Monday, May 28, 2007

Support the Truth

But the most ingenious excuse ever made for St. Bernard is to be found in his life by Geoffroi de Clairvaux, where he pertinaciously insists that the Crusade was not unfortunate. St. Bernard, he says, had prophesied a happy result, and that result could not be considered other than happy which had peopled heaven with so glorious an army of martyrs.
—Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

The justice and wisdom of a war cannot be questioned once that war is entered into for in so doing we demoralize and dishonor those we’ve tasked with its execution. New information revealing the original casus belli as fraudulent or mistaken cannot be allowed to affect the war's continuing prosecution. The war must not be revealed as a mistake or a fraud, and it should not be publicly asserted that the war is failing, much less hopeless, because to do this undermines the effort by demoralizing its soldiers. Once a war has been engaged, its purpose becomes the celebration of its warriors; all else fades toward irrelevance.

This is the essence of the endlessly repeated “support the troops” admonition. Its circular logic, its crass appeal to emotionalism, its bullying of dissent by the suggestion of disloyalty, all combine with its practical effect of suppressing debate to reveal a dishonesty and irrationality that will lead us to ruin. Again.

"Support the troops", with its seductive appeal to the romance of martial heroism and the debate constricting rhetorical genuflection it requires, by its tendency to force public opinion in one direction, is a death spiral. It is the nuclear option of debate, the napalming of one's own position, the burning of the village in order to save it. It would not be deployed if not for the hopeless logical and factual position of those who use it. Aside from an unsophisticated public whose understandable love of country is being manipulated, war supporters who pull the rip-cord of "support the troops" are a desperate and cowardly lot, ironically beating a retreat by a path that seeks to put those very same troops between them and harm's way. Wars of necessity do not require such desperate measures.

In the modern era, people do not propose entering into a war in order to honor those who fight it (at least not openly); but they can always be counted on to insist on continuing a war, no matter how pointless, unjust, or hopeless it is revealed to be, for this very reason.

If you haven't come to this conclusion already, allow me the heresy: the troops, their morale, and their "support" have no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether or not a war should be entered into, continued or ended (other than as a practical matter of capability, such as our current demoralized and overextended forces lending urgency to the need for bringing them home). No number of acts of heroism and sacrifice, no matter how pure, noble, or inspiring, no number of worthy young men bravely answering the nation's call, can make a war any more just, sensible, or necessary; this does not become less true once a war has begun. The noblest bravery is as readily employed on behalf of a lie as in the defense of innocence.

"Support the troops" has become a straightjacket we willingly put ourselves into. If more plainly stated for what it is, for the sentiment it truly represents, it would be stated thusly: once entered into a war must be won for the sake of winning, regardless of all else.
This is natural; and as with most things "natural", it isn't sensible thereby. In fact, its primal nature makes it all the more perilous. Our instinctual reverence for heroism in war is profoundly human. It is humanity's most dangerous intoxicant, necessitated by our violent prehistory and naturally produced like adrenaline, dulling our sense of order, justice, and morality (which, as mere social constructs, late-comers with no pedigree, work against it at a distinct disadvantage).
It should never be a purpose of war, in theory or practice, to “support the troops”, but this is precisely what this cheap debating trick effects; the support of soldiers at war is a matter of course, the least expected of the political leadership whatever the reason for their deployment (and notably, many who use this device turn apologist when actual instances of insufficient material support of soldiers impugn the governing class; to say nothing of the heinous crime of sending the young to war unnecessarily in the first place). The public, the media, even opposition politicians, are not bound by any requirement to give their support to a military endeavor with which they disagree; military action enjoys no special privilege as sacrosanct because young men are put in harm's way. Of course, for this reason it should require justification before skeptics all the more. The perverse effect of "support the troops" has been to sacrifice, quite literally, those troops to their glorification.

Indeed, the very deployment of these troops, is the real issue, obscured as it is: is the war just, but above all is it necessary? The profligate use of human life to advance aggressive and adventurous foreign policy goals, not out of necessity but from ambition, is the ultimate betrayal of "the troops."

But the obfuscation of reality through the arousal of emotion is the real point. To those it is used against, “support the troops” has taken on a talismanic power to sow doubt, provoke conflicting emotions, and cow into submission; it seizes the mind, stops inquiry and reason in their tracks, as all must genuflect before "the troops", who begin to exist as a mythical representation of the actual troops being maimed and killed every day.

For those who invoke the slogan, it circulates as a sort of cure-all snake oil, dispelling doubt, routing feelings of impotence, instilling the illusion of virtue. It has drug-like properties, giving rise to a euphoria and sense of well-being; above all, it cures doubt and inhibits introspection.

It is the "conservative" equivalent of the common "liberal" valuation of sentiment above reason--and reality. It becomes more important to feel the right way about something, and the more deeply felt the better. Correctly assessing reality, the consequences or fairness of one's actions, the preservation of order and law, all are tawdry practical concerns that pale next to the purity of emotion and conviction. One is expected to be on the right side of sentiment, not perception. This is natural, and belies an innate human logic adapted to primitive society, borne of the need to gauge the character and loyalties of an individual; a predictive assessment of his dependability. This makes it no less disastrous when applied to modern society and war.

