bin Laden and Seymour Hersh

I was away from the major cities of North America, with no internet access, though not quite out of news range. I used some of the time to read Seymour Hersh’s book, “Chain of Command”, though of course bin Laden’s pro-Bush campaigning took over yesterday’s media space. Some thoughts on each.

bin Laden for Bush

bin Laden’s speech surprised me. I took seriously Fisk’s account of his meeting with bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan, when bin Laden was totally excited about seeing an old newspaper and slinked off into the corner to read it all: perhaps a spiritual figure to terrorist organizations, but not an operational leader. I thought that calling him the ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks was quite a stretch. And yet in his taped press conference, he says that he specifically got the idea for attacking the US after seeing the carnage Israel wreaked on Lebanon in the 1982 invasion (“Peace for Galilee”, I think it was called. The book to read on that invasion is, of course, Chomsky’s “Fateful Triangle”, though Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation” has lots in it, and there is a book by Israeli historian Ze’ev Schiff and someone else I can’t remember that is pretty good too). bin Laden says:

I say to you Allah knows that it had never occurred to us to strike towers.

But after it became unbearable and we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the America/Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, it came to my mind.

The events that affected my soul in a difficult way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American 6th fleet helped them in that.

And the whole world saw and heard but did not respond.

In those difficult moments many hard to describe ideas bubbled in my soul but in the end they produced intense feelings of rejection of tyranny and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressors in kind and that we destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

This all probably sounds like evil incarnate to Americans. But to most of the world it probably sounds more like rhetoric, justification for killing innocents, vengeful and cruel talk, something all too familiar from American politicians and spokespeople are are justifying slaughtering some population or another in some part of the world.

The surprising thing for me though is that he says that the idea came from him, and that he discussed it with Mohammad Atta. I had always assumed that bin Laden himself was largely a creation of the US media, which needs personifications of evil, villains with names, to present the “war against terrorism” in simple dramatic “good vs. evil” terms. I certainly think of the current villain, Zarqawi, this way. But it seems that bin Laden really did mastermind the 9/11 attacks, and now he’s doing his best to see Bush re-elected. bin Laden and his people, and the Bush people, really do coordinate their work remarkably well together. A side effect of religious fundamentalism is a near total lack of self-awareness. If the results of this coordinated effort by “Bush” and “bin Laden” weren’t so gruesome, there would be a lot of opportunity for irony and ridicule.

Chain of Command

Seymour Hersh. It’s hard to say something bad about the person who broke the My Lai story and the Abu Ghraib story and did a great deal of important work in between. Hersh’s work is a civilizing influence on American political culture and journalism. He offers an example of a serious journalist, with tremendous mainstream access, who actually finds relevant things to say, is well informed, provides a sense of the big picture, and repeatedly presents facts and information that are very important for the public to know.

The book, “Chain of Command”, has a lot of important information: about the war in Afghanistan, about the war in Iraq, about the Bush Administration, about Abu Ghraib and how it happened, about the details of how the US makes foreign policy and military policy, and more.

And yet the tradeoffs Hersh makes (unconsciously I think) to be able to put this information in the New Yorker and maintain his level of access to government sources and insiders are also plain to see. His Epilogue, for example, has the following passage: “There is so much about this presidency that we don’t know, and may never learn. Some of the most important questions are not even being asked… How did eight or nine neoconservatives who believed that a war in Iraq was the answer to international terrorism get their way? How did they redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities and policies with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy that fragile?”

The assumptions behind these questions. What are these “long-standing American priorities” that the Iraq war “rearranged”? I don’t believe Iraq war planners were just thinking about the “answer to international terrorism”, but about answers to control of the planet’s resources (Hersh does discuss this a little, talking about China, etc., elsewhere in the book, though also from an American power perspective). Is the press really that hard to “intimidate”, or Congress to “mislead”, or is it possible that the press and Congress actually agreed with the Administration on the “long-standing priorities” that the Iraq war was meant to help further? One would think that Hersh, the reporter who broke the story of the My Lai massacre and a political analyst in his own right, would know more about the political priorities of US governments than that. But he adopts the framework, and so his criticism of Bush, like Kerry’s, is that the Bush people aren’t doing a good job of working on the real “long-standing priorities” of maintaining and extending American power.

