Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Exorcising Demons of the 'War on Terror'

Photo: Obama in Afghanistan

Obama Notes #1

By Tom Hayden
Progressives for Obama
January 26, 2009

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, I boarded a red-eye flight to Washington to make a morning workshop on a juvenile justice bill. I hadn't bothered to take a red-eye for eight years, but now it seemed to matter. Something progressive actually might happen in public policy and, if so, it was worth the jet-lag and back pain.

For the first time in years, activists will need an inside strategy to complement the familiar tactics of fighting from the margins. The new president will have to reach out to progressives as well, with the same energy he invests in the religious and Republican right.

At the very least, success in the Obama era can be imagined as something more than slowing down the rate at which things get worse. Hope and heartbreak will rhyme. Wins and defeats can be expected, not simply the monotony of loss.

In that spirit I am beginning a new blog, Obama Notes, a regular analysis from the perspective of a progressive who strongly supported Obama in 2008. Where possible I will be suggesting steps to take.

#1. Torture

Obama's executive order was a tremendous breakthrough after eight years of Bush-Cheney. It will require close monitoring, of course, but it was hugely significant that it came so rapidly, with the stroke of a pen. The immediate question for the peace movement and human rights advocates is whether the Order applies to thousands of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan who are being held in violation of human rights norms and, if not, why not. Congress should send letters of inquiry and follow up with hearings on the horrors for those detainees rounded up in preventive detention.

#2. The Predator Attack

The night after Obama's torture order, I was at dinner with a human rights lawyer who worried that the right-wing would launch political attacks on Obama for "letting our guard down." With that in mind, I became certain that the following day's Predator attack in Pakistan, which killed at least 10-18 people, was as much political as military, a message that the Pentagon will keep on launching strikes against a sovereign country in keeping with "war on terrorism" objectives. The cold truth may be that those people died in Pakistan to make closing Guantanamo more politically palatable. Many more will die as America tries to exorcise and replace the war on terror mentality.

Obama has good reason to worry about counter-pressures from the right and the intelligence community. One day after the executive order banning torture was signed, an odd article appeared on the New York Times' front page about a former detainee who has joined al Qaeda in Yemen. There was no apparent reason for the article's timing except the Obama announcement. The detainee in question was released by President Bush, and is suspected of involvement in car bombings in September 2007.

# 3. Afghanistan-Pakistan

The outlook in Afghanistan-Pakistan is cloudy and grim. The president's latest goal of a "hard-won peace" is a realistic retreat from rhetorical belligerence. But one gets the feeling that no one knows what to do. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke suggests a Dayton-like accord but without the ingredients of Dayton. Where the Balkans consisted of ethnic blocs and competing nation states, Afghanistan resembles the Stone Age without stable tribal structures.

Another 20,000 American troops shortly will become twenty thousand new targets, one of whom certainly will be the last to die for a mistake. And every Afghan the Americans kill will give birth to more insurgents.

The traditional anti-war liberal bloc in Congress has no current plans for opposition to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unwilling to oppose the new president, afraid of being accused of losing, unable to conceive an exit strategy, they are presently without direction or leverage.

But this is not 2002-2003. There is a rank-and-file peace movement and a significant skepticism in public opinion that will not go away. There are few US resources for escalation in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Impatience will grow. "Obama's War" has an an unpleasant sound. The urgency of a diplomatic solution will grow by the day. The content of that solution is far from agreed upon.

Demands for Congressional hearings on an Afghanistan-Pakistan exit strategy in both House and Senate should be the point of departure.
The hearings should occur, and be widely broadcast, no later than the spring, when the Washington weather will be more favorable to protests. In the run-up, teach-ins and other activist forums might begin studying books like Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos, for a preview of the nightmare scenario. Also contact Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films office where a campaign is planned to "get Afghanistan right."

