American thought, and Ayn Rand has grown steadily more negative. One of these days, when I have time to kill completely -- I won't, so don't hold your breath -- I'll explain why I have virtually nothing positive to say about Rand, and a great deal to say which is negative in the extreme. The sole exception on the positive side of the ledger concerns a very limited aspect of her work, one which I view as meaningless given the totality of her views (although it does explain the very limited attraction her work once held for me, and which I mistakenly tried to convince myself represented a broader positive response). I recognize that some sort of Rand "resurgence" is occurring at the moment. I consider this renewed interest in Rand's work perfectly understandable, and I also view it as not remotely approaching a good thing. On second thought, I may have a few things to say about that in the future.

(I identified what is perhaps my most basic criticism of Rand in very broad terms in the introductory comments to this article: "I hope to return to the 'Systems of Obedience' series in a few months, after completing some other writing. And Rand's 'philosophy,' such as it is, fits perfectly into that series: despite the protestations of her followers and of Rand herself that her philosophy reveres reason and independence above all else, the opposite is true. With regard to how her ideas actually work in the lives and thought of her admirers and, I would submit, the only way those ideas can work, Rand's notions ultimately and inevitably reduce to a demand for obedience to principles that are often defended very poorly or barely at all, that are frequently incoherent and contradictory, and that are extraordinarily damaging, in ways both small and tragically large." As long-time readers will know, my entire life revolved around Rand and "Objectivism" for close to a decade, and I worked in the office of her last publication during its entire five years of existence in the 1970s. I had regular contact with Rand and many of her associates, and a few of them -- although certainly not Rand herself -- became very close friends. So I know all this from extensive and very painful personal experience, in addition to now considering all these observations to be fully and necessarily accurate given the nature of Rand's ideas and her approach themselves.)

I described my own journey in more detail just before my sixtieth birthday:
It is often noted that many people become more conservative as they age. The opposite is true in my case. Over the last three or four years in particular, I have become more and more radical. I once described my political beliefs as libertarian in nature -- although, I hasten to add and I think the record will show, my libertarianism was of the genuine and serious variety, as opposed to the utterly phony libertarianism that will be found in today's culture, and especially among many bloggers. I opposed the very dangerous authoritarianism of the Bush administration from the time I began blogging in September 2002, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq before it began. I always recognized that the corporatist-authoritarian state at home and an aggressively and violently interventionist foreign policy are inextricably linked, that they are but the two faces of the same coin. But as my political-cultural critique has hopefully deepened, my political views altered. I now describe myself as a leftist-anarchist: the leftist part of the description designates the cultural-economic-historical-political perspective I try to employ, while the anarchist label indicates that I view the State as the primary problem. As I have said (and I will have more to say about this at some point), I view anarchism as useful in theory only at this point, although the theory is of immense importance. Until and unless a critical number of individuals alter the primary motives that move most people (the desire for power and control, and the demand for obedience, being chief among them), any state of affairs approximating anarchism will lead only to more chaos and death. If humanity manages to evolve through several more stages, which assumes we don't kill ourselves in huge numbers in the meantime (a fragile hope, indeed), then peaceful anarchism might have a chance.
As to those circumstances in which anarchy would be immensely beneficial and life-enhancing and not merely destructive, I offered these further brief thoughts:
I will be writing more on the following point shortly, so now I only mention this glancingly: for anarchy even to be possible (and to be a positive good, rather than only immensely destructive), a profound transformation of human consciousness would be required. I don't mean that fancifully; I intend it quite literally. The disavowal of a single overriding authority -- a power that commands the obedience of all under its sway, under penalty of law -- could only rest on a radically different conception of our own nature and, of equal importance, of how we relate to one another, in contrast to the ideas almost all people accept today. In fact, I think evolution may take us to that point at some time in the future; there are small indications supporting that possibility to be found here and there. But I doubt it will occur on any significant scale when you or I will see it.
With regard to the State as the primary problem in political analysis and in our lives at present, I direct your attention to "The State and Full Spectrum Dominance," and especially to the Robert Higgs article I excerpt. From Higgs:
With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man. All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty, and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.

The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.