Of course, if Hersh did not adopt that framework, he would not be an insider. The insiders would not talk to him, he would not have the many remarkable sources that he has, and he would not be able to get the information out, and no one, including radicals and “outsiders” (ie., ordinary citizens) would have access to the information and would be left speculating about things Hersh provides facts about. But this is a tradeoff, and it’s impossible not to notice. So is Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, something that has eroded journalism tremendously. In his acknowledgements, he says “Those most responsible for this book — the past and present government, intelligence, and military officials who have provided me with an alternative history since September 11th — cannot be named, for obvious reasons. There is honor in their anonymity.”

In fact there is no honor in their anonymity. There is actually shame in their anonymity. The US political system and culture is sliding away from notions of liberalism and democracy that reporters like Hersh treasure because those who really hate freedom — those who try to block the franchise for voters, who attack secularism and science, who oppose women’s rights, who oppose freedom to organize and associate (are you starting to figure out who I’m talking about?) — fight hard and seriously, while the liberal types do not. In two days, if the election is at all close, the Republicans will cheat, and it will be up to the Democrats to decide whether they will allow the cheating or not. If the Democrats do not take the cheating, it will be up to the media and to the Republicans to decide whether they will back off. If the Republicans cheat and then don’t back down, I can virtually guarantee that the Democrats will back down. They will not walk out of Congress or the Senate, they will not encourage civil disobedience, they will not try to mobilize political power, even if the Republicans have blatantly broken the law and shredded the legitimacy of the system. If they were willing to do that sort of thing, there would be a lot more reason to hope for this country and for the world.

The anonymous ‘dissidents’ who provide Hersh with his facts are similar. Obviously, journalists have to be responsible about publishing names of people whose safety could be at risk. But Hersh’s sources are almost never people like the unionists or peasants in Colombia who could be disappeared or killed with their families for speaking out about the dirty war. These are men of power in the US government and corporate system, and they refuse to put their names on their statements because they will suffer career consequences. But there is very little accountability in anonymous sources. Anonymous sources do not catalyze action. And if people did speak openly, there would be more protection for everyone to do so. The reverse is also true: the culture of anonymous sources, even for the best journalists like Hersh, is so pervasive that the consequences for someone who does speak out publicly are so much more devastating.

If the elite decision makers who provide Hersh with facts are, worse than scared to provide their names, finding ‘honor’ in their anonymity, the state of the ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’ that Kerry (and Hersh) and Bush disagree on how best to protect from ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarians’ is pretty shabby indeed. If they (and I’m not talking about the Bush people here, but those liberal dissenters from Bush) won’t even put their names on the line to protect those freedoms, but are willing to kill thousands and hundreds of thousands of other people’s children, supposedly to do the same thing, isn’t that, well, cowardly?


I’m on the road until Halloween. May be able to blog from the road but I’m not sure. If not, see you in a few days…

Eqbal Ahmad and the will to dominate

I did a review of the late Eqbal Ahmad’s latest book, “Between Past and Future”, which I hope is widely read. Along with the book, I reviewed a film on Kashmir, “Crossing the Lines”, which I hope is widely watched. Eqbal Ahmad was a very very sharp commentator and activist. He noted a phenomenon in a previous book of interviews with David Barsamian, “Confronting Empire”, that I think may have changed, thanks to the patient work of the right-wing movement in the US (as described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas”). It is a very important phenomenon — a lot hinges on whether it remains true today.