#4. Iraq

Look for Obama to order his promised combat troop withdrawals but with all sorts of escape and delay clauses. The fog of diplomacy can be as bad as the fog of war in this case. Does the 16-month timetable still leave a reserve force in the tens of thousands and, if so, under what guidelines? Or does the recent US-Iraq pact mean in plain words that all US troops will be out by 2011? Again, questions from Congress will be imperative in clarifying the situation ahead. In the meantime, the public base of the peace movement will decline as peace appears to be "on the horizon."

#5. Gaza and the Middle East.

As I argued in the Huffington Post, the timing of Israel's assault was entirely political. First, it was a "consolation prize" after the US refused any assistance in launching a war against Iran. Second, the attack began on the day Obama was elected, and ended by the inauguration. Obama, who in 2007 said words to the effect that "no one has suffered like the Palestinians", observed a subsequent silent through the campaign and all during the Gaza battle. Once ended, Obama twice indicated a concern for Palestinian suffering two times, once in the words of Bono at the Lincoln Memorial, and later in the president's own formulation. More importantly, he appointed George Mitchell as a peace envoy, the best possible choice for those concerned about a just and reasonable settlement. Look for input from civil society, including delegations from Northern Ireland and South Africa, in the conflict resolution process ahead.

#6. Venezuela, Cuba, Latin America.
Obama's statements on Latin America during the campaign reflected a Cold War approach to the region rather than a positive embrace of progressive democratic elections. On the eve of the inauguration, in a Univision interview, he criticized Venezuela for being a "negative" factor in development and an ally of FARC terrorists in Colombia. Both statements were false and inflammatory, and some Administration sources now admit they were mistaken. The time for a new Obama platform on Latin America, in the tradition of FDR's good neighbor policies, will be in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. The president will have to decide whether to shake hands with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales [the Cubans are excluded] and, more important, offer a more positive vision than continuing the war on drugs and "armoring NAFTA" [ in the words of the State Department's Thomas Shannon].

Once again, Congressional hearings on new directions in Latin America are sorely needed. And Obama needs a Latino emissary with a deeper empathy and more progressive policy mandate than the failed ones of the Bush era.

#7. The Economic Crisis.

ever in my lifetime have so many businessmen been pleading with the government to save them from capitalism. Never has there been such a demand for economic reform. Never has the left been weaker and more left out. Obama has invited many of the Mad Men [or, if you will, the Best and Brightest] who ruined the system to take charge of restoring it, not a good sign. These are people who generally believe that unemployment is a good and necessary thing, as well as the shedding of regulations, on the road to greater profits and growth. If Ralph Nader hadn't run so often for president, we might have a progressive voice in this debate, but...Obama's promise to deliver is threatened both by Republicans with faith-based illusions about tax credits, and traditional Democratic liberals who focus mainly on how much money the government gets to spend. Lost in the debate so far is whether financial and corporate institutions will be re-regulated, how, and by whom? Also at risk are the promises made for major public investments in the green economy.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama Inaugural: Breaking with NeoCon Dogma

Obama's Summons

By Robert Borosage

Jan 22, 2009 - Obama's inaugural speech was a pointed critique of the "failed dogmas" of the last 30 years of conservative misrule and a summons to a new and bold, progressive era of activist government; regulated markets and shared prosperity at home; and a foreign policy that reflects our values.

"A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

It was not the words, but this transcendent reality that evoked the tears at Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday. The somber eloquence of the new president, the presence of over a million people celebrating what they had done, the grace of Michele and Barack together, the infectious delight of their daughters, the relief felt in the long overdue departure of Bush and Cheney—all were overshadowed by the historic reality of Americans electing the first African-American president to lead them in this time of trouble. We see one another and the world sees America with new eyes as a result.

But Obama's speech should not be lost in that moment. Major presidential addresses are signposts, markers of an administration's priorities and perspectives. Each phrase is contested; what is said and unsaid have meaning. Political allies, aides and adversaries parse the text to claim mandates or define battles. This will be particularly true for Obama, a gifted writer who takes words seriously.