[E]verything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state.
All this goes to IOZ's observation that libertarianism's "relentless insistence on state-supremacy ... commits precisely the sin that [Howley] identifies: it reifies that which it claims to seek to undermine," which is entirely correct.

I note that I well understand the concerns that prompt IOZ's question, "why must you call yourselves anything at all?" -- which is in part why I always offer an explanation, however brief, as to precisely what I mean by the terms I employ, excepting only those contexts in which the meaning should be obvious. But using terms such as those I utilize here and in the above excerpts is not only useful, but unavoidable. We do, in fact, live in a particular culture at a particular time. All terms, including those of political self-description, have associations and meanings, even when they are vague and approximate, or represent even dubious connections. That is why it behooves us to explain what we mean when we use them. In the political context, we are building on thought which has evolved over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In significant part, we thus formulate our views in response to how those ideas have altered over time, as well as to how societies have changed. And when we conclude it is necessary or desirable, we reshape those ideas and their associated terms to our own ends, and/or we alter the terms we employ as required.

What I find of special interest are these comments from IOZ toward the conclusion of his entry: "What has [libertarianism] got to say about the construction of community, the nature of cooperative endeavor in the absence of coercion? Most libertarians aren't even willing to accept that property, their central fetish, is itself a cultural artifact, not a constant of nature." The property issue is an intriguing one, and it is undeniably true that the concept of "property" has manifested itself in countless forms throughout history, and sometimes vanished altogether. But that's a subject for another time.

Consider IOZ's preceding question, concerning "the construction of community, the nature of cooperative endeavor in the absence of coercion." Now that is a goddamned fascinating subject. Early in 2008, I offered somewhat related thoughts in the form of a fanciful fable, "The Tale That Might Be Told." I say "somewhat related," because that fable was primarily addressed to the centrality of coercion in our lives, and what might happen when that coercion was removed. I wrote that piece in the form of a "tale" because I hoped to bypass the strictures of our thought and approach the question on a more basic, even emotional, level. Contrary to what some peabrained critics thought, such a tale was never intended as any kind of explicit political program. It never occurred to me that a reader would believe I seriously entertained the prospect of a future where events actually unfolded in that manner. Here's a clue for the cognitively-impaired: not everything you read is a plan for political action, at least not on this blog. (Given the realities of our lives today and the ongoing deterioration, and even collapse, of the United States in every area, in either slow motion or on a faster schedule depending on events, it is much more likely that a major rupture and/or transformation will be accompanied by widespread violence, brutality and death. But such a naturalistic depiction of what the future may tragically hold had nothing at all to do with the purposes of my fable.)

There was one, but only one, real-life political point contained in my fable, and that is the idiocy of voting for national office. Local, even state, elections might have some limited purpose, although even that depends on circumstances of a particular kind. But voting on the national level for candidates of the two major parties -- and especially for president -- in our current, all-encompassing corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system is goldplated idiocy of the first degree, period. My extensive, indisputable proof, a proof which requires nothing further whatsoever, consists of but a single word: Obama. (If you tiresomely insist on a full proof, start here and follow the numerous links. And don't neglect "A Choice of War Criminals." A few of us regarded voting for a war criminal as determinative. Go figure. Both Obama and McCain are war criminals not because I say so, but because the Nuremberg Principles compel that conclusion. See that essay for the details.)

Aside from that single issue, my fable sought to encourage people to consider what I often view as the only question that ultimately matters: What if...? What if there were no ultimate authority that dictated the manner in which you live? What if there were no State? For those with sincerely and deeply-held religious beliefs (which is not most people despite what they say, an issue I will soon be discussing in the tribalism series, along with many related issues), what if there were no God? What if you were free -- genuinely free of all outside compulsion, real or imagined -- to fashion your life in a way you chose in total independence, assuming nothing and questioning everything, with only those people as company who chose to join you in the effort? What would you do? How would you act? How would others act? What are the possibilities? Why those possibilities, and not others?

I'm sorry to disappoint you, if I do, but I don't have the answers. How could anyone have the answers? As my headline expresses the idea, it would be a completely different world. And as one of my earlier essays suggests, it would be a world resting "on a radically different conception of our own nature and, of equal importance, of how we relate to one another, in contrast to the ideas almost all people accept today." As against a world dominated by authority, obedience, control and violence, it would be a world where a critical number of people were primarily moved by the inviolable sanctity of an individual life, by genuine, profound compassion and empathy. Some of us seek to make that world real in our own lives to the extent we can -- but what if that world grew larger, if only to encompass a self-sustaining community linked to other similar communities?

