Friday, July 30, 2010



The 90-odd thousand military reports from the troops in Afghanistan leaked to the press do not contain any startling revelations. They suggest, but not definitively, that the Taliban may have more sophisticated weapons than had heretofore been thought. It confirms what was previously only a strong suspicion that the Pakistani Secret Service (ISI), the original sponsors of the Taliban in Afghanistan, still have cordial and supportive relations with them.

Most startling to me was the news that civilian casualties due to military action were much higher and more frequent than we heard in official reports. Some people in the know, moreover, found that some of the killings of civilians they knew about were not even mentioned in the WikiLeak papers. The problems of killed civilians is not only significantly greater than we are being told but also than reported by the troops on the ground. No one knows how much suffering we are inflicting every day.

This is terrible news for a number of reasons:

It is terrible news for the people of Afghanistan who have suffered immeasurably for decades.

It makes the question of what we are doing in Afghanistan more pressing. Osama bin Laden has long since left. Al Quaida training camps have moved to the Arabian Peninsula. Ostensibly we are trying to defeat the Taliban in order to leave a more peaceful Afghanistan behind. We are trying to protect, we say, the Afghan population. But if they are dying regularly due to our military actions, what sort of protection is that? We can understand why they are wanting us to leave.

The high civilian death toll puts the US strategy of trying to win “the hearts and minds” of the population in question. Our soldiers are told to take special care not to injure civilians even in situations where they feel that this restraint endangers their own lives. But if restraint is not working, if the death toll of men, women, and children, young and old remains unacceptably high, is there any chance that we might win over the Afghan population to our side? From the recent news it looks like a forlorn hope.

And finally, there are grave implications for our democracy. “Democracy” the textbook tells us, means that “the people rule.” But what if the people do not know what is going on? If their government sends armies into the field without consulting the people and then keeps facts about the progress of the war secret, how can the people have an opinion and make good decisions? If, as in the Iraq war, the government goes to war and lies to the people about the justification, how can the people make good decisions?

If we learn anything from WikiLeak it is that we must redouble our efforts to end this terrible war.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More War ?

More War?

US naval vessels, including the gigantic nuclear powered aircraft carrier George Washington have joined South Korean military forces in a joint naval exercise off the coast of that country. North Korea has responded by threatening  “sacred war” and nuclear retaliation.

This massive show of force is a response to the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel near a disputed region in the oceans off the Koreas. Originally it was unclear whether a mine sank the warship, or an explosion.  Then a panel of international experts decided that the boat was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.

Why would North Korea want to sink a South Korean naval vessel? Since the 1960s there have been a series of attacks on South Korean Presidents, on airliners bound for Seoul, South Korea, or on South Korean naval vessels by North Koreans. A bitter enmity exists between the two countries.

So now we are doing war-games near the coast of North Korea and that country is talking nuclear war.

At the same time, there is more talk about Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Some people are seriously talking about attacking Iran. Iran is seriously talking about defending itself against such attacks.

Has the whole world gone mad?

We have been involved in two wars for seven years. The end--let alone victory--is not in sight. We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on these wars while we do not have enough money to pay unemployment to those left jobless by the economic crisis. We don’t have enough money to pay for our schools, for health care, or even, in some communities, to to turn on the street lamps. We are broke and we owe $ 4 trillion to other nations.
The US casualties in these wars have been high, so have been the casualties for some of our allies. Estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq alone range from 100,000 to 800,000. Damages to houses, streets, water and sewer installations, to schools and mosques have been enormous.

Two wars, poorly if at all justified, causing damages that will not be repaired for decades. Many of these damages--the human lives taken prematurely; the lives of the survivors marked indelibly--will never be repaired.

And still we talk more war?

Wake up, America!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Obama, The Drug War and US foreign policy

Obama, the drug war, and US foreign policy

The government has made significant changes in its drug policy since Obama became president. It is no longer prosecuting sellers of medical marijuana in states where that is legal. They are now funding the distribution of syringes. More attention is being paid to the health effects of drug abuse. The government is making a serious effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS due to intravenous drug use. Using crack -- the drug of the poor -- is no longer being punished more harshly than using cocaine which the rich prefer.

All of this is a genuine improvement. But the overall shape of the war on drugs has not changed. A program that spends $ 1.5 billions a year, still devotes two thirds of its resources to attempts to reduce the supply of drugs and only one third on programs to help addicts. That imbalance continues in spite of the fact that most qualified observers agree that the efforts to reduce supplies coming from outside the US have failed.