It's time to become conscientious objectors refusing the call of "support the troops." No one, after all, is "against the troops" (and if they are, somehow, I should like to hear their argument all the same). The sentiment is a content-less redundancy, obscuring more than revealing. It's time for a discharge. Call it a reduction in forces. These words have lost all meaning, one more casualty of our new culture of war. They have been left on the front lines of a meaningless war, sacrificed for the goals of the corrupt and cowardly, just like their real world counteparts.

Here's one more heresy for you: our greater obligation is to the truth, not the troops. They, and the rest of us, will be just fine if we can only honor this.
Memorial Day, 2007.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I Was Young Once Too

Funny the things you find out there.
I came across this on the blog of a man I served with, way back then. Ben Hanson, Canadian immigrant, naturalized U.S. citizen, veteran, patriot, and still, apparently, with a camera permanently affixed to his shooting eye. For some reason Ben deleted the comment I left on the post. I was kidding, Ben. I hope this doesn't have to do with my status as a wild-eyed peacenik.

This photo was taken in the mid-eighties, during the annual massive "Team Spirit" joint exercise with U.S. and South Korean troops in Pohang, South Korea. Pohang at the time was a giant steel mill and port garrisoned by a military base, with attendant town attached.
Pohang is in the southeast of the peninsula, on the Korean Strait that separates Korea and Japan; in the winter it is cold and bleak, with only a few bare trees (however, my travels were severely limited, from base to bath to brothel and back, mostly), buffeted by harsh winds. The air quality in Pohang was poor; Koreans bicycled about wearing dust masks. The people are as tough as the environment, but unfailingly polite. Long tents were set up in the street where the Koreans would stop in to drink their version of sake. The street market was a gruesome spectacle in its own right. Fights were common. This is where I saw a gang of prostitutes beating a man senseless on the street. All the best stories, however, are best left for another venue.

We set up a tent city in a Godforsaken corner of the military base there, where the ground is thick and sticky mud when it rains, and unforgiving hard-packed dirt continually feeding a fine dust into the bracing winter wind the rest of the time. No running water or heat, long hours punctuated by twelve hour stretches of "Cinderella liberty", meaning one had to be back on base by midnight. We would catch a shuttle into town, get a hot bath, and join the sea of camouflage assailing the city. The smell of kimchi, fermented cabbage, was everywhere. Seasonal industries selling tourist souvenirs, such as the gaudy mink blankets called futons, alcohol, and comfort, sprang up to capture the restless G.I. wages.

The Koreans had been chafing at the presence of American troops for a while by then. The president at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, was effectively a dictator who seized power in a coup in 1979; when we were there opposition street demonstrations were going on in Seoul, always riotous. There was a sense that the country was on the verge of radical change; a student movement was beginning to assert itself. Chun wouldn't last much longer, ousted in '88 (and eventually pardoned for the Gwangju massacre of street demonstrators in 1980).

A friend, Mark Lazicki (a laconic upstate New Yorker), and I were collared on the street by a group of female Korean students who bought us lunch and grilled us about life in the states. They despised Chun, who they referred to as "the Pig", with a sort of cautious sense of indulgence. About this time Ferdinand Marcos' reign in the Philippines was nearing its end as well (the last time I was there plain-clothes military and police were loitering about on corners with M-16s; rumors of disappearances were rife). These were the first postwar changes in the Far East that have yet to run their course, and only will when we finally give the place back.

We, here in the States, have an insurmountable inability to understand the humiliation felt by a people hosting foreign troops on their soil. It's no use insisting that we're needed, or that they should be appreciative. Imagine foreign troops in your town. They look different, speak another language (and disdain yours), are young, large, rambunctious, horny, sometimes resentful of you and your home. Often the best real estate is taken up by bases, sometimes operating loud aircraft at all hours; the area surrounding these become dominated by red-light districts, bars, and merchants servicing the needs of the foreign troops.
Large parts of town are unsafe, particularly for young women, who aren't distinguished from prostitutes. Small crimes of public disturbance are common: fighting, vandalism, drunkenness; occasionally more serious crimes occur, such as rape and murder. The military authorities often deny your police the right to prosecute these crimes. The many, or even majority, of the troops who carry themselves with respect and dignity (which is after all the least to be expected and no cause for congratulation) cannot negate the adverse effects of the minority (but not necessarily few) who dishonor themselves and their hosts.

But on a personal note, on this Memorial Day, this is one veteran who would like to thank the American taxpayer, for subsidizing his post-adolescent maturation. I don't know what I would've done without you.

The vast military superstructure that we've created is unsustainable; eventually we will have to surrender it, no matter how loud and melodramatic the wailing of the military fetishists of the Victor Davis Hanson variety. I believe this to be necessary for our salvation. But much will be lost along with it.
Among the military/industrial complex's incidental benefits are its status as one of the greatest sources of job creation in history. The military services specifically have provided generations of young people with little education and few prospects with a job, or career, that is secure and comprehensive in its provision for medical benefits and retirement; placing them with relative efficiency via the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery.

The military also serves as a second system of education, a great vocational alternative to college (where so many go to squander four years and a considerable sum of their parents' and/or public money), training thousands in a vast array of technical and logistical disciplines as well as a general theory of management, while inculcating them in a culture of organizational discipline and pride rare outside of the professions. The naturally occurring prevalence of minorities creates the sort of racial diversity, and even racial accord, that elites unsuccessfully seek to engineer elsewhere through resented, damaging and degrading affirmative action programs; all without resorting to discrimination. Of course, as Bush grinds away at the fitness of current forces and frightens away new recruits with his seat-of-the-pants foreign policy, these fragile gains will be sacrificed to lowered standards and deteriorated morale.