I might be able to discern the general outlines of such a world, but I don't know the details of what it would look like or how it would operate. But isn't that worth thinking about? Making it real would be the joyous task of those of us who shared the vision. As we contemplate that vision and consider the possibilities, we see more clearly the limitations that restrict us in both thought and action today, in a world largely ruled by violence and cruelty, a world which all too often cripples and kills the innocent, those people who are most deserving of honor and protection.

Those moments in which we contemplate such matters are immensely valuable in themselves, and also for the light they shine on the issues and controversies that often overwhelm our daily lives. They can be a source of pleasure and inspiration, and even of joy and wonder. Such moments are often among the most precious we have, at least I find them so. And the inherent value of such moments must never be dismissed or underestimated, for it is crucial to the thought to which I often return these days:

Live ecstatically.

UPDATE: By email, IOZ reminds me that Kevin Carson has done an extensive amount of enormously valuable work on the kinds of practical questions I mention in the concluding section of this essay. I thank IOZ for the reminder, and I offer my profuse apologies to Mr. Carson for the grievous oversight. I confess that I don't read Carson's work nearly as regularly or as thoroughly as I should, and the error and the loss are entirely my responsibility. But all of his work that I have read is consistently illuminating and instructive. So I direct you to his site forthwith, and I recommend you begin investigating his extensive offerings as soon as your schedule and interest allow. I shall do the same myself. And I offer my most sincere apologies to Mr. Carson once more. I'm more deeply sorry than I can say.

October 24, 2009

The Empty Establishment: No One's Home in an Intellectual Wasteland

Amy Chua's survey of current trends in foreign policy analysis and prescriptions for future action unintentionally reveals the terminal fatigue and intellectual inertia that have all but extinguished any faint, remaining signs of vitality and originality. Her major message is that all the writers she mentions, chosen because they represent the allegedly "competing" schools of thought, recommend returning to policies that were followed at various times in the past, when they supposedly succeeded. After twelve good-sized paragraphs that describe the terrain in broad outline, Chua concludes:
It may not be a bad thing that almost no one in foreign policy circles is proposing anything new. Foreign policy is not modern dance; tried and true may be better than avant-garde and visionary. Still, in today’s world, marked by unparalleled threats and characterized by a striking division between elite ideas and broad public opinion, it’s hard to believe that America’s way forward is a return to the past.
Let us first take the measure of Chua's predictable deployment of one of the hoariest of cliches: that our world today is one "marked by unparalleled threats." Our betters seek to terrify us into submission with visions of "unparalleled threats" (or "unique evil") on alternate Mondays at a minimum. History suggests that every generation since apes first grunted has been encouraged to tremble before the same spectres. How many times can people hear such drivel before they understand it to be malignantly malodorous manure? Every threat is unparalleled, and no morning is like any other. This moment is unlike all the moments that preceded it. You are a unique wonder, and I'm the Queen of Sheba. I'm ready to be published now, New York Times person!

According to the brief biographical note at the end of her article, Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two portentous-sounding tomes. She is unquestionably respectable and serious, and obviously a fully-deserving member of the intellectual establishment herself. And Chua tells us that "[i]t may not be a bad thing" (thus courageously staking out her affirmative vision in memorable fashion) that "almost no one...is proposing anything new," yet "it's hard to believe that America's way forward is a return to the past." In other words: who the hell knows what the U.S. should do?

At this point, common folk like you and me might well think that Chua has put herself out of business, together with those individuals she discusses. Ah, but that's not at all how it works. We're repeatedly told that the best we can do is acknowledge that A and B say thus and so, while C and D recommend a very different course of action, and E and F maintain that something else entirely is called for. And all these people are experts and recognized thinkers in their field! Who are we to question their wisdom? They question each other's wisdom, but they're entitled to. They're experts! Is there some method that ordinary schlubs (that's you and me again, bub) might employ to determine where the truth lies? If there is, Chua isn't about to tell us; her final paragraph indicates that she doesn't have such a methodology herself.