This persistence of a program that has always been wrong headed and, in addition, appears to be unsuccessful, in spite of huge sums of money spent, is truly bizarre. Commentators interpret it  as a victory for some bureaucrats over others. They say that the people who have a personal investment in the drug eradication programs from Afghanistan to Bolivia won out over more progressive thinkers in the Administration.

From the perspective of Latin America, however, the drug war looks very different. Until 1989 the US regularly justified its support of dictators over democratically elected governments in Cold War terms. The Cold War was used as a pretext for US domination of the hemisphere. The cold war against Communism served as a convenient cover for interfering with governments in the hemisphere.

But after 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union that pretext was no longer available. The war on drugs is a substitute. In the name of the war on drugs, the US government has given millions and millions of dollars to Colombia to help them put down a left-wing uprising that still controls significant portions of the country. The US has bought the loyalty and support of the Colombian government and made it into a staunch ally.  In the name of the war on drugs the US has sold weapons and Blackhawk helicopters to Mexico thereby cementing relations with our neighbor. In Bolivia and Peru the US government has insisted on coca eradication programs. Peru has become another US client. In Bolivia, on the other hand, the anti-drug programs have fueled intense anti-Americanism and resentment against US interference.

The hundreds of millions of dollars supposedly dedicated to cutting off the supply of drugs from Latin America are continuing to be spent in spite of the program’s failure. The reason is not the narrow self-interest of some bureaucrats. Nor is the failed drug eradication program just one more example of how governments can’t get anything right. The so-called anti-drug programs are merely a cover for US surveillance of and interference with the internal affairs of different Latin American countries. The so-called “war on drugs” is in reality one part of the US war on political movements that are opposed to US interests in Latin America. It has little to do with drugs and everything to do with keeping Latin America safe for us investment and control.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Political Prisoners in the US?

Political prisoners in the US?

Americans widely believe that Cuba holds a significant number of political prisoners. The Cubans point out that the people incarcerated were not sentenced simply for disagreeing with the regime of the Castro brothers but because they accepted money from the American government. They are imprisoned for failure to register as agents of a foreign government . Are they political prisoners are not?

This question comes up in connection with Walter Kendall Myers and his wife Gwendolyn Steingraeber Myers, both in their 70s, who have been convicted of spying for Cuba for many years. Are they political prisoners?

It seems clear that both the Cubans and the Myers are in prison for breaking laws of their respective countries and not because they are dissidents.

But the matter is, in fact more complicated. Walter Myers received a life sentence. The government had argued against leniency because “he felt no remorse and was motivated by communist sympathies.” Walter Myers, it appears, was legitimately jailed for breaking US law but was given a life sentence instead of a shorter one, for his political beliefs and his unwillingness to give those up.

Interestingly enough, the day before all this happened, Lynne Stewart a New York City civil-rights lawyer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for passing messages from Sheik Omar Abdel-Raman to his followers. The Sheik is in prison for orchestrating the first World Trade Center bombing attempt.

Ms. Stewart was convicted sometime ago and had first been sentenced to a much shorter prison term. The government appealed. The judge changed his mind about the sentence because Lynne Stewart did not “show no remorse.” She did not change her mind about the legitimacy of her actions. She did not change her political beliefs.

It looks awfully like Lynne Stewart is to receive a harsh sentence on account of her political convictions.
Does that make Walter Myers and Lynne Stewart political prisoners?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Socialism Anyone?

Socialism anyone?

Everyone knows that his opponents have tried to denigrate Pres. Obama by calling him a “socialist”. Not so many people know that this labeling  misfired. There are a lot of Americans in all walks of life, but particularly in the generation under 30, who think that socialism may well not be such a bad thing.

According to a recent Pew survey only 52% of Americans “react positively” to the idea of capitalism; 37% “react positively” to the idea of socialism. Support for socialism is higher among the young. These results replicate the results of an earlier Rasmussen poll.

This is not surprising once you think about it: capitalism is in crisis. Unemployment is unacceptably high all around the globe. In the US it is especially high among the young and among Black and Hispanic Americans. At the same time, global corporations like BP show themselves utterly irresponsible, willing to risk major disasters for the sake of their bottom line. The big banks and investment houses are making money again while their victims are still struggling. Millions of American families will loose their homes to foreclosures this year.
We have every reason to believe that the pursuit of private profit may be good for the rich but it is hardly good for the rest of us. Think of the fast food industry and the obesity epidemic. Think of the ever rising prices of health care and education, on one hand, while the gap between the rich and the poor is growing daily. The blessings of capitalism are withheld from larger percentages of the population every day. More people are poor; more children go hungry. More people cannot afford to see a doctor, or to send their children to college.