On page 99 of “Confronting Empire”, in an exchange on “terrorism” (one aspect about Ahmad’s work where he is most perceptive), Barsamian quotes someone saying the war on terror will be permanent (we’ve heard that one more recently, haven’t we), Ahmad replies:

Nothing in history has been permanent. Frankly, I don’t think American power is permanent… America is a troubled country, for too many reasons. One is that its economic capabilities do not harmonize with its military capabilities. The second is that its ruling class’s will to dominate is not quite shared by its people’s will to dominate…

The evidence is massive. If the American people had a will to dominate the world, they would have lynched Bill Clinton at the first sign of his hanky-panky in the White House. I’ll tell you why. Britain had a will to dominate in the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain punished for very small crimes its most famous empire builders. Robert Clive was impeached and Warren Hastings was impeached, because an imperial society instinctively knows that it will not command respect on a global scale unless it shows uprightness at home… That’s why imperial countries very often tended to be puritanical societies. The people of America don’t want Clinton to resign because they think he’s been a good president. They can separate his being commander-in-chief from his personal behavior. This is not a people with a will to rule. This is a people with a will to violence, yes, but not a will to dominate.

You can take other examples. A will to dominate means a willingness to sacrifice, to pay the price of it. The American public does not want American boys dying. So, in Somalia, when American Marines were attacked, the United States pulled out and sent in Pakistanis to do their dirty work and clean up the mess. They don’t want to send troops abroad. They don’t want to die in foreign lands. That is, they don’t want to pay the price of power abroad, which they were willing to do during much of the Cold War. This changes after Vietnam. In that sense, George Bush notwithstanding, the “Vietnam syndrome” is very much alive.

Here’s the thing. Clinton’s ‘hanky panky’ did become the focus of a great deal of moral outrage (that the moral outrage is entirely hypocritical, as it is in all puritanical societies, is quite irrelevant). It took a while to get going, but the right still gets tremendous mileage out of it. The Iraq war, and the real possibility that Bush could win the elections in a week, shows that a large segment of US society is willing to risk its own children (well, probably more like other people’s children) in order to dominate other people’s countries and other peoples. 9/11 played a role in all this, of course. But so did, it bears repeating, the power of the right-wing fundamentalist movement in the United States. That movement makes US society unique in various ways. For example, even though Clinton’s ‘hanky panky’ did become the focus of moral outrage, the ‘hanky panky’ of high profile members of the right wing movement and their leaders, and the generally low moral level of the Bush family and their crowd in financial matters, doesn’t seem to deter the right wing grassroots at all.

I think it’s still too early to say whether or not the will to dominate will prevail over “Vietnam syndrome” with this Iraq war. It’s also too early to say whether or not the US will be able to resolve the disconnect between its military and economic power. But I think it’s less clear than when Eqbal Ahmad made the statements in the 1990s.

Eminem and Iraq

Despite wanting desperately not to, I’ve always found Eminem to be extremely witty. I enjoy mainstream culture and art much more than a radical ought to: I just appreciate displays of talent in some realms, even if the talent is in the service of a bad cause. Eminem is very unkind to women in his songs, especially his ex-wife and his mother, but also to women in general. He’s also unkind to queer folk. With people like Eminem, who have huge followings, there is always a question about whether or not they are actually pushing the envelope on sexism or heterosexism, or whether they are just reflecting what’s present in the culture. That’s a debate. I’ve always thought that Eminem, like most rap, isn’t more sexist than society in general, but it’s hard to say.

At any rate, I’ve always found his lyrics and rhymes to be clever and his flow to be good, and all this despite having good friends who are very good, serious, political rappers and rap fans and who have provided me with a very good diet of solid political hip hop, and that’s also knowing that his fame and his appeal to white audiences is partly because he’s white (he’s said as much: “I am the worst thing since elvis presley, to do black music so selfishly, and use it to make myself wealthy”). I’ve also found his work to be complex. There are many problems with the film 8 Mile, but I thought it showed a side of America and a city in the US (Detroit) that rarely gets shown, and it was even shown sympathetically at times. I was impressed, at any rate, at the depiction of how working and poor people created such a rich culture of poetry and expression in a place that was economically and culturally gutted as a matter of governmental and corporate policy. Maybe I’m stretching it a bit. But the truth is I wasn’t really surprised when I read (on Juan Cole’s blog of all places) that Eminem has a kind of antiwar song (or at least antiwar lyrics in one of his new songs, “Mosh”). You can watch the video here.