Among the many absurdities in the common perception of the military, the most obscene may be the oft-leveled charge that the military serves as a sort of raw deal for minorities who are channeled into it by a cruelly discriminatory society that then uses them as cannon fodder. Even now, in wartime, the mortality rate for G.I.s is remarkably low considering the nature of the profession; in most military occupations even in war (and during peacetime in all of them) it is likely safer for a young black man to be in the military than on the worst urban streets.

The military in the post-Vietnam era has served as a pressure release employing and providing for countless minorities. This goes far beyond mere employment in the military, setting up veterans in improved entries into post-military work; this was brought home for me after the service when I went to work in the aerospace industry, where military veterans preponderate, in the last great manufacturing industry left to America. Just another case of Sharpton, Jackson, et al, having their cliche-riddled heads up their collective ass, belying their lack of not just common sense but any real concern for the welfare of those they claim to represent.

Something to remember when people propose a draft as a means of squaring things. Even more absurd is the notion that it will force discretion into our war policy. If we need a draft to compel us to act sensibly in our foreign policy, we are already lost.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Siege of the Emerald City

President Bush is not handing a war off to the next president. He is handing him, or her, what will likely become the most humiliating defeat this nation has ever known. The first President Bush famously declared the "Vietnam syndrome" dead after the first Gulf War. If he became the nation's hubris, his hapless son now becomes the nation's unwitting nemesis. Unlike Vietnam, where the dominoes did not fall (do they ever, really?) and the specter of Soviet domination of Indochina proved an unwarranted panic, the defeat in Iraq holds the promise of untold consequences for real, that is non-ideological, American interests.

Some of us will take the dismantling of the empire any way we can get it, but it would be nice to go out on our own terms. This is probably not possible; no one will be elected president, and few will be elected to Congress, by espousing, or so much as harboring, a truly non-interventionist foreign policy. A nation can choose to acquire an empire but it cannot choose to relinquish one. Perhaps that isn't accurate; perhaps it's that empires are acquired, as the man said, "in a fit of absent-mindedness", and lost the same way. The question is, once inevitability reveals itself, will we have the wisdom to manage our return home, preserving domestic liberty, or will we give in to further militarization, spending ourselves flailing away at an increasingly hostile and resentful world, and inflicting upon ourselves the further erosion of the republic that comes with it?

The usual suspects probably already have worked up enough material for a whole wave of "Iraq wasn't a military defeat" books. They tar their opponents with the "stab in the back" libel straight out of inter-war Germany already; as the hysterics provoked by Ron Paul's assertion that our actions abroad affect terrorism recently displayed. Curious, how "conservatives" now employ that most tawdry of liberal conceits, reacting in mock (or worse, actual) outrage, sputtering that considering the consequences of our actions constitutes "blaming the victim."

President Bush promised no surrender ceremony on the deck of a destroyer,* and Lord knows he's kept his word on that one, but a familiar scene he may still manage to deliver, is the ignominious last helicopter out of Saigon. It's only a matter now of how dramatic will be the fall from control to chaos. But perhaps this is what it will look like:
In recent weeks, the Green Zone has suffered near-daily barrages of mortars and rockets, some from predominantly Shiite neighborhoods to the east. The attacks have threatened the zone’s status as the safest place in Iraq. Many officials working in the enclave have begun wearing body armor outside their offices.
You'll no doubt be relieved to know that Tony Blair's defeat lap around the Green Zone was unaffected.

*Though he certainly tried to fabricate one, with the now infamous prancing about the deck of an aircraft carrier in military uniform with strategically-placed sock.
The disastrous audacity of the ever-expanding "global war on terror" as willed into being by the Administration: there will be no clear end (we'll tell you when it's over) marked by ceremony, but there will be simulacra of such, the celebration of victory without the end of conflict, to rouse the mass in support of more conflict. For no other purpose than to strengthen the Party's hold on power, consolidating the political gains of its fictional victory, while arousing the public's appetite for more conquest.
This administration has managed to manipulate mass perception like no other, overlaying a fictional struggle atop a horrendous reality. All wars have their accompanying propaganda, but the gap between perception and reality has grown so wide, and the consequences looming are so large, that it threatens to swallow us whole.

This "no clear end" to the "global" war on terror is a grotesquery that we somehow allow to survive the light of day: war, everywhere and without end. Combine with this the use of the "authorization to use force" in place of real legislative authority, as Congress grants the president monarchical powers, surrendering responsibility to avoid responsibility, and you have enshrined in principle an absolute presidential power that was definitively rejected by the founders. Congressmen are afraid to oppose wars riding waves of popular sentiment, and afraid to bear responsibility for their failure; the "authorization to use force" exists only for that reason. Cowardice ceding power may prove to be the fatal flaw of a republic with a strong executive.

The "war" is not waged as such, that is, legally, observing long established civilizing custom, and with the restraint we've shown in past conflicts. The captured are not prisoners of war, even though we insist we are engaged in war, because the war is against "terror"; neither are they mere criminals, however. They are what we, more precisely what Bush and Cheney, say they are. The closest thing the world has seen to an all-powerful nation, we have created Limbo on Earth.

