Saturday, August 16, 2014

Editorial: Still Cleaning Up After W

President Obama has sensibly resisted attempts to draw him into the civil war in Syria and to militarize confrontations with Iran and Russia, but former Vice President Dick Cheney, who personifies everything that’s wrong with American foreign policy, recently surfaced to accuse the President of projecting “weakness” abroad and “crippling” the US military.

In an Aug. 10 interview with radio host John Catsimatidis, Cheney said he traces “most” of the problems of Washington to the current administration. He cleared his nominal former boss, George W. Bush, of responsibility for the actions a decade ago that led to the series of bad choices Obama now faces. “They can’t blame George Bush any more,” Cheney said. Of Obama, he said, “I think he’s been a failure as a president. I think the scandals, with respect to the Veterans Administration, with respect to the IRS, these are bad situations.” But “even worse,” he said, are cuts in the military budget.

This is the sort of claptrap you get when you don’t prosecute war criminals, but it reflects the Republican party line.

First of all, the VA “scandal” was that Congresses under the Bush and Obama administrations didn’t appropriate enough money to take care of the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And the IRS “scandal” was that the tax agency had required politics-oriented groups on the left and the right to comply with the law, which limits political activity of organizations seeking non-profit and tax-exempt status.

As for the military cutbacks, that’s what you should get when you wind down two wars. And the cuts have been modest: defense and international security assistance still amounted to $643 billion, or 19% of the federal budget, for fiscal year 2013. The US still spends more than the next eight countries combined, according to 2013 figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (Runner-up China spends $188 billion on its military, Russia $87.8 billion and Saudi Arabia $67 billion, though the Saudi total also includes police.)

Anyway, Obama withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011 under the terms drawn up under Bush’s administration. The Bush hawks, who ran the Mideast into the ditch but all found employment in private industry and/or “think tanks” and have never been far from the TV chat show cameras, yelled bloody murder that Obama had let us down.

The mess in the Mideast shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, as it was predicted a decade ago. In a Jan. 16, 2003, column, Molly Ivins wrote, “I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20% Kurd, 20% Sunni and 60% Shi’ite. Can you say, ‘Horrible three-way civil war?’”

But Bill Kristol, right-wing ideologue and chairman of the Project for a New American Century, which promoted the string of regime changes in the Mideast that started with the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003 dismissed concerns that sectarian differences would be a serious problem. “On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there’s been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.”

In our March 1, 2003, editorial, “Inspect, Don’t Invade,” while UN inspectors were still in Iraq, we wrote, “We wish we could believe that invading Iraq would solve the problems. More likely the bombing of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq to clear the way for the invasion will kill tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi people, create hundreds of thousands of refugees, plunge the Middle East into chaos and expand the radical Islamic jihad against the western world.”

But Bush and Cheney bulled ahead anyway. US troops routed the Iraqi military and secured its oilfields but let the rest of the country go to hell. On March 31, 2003, Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak said the US-led war on Iraq would produce “one hundred new bin Ladens,” driving more Muslims to anti-Western militancy. “When it is over, if it is over, this war will have horrible consequences,” Mubarak told Egyptian soldiers in the city of Suez, while hundreds of Arab volunteers were streaming to Iraq pledging to join in “martyrdom operations” against US and British forces

Lou Dubose noted in the Aug. 1 Washington Spectator that Peter Galbraith—a former US ambassador to Croatia and adviser to the government of Iraqi Kurdistan—in Jan. 11, 2007, testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a foreign-policy catastrophe and the tragic and unjustifiable destruction of a country; the toxic politics of Nouri al-Maliki’s government; and the sectarian fault lines that effectively divided Iraq into three countries.

“The alternative to partition,” he said, “is a continued US-led effort at nation-building that has not worked for the last four years and, in my view, has no prospect for success. That, Mr. Chairman, is a formula for war without an end.”

Now forced nation-building of Iraq at US gunpoint is the option that Republicans are blasting Obama for not pursuing.

Even Hillary Clinton criticized President Obama’s foreign policy in an interview published Aug. 10 in The Atlantic. She said the failure to help build up a credible fighting force among the protesters against Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” She added, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

“Don’t do stupid stuff” might not be an organizing principle, but it is a pretty good prime directive. And Obama has been smart, at least compared with what the Bushites did from 2001 to 2009 and what John McCain proposed to do. We have our criticisms of specific Obama policies, but if McCain (or Mitt Romney) had become president we might well be at war with Iran and/or Russia, arming Syrian rebel groups that turned out to have terrorist ties.

Hillary Needs a Challenger

One of our concerns with Hillary Clinton is the perception that she intends to pursue a centrist neoliberal course as the presumed Democratic nominee for president in 2016.

Progressives who want to move Clinton to the left had better come up with a candidate who can give Hillary a run for her money and perhaps nudge her to adopt a more populist tone.