Someone will object: But she's doing a survey-review kind of piece, and she's only reporting what's out there, not assessing the validity of the various schools of thought. At a quick glance, that's a good try, but it fails. For this isn't an approach restricted to articles of a certain kind: it's the way these "debates" are always conducted. The experts all have their own ideas, but they'll work it out; meanwhile you mind your own business (which means that you pay for it with your blood and fortune, whatever may be left of either, but otherwise you will shut up). And the notion that the experts will find a solution in their own good time and with the benefit of their unalloyed wisdom simply reduces to the fact that whichever clique happens to be in power at any given moment will determine and implement the policies. Through some process known only to the elites, a consensus will be found. The consensus will know what to do.

And that brings us to the actual problem. You can see the outline of that problem in three paragraphs in particular. This is the opening of Chua's piece:
Neoliberalism, which dominated the decade before 9/11, had an exuberantly simple vision. Communism and authoritarianism had failed; therefore markets and free elections were the answer. Free-market democracy, conveniently spread by globalization, would transform the world into a community of productive, peace-loving nations. Instead, the ensuing years saw repeated economic crises outside the West, genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, intensifying fundamentalism, virulent anti-Americanism and finally the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Enter neoconservatism. At its core, the neoconservative program was premised on the aggressive, interventionist use of American military force, with or without international approval, to effect regime change and nation building. If 9/11 sent neoliberalism into a tailspin, the Iraq quagmire did the same for neoconservatism.
And then this paragraph, following Chua's discussion of various writers and the schools of thought they represent:
Despite such conflicting perspectives, however, it’s a sign of the times that the major thinkers are virtually all proposing a return to something old. Critics of the Bush-Cheney era depict those eight years as disastrous departures from traditional American principles. Supporters of the Bush administration present their new prescriptions as consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy.
This presentation -- one which is generally consistent with the view held by many people, and not only among the elites -- neatly elides the most critical aspect of U.S. foreign policy, especially since World War II. That truth is readily ascertainable, by "expert" and layperson alike, and it is simply that U.S. foreign policy has been on a steady course since the 1940s (and, I would argue, since the 1890s and the episode in Hawaii and the murderous occupation of the Philippines), through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The goal is nothing less than worldwide hegemony for the benefit of the American ruling class, and it is guided by "both economic expansion and ideological expansion and links them to U.S. national security," in the words of Christopher Layne.

In his insightful book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present, Layne writes:
This book is not a chronicle of the grand strategy of the Bush II administration or of the two administrations that preceded it. Nevertheless, the real world events that have shaped U.S. grand strategy since the Bush II administration took office--9/11, the war on terror, the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and mounting tensions with Iran and North Korea caused by those two states' nuclear ambitions--cast a long shadow. One of my objectives in this book is to put these events into historical perspective and to show that they are part of a larger pattern that extends back to the early 1940s. Here, I take issue with those who have argued that the Bush II administration's approach to U.S. grand strategy--its determination to maintain overwhelming U.S. geopolitical dominance and its muscular idealism--breaks sharply with the principles and assumptions that guided earlier U.S. policymakers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Take the administration's resolve to use America's preponderant power to ensure that other states cannot entertain the "hope of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Here the administration simply reaffirmed the policy adopted by its two immediate predecessors.

The Bush II administration's decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein is another example of continuity in U.S. grand strategy since 1989. As we now know, that decision had nothing to do with 9/11, the war on terror, or Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Rather it was a war of hegemony intended to establish U.S. military and ideological dominance in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Iraq was not the first, but merely the latest, U.S. war of hegemony since the cold war's end. Since the cold war waned in the late 1980s the United States has been involved in a series of such military interventions.

Few raised their eyebrows about Panama (1989) or Haiti (1994, 2004). After all, the United States has a track record of wielding a big stick to maintain stability in its own backyard. But the two wars with Iraq (1991, 2003), the U.S. military interventions in the Balkans (Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999), and the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) do stand out. The first war with Iraq was fought to exert U.S. geopolitical primacy in the Gulf. The Balkan interventions aimed to "strengthen Washington's control of NATO, the major institution for maintaining U.S. influence in European affairs" and to "project American power into the East Mediterranean region where it could link up with a growing U.S. military presence in the Middle East." Afghanistan allowed the United States to do more than go after al Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States shored up its strategic position in the Middle East while simultaneously extending its reach into Central Asia and, in the process, challenging Russia's influence in Moscow's own backyard.


