Monday, February 28, 2005

Democracy's Drift Throughout the Middle East

Lebanon's Goverment Says It Will Step Down

The AP has just reported via the NYTs that Lebanon's pro-Syrian government is stepping down as 25,000 protesters assembled outside of the parliament today shouting, "Syria out." This comes just two weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many believe Syria had a hand in.


2005 may be the year the Middle East embraces democratic reform. In a mere two months, we've seen the successful Iraqi elections, Egyptian President's Hosni Mubarak's announcement on Saturday calling on parliament to amend the constitution so as to allow direct, multiparty elections, as well as the election of Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority in early January.

First off, I don't want to get all triumphalist. In Iraq, things are increasingly fractious as the Kurds and the Shiites try to create a government as insurgents continue to attack (today over 100 Iraqis were murdered by insurgents as a suicide bomber ran into a queue of men trying to join the National Guard). Although encouraging signs are emerging from Israel/Palestine, no one can know whether a terrorist attack from either side's fanatics will derail the nascent peace process. Lastly, many critics see Mubarak's call to amend the constitution to allow freer elections as merely a ploy to create the illusion of liberalization while paving the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Columnist and political analyist Ibrahim Eissa told the NYTs that Mubarak's call for reform was:

...a way to improve his image with the Americans and to please them with some formal changes...While at the same time he is keeping everything else unchanged, like the emergency laws, imprisoning the opposition, the state controlling the media and political parties existing just on paper. This is deception.

And no doubt it probably is "deception."

But taking a more macro view of these trends, one can't help feel that the people of the Middle East are tired of empty promises and are taking matters into their own hands, protesting in open defiance of the state and violent extremists. As long as popular civil society organizations and defiant politicians can withstand the repression that follows from their actions, a freer Middle East may not be a mirage of our President's rhetoric.

The thing now is whether the U.S. will help this democratization trend along or will we resort to undermining these democratic developments if they begin to harm our strategic interests.

One more thing: Although I don't think there's anyway to measure how much Iraq and the President's rhetoric plays into this rising tide of democratic sentiment just yet, I'm impressed how well his oratory on freedom is meshing will current events -- even if it's empty policy wise.

-- M. Wood

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Iraq at the Seams

The more one pays attention to Iraq’s patchwork of mixed ethnicities and religions, the more you have to assume Iraq will either fall into civil war or be based on the loosest interpretation of federalism possible. I hope for the latter (obviously), so that both the Kurds in the north and the Shiites of the south have the autonomy they deserve and suffered so long to get. This will be dicey of course, as the NYTs shows today in two stories.

James Glanz reports from Basra where Basrans and much of southern Iraq look north at the anarchy of central (Sunni) Iraq and declare, “No thank you!” Rich in oil reserves, Basra was kept poor and repressed by Hussein. Now Basrans want that oil wealth for themselves for repair and reconstruction and grimace at the idea of sending their wealth to Baghdad. The local governing council had already sought to impose a 10 percent tax on oil sent north, but it was defeated due to legal constraints. More tensions will mount as Basra holds the only port in all of Iraq, Umm Qasr, which is invaluable as a center of commerce for all of Iraq. (Halliburton subsidiary, Kellog, Brown & Root is already hip to Basra, moving its center of operations south away from the warmth of exploding cars and dogs.) But for all this talk of possible secession, the Shiite south has a majority in Iraq’s new parliament and one would expect the Shiite leadership to return enough pork down south to quell any desire for a separate nation.

Up north, secession seems more probable as the Kurds are demanding the ability to keep their militia, the peshmerga, alive. The Kurds of the north think of themselves as Kurdish first and Iraqi, well, not at all. As Edward Wong reports, the militamen he saw marching shout, “Kurdistan or death!” As I said before, “the loosest of federalisms possible…” Yet even the loosest of federalisms cannot tolerate different groups maintaining separate armies outside of command of the central government. And as Edward Wong rightly points out, there’s a good possibility Iraq will become warlord dominated fiefdoms rather than the uneasy quasi-democracy those of good will hope it will be. Let’s call this the possible Afghanistanization of Iraq.

For now, nothing’s certain, and a unified Iraq, albeit loosely federated, is possible if the long-time persecuted Kurds and Shiites can put down their defenses long enough to embrace the tolerance and compromise democracy thrives on. More daunting, they have to do this while integrating their long time persecutors into the government if they want an end to the largely Sunni inspired insurgency.