Some progressives hold out hope that Sen. Elizabeth Warren will challenge Clinton, but we take her at her word that she has no plans to run for president. However, Sen. Bernie Sanders is considering a challenge for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders has said he respects the former Secretary of State, but cautioned against assuming that she will be the Democratic nominee before she’s even announced her candidacy.

In an interview with ABC’s Jeff Zeleny, Sanders said, “She has accomplished a lot of positive things in her career, but I’m not quite sure that the political process is one in which we anoint people ...

“What is her agenda? I don’t know, you don’t know. She hasn’t said,” Sanders noted.

Sanders said he does not “wake up every morning with a burning desire to be president of the United States,” but he reiterated his commitment to fight for political and economic equality as the US shifts toward “an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaire families control not only the economy of this country ... I will do everything I can to prevent that from happening.”

If progressives want Sanders, or any other candidate, to run for president from the left, they need to show they can make it a credible race. “Look, it’s easy for me to give a good speech, and I give good speeches,” Sanders told Zeleny. “It is harder to put together a grassroots organization of hundreds of thousands of millions of people prepared to work hard and take on the enormous amounts of money that will be thrown against us.”

To encourage Sanders to run, contact Progressive Democrats of America at or call 877-239-2093. — JMC

Note: this was edited Aug. 26 with corrected Russian military expenditures.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2014
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Selections from the September 1, 2014 issue

Friday, August 15, 2014

The world gets a tutorial on how to create wall-to-wall media coverage of the death of a celebrity

By Marc Jampole

The recent deaths of two well-known actors, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, dominated the news media this week, but in very predictable ways. The news media has got celebrating the life of a famous person down to a science. If the feeding frenzy on the dead bones of a troubled comic or a classy New York personality has been so thorough, it’s only because the media has done it many, many times before.

No reporter assigned to write a story about a celebrity death should have to scratch his or her head in frustration or confusion, wondering where to begin. There are so many models from which to select that most of the stories about dead celebrities seem to write themselves. Besides the basic obituary of the star, the media churns out story after story on the following topics:
  1. Analysis and appreciations of the celebrity’s body of work
  2. Reaction of the public
  3. Reaction of the star’s family
  4. Reaction of other celebrities
  5. Anecdotes and memories, primarily by other celebrities
  6. The funeral
  7. In-depth coverage of the reason the star died—e.g., suicide in middle age for Robin Williams
  8. The last moments or days in the star’s life
  9. The star’s significance in his or her field and to the larger society
  10. The lessons we can all learn from the star’s life or death
  11. Past scandals or high moments in the life/career of the star, e.g. Bacall & Bogie supporting the blacklisted actors, directors and technicians
  12. Unfinished work that the public may be able to see after the star’s death
  13. The star’s financial state
  14. The star’s will and who gets what
  15. The dispensation of the star’s real estate
  16. Any special tributes that cities or organizations are making, from moments of silence to all-star concerts for charity
  17. His or her past sex life
Eventually, the backlash starts. We’ve already started seeing it with Robin Williams. Suddenly there are stories questioning how the news media covered the death;  whether the celebrities who commented were self-serving or in good/bad taste; and  whether the celebrity’s significance really warranted all the coverage. The media like nothing better than to flagellate themselves—or should I say, other media. 

Input Robin Williams into Google News and you will find several versions of all of these generic story ideas; a search for Lauren Bacall and you’ll find at least one example of most of these concepts.

These media frenzies can go on for days, or in the case of someone of the stature of Michael Jackson, who died under suspicious circumstances, for weeks or months.

Some justify this intensive coverage of the death of a celebrity as part of the national mourning: the news media channels what everyone is feeling into a barrage of stories that give us all a good catharsis.

But the therapeutic value of mass media’s mass mourning begs a question: who is being glorified and beautified and why?  Why does the media go on for days about Robin Williams or Phillip Seymour Hoffman and give cursory attention to the deaths of Maya Anjelou or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?  What about scientists like Jancinto Convit or Andres Carrasco. Or Bill Dana, who flew the X-15 and other experimental aircraft or NASA engineer John Houbolt? Or how about Howard Baker, once the voice of conscience of the Republican Party? Why don’t we find out about their children, finances, real estate, deep secrets, life history, fears and significance?

If Robin William’s touched the lives of more people, it is not just because he starred in a few TV shows and movies. It’s also because the news media focuses much more on actors, singers, athletes and celebrities (people who are famous for being famous or for being rich) than they do on scientists, engineers, classical composers, elected officials (except presidents), scholars, jazz musicians and other high achievers.