Most analysis focused on the president's somber warnings of "gathering clouds and raging storms," two wars and a weakened economy. Conservatives took solace in his embrace of moral virtues, and martial rhetoric that "our nation is at war," and promise to "defeat" our enemies. Others noted his call to service, a stark contrast to President Bush's summons to the nation to "go shopping" after September 11.

But this distorts Obama's message. The core of the speech was structured around a pointed critique of the "failed dogmas" of the last 30 years of conservative misrule, a sharp rebuke of the policies of his predecessor sitting nearby on the stage, and a summons to a new and bold era of progressive activism.

At home and abroad, the new president claimed a mandate for a dramatic change of course. Domestically, he dismissed the centerpiece of modern conservatism: its scorn for government and worship of markets. "The question... is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works..." We know that the market has "the power to generate wealth," but surely we have learned once more that "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control."

But he did not stop there. The test for a government that works is "whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." This comes as close to the Franklin Roosevelt's call for an Economic Bill of Rights that we've heard since FDR issued that promise in 1944.

And the measure of markets is not simply a larger GDP or growth, but benefits that are widely shared. "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy" depends on "the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart, not out of charity, but because it is surest route to our common good."

From these principles, Obama outlined his priorities. His recovery plan will be grounded on public investment in areas vital to our future—from bridges to electric grids. He'll return science to its proper place, a slap at Bush's ideological assault on science. He'll launch a concerted drive for new energy—to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" so we can reduce a dependence on oil that serves only to "strengthen our enemies and threaten our planet." And finally, he pledges a transformation of "our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of the new age."

As to national security, Obama begins by rejecting the "false choice between our safety and our ideals," dismissing Bush's use of September 11 to trample our constitution. He discards the bellicose unilateralism of the Bush neoconservatives, evoking earlier generations that knew "our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. ... Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, and tempering qualities of humility and restraint." He paints an America "ready to lead again" by rejoining the world, with a new respect for "sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."

From these principles, he lays out his priorities. First, he will "responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan," somewhat reassuring phrasing for those of us worried that the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan could trap us in a costly occupation. He places priority on reducing the nuclear threat, and rolling back "the specter of a warming planet."

Then after pledging the defeat of those who seek to terrorize us, he moves once more to seeking a "new era of peace," beginning with offering the Muslim world a new way forward, based on "mutual interest and mutual respect," watchwords for the Iranian leaders, among others. Rather than Bush's pledge to spread democracy at the end of a smart bomb, Obama offers to extend a hand to those "who cling to power through corruption and dissent and the silencing of dissent" if "you are willing to unclench your fist."

Also significant is what was left on the cutting room floor. There was no mention of raising the military budget, or reforming the military to expand its expeditionary forces. There was nothing about cutting back Social Security, Medicare or other parts of our social contract, the "grand bargain" that conservatives in both parties have been pushing for. Progressives looked in vain for words on reforming our unsustainable global economic posture, and the need to move from creating global markets for investors and multinationals to regulating them for the rest of us. Items marked urgent in his inbox—restructuring a banking system once more on the verge of collapse, and providing mortgage relief to millions facing foreclosure—received only the most oblique reference.

Events transform intention, as George Bush discovered when the collapse of Bear Sterns threatened to bring down the global economy. Movements force change that might otherwise never take place. No one speech defines the future. The fight over priorities and presidential attention has only begun.

But Obama used this speech [1] to raise the bar. While the president understands how far we have come with the fact of his election, this journey is only beginning. He calls Americans to a new age of responsibility, a new commitment to service, to put aside petty and partisan politics to address the stark challenges we face.