So a lot of Americans are unsure about the best economic system for us. They are not convinced that capitalism will be good for us in the long run.

Now consider this startling fact: more than a third of Americans have serious doubts about capitalism but public discussions nowhere  reflect the doubts that many Americans have about our economic system. When is the last time that Congress debated serious reform of the capitalist system (not limp fixes like the current financial overhaul bill)? Have you heard the President or his advisors consider the possibility that capitalism may be failing us? Have you heard any discussions on Public Radio about Socialism as an alternative to capitalism? The commentators in the newspapers, the “opinion makers” on television, the pundits on the Internet all take capitalism for granted.

The results of these two polls shows that discussions in the media do not reflect the thinking of many Americans but instead construct a phony consensus. But that only reminds us that the media are, after all, parts of the economic system. They are privately owned and for- profit businesses. They are capitalist enterprises and can no more be expected to reflect our doubts about capitalism than BP can be expected to care about the environment.

The capitalist media are a propaganda machine. Contrary to what they tell us, they are not “objective” but try to persuade us that we are all worshipers in the church of the Free Market. The one-sideness of the media suggests another reason for distrusting capitalism. Privately owned, for profit media  cater to advertisers above all and do not serve the public.

But these surveys also show that the propaganda machine of capitalism is not as effective as they would like it to be. Even with all the onslaught of media everywhere, a lot of Americans still think for themselves. Capitalists are right to worry.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What free market?

What free market?

Congress has finally passed a financial overhaul bill. It has created a number of new bureaucracies and tightened some rules to rein in the greed of bankers and investors. Time will tell whether this new bill will do what it promises to do, namely to prevent future economic crises like the present one.

Conservatives disapprove. The large middle of the political spectrum congratulates itself. There was a great deal of handshaking, backslapping and big smiles in Congress when the bill finally passed.

The whole thing leaves us with a big question: whatever happened to the free market? For years now we have heard that unbridled capitalism, privatization -- allowing for-profit businesses to do the job of government -- and individual initiative will make us all happy and rich. The financial overhaul flies in the face of that ideology: it limits the suicidal impulses of individual bankers and investors and tries to protect the public against the workings of the free market. This bill says loud and clear: The free market without tight government supervision is a threat to our well-being.

So maybe the free market isn’t such an unqualified blessing after all? People in other countries have known for a long time that the free market preaching cannot be trusted. The United States has forced countries in Latin America, for instance, to open their markets to imports from the United States. Haiti was forced to import its rice from the US. That imported rice was a lot cheaper than what local farmers could produce. US farmers undersold the farmers in Haiti and put them out of business. Those Haitians were forced to migrate to the big cities in order to eke out a meager living in the slums of Port-au-Prince. US farmers were able to undersell Haitian farmers, in part, because the US government subsidizes rice farmers at home. Giving subsidies clearly interferes with the market mechanism. It was clear all along that the free market was a supposed blessing in Haiti but that, domestically, we didn’t really believe in it and therefore subsidize our rice farmers.

The same thing happened with export of corn to Mexico. American farmers get money from the government so they can sell their corn cheaply in Mexico which was forced to open its markets to American grains. The results were similar to those in Haiti: increased poverty.

The financial overhaul bill coming on top of the massive government bailout of big banks and large companies like GM should lay to rest any belief that the United States is committed to the free market. It is committed to the free market as long as it benefits the rich. The commitment to the free market may also be used to beat up on the poor as it did in President Clinton’s “End to Welfare as we Know it” passed in the 1990s.

The next time a large corporation or the government starts talking about the free market, listen closely to their plan. You can be sure that someone is going to lose out. How else can they make their big profits?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Where have all the optimists gone ?

Where have all the optimists gone?

Americans like optimists. On our dollar bills you can find little motto: “Annuit Coeptis” which translates as “He (God) approves of our undertakings.” Traditionally we have believed that what we are about in settling this continent, in developing democratic political institutions, and building a formidable capitalist economy is good. God smiles on us.

When the head of BP recently told the world that he is an optimist, no one calls him a stupid fool who does not see the seriousness of the Gulf oil disaster. Everyone approves of the optimist.

But American affection for optimists is in sharp contrast to our national mood. Yes there are some upbeat messages about the economy but they come either from the government, or from people who want to sell us more stocks. Both have an interest in making things look better than they are. Neither of them can be trusted to tell us the full truth. Their optimism is feigned to manipulate us.