Public opinion can be counted on to show little sympathy for the rights of terrorist suspects, but the war in Iraq and the pointless nation building in Afghanistan burden us with thousands of prisoners that have nothing to do with terrorism.
The worst disgrace of the Bush years concerning the torture and abuse of prisoners would have no relationship at all to the prosecution of terrorists; Abu Ghraib was a desperate attempt to collect intelligence to halt the insurgency in Iraq (an insurgency that wasn't acknowledged). The methods justified by the threat and irrationality of terrorism are being used against many who have merely taken up arms to oppose the occupation of their country.
Imagine: war, universal, undeclared, unlimited, without end.

Well, how did I get here?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

...

He stands on the corner addressing the cars that speed or creep by, oblivious to him. When traffic stops at the light he singles out a motorist whom he then appeals to directly, taking on a familiar air, as if speaking to an acquaintance, smiling. Most don't see him, some give him a moment's bored glance. None seem find him as alarming as his appearance should merit, long unwashed and transmitting the incoherent, insect energy of the manic; as the car moves on he effortlessly goes from intimate to stage manner of speech, back to engaging the multitude.

A crumpled cardboard sign lies at his feet, something is scrawled on it. Occasionally he turns about, addressing a pedestrian; none acknowledge him. His ranting grows more impassioned, his gestures grander, the longer you watch him. He pauses occasionally for effect, in a professorial manner stroking a beard that looks as if it's made of cigar ash, with his other hand a fist pressed against his hip and pulling back an overcoat bearing the satiny sheen of of caked-on dirt; sometimes he nods with pursed lips, as if to punctuate some earnest and frank aphorism; he sighs as if having unloaded a weighty truth.

You can't help yourself; you move in closer to try to catch what he's saying. Bits of it come through the crashing, rising and falling sound waves of traffic and the continual hum of everything else: "...representation; representation not of reality--no! Representation of representation..." he repeatedly reaches a climax of excited declamation, then falls back to a quiet, musing tone, gradually ascending until reaching the next peak, against which the flood of his thoughts spends itself like a crashing wave, and back again, on and on, important-sounding and nonsensical: "...closed to the real; not an alternative, no; a refutation..." Everything is so very important, so vital, so much the release of concentrated and long restrained energy that you think at any moment he will simply blast off from his feet, whistling and spiraling in a failed arc like an errant firework, to smash himself against one of the buildings nearby.

He sees you watching him; his eyes somehow grow even more intense; he is delighted, enlivened anew, as he addresses you directly. You are across the broad and busy boulevard from him, but, unnerved, you find yourself stepping back slightly, alarmed and repulsed but more curious than ever.
He breaks into a chant. He is increasingly agitated now, from all the way across the street you can see that he is trembling. You can't hear him, the wind-noise of the traffic seems to be coming out of his mouth as he repeats a single word over and over. Pedestrians are starting to notice him now, people are watching him warily as they hurry past behind him, cutting him a wider swath. He is leaning back, as if to give his words a higher trajectory to carry them farther, leaning back dangerously, deliriously, until finally he falls to the ground, and your stomach contracts in response to the crack of his head against the pavement.

Now a few people have stopped; most are merely staring; one man is kneeling near the fallen man. You move toward him reactively, without thought, stepping off the curb; as your foot lands in the street it somehow makes the sound of a foghorn; how odd, you think in the fraction of a second within which this occurs. But the sound is not coming from the ground, but from the side; still held within this clear, surreal pixel of a moment, you turn to face the noise.

The bus is so large, so impossible, you think that you are hallucinating; because if it is that near, coming that fast, it can only mean...
There is a flash of white, followed by a freeze-frame snapshot, the photo-finish produced by billions of synapses in unison sounding their last alarm, of what you know is your final glimpse of the world: the driver's mouth in a little o, obscured behind the sunlight reflecting off of the big, flat windshield, and the destination sign above it. In this boundless split-second of final consciousness, only vaguely aware that you're tumbling headlong in space, you realize the word over the windshield is familiar, and another realizaton follows, as now you find you're reading the lips of the street corner lunatic after the fact, because this is the word he was repeating; it's not possible, it simply cannot be, but there it is in black and white, printed on the brow of the bus that is bearing down on you:
UNTETHERED

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

PowerPoint Postmodernism

A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.
--Mr. Dryden, Lawrence of Arabia

If you haven't bookmarked George Washington University's National Security Archive you should. The website is dedicated to publishing declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Today's posting on the release of documents outlining pre-invasion plans for the creation of a "rapid reaction media team" to oversee the takeover of Iraqi media, putting them into the service of pacification, by "broadcasting and printing USG (U.S. government) approved information" identifies the strategy for replacing Saddam's propaganda apparatus with our own; among the early post-invasion goals: "identify the media outlets we need left intact, and work with CENTCOM targeteers to find alternative ways to disable key sites." (Note that on April 8, 2003 a U.S. missile hit the Baghdad headquarters of al-Jazeera, killing a reporter; the deliberate targeting of a civilian media outlet is of course a war crime, as was pointed out at the time.*)

To say that this Administration is dishonest is to so understate the case as to be irrelevant. This Administration does not conceal the truth, it disdains it. It rejects the idea of truth, holding perception, narrative, and control above objective reality--and morality.