One thing that Eminem is full of that turns a lot of radicals off is hate. When he turns hate like that on a DJ like Moby, or his ex, it seems rather disproportionate. But when he turns it on Bush, it makes a little more sense. There are some things that ought to be hated, and wars and massacres are among them (Eminem’s antiwar stance is entirely America-centric, he wants the troops home, out of harm’s way — the video attacks evictions, tax cuts, lies, ‘intelligence failures’… but Iraqis don’t quite make it. He’s still way ahead of so much of the US population on these issues, even if he’s behind even Michael Moore).

What I mean is, like Moore, it’s not radical, but it is a positive development. Eminem has built his career on being vilified and attacked, sometimes by radicals and other times by authority figures, and so whatever reaction comes from the release of the song is unlikely to hurt him. The Bush people and the right use hate so often and so effectively that it’s nice to see a little of it directed their way.

Probably the worst part of the video is that Eminem leads the masses to VOTE at the end of it. Is that all anyone can do to reverse this disastrous course we’re on? Eminem refers to Bush as a weapon of mass destruction in the white house, and that’s fair enough. But there are others…

Problems with mercenary dreams

I was visiting Under the Same Sun yesterday (a daily routine) and I found a discussion on the options the US has for dealing with its ‘manpower’ problem in Iraq. The manpower problem is rather simple: occupying a country, unlike bombing it or slaughtering its inhabitants with tons of firepower, takes a lot of troops. Since the goal of occupation is permanent and stable control over the country and especially its oil fields and production — targets that are quite difficult to defend — it takes a lot of troops, indeed.

Zeynep’s post suggested two alternatives: one, the draft in the US, and two, the use of mercenaries from poor countries. She concludes that the political costs of enacting the draft in the US are too high for it to occur given the easy option of using contract soldiers from places like El Salvador and Colombia.

I agree that the draft is unlikely for the reasons she mentions, but I think that using Latin Americans to do the job will bring problems of its own.

First, there is a military problem. In real combat situations, irregular troops and private contractors don’t usually do very well. There are problems with coordination, command and control, cohesion, morale, and so on. If US troops, who are highly propagandized from birth and propagandized even more deeply in the military itself, are starting to wonder why they are over there, Latin Americans will be even less keen to risk their necks or do ambitious missions once they are on the ground.

Economically, it is unlikely that the use of these troops will be any cheaper than US troops. They still have to be equipped, fed, clothed, housed, protected, etc. If they are doing it out of a promise that their families will be taken care of by company insurance when they die — it’s true such insurance will be cheaper in a poor country, but it is still a cost if casualties get high. If, on the other hand, the companies or the US tries to save costs after the fact by not paying the insurance claims, there will quickly be fewer people wanting to sign up.

Politically, Latin American regimes don’t win any points with their populations by turning their countries into recruiting pools for US adventures in West Asia. The people have powerful movements to fight with that the governments can’t ignore. Even in Colombia, where the regime is at its most aggressive (Well, Haiti’s actually worse, since February 2004), the government has a very thin hold on power and needs a measure of popular support to survive.

That’s why I suspect (and fear) that instead of relying on the draft or on foreign troops, the US is more likely to resolve its difficulty, if it reaches a crisis point, by a return to massive firepower, with massive Iraqi casualties, and possibly to leave the place a total ruin — if we can’t have their oil, then no one will. Of course, if the US goes that route, there will be terror enough for everyone for a long time. And it’s on movements to try to prevent this outcome.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting the feeling movements have gone on holiday, waiting for the election. Hopefully they’ll come back in a couple of weeks.