-- M. Wood

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Friday, February 25, 2005

For Reasons of State

One of the more distressing trends of post-September 11th America is the government's, as well as the public's, apparent willingness to tolerate torture. This extends far beyond Abu Ghraib as suspected terrorists are shuttled off into the maws of friendly Arab regimes under the innocuous term "rendition."

Today, Bob Herbert profiles one such man rendered to Syria, Maher Arar. Arar was arrested by American authorities as he tried to board his plane at Kennedy Airport for his return trip home to Ottawa. He was then carted off to Syria via Jordan, where he was thrown into a rat-infested recess and then periodically tortured. Arar was never charged with a crime.

The contradictions of rendition and Bush's new meta-narrative of liberty are apparent and need no further comment. What's interesting to me is the reason why Mr. Arar's case cannot be adjudicated. (Arar is suing the U.S. government for damages.) Apparently it "would involve the revelation of state secrets."

The Russian radical, Mikhail Bakunin, understood this rationale well. Here's his thoughts on the state and its ability to become, in Herbert's conclusion, "answerable to no one:"

The State is the organized authority, domination, and power of the possessing classes over the masses the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity. It shatters the universal solidarity of all men on the earth, and brings some of them into association only for the purpose of destroying, conquering, and enslaving all the rest. This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one's fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries— statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors— if judged from the standpoint of simply morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: "for reasons of state."

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Kurdish Kingmakers

I just returned from a New America Foundation Forum this morning, where free-lance journalist Nir Rosen and former Washington Post's Baghdad Bureau Chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran discussed the implications of the Iraqi elections. You may have seen Rosen's cover piece on the Kirkuki Kurds in the New York Times Magazine last weekend.

It seems to Rosen that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is inevitable. While in Kirkuk for the elections, he noticed that the Kurds have their own identity completely separate from Iraq. On election day, the Kurds celebrated by waving Kurdish flags and dancing to Kurdish music in an atmosphere Rosen called a mix between the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City. Worse, all the talk among the Kurds is how they'll eventually expel the Arabs from Kirkuk and integrate it into Iraqi Kurdistan. (Personally I believe the Kurds deserve their own state and that the only good thing to come out of 1991's Iraq War was Kurdish autonomy throughout northern Iraq due to the no fly zone.)

Nevertheless, for stability's sake, the Kurds should seek an arrangement that allows them to preserve the status quo they've enjoyed for over a decade now until the insurgency is defeated and ethnic tensions ebb. From Chandrasekaran's comments, this seems like a possibility since the Kurdish political leadership isn't talking about secession just yet. Federalism is their buzz word for the moment. The upside to putting Kurdish sovereignty aside at this moment is that the Shiite slate will have to bargain with the Kurds to achieve the two-third majority needed to form a government, which means the constitution should be moderate since the Kurds will never join the Shiites in pushing an Islamist constitution. This should give moderates and secularists some space to maneuver and bolster their ranks.

Also of note, Chandrasekaran argued that Shiite politicians are just that, politicians, and can be expected to pursue compromise regardless of what platform they campaigned underneath. While stability seems tenuous, there's also confidence the Shiites and Kurds are smart enough to compromise, form a government and then extend an olive branch to the moderate Sunni minority.

The Kurds are the kingmakers in Iraq, let us hope they use their power and influence wisely.

-- M. Wood

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Hitchens on Hunter

Yesterday on Slate, that pickled Englishman and neo-American patriot, Christopher Hitchens penned a rather bland obituary on HST except for, naturally, the gunplay and guzzling that goes along with hanging with Hunter.

Although Hitch enraged much of the left with his pro-war stance and his lukewarm attitude toward Bush, I still find him intellectually exciting, albeit increasingly shrill. And sometimes he still makes me laugh, like in the obituary above when he writes:

Stepping off the ski lift, I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition. What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. "Sir, that would be inappropriate." In what respect? "At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level." In that case, I said, make it a double.