The more significant question, though, is not who is being glorified, it’s why there is so much of it. I would be just as disappointed to see newspapers and the Internet stuffed with meaningless stories about a recently deceased great historian or scientist. In either case, the coverage is excessive because it drives out coverage of other, more important news. We get woefully inadequate coverage of local political campaigns and issues, much less than the news media gave us twenty or even ten years ago. Neither the New York Times nor Wall Street Journal seem to have enough space to do any stories on Democratic candidates this year, although I suspect a bias in favor the Republicans is part of the reason for ignoring Democratic primary races. We are painfully unaware of what is happening in many parts of the world.  The mass media has practically ignored studies that show that charter schools are ineffective, immigrants raise the wages of other workers, we could supply the entire world’s electricity needs with windmills right now, inequality of wealth is growing and raising taxes on the wealthy leads to economic growth.

In short, the coverage of important economic, social and political issues is sparse, and often one-sided. Instead of news, we get dead celebrity worship.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Have people in America & Great Britain gotten meaner, & if so, why?

By Marc Jampole

People have gotten meaner because they have no vested interest in worrying about their fellow human beings. That’s the conclusion of Tom Clark (with Anthony Heath) in Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump¸ a recent book that sifts through a slew of recent research and impressionistic interviews related to the effect of the Great Recession on the economy and the fabric of society in the United States and Great Britain.

Clark makes his argument through a series of assertions, each of which he proves with research and illustrates with a handful of conversations with people who suffered during the recession that ended a few years ago if you belonged to the upper 1% in income/wealth, but continues for everyone else:
1.      This last “great recession” essentially affected a small part of the population, although everyone outside the 1% has suffered from stagnant wages over the past 30 years.
2.      Those who suffered from the recession the most have tended not to recover.
3.      Unlike other recessions, it was easy to predict who would and would not be affected and not recover from the Great Recession: the poor, the underemployed, the undereducated, primarily minorities and the young.
4.      Compared to previous recessions since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Anglo-Saxon governments did much less for those who suffered the worst effects of the Great Recession.
5.      The attitudes of the wealthy, middle class and working poor towards victims of the Great Recession were much less generous to victims of previous recessions. A blame-it-on-the-victim mentality replaced the former generosity displayed in surveys in former recessions about whether people liked government support of victims of economic dislocation.

Clark establishes these facts and then uses them to develop a grand synthesis which he thinks explains what he sees as a hard turn right in both the United States and Great Britain over the past 10 years: In former recessions, the impact was widespread and serendipitous, so people supported government intervention and support of victims out of self-interest: maybe they would need the help. But we could predict who the long-term and permanent victims of the Great Recession would be. The result: even though—or perhaps because—most everyone else has been struggling, they did not think they would need the government benefits and so did not support expansion of benefits. Additionally, more of the middle class and working poor grew to believe that large portions of those receiving benefits were “undeserving.” In a sense, 30 years of static wages and a slow erosion of buying power made everyone hunker down and get more selfish.

Clark’s argument resonates to a careful student of the history of healthcare reform. In Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar Struggle over Health Care Reform, Paul Starr points out that because most Americans already had health insurance through their employers, Medicare or Medicaid, they had no vested interest in seeing the healthcare law now called Obamacare pass, and in fact recognized that it would mean that they would pay more without getting more to help fund those getting coverage under the proposed new law. Republican Scott Brown, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for what baseball people used to call “a cup of coffee,” expressed this attitude best when he said he liked the recently enacted healthcare law in Massachusetts but did not want the citizens he represented to pay for extending the Massachusetts model to the rest of the country, which Obamacare essentially did.

But although Clark makes a compelling case, I think he discounts the impact of the constant barrage of propaganda we have endured since the rise of Reaganism. We’ve had more than 30 years of the right using code words to demonize the poor and downtrodden, such as “welfare queens, “those people,” “the 47% who think they’re victims” and “urban culture problems.” We’ve had more than 30 years of the glorification of the free market and the nonsense that government always produces inferior solutions. For more than 30 years, we’ve been told that the ultra-rich worked hard for their money and deserve what they get, whereas those who fail have only themselves to blame. More than 30 years of media bashing of unions, teachers and public school workers. More than 30 years of hearing and reading the lie that giving food stamps, medical care and other aid to the poor makes them dependent on handouts and saps their self-reliance so that they prefer to sit on their duffs and do nothing all day. We’ve been told the lie that the only thing that hurts the economy more than giving money to poor people, who will spend it all and thereby create jobs, is to cut taxes on the wealthy. The news media has drummed into our minds that we have to pay down the debt, even if it means gutting social welfare benefits.

In short, some 30 years of brain-washing has made Americans—and evidently Brits, too—inured to the suffering of their fellow neighbors and has atomized our communities into millions of selfish individuals.