Governments lie. It's what they do. But we now have something qualitatively different, a new animal. Still, don't be fooled into thinking that it represents a "takeover" of government by forces that have existed outside of it or a paradigmatic shift in governance. The Bush Administration was prefigured long ago, and we have been steadily working our way toward it. This fact is obscured by the unique audacity of the current White House and the accelerating effect of 9/11.

Some aver that the current marriage of neoconservatives with born-again Christian conservatives constitutes a quasi-fascist authoritarian movement. This mis-characterizes the current crisis as an aberration that will be neatly excised by the ascension of a Democratic administration in 2008. That is its purpose. Don’t believe it.

While the effects of the neoconservatives' manipulation of unsophisticated and ill-informed Christian fundamentalist nationalism, enabling an alarming rise in militarism abroad and authoritarianism at home, are cause for alarm and must be opposed, this notion that they represent a durable and unified movement seems nearly as inaccurate as the common confusion of Shi'ite and Sunni militants as a unified whole.

The illusory specter of a grand conservative movement where there is in fact a tiny neoconservative elite manipulating a distracted and ill-informed conservative middle class, is necessitated by the need to defend the status quo for liberal Democrats and others who fear fundamental change in policy and politics, and who would furthermore like to heap this whole mess entirely on the big, bad, racist/xenophobic/elitist/ad nauseum Republicans. But the key to splitting the conservative masses from the neocon elite lies in appealing to the very same conservatism, in domestic and economic policy, for which the neocons and liberals alike hold plain old working white America in disdain.

This is evidenced by the fevered rantings of such as Chris Hedges, who is fond of including xenophobia and the idiotic construct of "Islamophobia" in his long list of sins committed by this imaginary Christian Front. Now we have many who are as falsely liberal as the neocons are falsely conservative; among the things they seek to preserve in the coming political cataclysm is a policy of liberal intervention and an expanding military presence abroad. When they set about bombing "brown people" (said with the sort of misty look in the eye that an Oprah proselyte gets when saying "Barack Obama"), they will have been sacrificed for the best and purest intentions, not for anything as tawdry and practical as oil.

The neoconservative Movement can be thwarted by appealing to Middle America's inherent conservatism on issues such as immigration, globalization, liberal intervention and taxation. Mainstream Democrats are virtually indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts regarding these things and, having invested so much in the demonization of white middle class Americans to form a bloc of minority and urban voters, are ill-equipped to act.

The current crop of Democratic candidates, with the exception of the two with the least likely, that is to say no, chance of winning the nomination, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel and Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, all favor the expansion of the military, a commitment to the defense of Israel entirely out of proportion to its geo-strategic (but not political) significance, and a familiar policy of liberal intervention abroad that can be found among the direct precursors to the current disastrous militarism of the Bush Administration.
Indeed, Barack Obama’s recent, much awaited foreign policy speech sounded distressingly like President Bush’s delirious second inaugural address; it was nothing less than a reaffirmation of the liberal interventionist model that is a parent of the steroidal Wilsonianism of Bush II. So while the Republican Party may deserve having its hat handed to it in 2008, the disastrous foreign policy of Bush II may not follow it out the door.
The war in Iraq is lost and will force painful changes in U.S. policy, but the interests and political alliances that made it possible (and that have a U.S. carrier group steaming toward the Persian Gulf right now to take up a position against Iran), remain.

What held these forces in check before 9/11? Before the terror of that day opened a breach that Dick Cheney and his hapless minions leapt into, there remained something of a reality and ethics based political debate in America. But advances in the marketing and advertising of political communications had already been steadily eroding that for a long time. Narrative and imagery, enshrined in cinema and vulgarized on television, having drastically altered the way we view the world and process information, also became the primary means for the state and elites to manipulate the public.

The Bush Administration is merely the culmination of various trends in political communication that have been at work since Teddy Roosevelt thought it would be a good idea to have himself filmed tossing a medicine ball back and forth on the White House lawn. While we have found our way to something fundamentally new, it's wrong to view it as a sort of counter-movement working against or in reaction to American history. Radical change need not come as a radical break with history; it seems far more likely that it comes as the logical, even foreseeable product of it, as a critical mass is reached in one or more contributing factors and a transformation occurs. What we have is less aberration than logical result. While 9/11 may have unleashed it, remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld had Iraq in their sights long before 9/11.

(Perhaps the most damning proof of George Bush's now historic lack of fitness for office is found in that fact; campaigning on a more "modest" foreign policy, he was quietly assembling its polar opposite. He was either lying outright or, and this is perhaps more unsettling, he really didn't know who he was hiring, the debates they were immersed in, or the foreign policy concepts that were relevant to the process. This is not as unlikely as it should be; recall that candidate Bush was receiving embarrassingly rudimentary foreign policy "primers" well into his candidacy. God help us.)

Likewise, its goals abroad are nothing new. The real prize in Iraq remains in the ground; it is the same thing that's necessitated and complicated our relations with the Middle East since about the time Jack Philby recommended to Ibn Saud that he commission a survey exploring the oil potential of his vast, barren land.