But his "post-partisan politics" is not about moving to the center, finding the least common denominator, and splitting the difference. In his inaugural address, the new president boldly summoned us to construct a new era of reform on the ashes of the failed conservative policies of the last three decades, with its foundations grounded on a progressive belief in activist government, regulated markets and shared prosperity at home, and a foreign policy that reflects our values. Each of us is called to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America." It is a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Day One: Organize For What Needs To Be Done

Photo: Team Obama, with David Axelrod, left.

Obama's Team
And The Return
of Triangulation

By Norman Solomon

Jan 18, 2009 - The mosaic of Barack Obama’s cabinet picks and top White House staff gives us an overview of what the new president sees as political symmetry for his administration. While it’s too early to gauge specific policies of the Obama presidency, it’s not too soon to understand that “triangulation” is back.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was adept at placing himself midway between the base of his own party and Republican leaders. As he triangulated from the Oval Office -- often polarizing with liberal Democrats on such issues as “free trade,” deregulation, “welfare reform” and military spending -- Clinton did well for himself. But not for his party.

During Clinton’s presidency, with his repeated accommodations to corporate agendas, a progressive base became frustrated and demobilized. Democrats lost majorities in the House and Senate after just two years and didn’t get them back. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, numerous left-leaning causes fell by the wayside -- victims of a Democratic president’s too-clever-by-half triangulation.

Now, looking at Obama’s choices for key posts, many progressive activists who went all-out for months to get him elected are disappointed. The foreign-policy team, dominated by strong backers of the Iraq invasion, hardly seems oriented toward implementing Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to “end the mindset that got us into war.” On the domestic side, big-business ties and Wall Street sensibilities are most of the baseline. Overall, it’s hard to argue that the glass is half full when so much is missing.

The progressives who remain eager to project their worldviews onto Obama are at high risk for hazy credulity. Such projection is a chronic hazard of Obamania. Biographer David Mendell aptly describes Obama as “an exceptionally gifted politician who, throughout his life, has been able to make people of wildly divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see.”

But in the long run, an unduly lofty pedestal sets the stage for a fall from grace. Illusions make disillusionment possible.

There’s little point in progressives’ faulting Obama because so much of their vital work remains undone at the grassroots. A longtime Chicago-based activist on the left, Carl Davidson, made the point well when he wrote after the November election that “one is not likely to win at the top what one has not consolidated and won at the base.”

By the same token, we should recognize that Obama’s campaign victories (beginning with the Iowa caucuses) were possible only because of the painstaking work by antiwar activists and other progressive advocates in prior years. To make further progress possible, in electoral arenas and in national policies, the country must be moved anew -- from the bottom up.

As his administration gets underway, disappointed progressives shouldn’t blame Barack Obama for their own projection or naivete. He is a highly pragmatic leader who seeks and occupies the center of political gravity. Those who don’t like where he’s standing will need to move the center in their direction.

Obama has often said that his presidential quest isn’t about him nearly as much as it is about us -- the people yearning for real change and willing to work for it. If there’s ever a time to take Obama up on his word, this is it.

Crucial issues must be reframed. The national healthcare reform debate, for instance, still lacks the clarity to distinguish between guaranteeing healthcare for all and mandating loophole-ridden insurance coverage for all. With the exception of Rep. John Conyers’ single-payer bill to provide “enhanced Medicare” for everyone in the United States, each major congressional proposal keeps the for-profit insurance industry at the core of the country’s medical-care system.

As for foreign policy, the paradigm of a “war on terror,” more than seven years on, remains nearly sacrosanct. Among its most stultifying effects is the widely held assumption that many more U.S. troops should go to Afghanistan. Rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s policy focus appears to be fixated on finding a military solution for an Afghan conflict that cannot be resolved by military means. The escalation is set for a centrist disaster.

During his race for the White House, ironically, Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr. about “the fierce urgency of now.” But King uttered the phrase in the same speech (on April 4, 1967) that spoke of “a society gone mad on war,” condemned “my own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and declared: “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now.”