He continues:

The very slight contraction of the freeze-frame smile made it plain that I was wasting my time: It was the early days of the brave new America that knew what was best for you. Spurning the chardonnay and stepping straight back onto the ski lift, I was soon back in town and then, after a short drive, making a turn opposite the Woody Creek Inn (easily spotted by the pig on its roof). And there, at the very fringe of habitation, was Owl Farm and its genial proprietor, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Once inside these well-armed precincts, I could drink and smoke and ingest any damn thing I liked. I finished a fairly long evening by doing some friendly target-practice, with laser-guided high-velocity rifles, in the company of my host. An empty bottle didn't stand any more of a chance outside than a full one would have had within. It was vertiginous, for me, to be able to move from one America to another, in point of time and also of place, so rapidly.
Sure these passages are loaded with enough machismo to start a pissing contest, but that's Hitch's market, as it was HST's. And Hitch never ceases to surprise me when he writes on American culture, especially his fondness for people the coasties consider worthless hicks. (Check out his Americana section of Love, Poverty and War). Yet I can't help but think that like HST, Hitch is getting tired of being the bad boy everyone portrays him to be, and that like Hunter, "it is possible to detect the sensation of diminishing returns."

-- M. Wood

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Another Lost Decade

Democracy everywhere is vulnerable to the whims of globalized capital as shown by the NYT's Juan Forero. His report details Latin America's failure to meet their publics' essential needs as the demands of capital clashes with the demands of democracy. It seems the firm Aguas del Illimani -- a subsidiary of the French firm Suez, which secured the contract to privatize Bolivia's waterworks in 1997 -- increased hookup fees to $450 when the average monthly wage in Bolivia is just $55.

The spike led to a popular revolt against the company in El Alto, Bolivia. In reaction, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa went populist, kicking out Aguas and thereby leaving the state responsible for water services. This will have a damaging effect on Bolivia for two reasons: the government will do worse running the waterworks in the short-term and investment should thin out as companies get wary of investing in a country that doesn't have their people in order. As Forero reports, this is what happened to Peru and Argentina when their people went awry on privatization, with investment slipping.

The lesson: democracy and foreign investment don't go well together.

As Cesar Gaviria, former secretary general of the Organization of American States, blandly puts it, "In the last decade, non-economic factors have become even more important in affecting investments." He adds "political risks have grown to a great degree." Decoded: the people are becoming an obstacle.

The choice seems stark: either the public asserts itself and remains poor or foregoes democracy and allows foreign investment without restriction -- a proposition that will regardless leave Latin Americans poor. Neoliberal economic reforms introduced in Latin America during the last quarter century have only produced 1.4% annual per capita growth, while growth has been non-existent during the first half of this decade according to Mark Weisbrot and David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Does it have to be this way? Probably not, but in an era of unregulated capitalism, capital will march on till it finds a suitable environment where labor and environmental standards are nonexistent and the population is sufficiently docile.

-- M. Wood

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Dr. Gonzo is Gone

As you all know by now, Hunter S. Thompson, the deranged doctor of gonzo journalism, killed himself at his home in Aspen, Colorado on Sunday. He will be sorely missed. HST was the writer that every young, acerbic, aspiring writer wanted to be. He didn't care what editors said; he penned what he believed to be the truth. And only by betting on himself (and a lot of drinking and drugging), did he rise into the pantheon of great American writers. The various horror stories of journalists traveling to interview HST in Aspen are hilarious and always involve some gunplay. I'll see if I can scour the net for some to link to.

Here's an incendiary quote from HST's Kingdom of Fear that says it all:

We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we'll kill you. Well, shit on that dumbness. George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We didn't vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American Character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us; they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.
It doesn't get more crude and direct and truthful than that.

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937 - 2005

-- M. Wood

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Oh, The Irony

I'm sorry, but I'm a day behind the news cycle. Anyway, here's my favorite quote of this long holiday weekend and it was uttered by none other than President Bush. This is Bush speaking about how he'll chat with Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin, who has been cracking down on dissent and consolidating power in the executive office:

I want him to be able to have a chance to say he's done it for this reason or done that, so I can explain to him as best I can, in a friendly way, of course, that Western values are, you know, are based upon transparency and rule of law, the right for the people to express themselves, checks and balances in government.
There is absolutely no irony in this statement. Either President Bush is totally divorced from reality and inhabiting his own bizarro world or he's the greatest face-to-face liar since, well, President Clinton.