It is often said, with respect to U.S. grand strategy, that the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., "changed everything." But they didn't. After 9/11--as before--geopolitical dominance has been the ambition of the United States. If anything, 9/11 gave the Bush II administration's "hegemonists" a convenient--indeed, almost providential--rationale for implementing policies they would have wanted to pursue in any event, including "regime change" in Iraq (and possibly Iran); the projection of U.S. power into the Middle East and Central Asia; a massive five-year defense buildup, which, when completed, will result in U.S. military outlays exceeding the combined defense budgets of the rest of the world's states; and a nuclear strategy that aims at attaining meaningful nuclear superiority over peer competitors and simultaneously ensuring that regional powers cannot develop the capacity to deter U.S. military intervention abroad. In short, the Bush II administration has sought security by expanding U.S. power and pursuing hegemony. In this respect it has stayed on--not left--the grand strategic path followed by the United States since the early 1940s.
William Pfaff often talks of these same ideas. In one passage, Pfaff discusses the widespread belief that "the American model of society is destined to dominate the world, by one means or another, since it is held to be the culmination of human development," and then writes:
This conviction is commonly found on both left and right. It was during the Clinton Administration that the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, proclaimed that Americans see farther than anyone else because they "stand taller." "Globalization" was a product of the same administration, a program for opening deregulated markets worldwide to U.S. investment that was articulated by the administration as part of world society's march towards unification in democracy and market capitalism (and history's end).

It was also under President Clinton that the unprecedented Pentagon system of regional commands was established that now covers the entire world, responsible for monitoring developments in each region and preparing for possible U.S. interventions under a wide variety of scenarios involving challenges not only to U.S. interests but, as it is said, to world order.

Militarized or otherwise, American policy remains under the influence of an unacknowledged and unjustified utopianism. This is the unanalyzed background to the work of all Washington's foreign policy agencies. It permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the reason Americans can think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it.
It would take far too long to examine all the erroneous assumptions underlying Chua's NYT piece, but I want to drive home how profoundly wrong and misleading this passage is:
Critics of the Bush-Cheney era depict those eight years as disastrous departures from traditional American principles. Supporters of the Bush administration present their new prescriptions as consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy.
As Chua describes it, even "supporters of the Bush administration" seek to distinguish "their new prescriptions" from the policies of the departed and unlamented Bush II. These Bush supporters now favor policies that are "consistent with earlier eras of successful American foreign policy," but apparently they would have us believe those policies have little to do with what transpired under the Bush administration.

And Chua is probably correct about that much -- that is, about what these Bush supporters would have us believe, as distinguished from what is true. For almost everyone, the preferred intellectual stance at this point is to isolate the Bush administration as unique -- even "uniquely evil," and having no correspondence at any point to America the (otherwise) Good -- and as representing a major break with American policy before and (it is hoped) after. But, and I underscore this a multitude of times, this view is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. Numerous signs already indicate that Obama will continue Bush's policies on all the major points, just as Bush continued the policies that had preceded him. Obama made this clear as early as the spring of 2007, in a major foreign policy address that I analyzed in "Songs of Death." At present, and as just one example, we have Obama's likely course with regard to Iran, which differs from Bush's on not a single issue of significance.

As indicated in the excerpts above, Layne and Pfaff both offer compelling arguments about the continuity of American foreign policy. The issues Layne discusses are further analyzed in Part III of my "Dominion Over the World" series ("The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony"). In my discussion of the Pfaff excerpt in Part VI of the same series ("Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas"), I went on to write:
In earlier parts of this series, I have explained how the Bush administration's foreign policy represents a continuation of the broad contours of our stance toward the world beyond our shores for more than a century. It similarly continues the policy embraced by all Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. As Christopher Layne describes it, that policy's goal is to establish an Open Door world, a world that is "open" to both economic and ideological expansion by the United States. The Open Door doctrine considers such expansion a necessary component of national security; see the earlier essay for details. It is certainly true that the current administration is uniquely dangerous in certain ways. But in large part, and this is the absolutely crucial point, that is only because it has been and continues to be ruthlessly determined to cash in on the unavoidable implications of the policies pursued by those who have gone before.