For the rest, people are frightened about their economic future.  Our economy is shaky; the prospects for a robust recovery dim. Those who take a larger view of the country are afraid that American power is waning. We are in the process of losing two more wars and they are not the first we have lost.

When people are frightened, they tend to become very conservative. Their present condition is bad but it is familiar and they think they know how they can manage to survive it. Change threatens to put us into new and unmanageable situations. Therefore change must be resisted.

That is the opposite of the optimists’ position. Optimists are eager to take on new challenges, confident that they will be able to improve present conditions by working hard, persevering, and drawing on their considerable ingenuity. If there are problems in the present, the optimists accept the challenge confidently and make changes wherever necessary. The pessimists, the conservatives, instead deny the seriousness of the problems and resist any change with enraged pertinacity.

One example, of many, is the continuing resistance to building a set of windmills in Nantucket sound as one small way of reducing our dependence on oil. If anyone is still in doubt that we need drastically to  reduce our use of fossil fuels, let them look at the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, at the shrimp fishermen and their families whose livelihood is being threatened.

The Nantucket sound wind farm is one small part of a national effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels. First the Kennedys and other good liberals who have summer homes on Nantucket sound tried to kill the project. Today, after 8 years, the project has all the necessary state and federal permits. Now some people go to court against the windmill project because the power generated will be slightly more expensive than power is today.

But that suit is not just about cost of electricity which will only see modest increases. It is really about change which in the present national mood people want to resist at all costs.

There are many other examples: Congress barely passed a bill to try to prevent future economic melt-downs; the very mild health care reform is greeted with great fear as if it threatened two hundred years of American liberty. A climate control bill is stuck in Congress. Obama came into office promising to close Guantanamo. So far the project is stalled. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on--UNCHANGED.

Today change--of any kind--puts many people into a complete state of panic.

This pessimism bodes ill for our country. If the dominant response to real problems is to deny their seriousness and to continue doing what has gotten us into trouble, our future looks bleak.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Independence Day

I spent two weeks in Ecuador. I had made elaborate plans to post this and another blog in my absence. But technical difficulties made that impossible. Belatedly, therefore here is

Independence Day

July 4 has passed once again; it is time to ask ourselves what we are celebrating.

Independence from Britain was won so long ago; perhaps it is no longer worth commemorating. But if we look around at other countries, we can see that we still have a precious independence many other nations lack.

It is not uncommon, especially in the smaller countries in Latin America that the American ambassador tells voters to chose one candidate rather than another in an upcoming election. Such pronouncements, moreover, are not just random private opinions of the ambassador, but carry an implicit threat that if the people elect someone not favored by the United States government there may be repercussions. The US may withhold aid; the country’s creditors may demand faster repayment. Various shadowy US government agencies such as the CIA may try to foment a military coup against an unfavored elected government.

So far no foreign country would dare to insert itself in our domestic politics and in the people’s choices for who shall lead our government. We are independent. We can run our own affairs without interference from abroad.

It is not clear, however, how long this independence will last. We are no longer economically independent and have not been so for a long time. We frequently refer to ourselves as the richest and the most powerful country in the world but that, by now, is a massive self-deception.

Our foreign debt stands at more than $13 trillion. That amounts to 89% of our GDP. If we were to try to repay all our debts in one year, we would have no more than 11% of what we produce annually today for our own needs. Our interest payments in 2010 amounted to $248 billion. The countries we owe most money to are:China,  Japan, Great Britain, Brazil, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Russia.

As our debt grows, these nations will be more reluctant to lend us money. They will begin to doubt whether we will be able to repay our debts or will be able to pay the huge interest on them. They will demand a higher and higher interest rate. It will be more difficult for us to keep going because loans will be hard to get. That is the situation of countries like Greece which need to accept advice and criticism from other countries. They are subject to external pressure because they owe so much money that no one wants to lend them more. Once that happens they face bankruptcy. Nations facing bankruptcy need bailouts from other nations. They are not  powerful.

How long will it be before the Chinese, to whom we owe  close to $1 trillion, will pressure the US electorate to vote for one candidate rather than another?

Our self-image as the richest and most powerful country in the world has led us into two wars we do not seem to be able to end, let alone win. In order to finance these wars we keep running up debts and pretty soon we will be a debtor nation that is dependent on its creditors. Once dependent we will have to accept unasked-for advice, interference in our politics and whatever else suits those who hold our bonds.

We are not as rich nor as powerful as we think. Our independence, for which we must be grateful,  is very precarious.