The bold aggression of the Bush Administration can be seen as a gambit to double down on our current military preeminence, placing America atop an unassailable global hegemony. They miscalculated. That they have failed should not be mourned by any of us who actually value the republican ideal we still hope to realize one day. The fight over the true nature of America is on, and that may be a good thing. The calls for ever greater authoritarian measures grow louder as the neoconservative movement flounders. Otherwise sensible folk start to sound deranged; see Harvey Mansfield's cavalier dismissal of republican concerns, Thomas Sowell's longing for a military coup. It's hard to be melodramatic in insane times (undermining my own oeuvre).

The Administration utilizes the latest in all relevant communication disciplines and politico-marketing innovations to consolidate its hold on power and advance foreign policy goals that would be indefensible in a political system such as that envisioned by the founders. Its goals are not new but its aggressive nature and audacity in attempting to make a one-party state of America and a one-power world of the Earth are unprecedented. Still, these will not pass with the current beast, and no future U.S government can be trusted not to reap for itself the vastly expanded powers sown by the current administration. One can imagine opponents of the current regime anticipating the spoils of its efforts.

The abuses and crimes of this government need to be addressed by legislative action, starting with the reclamation of congressional authority over war powers. This is not happening, as the Democrats oppose the current administration just enough to help their own cause. Their supporters in the activist class demonstrate their mendacity as well, cheering on Senators Clinton and Obama, either of whom propose to continue the expansion of the imperium, under the tawdry banner of liberal intervention.

With the Bush Administration long term trends in advertising, marketing, politics, technology, and culture have coalesced under an overarching, perverse sort of corporate mentality that meticulously extracts value to produce product; the value is belief, the product is control. It seeks to render veracity obsolete as it concedes nothing until a position becomes thoroughly untenable, and then returns to previous positions long ago discredited--but lost in the miasma of our measured-in-months popular memory. Opponents are forever restating positions, arguing points that should be settled, etc; they are continually kept off balance, arguing from the outmoded and slow-footed milieu of reason, logic, and consequence. Call it triumph of the will. The genius of the Bush Administration lies in the fact that it simply refuses to address the truth. It therefore will not be bound by it.

But thank God for the sweet subversion of the Internet. There is reason to be encouraged; here Bush's propaganda "catapult" in Iraq was as ineffective in the current media environment, with blogs, the proliferation of cameras in the hands of soldiers and civilians alike and their access to the Internet, and alternatives to the cloistered mainstream media in the U.S., as a real catapult would be against modern weapons. The Administration's plans for controlling reality in the "new Iraq" proved as fantastical as everything else they attempted there. Here is one instance for which we can be glad of their delusional incompetence.

*update: Jim Lobe has an article in today's Asia Times online, mostly just highlighting the original Nat'l Security Archive posting, but reminding us of this unsettling fact:
In April 2004, during an extended battle covered by Al-Jazeera - for Fallujah, Iraq - President George W Bush suggested attacking the network's headquarters in Qatar during a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to leaked notes of the talks.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Nefarious Effects of Timetables

According to the president, if we set a date for withdrawal from Iraq the al Qaeda franchise there (apparently this month's "top enemy" working against the occupation, replacing April's Persian peril, which out-charted previous number-one with a whole lot of bullets, Sunni insurgents [now allies against the first], who displaced...) will simply "wait us out" before taking over Iraq or "following us home".

Seeing as the terrorist element's capabilities have only improved over time and the rise of Shi'ite power in Iraq will continue to draw jihadis and Saudi money with or without our presence (of course the inflows of foreign volunteers will likely wane in our absence as the jihad loses anti-American appeal), the current plan to provide them with targets for an indefinite period until the achievement of goals we still haven't defined* doesn't seem to make sense. If, as I suspect, the Administration's stated goals in Iraq, ill-formed and shifting as they are, bear only slight and incidental resemblance to their actual goals, then it all becomes a little clearer, if no saner.
One thing's for sure, in light of our pending withdrawal, accepted or not by the war's supporters, the Sunni tribes, already hostile toward the takfiris our invasion brought in its wake, will continue as they are now, turning on the terrorist element in expectation of our imminent departure:
"Everyone is convinced Coalition forces are going to leave and they are saying, 'We do not want Al Qaeda to take control of the area when that happens.' For them, Al Qaeda is a greater threat long term."
The War Party, for all of their bluster, cannot see that the timetable effect they predict is already operational (and we are already becoming irrelevant to the long term plans of Iraqis). That may not be such a bad thing for Iraq (whatever the case it is the only thing, now), if not for the plans of the Cheney Administration.
Iraqis are already determining their future without us; they are already "waiting us out", staying out of the way of the giant or manipulating it when possible (and perhaps those who have the chance are rushing to fill their pails before the well of U.S. largess dries up). Bush's resistance to withdrawal or timetables is merely the continuing and deteriorating effort to preserve a presence and hence some stake in the development of Iraq's oil fields.

Some are touting the uneasy alliance we're striking with tribal leaders in al Anbar against al Qaeda as "progress"; unless our goal was to create a war between jihadists and Iraq's Sunni tribes and then place ourselves in the middle of it, I remain unimpressed.

We are responsible for the disaster we've created in Iraq, in particular for the Sunnis, yet the claim that we're fighting there a force capable of threatening our security here, or anywhere outside of Iraq for that matter, remains as patently absurd now as the hysteria about Saddam's "threat" was four years ago.