Within the same front page story we see how important the lesson of transparency is to the Bush Administration. Writing about the President's schedule for his European tour, Elisabeth Bumiller of NYT tells us:

There is also a round-table discussion scheduled with pre-selected Germans and Americans in Mainz, a format adopted after administration officials decided that a 'town hall' meeting with Mr. Bush and German citizens was too politically risky.

The proposed town-hall meeting raised the inevitable issue, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Washington, of 'Do you know what kinds of folks you are going to have at that meeting and what kind of questions they might ask?'

Naturally, we won't know because Bush likes his transparency opaque and his people not too expressive.

-- M. Wood

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Morbidly Unintelligent Design

Jim Holt offers a trenchant and darkly hilarious refutation of proponents of Intelligent Design in the New York Times Magazine today. Holt isolates the perfect question plaguing advocates of ID: If the canvass of nature can be traced back to an intelligent designer (e.g. God), how can it be so sloppy and bizarre? Proponents have no answer, naturally, because they’re not genuinely concerned with evidence or rational thought. Rather they use pseudo-scientific arguments to get their theology through the back door. Throughout his piece, Holt calls attention to some pretty disturbing trends in nature that should call into question the intelligence of the designer. Here’s one I especially like:

Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?

Good question, Mr. Holt. I’ll look to see if anyone takes Holt’s challenge and answers his commonsensical questions. But Holt gets morbidly funny when he essentially calls God ‘an avid abortionist.” Here’s his take on the inefficiencies of human reproduction:

Fewer than one-third of conceptions culminate in live births. The rest end prematurely, either in early gestation or by miscarriage. Nature appears to be an avid abortionist, which ought to trouble Christians who believe in both original sin and the doctrine that a human being equipped with a soul comes into existence at conception.

Not only does Holt’s observation call into question the intelligence of the designer, but it also calls into question its benevolence. What kind of God would damn so many souls into a perpetual state of nothingness like limbo when they’re helpless and where their only taint is the archaic, and harsh, concept of original sin? It was this same frustration that propeled Albert Camus to tell brothers at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948 that he shared with them the “same revulsion from evil," but that he could not share their hope (in divine salvation) because he struggled “against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

As Holt argues, with which Camus would have undoubtedly agreed:

It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait – benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three.

The worse part of all this is that the United States’ education system is being pushed back into the Dark Ages by people who have no regard for the scientific method and are only concerned with having the world they envision in their head stare back at them with nodding approval. And it is because of this need for cultural hegemony that makes fundamentalist Christians a constant and dangerous threat to democracy and free thought in America.

-- M. Wood

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Back to Realism?

The February/March issue of Boston Review is worth checking out. In their New Democracy Forum, Stephen M. Walt lays out a new grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy in classic realist style. Afterwards, scholars such as Richard Falk, Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Mahmood Mamdani critique Walt’s realist vision.

Walt lays out three possible directions that American foreign policy can go: global hegemony, selective engagement, or offshore balancing. Walt argues, using 2002’s National Security Strategy as proof, that the Bush administration is gunning for hegemony. This brings up a micro problem and a macro problem. The micro problem is empire always enflames nationalist passions --“a profound social force” in Walt’s words -- with Iraq as the latest example. The macro problem is the tendency to use preponderant power indiscriminately (i.e. Bush Doctrine of preventative war), because it will cause regional powers to coalesce into a bloc to balance U.S. power.

Walt's second option,selective engagement, functioned as the foreign policy of both Bush Sr. and Clinton. Here, the U.S. wields its considerable power reluctantly and multilaterally through institutions like NATO or the U.N. The obvious examples were Iraq in 1991 and Bosnia and Kosovo during the late 90s. But the U.S. wasn’t being selective enough Walt writes, maintaining an archipelago of military bases throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, while giving “unconditional backing for Israel, uncritical support for traditional Arab monarchies…which…contributed to growing anti-Americanism,” thereby helping spawn Al-Qaeda and its subsequent mutation into an ideology or mass movement.

