Saturday, September 13, 2014

Editorial: Don’t Bite Terrorist Bait

One of the favorite words Republicans use to describe President Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless,” as if his refusal to rush US military forces into foreign conflicts to satisfy foreign-policy hawks makes him a weak leader.

We’re glad President Obama has taken the time to develop a strategy and build a broad coalition of potential allies — including Iran — who will help the US pursue the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL and the Islamic State) as the murderous gang that they are.

It’s depressing that a recent poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed only 32% approval for President Obama’s foreign policy. Some 47% of Americans believe the US is less safe than it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And poll respondents favored Republican over Democrats as the party best able to handle foreign policy, by a 41-23 margin.

If the polls are to be believed, terrorism works. Joan Walsh noted that the single biggest factor behind the surge of fear is the videotaped beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. “In the NBC poll, 94% said they’d heard news of the beheadings, which is higher than any other news event polled in the last five years. They accomplished what they were intended to: make Americans feel vulnerable, angry and ready to fight. Mission accomplished, ISIS!”

But ISIS couldn’t succeed in drawing the US into another land war in Iraq without “useful fools” such as former Vice President Dick Cheney who, in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, urged House Republicans to take a hard line in the fight against ISIS. The meeting was basically a GOP pep rally, and Cheney spent most of the time bashing “isolationists” and talking about how the Bush administration put the US in a position to “win” in Iraq.

In fact, there would be no opening for a militant Islamic extremist group to control large sections of Iraq and Syria and conduct ethnic cleansing of Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and other minorities if the Bush-Cheney administration had not invaded and dismantled the secular Ba’athist regime of Saddam Husseinbased on the trumped-up threat of weapons of mass destruction.

As the New York Times noted, “[Cheney] did not discuss the fact that many ISIS leaders were former Iraqi military officers who were imprisoned by American troops, nor did he dwell on the sectarian divisions and bloodletting since the 2003 American invasion.”

When President Obama was slow to arm the Syrian rebels as urged by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) encouraged the Saudi and Qatari governments to get the job done — and arms did move to Syrian rebel groups. “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,” McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in January 2014. A month later, McCain said once again, at the Munich Security Conference, “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends.”

But the arms apparently didn’t just go to the Free Syrian Army, the “moderate” armed opposition in the country that is backed by the US, Turkey and Western allies. Shortly after McCain’s Munich comments, Steve Clemons noted at (June 23), Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah relieved Bandar of his Syrian covert-action portfolio, which was transferred to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. By mid-April, just two weeks after President Obama met with King Abdullah on March 28, Bandar also was removed from his position as head of Saudi intelligence.

It turned out that two of the factions fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who received arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are Islamic extremist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, and the ISIS which was expelled as too extreme for al Qaeda. Qatar’s military and economic largesse had made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra, Clemons was told. But ISIS was another matter. As one senior Qatari official told him, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.”

Clemons concluded, “John McCain’s desire to help rebel forces toss off a brutal dictator and fight for a more just and inclusive Syria is admirable. But as has been proven repeatedly in the Middle East, ousting strongmen doesn’t necessarily produce more favorable successor governments. Embracing figures like Bandar, who may have tried to achieve his objectives in Syria by building a monster, isn’t worth it.”

Thom Hartmann wrote, “This is history repeating itself in the worst possible way. Back in the 1980s, the CIA, the Saudis, and the Pakistanis worked together to fund the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The mujahideen were radical Islamists, but we thought it was worth it to support them because it was the Cold War and they were fighting the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

“Here in the US, the guy most responsible for getting us to support the mujahideen was a playboy Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson, who, like John McCain, thought he was just trying to help people fight for ‘democracy.’ ...

“Whatever good intentions Charlie Wilson may have had, his plan backfired and it backfired badly. Our support for the mujahideen against the Soviets — just like our support for the Khmer Rouge against the Viet Cong and our support for the Contras against the Sandinistas — had a huge blowback effect. You see, one of the people who we and the Saudis armed back in the 1980s was a rich Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who, like a lot of Muslim radicals from all over the world, saw the fight against the Soviets as a chance to prove his worth as a holy warrior.