I am reluctant to recommend Hard Times as a read, because it’s written in an irritating combination of styles, taking the worst from both a jargon-laden academic style and the slang-and-case-history approach of pop sociology. What’s worse, it’s not even U.S. slang, but that of the foreign tongue known as British. The ideas are certainly worth assimilating and the book is relatively short, but still, if you’re a stickler for good writing, its style will infuriate even as its ideas captivate. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Neither Israel nor United States can justify current bombing campaigns, but Hamas & ISIS are also wrong

By Marc Jampole

Someone on Facebook recently wondered why it’s okay for the United States to bomb the ISIS positions in Iraq but not okay for Israel to bomb the Gaza strip. By “okay,” I’m pretty sure she was asking why the mainstream news media and our political leaders applauded one and not the other. She was correct to observe that while there has been almost universal approval of Obama bombing Iraq (except for those who think he should be doing more!), the press and politicos have expressed mixed feelings about Israel’s actions.

In my mind, both the United States and Israel are pursuing the worst possible courses from both a moral and a political standpoint. Neither country will achieve the stated goals on its acts of violence.

The Iraq situation is much easier to analyze, for the simple reason that no U.S. lives are in harm’s way and no one has attacked our country.

We hear two main reasons to bomb: 1) ISIS is becoming a destabilizing force in the region after having carved out major territory for itself in both Syria and Iraq; 2) We owe it to Iraq, which is a kind of “we broke it so we have to fix it” argument.

This second argument often comes from Republicans and their supporters as part of their program of blaming the President for the situation since he authorized final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq a few years ago. It’s as short-sighted and self-serving as the argument that Obama caused the Great Recession.  Iraq has always been a glued-together country. Even in ancient times, the territory that was Iraq consisted of two and sometimes three national entities. Just as Yugoslavia fell apart as soon as strongman Tito died, so did Iraq splinter when the United States destroyed the strongman government of Sadam Hussein. The violent fractionalization of Iraq was predictable, and many people predicted it.  It has also been painfully obvious to anyone willing to look the facts straight in the face that the country would remain a seething pit of terrorism as long as United States troops remained in the country and that it would soon break apart soon after we left. That’s exactly what has happened.

All the U.S. bombing can do now is shore up a corrupt and weak regime that does not represent all its citizens.  It does not offer a permanent solution.  Instead, U.S. bombing slows down the inevitable process of the various factions in Iraq coming to terms with one another, either in a unified country or in a number of smaller countries. It’s not likely to be pretty and will probably be violent, but with the United States bombing, it is definitely going to be violent and will take a lot longer to achieve. It’s time for us to leave bad enough alone by not bombing or committing any military action in Iraq, while increasing our non-military support for a newly elected government of Iraq that would be willing not to play ethnic or religious favorites.  I’m not saying that ISIS is not a grave threat; what I’m saying is the U.S. position is too compromised from past actions in Iraq to help in the fight against ISIS. We should stay on the sidelines of the military battle, and instead increase humanitarian aid, call for and uphold an arms embargo in Iraq and Syria and coordinate with the United Nations on evacuation and diplomatic efforts.

Like the United States in Iraq, to a large degree Israel made its own untenable situation through years of harsh treatment of the Palestinians, brutal execution of wars and unwillingness to be flexible at the negotiating table. To be sure, Israel has not been alone in its unwillingness to confront the other side peaceably. Moreover, Hamas and its predecessors have conducted terrorist campaigns against Israeli citizens.

But Israel’s past harsh ways have never worked, unless the country’s real goals are to keep a population that it believes to be inherently inferior in a political and social structure akin to apartheid, no matter how much violence it takes. I do not believe this patently anti-Semitic characterization of Israel’s actions, which is why I can’t understand why Israel’s political and military leaders keep answering violence with an escalation of brutality. The numbers speak for themselves: 1,800 Palestinians dead since the latest conflict began, 70% of whom were civilians; fewer than 70 Israelis killed of whom only three were civilians.  No wonder the mainstream media is giving the Israeli attacks a mixed review. And it’s no wonder anti-Semitic acts have increased in Europe.  The contrast between 1,800 and 70 feeds the imaginations of anti-Semites everywhere. It makes Hamas even more recalcitrant and it encourages the funders of terrorism to give more money to their violent clients.

In short, the Israeli way to meet a slap with a sledgehammer has never worked and never will work. It would have been much better if Israel had reacted to the act that started the latest wave of violence—the kidnapping and killing of three boys—with a more studied, more nuanced approach.  First and foremost, it should have insisted on due process to find and punish the killers of the boys. By not bombing civilian targets, it would have won the admiration of many in the West for restraint and perhaps convinced the other side that it was willing to consider a peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem. Secondly, it might have considered using drones to target known terrorists in civilian areas or tried some surgical operations similar to when it dismantled a Syrian nuclear reactor years ago.

But instead of trying to think of new approaches, Israel and the United States have both decided to default to the unworkable. And so “business as usual” continues in Israeli and the occupied lands and returns to Iraq. It’s a bloody status quo that shows absolutely no signs of transforming into something better.