The “final” option, offshore balancing, is the one Walt advocates. Yet it doesn’t seem all that different from American post-WWII security policy and amounts to pursuing hegemony through proxies, or what neo-Marxists describe as neo-imperialism. Here’s how Walt explains offshore balancing:

In this strategy, the United States deploys its power abroad only when there are direct threats to vital American interests. Offshore balancing assumes that only a few areas of the globe are of strategic importance to the United States (that is, worth fighting and dying for). Specifically, the vital areas are the regions where there are substantial concentrations of power and wealth or critical natural resources: Europe, industrialized Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Offshore balancing further recognizes that the United States does not need to control these areas directly; it merely needs to ensure that they do not fall under the control of a hostile great power and especially not under the control of a so-called peer competitor. To prevent rival powers from doing this, offshore balancing prefers to rely primarily on local actors to uphold the regional balance of power. Under this strategy, the United States would intervene with its own forces only when regional powers are unable to uphold the balance of power on their own.

Again, I’m not sure how this differs from what U.S. foreign policy has done historically since 1945. Moreover, if we continue to rely on proxies in U.S. regions of interest, we’ll have to ally ourselves with those already in power, namely the same corrupt Arab monarchies and dictatorships that refuse to recognize elementary human rights. Also, I’m not so sure Bush’s foreign policy isn’t just old-fashioned realism anyway, dressed up in an idealistic veneer. Let us not forget, democracy promotion didn’t become the main rationale for Iraq until late in the game. The truth is, while we try to compartmentalize different theories of international relations, U.S. presidents use a mish-mash of these ideas to achieve one goal: American primacy. While foreign policy can be conducted more rationally, it will only ever be as moral as the narrow economic and strategic interests that propel it.

Nevertheless, Walt's suggestions -- such as being a fair peace broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, promoting political liberalization in the Arab world, and securing loose nukes -- are miles above the Bush Doctrine's preventative war and unparalleled supremacy.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Latin America Remembers

As expected, the Negroponte nomination has sparked controversy south of the border. Bertha Olivia, the coordinator of the Committee for Relatives of the Disappeared called it "an outrage." Tomas Borge, a founder of the Sandinista movement, had a more incisive response, calling Negroponte "the most efficient and ideal representative for the Bush administration's primitive international security policy."

For those still confused why a diplomat such as Negroponte would be nominated as the director of national intelligence, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives at George Washington University provides the answer.

"Someone who is a career diplomat ... on paper doesn't seem to
have the intelligence background needed," he said. "The fact that he
certainly departed from his diplomatic role and was involved in paramilitary operations against Nicaragua ... means he has had a relationship with covert operations in the past."

Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive agrees, arguing an apparatchik of U.S. foreign policy such as Negroponte has "to get some blood on [his] resume."

I can help but think that Graham Greene and George Orwell would have appreciated the rise of this neocolonialist to the top of the world's most powerful intelligence apparatus.

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Death and Democracy in Iraq

News out of Iraq via the NYTs:

Two mosques were attacked by suicide bombers a day before the holiest day of the year for Shiites. The tally so far is near 20 dead and near 50 wounded. The attacks came on the eve of Ashura, the day Shiites' celebrate the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad. Once again this shows the extraordinary and vicious lengths the insurgency will go to foment anarchy. That anyone right thinking could call these elements liberation forces is beyond the scope of my intelligence.

The NYTs also reports the Kurdish demand for autonomy in northern Iraq. With the Kurdish Alliance [the joining of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)] garnering a quarter of the seats in Iraq's new parliament, the Kurds seem positioned to get a good portion of their demands met if the Shiites want to form a government. Yet, many of the Kurdish demands are outlandish if Iraq is to maintain its territorial integrity and function as one nation, particularly their demand to retain the peshmerga or their militia. For right now, the Kurds hold the cards. Let's hope what they're doing is nothing more than salesmanship, bidding high with the full knowledge that their demands will be moderated in negotiations.

One thing's for sure, Turkey cannot be happy with this development.

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And Another Thing

A day ago my colleague Swansong described what our blog would be devoted to. I believe he characterized it as a place where argument, discussion, and disagreement would be elevated to the highest of highs.

He' s correct.

We want this blog to function as a clearinghouse of ideas. If your comment is particularly noteworthy we'll post it, although you might have to suffer through our responses. I'd like to also add another point. When I scan most of the other popular or mainstream blogs, I'm always dismayed at their reliance on the mainstream press for their content.