Hartmann concluded, “Bin Laden went on to form a group known as ‘The Base’ out of the remnants of his Saudi-backed mujahideen force. You probably know ‘The Base’ by its Arabic name: Al-Qaeda. The rest, as they say, is history.”

President Obama is taking a wiser course in providing airstrikes against ISIS forces; assistance to reliable moderate allies where they can be identified, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Free Syrian Army and the reconstituted Iraqi army; counterterrorism intelligence and activities to prevent ISIS attacks; and humanitarian aid.

Obama vowed to wage “a steady, relentless effort” to wipe out ISIS. “Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” he said. “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” he said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

He was clear that the United States would not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq, but at least 475 more military advisers will be sent in, pushing the total to about 1,700.

After the speech, John McCain blamed ISIS on Obama for withdrawing American troops from Iraq and his refusal to intervene in Syria. He said additional US special forces and advisers will be needed to direct precision air strikes, advise foreign partners on the ground and possibly conduct targeted operations against ISIS leadership.”

House Speaker John Boehner said “the president appears to view the effort against ISIL as an isolated counterterrorism campaign, rather than as what it must be: an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that has declared a holy war against America and the principles for which we stand.”

Our conclusion: Obama has plenty of feck. He has enough sense to deny ISIS the reinvasion of Iraq by American troops that the jihadis want. And he has an air force to supply cover for any native army that proves to be worth covering. And once again, thank goodness John McCain isn’t making the call. — JMC

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

Obama has other ways to address the ISIS threat than going to war

By Marc Jampole 

President Obama has decided that there is only one way to respond to ISIS, a pan-Islamic military organization that now controls parts of Iraq and Syria, and that’s the way the United States usually responds to foreign events that displease us: go to war.

Early reactions suggest that Congress and the American people are going to fall behind the president in lockstep, just like they did—at least at first--for both Iraqi wars, our  invasion of Grenada and the Viet Nam war.

So once again, we’re diving head first into a violent quagmire that will end up costing some U.S. lives, a lot of money and many lives of the people we claim to be helping.

The United States should have tried economic sanctions first.

The creation of a truly global economy and financial system over the past 30 years may have disappointed the economic hopes of all Americans but the very wealthiest, but it has made it much easier to fight aggressive behavior by states and other governing entities without picking up a weapon. What is happening in the Ukraine is a good example of the power of economic sanctions: Instead of continuing to grab pieces of the Ukraine, Russia has negotiated a treaty that seems to have ended the fighting and set the stage for a peaceful resolution of a situation far more complicated than what is depicted in the mainstream American media. Economic sanctions also brought Iran to the negotiating table to discuss its development of a nuclear capability, a step towards peace frowned upon only by Islam-haters among the right-wing.

The immediate response to my argument to apply economic sanctions is that ISIS is not a real state, but a terrorist organization that is trying to redraw the map in the Middle East; a map, BTW, that was gerrymandered after World War I by western powers.

But ISIS is as much a part of the new world economic order as Russia, Iran and China. We keep hearing in the mainstream news that the biggest advantage ISIS has over other terrorist organizations is that it has a lot of cash to buy weapons and maintain troops because of oil sales from the wells it controls. ISIS must be selling the oil to someone. The United States and our allies against ISIS—which should include most Middle Eastern and Western European countries—should be able to put enough pressure on whoever is buying ISIS oil to make them purchase elsewhere. We could also offer oil at cut-rate prices or other economic help to current ISIS customers. Without oil revenues, ISIS will quickly deteriorate into another gang of hoodlums.

We should also take into account that war always tends to destabilize any region. Just as overthrowing Sadam Hussein led to ISIS, the violent destruction of ISIS could lead to something much worse.

The Quaker lobbying group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, has come up with some other actions we can take to defuse ISIS, including ceasing to ship arms to the Middle East, investing in humanitarian efforts to help the victims and developing forums for negotiation between the parties.  These all seem like sensible proposals.

I’m not saying that a combination of economic sanctions, cessation of arm sales, humanitarian relief and diplomacy will work, but we ought to at least give it a try. We know that invasion does not work and we know that bombing does not work. Why are we resorting to these tried-and-wanting solutions once again?

I urge everyone to write, phone or email their congressional representatives and U.S. senators and ask them to vote against funding military action against ISIS and for directing the president to use economic sanctions, humanitarian aid and diplomacy to address the threat of ISIS.
Art by Kevin Kreneck

Thursday, September 11, 2014

When will economists & pundits stop telling lie that education will cure inequality of income?