China set to buy up Canada’s resources (from the United States)

What an odd article on the front page of Canada’s national newspaper today. The title: “China set to buy up Canada’s resources“. It’s as if the paper has never heard of the massive control over Canada’s natural resources exercised by the United States. Then you get the story talking about China’s human rights record (oh yeah, China has human rights problems — not like any other country with control over Canada’s resources).

Continue reading “China set to buy up Canada’s resources (from the United States)”

Israel kills a “top Hamas leader”

The nice thing for Israel about killing “top Hamas leaders” is 1) you get to kill someone, 2) no one will be upset because, after all, it was a “top Hamas leader”, and 3) after you’ve killed a “top Hamas leader”, there will be another one to take his place. Another thing not to worry about is who else was killed in addition to the “top Hamas leader”: the story that comes via the Associated Press says the bombing killed two people including Adnan al-Ghoul.

Continue reading “Israel kills a “top Hamas leader””

One every three hours in Gaza

You can read about the ongoing massacre at At the same site, there is a good analysis by Ghassan Andoni, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement and a columnist at IMEMC on the aims of this “Days of Penitence” operation. (For some analysis from the Israeli side, check Uri Avnery’s or Gideon Levy’s recent work. For some reporting, check out Rafah Today’s Mohammed Omer).

Andoni provides the simplest and most concise explanation of Sharon’s ‘strategy’, and it is the same ‘strategy’ Sharon has always used: commit shocking acts of violence against Palestinians, and the population and the United States will follow you. Quoting him:

Building on past experience, military attacks that result in massive bloodshed have always achieved an end to all initiatives introduced to reduce the level of violence and pave the way for diplomatic negotiations.

Such offensives have consistently triggered revenge attacks and have escalated the endless cycle of violence in the region.

Operation “Days of Penitence” has no doubt alienated the internationally backed Egyptian efforts to bring about a coordinated disengagement that could serve as a step towards implementing the road map peace initiative.

Dov Weisglass, one of Sharon’s top aides, explained it best in an interview in Ha’aretz, where he described the significance of Sharon’s “disengagement from Gaza plan”:

“The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. What more could have been anticipated? What more could have been given to the settlers?”

It is not just the Israeli army is killing a Palestinian every three hours, or that hundreds of children are in Israeli jails, or that virtually all the children in the territories are starving or on the verge of starving, or that houses and farms and livelihoods and lives are being systematically demolished. Beyond that, Israel and the US are very systematically working to ensure that there can be no decent peace at the end of this murderous, dirty “war”.

The Killing Train stays well behind the curve

We continue our long-overdue analysis of the right wing movement in the United States. When a friend mentioned that George Bush mentioned the Dred Scott case and the fugitive slave law in the 2nd presidential debate with John Kerry, I thought it odd. The initial suggestion was that this was an incredibly ineffective way of pandering to black voters — by coming out against slavery, 150 years after the fact. In fact, it was yet another example of Bush using code-language to speak to his constituency, as the ahead-of-the-curve (liberal) bloggers figured out immediately. The anti-abortion right’s plan is to use Supreme Court appointments to eventually overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal. They see themselves as abolitionists — just like the Dred Scott decision defined Blacks as non-human, the Roe v. Wade defines foetuses as non-human. Bush was telling his followers in code that he would use his Supreme Court appointments to overturn abortion rights. Katha Pollitt spelled this out in a Nation editorial.

And in keeping with being behind the curve, I’ll also mention that I watched Jon Stewart take on the clowns at Crossfire on CNN, and enjoyed it. It was still limited by the ridiculous format of the show, and Stewart relied as much on his quick wit and charisma as he did on a structural critique of the media that the poor “partisan hacks” (that’s what Stewart calls them) just couldn’t answer, but it was a very good 13 minutes. You can check it out here, or read the transcript on the CNN site.