We Wankers are pretty adept at trolling the more marginal, yet intelligent, sites -- albeit mostly left-wing. I'm talking about the European press, Znet, Alternet, Commondreams, The Nation, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, Monthly Review, Boston Review, New Left Review, etc. Since college I'm been a devoted reader of these various magazines, journals, and websites and I've found they're pretty reliable, albeit shrill at times.

Nevertheless, we hope you'll make us your first stop on your travels into the reliable fringe of respectful thought. At the margins, progress awaits.

M. Wood

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Negroponte Nomination

You have to give the Bush Administration credit, they're fearless. Today the President nominated John Negroponte, the current ambassador of Iraq, as the director of national intelligence and, naturally, he accepted.

Now I' m sure there are a whole host of pragmatic questions as to whether this is the right choice, but I'm more concerned with the morality of the choice. Between 1981 - 1985, Negroponte served as the ambassador to Honduras, the second largest U.S. embassy in Latin America at the time. During this time the CIA helped train both the Honduran military and the Nicaraguan Contras in counterinsurgency, or terrorism to be more precise. As the Baltimore Sun reported in 2001, there's evidence Negroponte knew of the CIA's activities and did nothing to stop it.

In 1995, The Sun published a series about a Honduran army unit,
Battalion 316, that was trained and equipped by the CIA and which kidnapped, tortured and executed hundreds of suspected subversives during the 1980s. The articles showed that Negroponte had access to information about abuses committed by the battalion.

At the same time, the Honduran military was providing material and logistic support as well as a safe haven to the Contras. The Contras -- the loathed remnants of Somoza's Guardia, some graduates of the School of the Americas -- waged a terror campaign from Honduras against the democratically elected leftist Sandinista government throughout the 1980s, all with the support of Washington. The civil war that erupted resulted in tens of thousands of lives lost. So when President Bush says Negroponte "brings a unique set of skills to these challenges [national intelligence]," you have to wonder whether there isn't a bit of unintentional black comedy in the adulation.

In the era of Abu Ghraib, nominating someone who it appears to have covered up horrendous human rights offenses doesn't seem like the most appropriate choice. I'll keep you posted as the nomination reverberates throughout Latin America and the human rights community. My guess, not well.

M. Wood

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Robotic Soldiers: Brilliant, Sensible, and Scary

One of the hallmarks of this, er, weblog will be argument, discussion, and disagreement. So, my inagural post here will be a refutation of my colleague's characterization. The fundamental error in his analysis, in my most humble of opinions, is assigning a morality to what, at the end of the day, is no more than a tool. This is a common fallacy perpetrated by pop-culture time and again. You constantly hear that nuclear weapons are "evil." Well, no. They are devastating weapons of apppaling scope and effectiveness but they are not, in and of themselves, evil. Indeed, one could argue that the very existence of nuclear weapons has saved millions of lives. I personally disagree, however, it is important to realize that it is not the technology in and of itself that is evil.

The moral distinction comes down on the one who makes the decision. If robotic soldiers are deployed in Iraq without proper oversight, safety measures, and testing (as they almost certainly will be, because that's how these things go) then it is not the technology or even the advocates of the technology who are held responsible. Rather, it is those who chose to implement the robots in that particular way that are ultimately responsible. It all comes down to the same questions we've been asking all along. Part of the questions of Vietnam was reasserting the individual responsibility that the soldiers had to follow or disobey orders. It was eventually decided that they were morally culpable for following through with an order that they believed to be fundamentally wrong. This is why Graner, even if he was acting under orders, is a disgusting human being and should rot in prison for many years to come. A robot defers this obligation back to the original decision maker. It is no more culpable than the rifle is or the bullet.

A robotic soldier can save lives. Fewer American soldiers would die as a result and, with some qualifications, fewer native civilians as well. This is an unqualified good thing. Whether or not that provokes us to become more involved in more conflicts world-wide is a separate question. As it stands we have a great degree of automation in our armed forces. Unmanned spy plans, robotically guided smart bombs, robot mine sweepers, have been employed to great effect and save lives. They can perform tasks better and safer than humans in certain situations. I am certainly not advocating that robots take over for the humans, which is nothing more than paranoid irrational fear. At this point we can barely create artificial systems that mimic human behavior, much less something capable of independent rational thought (rather, irrational thought).