By Marc Jampole

Eduardo Porter of the New York Times is the latest journalist to advocate that the way to narrow the gap between what the wealthiest and everyone else earns is through education.  It’s an absurdly ridiculous argument that depends on us believing that with a college diploma nonunionized burger flippers, garbage haulers, shelf stockers and medical orderlies will be able to command higher salaries.  

In an article titled “Equation is Simple: Education = Income,” Porter uses two sets of statistics to confuse and distract us about why the top 1% have seen their incomes rise precipitously in recent decades, while the incomes at every other economic level have stagnated or deteriorated. 

First Porter quotes some computations of Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economics professor and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. Katz calculates that if the top 1% were taxed at the rates in effect in 1979, the government could split it up equally and give every family not in the top 1% the grand total of $7,102. Katz and Porter then contrast this $7,102 with the estimated $30,000 a year difference in wealth between what couples with two college graduates make and what families with two high school grads make. 

Porter and Katz think this contrast proves that education will address the growing inequality of income.  The reasoning sounds like something a group of died-in-the-wool right-wing first-year economics majors would cook up at 3:00 in the morning after smoking a few joints. While it’s true that education can turn the daughter of a janitor into a high-priced accountant, it couldn’t possibly qualify everyone for great-paying jobs because there aren’t that many great-paying jobs around today.

These economists who think greater education will push incomes up haven’t been looking at job trends. Most of the jobs lost in the Great Recession have been replaced by lower-paying ones. Those who predict job trends estimate that virtually all of the 20 job titles to gain the most employees over the next decade are low-paying.  It is true that many of the job titles likely to grow the most on a percentage basis are high-paying, but these job titles start with a small base: 20% of 100 engineers is a lot less than 2% of 10,000 cashiers.

If we educate everyone for higher paying jobs, what is likely to happen is that the wages for these jobs will fall, thanks to the law of supply and demand. In other words, what is proposed by Porter, Katz, Claudia Goldin, Robert Reich, economists at Standard & Poor’s and the rest of the army of scholars and pundits who have swallowed the “education ends income inequality” Kool-aid may actually end up creating more inequality.

The only way to foster greater equality of income is to implement laws and regulations that change the distribution of income. The actions are obvious, because they worked to create a more equal society roughly from 1935-1979:
  • Increase the minimum wage
  • Pass laws and regulations that make it easy for workers to unionize
  • Use tax increases on the wealthy to provide services and support to the poor and lower the cost of higher education for the poor and the middle class
  • End privatization of traditional government functions, since privatization generally leads to workers making less and management making more.
  • Pass laws that place high tariffs on imported goods and services produced in countries that do not hew to our wage, safety and environmental regulations.  

The “education ends income inequality” canard is one of many falsehoods routinely perpetrated on the American economy and public by economists and economic writers. The theory that lowering taxes on the wealthy leads to the creation of more jobs has proven to be false. The theory that illegal immigrant workers lower the incomes of other workers has been proven false. The notion that unions get in the way of one-on-one negotiations between workers and employers is an absurdity, as is the idea that people are less likely to look for work the longer their unemployment insurance runs (despite the fact that unemployment compensation is a miniscule portion of their former salary).  Privatization of prisons, the military and schools (through the charter school movement) has proven to be disasters.

That free trade between nations improves the domestic economy is not quite a lie, as shown by a study cited by Harvard’s Dani Rodrik in The Globalization Paradox, his critique of globalization.  Rodrik quantifies both the amount of wealth distributed domestically and the added gain to the U.S. economy if all tariffs were removed on all imported and exported products and services. He finds that the for every additional dollar that would be created in the United States by a totally free global trade regime there would be $50 transferred from the pockets of some groups to the bank accounts of others, primarily from workers losing their jobs to the wealthy who own the means of production, distribution and finance.  In other words, free trade is great—for the wealthy only.

In fact, the one factor that unifies all the distortions and myths believed by most mainstream economists is that acting on each of the myths leads to greater inequality of wealth.  That makes economics as practiced throughout most of the United States more of a propaganda arm of the wealthy than it is a social science.