To put it another way, and this is the issue that mere Democratic partisans adamantly refuse to acknowledge: Bush would not have been possible but for the Democrats who had preceded him. The historical record of the past century establishes beyond all question that the Open Door world is one sought just as eagerly by Democrats as by Republicans; in many cases, Democrats have been notably more zealous about this aim, as are many contemporary Democrats. As the inconceivable dangers of wider war, including possible nuclear exchanges, loom over us all, petty partisanship and party loyalty as the primary concern are morally distasteful at a minimum, and occasionally abhorrent in their worst manifestations, intellectually irresponsible, and immensely dangerous. Such an approach does nothing to decrease the continuing calamities that confront us, but only worsens them.
In the Age of Obama, Democratic partisans and Obama hagiographers want us to believe that all this has changed, that the moment of militarized insanity has passed, and that we will someday, sometime, somehow enter into a new world of realized hope and peace. But, as Layne observed in a largely identical context, nothing could be farther from the truth. In all essential respects, nothing has changed at all. One element has altered, but only one: Obama is a much more effective salesman and representative, and he has infinitely better PR. In consumer-driven America (although consumers aren't able to drive much, if anything, these days), where appearances are everything, or at least everything that matters, that is enough to fool far too many people, even many people who easily could and should know much better.

It is the policy of the last century and longer, which is also the policy of today, that must be questioned, and finally rejected. That is, it must be rejected if you genuinely hope for a world of peace. If that truly is your goal, resolutely throw away the hideously destructive idea of worldwide hegemony and all its manifestations once and for all.

She Cursed Cole Porter Too...

Should you gently sift through your memories of early summer, you might recall some talk about a politician and his affair with a woman from South America. I never wrote about it, although the particulars of that episode were not devoid of humor-- largely unintended, to be sure, but then politicians as a class are remarkable asses, approaching frighteningly close to perfect incompetence and total blindness as to how they are perceived by grubby commoners. In any case, whatever needed to be said on that subject had been expressed decades before, and in an especially delightful way -- as you can see for yourself.

I draw your attention to the fact that this performance is but one sequence from a live, 90-minute television broadcast dating from October 1955. As delicious as the song (of course, one of Mr. Coward's own), and as scintillating as the performance, is the contemplation of Mr. Coward's particular wit and style beaming into homes across the land of Eisenhower and Donna Reed. (Although Ms. Reed's television show didn't premiere until a few years later, let's not quibble over insignificant details, my darlings.) But denial was the order of the day, so audiences could revel in Mr. Coward's entertainments (and they did) while thinking of him affectionately in the manner they regarded that charming uncle. Everyone knew he was a confirmed bachelor, and he certainly appeared to be very close to several male friends. But then, boys will be boys! Too true, my dears, too true. You could only imagine -- but then, that was precisely what no one cared to do.

For the most part, Coward went along with the game. That's how almost everyone lived then, an issue I discussed over six years ago (even mentioning Coward as one example of the pervasive denial), when I recalled my attempts to deal with being a gay teenager in the 1960s, efforts which failed miserably for a long time and with some genuinely awful episodes along the way. Despite Coward's unremitting decorum and propriety, it was common knowledge that he was "that way" -- just as it was common knowledge that it was that fact which denied him a knighthood until close to the end of his life, even while most people acknowledged he had deserved one long before.

Although much has thankfully changed since those hellishly halcyon bygone days, much has not. That has to do not only with our foundational conviction that sex is inherently evil and "dirty" (see the first part of this essay), but with the still widespread view that gay sex is especially "icky" (discussed here and, from a broader perspective, in "We Are Not Freaks"). As those essays demonstrate, it's not only conservatives who display this limitation; many liberals suffer from it as well, although they go to great pains to convince everyone (most especially themselves) that they don't actually think that way about people who are "that way." But many of them do, you see.

Ah, well. Enjoy Mr. Coward. He can't be tormented by such nonsense any longer. "She cursed Cole Porter too..." Absolutely delicious.