As for a deterrent, robots are expensive. We are broke. The costs compared to a human soldier are incomparable of course. A human life lost is a tragedy no amount of money can ameliorate. However, the simple cost of feeding, supplying, and sustaining an army is enormous. This is no different than an army of manufactured robots. War, as the man said, is an extension of politics. And politics, as the economists say, is just economics with words.

Ultimately, a robot is a good thing. It is a piece of inert metal and plastic that enables us to do our jobs more effectively. Moral choice and obligation remains the same, robots are simply the enabler. Simply because there are potential abuses is no reason to turn your back on a new thing.

Contentiously yours,
--Wanker Swansong

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Robotic Soldiers: Scary, Stupid, & Wrong

The NYTs' Tim Weiner has a creepy article today about the Pentagon's heavy investment in robotic soldiers. If you're a sci-fi geek such as myself, you're already picturing Terminator cyborgs stalking post-apocalyptic warfields. Evidently the DoD believes this is a technology worth pursuing, even though Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, believes this technology could (I'd say will) cause all types of abuses and unforeseen consequences.

Writing in Wired, Joy argued:

As machines become more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage, the machines will be in effective control.

Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command inadvertently states why we should cringe at the notion of robotic soldiers:

They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.

In a sense, perfect killing machines devoid of conscience and compassion. Now, admittedly, there are uses for robots in combat. Currently, robots in Iraq dig up mines -- a legitimate use of robots in the field and should be pursued. But developing near autonomous robotic soldiers to do battle raises myriad moral, legal, and pragmatic questions. The most pertinent being what will deter future presidents and Congresses from deploying this "new generation of soldiers" with impunity? We could effectively fight wars with little cost to flesh and blood Americans. What would hold us back from using this power illegitimately and tyrannically? Iraq was fought against global opinion as well as against the wishes of nearly half of the American population. You have to wonder whether there would have been that much resistance going into Iraq if we didn't have to say farewell to loved ones or see, albeit rarely, flag draped coffins.

As for the rest of the world, just imagine robotic soldiers embossed with the American flag stalking insurgents all over the developing world. And you think our standing in the world was low? Just wait till these babies hit the field.

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The Dividing Line

Why an Iraqi Trade Unionist’s Murder Should Cause the Left to Rethink Iraq

On January 4th, Hadi Saleh returned to his Baghdad home. Inside, he was ambushed by a group of masked men. They bound his hands and feet and shortly thereafter the torture began – a brutal mixture of burns and beatings to his head and body. Afterwards, the men pushed Hadi to his knees and strangled him with electrical wire. As a finishing touch, the men littered Hadi’s dead body with bullets.

We’ve grown accustomed to such gruesomeness being perpetrated in the new Iraq. Yet, what separates this murder from others, at least for the left, should be Saleh’s role in Iraq’s civil society. Saleh, 55, was the international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), one part of a nascent trade union movement fighting for a secular, pluralistic, and democratic Iraq. His murderers, thought to be remnants of Saddam’s secret police, targeted him for his union activism and his fight for a democratic Iraq. Hadi Saleh was a patriot in the best sense of the word and the memory of his courage and sacrifice should become the dividing line for those on the left thinking about Iraq.

Just before the “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Iraq, Saleh traveled back to Iraq to help resurrect an independent trade union movement outlawed underneath Hussein’s dictatorship. It was this type of activism combined with his membership in the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) that landed Saleh in jail at the age of 20. Originally sentenced to death in 1969, Saleh’s sentence was commuted after spending five years in a Baathist dungeon. Not long after Saleh took his family into exile. After emigrating from place to place, he and his family eventually found refuge in Sweden, where he stayed until his return to Iraq before the fall of Baghdad.

During his years of exile, Saleh was indefatigable. In 1980 he traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to help found the underground Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM). Throughout the 1980s, the WDTUM was integral in smuggling out of Iraq macabre tales of Hussein’s necromantic regime that landed in various human rights reports. After the regime’s fall, the WDTUM called a meeting in May 2003. The proceedings were attended by 350 Iraqi trade unionists made up of liberals, communists, and nationals, spanning the ethnic identity of Iraq. Out of this meeting arose the IFTU.

In just under two years, the IFTU has organized 200,000 members and has created twelve national unions in Iraq’s core industries. Of these twelve, six have held free and open workers’ conferences and have elected a 15 member leading committee. Much like the January 30th elections, Iraqi unions are demonstrating the pent-up demand for participation in society and in government among the Iraqi population.