*today's five-day forecast for the prevailing definition of success, according to the president:

"Either we'll succeed, or we won't succeed," he said. "And the definition of success as I described is sectarian violence down. [bold added] Success is not no violence... But success is a level of violence where the people feel comfortable about living their daily lives."

Note the president's remarks above were made in the same speech where he repeated the name "al Qaeda" dozens of times in a ham-fisted and shameless attempt to shore up support by invoking yet again 9/11, yet this fuzzy definition of success, and still he turned about and asserted that the primary difficulty is not the sectarian warfare he cites as necessitating prolonging the occupation, but foreign terrorists:
"The recent attacks are not the revenge killings that some have called a civil war," Bush told the Associated General Contractors of America. "They are a systematic assault on the entire nation. Al-Qaida is public enemy No. 1 in Iraq." [bold added]
Apparently the confusion is so pervasive that it cannot even be overcome within the confines of a single speech.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

(hog)"wash"

Sebastian Mallaby and I share something: an unnaturally high forehead. Mine is perhaps not as tall and a bit wider, for me it brings to mind a drive-in theatre movie screen, broad and protruding, rounded and looming out over the brow, giving what I always thought an insect look, and made to look all the larger by an occasional ghostly pallor (once when visiting sunny California after a few years in grey Seattle an old friend simply stopped mid-conversation for a moment and took it in with what can only be described as awe; "you need to get some sun on that thing", he said); whereas in his picture Mallaby's resembles more an elongated, columnar edifice.
Combine this deformity, and let's face it, it is, with its common companion flaw, the receding hairline (who says God has no sense of humor?), and a longing for the pre-sexual revolution custom of men wearing hats (other than baseball caps) is induced. Of course, I don't have the face Sebastian is fated to wear in the vast shadow cast by that towering, totemic gourd (I kid, I kid!). Nonetheless, I feel a natural affinity for the man, suffering as we do from a common malady, suspecting that we've shouldered a similar weight (literally and figuratively). That however does not excuse his May Day pro-amnesty column:

People say, contrariwise, that immigrants steal jobs from native-born Americans. But economists have patiently explained for years that there is no finite "lump of labor" in an economy. The presence of migrants causes new jobs to be created: Factories that might have gone abroad spring up in Arizona or Texas. Hasn't anyone noticed that California, where fully one-third of the adult population is foreign born, has an unemployment rate of less than 5 percent? [bold added]

Stupid question, and not because the answer is obvious. Other questions come to mind, such as has anyone explained to Sebastian Mallaby that correlation does not equal causation? How about Post hoc fallacy? Has he weighed the difference between David Card's "mysterious alchemy" argument, and George Borjas' take on immigration's effect on labor? Does he have a position? Is he aware of them? "Hasn't anyone noticed" my a—er, big broad forehead.

As for “factories springing up”, the overwhelming percentage of illegals are employed in construction, agriculture, hospitality, housekeeping and food processing, jobs that cannot move offshore and don't make anything but the houses with increasingly inflated values we are continually borrowing against and trading to maintain the hectic momentum of our growth-based economy; therefore, they do not directly result in freeing up capital for "factories." Any benefit to unrelated industries is the result of labor cost savings through depressed wages in these land-bound illegal immigrant heavy industries; savings that Mallaby will later argue (see below) are neither a net benefit nor net loss to the economy as a whole.

Therefore, by his own argument, Mallaby's "factories", metaphoric creatures perhaps, are subsidized by and dependent upon a depression in wages concentrated in certain industries and far down the personal income scale. The question becomes: why are we continually importing cheaper labor and the poor people attached to it to depress wages at the low end merely to create more low-paying jobs? Is it because we are addicted to growth and no longer able to produce things of value? Are we now just squeezing what little value we can out of unskilled labor? And what does the end of this progression look like, say when we've equalized our wages with Mexico's, yet are still producing less things with fewer and fewer people?

The "immigrants create jobs" argument may have some merit but prompts the question: why is a new arrival worth the low wage job he has a hand in creating? Isn't the benefit of job creation that it improves the lot of those already in the labor market? If a new arrival both creates (and it's not a one-for-one proposal as I understand this argument, but a new arrival is worth a fraction of a job) a low wage job and takes it, where is the benefit to the economy, other than in marginally increased tax revenues that are quickly surrendered to costs? In fact, it's ironic to argue that illegal immigration spares us significant outsourcing, seeing as the creation of an illegal workforce is a type of outsourcing. It's the only means of outsourcing available to industries that are bound by geography. Mallaby continues:

People say that immigrants burden social services while not paying taxes. Actually, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid; and although they do use hospital emergency rooms and schools, they also pay sales taxes and payroll taxes, and one in three pays income tax. The net result is that immigrants cost the average native U.S. household an extra $200 in taxes each year, according to a study of 1996 data. Once you take into account the boost to pretax incomes caused by immigrants' contribution to growth, the total effect of undocumented workers on native-born Americans is roughly zero, according to Gordon Hanson of the University of California at San Diego.
Notice the confusion in terms in the opening sentence, beginning with a strawman about "immigrants burden(ing) social services" when the far more common, and relevant, charge is that illegal aliens burden social services, and finishing with his counter that illegals are largely ineligible for services.
This is the "economic wash” argument, a retreat from the net benefit through growth and lower prices assertion; what is obscured by Mallaby's hopping back and forth from illegal immigration to immigration in general is of course that his "wash" indicates a net loss from illegal immigration; but putting that aside, the "wash" argument itself prompts an obvious series of questions:

  • Why are we poaching the lowest incomes in the economy for no net benefit?
  • Why are we overcrowding our cities, for no net benefit?
  • Why are we increasing environmental degradation for no net benefit?
  • Why are we stressing our schools with children who can be expected to yield a 50% high school graduation rate, for no net benefit? .
And on. Of course this is being generous, because, if heeded, Mallaby's argument in favor of amnesty and against enforcement because illegal immigration has no economic benefit, yields this: a deferred cost paid after the granting of amnesty, and its subsequent increase in welfare recipients, warranted by the original contribution of no economic benefit. I don't know, am I the crazy one? This argument resembles a snake eating its tail.

The question needs to be put back to the Mallabys of the world: why aren't we then pursuing an immigration policy geared toward skill, education, and IQ that has a net economic benefit? Is it because this policy would entail importing human capital that will compete with Mallaby and his progeny, rather than continually shorting the bottom rungs of the income ladder to provide him with slightly cheaper produce and services, essentially transferring lost wages to him?

It doesn't end with the huge increase in welfare costs that amnesty promises to unleash; now the vast majority of our newly minted disadvantaged and their offspring will enjoy privileged status as economically underachieving minorities. Ironically, people who have engaged in what is essentially rent-seeking behavior, moving here to take advantage not only of higher wages but of the general public subsidy and a superior (at least for the moment) system of legal rights, are immediately considered "victims" of this same remarkable society and its "legacy" of racism. Only in America.

Thus we come to the second glaring problem with open borders enthusiasm: proponents consistently exhibit an inability, or unwillingness, to hold constant other factors impacted by too-high unskilled immigration. When confronted with mass amnesty's potential for vastly increasing dependence on the government and demand for, for instance, affirmative action, libertarians will say simply that they are against big government, as if it is merely a question of assigning blame for holding the wrong opinions ahead of assured adverse consequences, or as if the mere expression of opinion alters the reality of big government that is not only certain to remain for generations as things currently stand but just as certain to grow as a result of unchecked immigration, as the growth of government necessarily tracks the growth of poverty.
This is partly why so many liberals abandon their commitment to working class wages and working conditions to embrace immigration policy written by and for business. They have their own industry to protect, after all. The poor are the clientele those working in the business of wealth redistribution require to maintain the health and viability of their industry.

Liberals, if and when they acknowledge disturbing trends in non-white Hispanic education, similarly evince a belief in the magic of incantation, dismissing concerns with assertions such as, "then we'll simply have to do something about education." Likewise, trends in education that are routinely misidentified as correctable crises, and thus the source of perennial waste and futility resulting from misguided federal attempts to "reform" the reality of uneven outcomes, are deemed sufficiently addressed by the repitition of a moldering cliche that no one any longer takes seriously. The hollow promises to "do something about education", like the poor, will always be with us.

The "economic wash" argument is first cousin to the argument that undocumented workers paying into social security but not drawing on it are thereby subsidizing it. But just as in the first case, this merely means that we have been borrowing against future social security revenues, only to repay later at what is effectively an inflated rate of interest--if and when we amnesty these folk who we have been up until now, contrary the false moral posturing of Mallaby et al, happily fleecing.

This is the dirty little secret of the pro-amnesty, anti-enforcement side. They effectively argue for the creation of a second-class citizenry, constrained by an illegal status making them more tolerant of lower wages and adverse labor practices, and more vulnerable to crime that its members are less willing to report (and providing the pro-amnesty side with artificially deflated numbers regarding criminality in illegal alien communities).

So, say some, amnesty them. And their argument has a perverse validity: we should not, cannot in clear conscience, maintain what is effectively a second-tier citizenry. But, unless our goal is to maintain a permanent underclass of illegals such as that produced by our current system of derelict enforcement relieved by periodic mass amnesties, the question of amnesty cannot be addressed without first addressing not legal status, but enforcement. This would be true "comprehensive" immigration reform.

This second class citizenry created by the current cycle of abnegation/amnesty will eventually draw much more from the public purse than they can possibly put in; not only as a result of their much lower incomes, but as a result of what will be higher health care requirements due to having wrecked their bodies providing Sebastian, and I'm sure a lovely (hopefully not genetically endowed with Dad's Metalunin forehead) brood of little Mallabys, with cheap household help, lettuce, and a poorly built McMansion that, before too long, will be straining along with the social safety net Dad and his elitist pals have stretched to pay for it all. Now add in family chain migration, bringing in more elderly, more young, more non-working dependents of those amnestied. Our wash is beginning to resemble a hosing.

The question is never illegal immigration alone, but always immigration policy, and how much of it we want to be determined by illegal immigration--in other words, how much control of it we will cede to the the world outside of the United States, how much will be determined by the whim and geographical proximity of citizens of other nations.
Aside from what many of us believe are specious claims, and some that aren't even that, of economic benefit, the pro-amnesty argument is simply this: that we have a limited (at best) say in our own immigration policy, as it will largely be determined by migrations we have no moral right to oppose or regulate. Hogwash.