Barack Obama never promised progressives a rose garden. His campaign inspired tens of millions of Americans, raised the level of public discourse and ousted the right wing from the White House. And he has pledged to encourage civic engagement and respectful debate. The rest is up to us.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MLK: Militarism Feeds Spiritual Death

Photo: Dr King at Riverside church giving antiwar speech, left, alongside an anti-militarism ad targeting Haliburton.

One of Dr. King's Nightmares

By Steve Cobble

Huffington Post

As we approach what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 80th birthday, we should remember not just his dream, but his nightmares--his fear that without a "true revolution of values," the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

On April 4, 1967, in New York City's Riverside Church, Dr. King spoke truth to power, making a powerful case against an earlier immoral war. But Dr. King was not just against the Vietnam War; he understood that the world cried out for both justice and peace. And the words our greatest prophet spoke that day still call to us: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Spiritual death.

Yet more than four decades later, the U.S. still accounts for nearly half the world's spending on war, and preparations for war. More than four decades later, we still spend half our own discretionary budget on war, and preparations for war.

The newspapers this week are filled with discussion of our massive deficit, and the usual pundit fear-mongering over the need to cut Social Security and pension funds and Medicare. "Blue Dog Democrats" are quoted saying that they may have to oppose the stimulus plan, or any new health care plan, unless President Obama shows them where he will find the equivalent cuts in other programs (so-called "pay-go" cuts).

Well, I've got a suggestion on where to find a big chunk of that money--look across the Potomac River at that five-sided building which has enjoyed massive funding increases during the entire Bush/Cheney Administration. Heck, it's almost two decades since the Cold War collapsed, a quarter century since Ronald Reagan brought Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to their knees (snark), and almost six years since everyone but Dick Cheney admitted that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--so do we really still need all the costly programs on the DOD's drawing board?

Congressman Barney Frank recently suggested a 25% cut in the military budget. He has a point, and it's not really that hard to see how to get there.

If we want to turn the page on the Bush/Cheney foreign policy, and show the world the new face of America, we should not only end the occupation of Iraq and close down the detention/torture camp at Guantanamo, but also shut down several hundred other overseas bases. America was founded in opposition to Empire, not to become one.

If we need to find hundreds of billions of dollars to fund a real stimulus program and build a new "green economy" that makes Mideast oil obsolete, why not cancel the "non-stealth", over-budget F35 Joint Strike Fighter, with its estimated one trillion dollars cost? And the next allotment of F22 Raptors, which have no mission? And the V-22 Osprey, which even Dick Cheney once tried to kill? And the DDG-1000 Virginia class submarine, another weapon without a purpose? And dangerous and costly efforts to militarize space?

Let's convert our national weapons labs completely to anti-nuclear-proliferation work and to alternative energy R&D. Aren't "loose nukes" and climate change two of our true security threats? The Bible says that "...where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Is this really where America's heart is, spending half its treasure on a military/petroleum complex while its own people go without health care, pensions, good schools, affordable housing, even bridges and levees?

This week, the inauguration of President Barack Obama shows that we have come a long way towards Dr. King's dream of measuring people not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This is a very good change, well worth celebrating.

But while we are enjoying the wonderful view as our new President strolls down Pennsylvania Avenue, we should remember that Dr. King also fought for jobs & justice; that he called for an end to poverty & racism; and that he warned us about an immoral war & warned against the growing nightmare of a permanent war economy.

Dr. King prophesied that militarism would bring us economic and spiritual disaster. Maybe it's time we paid him some mind.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No Cure: The Squeeze Is What Got Us Here

Nouveau Poor:
Numbers Now Too
Large to Ignore

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Jan. 13, 2009 - Ever on the lookout for the bright side of hard times, I am tempted to delete 'class inequality' from my worry list. Less than a year ago, it was the one of the biggest economic threats on the horizon, with even hard line conservative pundits grousing that wealth was flowing uphill at an alarming rate, leaving the middle class stuck with stagnating incomes while the new super-rich ascended to the heavens in their personal jets.