But the most intriguing part of the IFTU is their political stances and the reaction they have elicited from segments of the European Left. Both Saleh and the IFTU were opponents of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States. But they weren’t doves by any means. Rather they believed the invasion and occupation should have been led by the United Nations. Currently the IFTU supports the political process enshrined in the three U.N. Resolutions governing Iraq: 1483, 1511, and 1546. Resolution 1546 explicitly states the multinational force (the U.S. and the U.K.) now securing Iraq cannot leave until an adequate security force is established and Iraq is governed by a constitutionally elected government, unless that is; the transitional government asks the multinational force to leave. As Abdullah Muhsin, international representative for the IFTU, poses the question, “Foreigners came into Iraq without asking – why should they now decide they are going to leave without asking?”

Another sore point for those who oppose the IFTU was their dedication to the January 30th elections. Over email, Muhsin sent me his opinion of the then upcoming election, which he wrote was “essential to avoid a brutal assault by reactionary forces.” During the elections, the IFTU supported all the secular and progressive lists that “promote women’s rights, trade union rights, and above all support the building of a genuine parliamentary democracy.” It shouldn’t be lost on progressives and the left that these are the ideals we promote at home, yet despite this platform, Muhsin and the IFTU are likened to the Vichy government for their support of Iraq’s political process among Europe’s anti-war left.

Muhsin sent me an article he wrote answering the heckles of those critical of the IFTU and the elections in general. It deserves to be quoted from at length.

Given the vivid history of this monstrous ideology (Baathism), it is hard to stomach the open support provided to such forces by armchair revolutionaries in the West masquerading as anti-imperialists, who display their ethnocentric ignorance by championing a false battle fought with somebody else’s blood.

This is dangerous strand of thought, clad neatly in a real cultural imperialist coat – ‘listen to us, we know better.’ And if it just so happens that you dare to question or disagree with their mode of thinking, then ready-made labels are immediately available to be used against you – labels such as 'quisling' and 'collaborator' and many more.

This extreme argument rests its logic on the basis that the forthcoming election will be divisive, that it could lead to civil war and that it is nothing but an imperialist plot to legitimize the authority of the imperialists’ puppet regime in Baghdad so as to plunder Iraq’s natural wealth.

Such a view has neither a popular base nor international endorsement. However, it draws support from extreme nationalism – Saddam loyalists and Islamic fanatics and disenfranchised hard-left fanatics so detached from reality that they can only survive on empty slogans.

The inability of certain segments of the left to realize that these divisions exist, speaks volumes about the tendency to want failure in Iraq as a way to harm the Bush presidency rather than standing in solidarity with Iraqi unions and other civil society organizations. Because of this tendency, the left has lost moral credibility and their most valuable and commendable trait: internationalism. To regain that lost virtue, the left must realize paradoxically that continued occupation presently helps, rather than hinders, Iraqi democrats. That the occupation should be used to shore up the strength of Iraq’s democrats and moderates (which the election seems to have done), while protecting them from insurgents should be commonsense. The time will certainly come when it hampers democratization. Until then though, the left must listen to the secular and democratic voices on the ground. The IFTU and the broader labor movement want the U.S. and the U.K. out of Iraq, but they understand an immediate withdrawal would bolster the reactionary elements of the insurgency and kill any democratic possibilities. That’s why they support the political framework of U.N. Resolution 1546.

No one genuinely concerned about democracy believes one election equates to democracy, but an election combined with vibrant civil society organizations does lend hope that a democratic Iraq is possible. Progressives and the left should take heart that there are Iraqi civil society organizations craving a multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic Iraq. Much of this sentiment is centered in the IFTU and throughout Iraq’s born again labor movement, making them a target for anti-democratic forces as well as an example of what happens to democrats in Saleh's case.

The left should take its cue from the IFTU and Iraq’s broader labor movement when it calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or secretly wishes for Bush’s failure. That means it needs to listen more to Iraqi democrats on the ground than adhere to ideological abstractions such as anti-imperialism If not, progressives may unintentionally cross that dividing line which separates principled opposition (or ideological rigidity) over into de facto support of totalitarianism.

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