Then the whole top-heavy structure of American capitalism began to totter, and –poof!—inequality all but vanished from the public discourse. A financial columnist in the Chicago Sun Times has just announced that the recession is a 'great leveler,' serving to 'democratize[d] the agony,' as we all tumble into 'the Nouveau Poor...'

The media have been pelting us with heart-wrenching stories about the neo-suffering of the Nouveau Poor, or at least the Formerly Super-rich among them:
Foreclosures in Greenwich CT! A collapsing market for cosmetic surgery! Sales of Gulfstream jets declining! Niemen Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue on the ropes! We read of desperate measures, like having to cut back the personal trainer to two hours a week. Parties have been canceled; dinner guests have been offered, gasp, baked potatoes and chili. The New York Times relates the story of a New Jersey teenager whose parents were forced to cut her $100 a week allowance and private Pilates classes. In one of the most pathetic tales of all, New Yorker Alexandra Penney relates how she lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff and is now faced with having to lay off her three-day- a-week maid, Yolanda. 'I wear a classic clean white shirt every day of the week. I have about 40 white shirts. They make me feel fresh and ready to face whatever battles I may be fighting …' she wrote, but without Yolanda, 'How am I going to iron those shirts so I can still feel like a poor civilized person?'

But hard times are no more likely to abolish class inequality than Obama’s inauguration is likely to eradicate racism. No one actually knows yet whether inequality has increased or decreased during the last year of recession, but the historical precedents are not promising. The economists I’ve talked to -- like Biden’s top economic advisor, Jared Bernstein -- insist that recessions are particularly unkind to the poor and the middle class. Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan says, 'Income polarization always gets worse during recessions.' It makes sense. If the stock market has shrunk your assets of $500 million to a mere $250 million, you may have to pass on a third or fourth vacation home. But if you’ve just lost an $8 an hour job, you’re looking at no home at all.

Alright, I’m a journalist and I understand how the media work. When a millionaire cuts back on his crème fraiche and caviar consumption, you have a touching human interest story. But pitch a story about a laid-off roofer who loses his trailer home and you’re likely to get a big editorial yawn. 'Poor Get Poorer' is just not an eye-grabbing headline, even when the evidence is overwhelming. Food stamp applications, for example, are rising toward a historic record; calls to one DC-area hunger hotline have jumped 248 percent in the last six months, most of them from people who have never needed food aid before. And for the first time since 1996, there’s been a marked upswing in the number of people seeking cash assistance from TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), the exsanguinated version of welfare left by welfare 'reform.' Too bad for them that TANF is essentially a wage-supplement program based on the assumption that the poor would always be able to find jobs, and that it pays, at most, less than half the federal poverty level.

Why do the sufferings of the poor and the downwardly- mobile class matter more than the tiny deprivations of the rich? Leaving aside all the soft-hearted socialist, Christian-type, arguments, it’s because poverty and the squeeze on the middle class are a big part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Only one thing kept the sub-rich spending in the 00’s, and hence kept the economy going, and that was debt: credit card debt, home equity loans, car loans, college loans and of course the now famously 'toxic' subprime mortgages, which were bundled and sliced into 'securities' and marketed to the rich as high-interest investments throughout the world. The gross inequality of American society wasn’t just unfair or aesthetically displeasing; it created a perilously unstable situation.

Which is why any serious government attempt to get the economy going again -- and I leave aside the unserious attempts like bank bailouts and other corporate welfare projects -- has to start at the bottom. Obama is promising to generate three million new jobs in 'shovel ready' projects, and let’s hope they’re not all jobs for young men with strong backs. Until those jobs kick in, and in case they leave out the elderly, the single moms and the downsized desk-workers, we’re going to need an economic policy centered on the poor: more money for food stamps, for Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and, yes, cash assistance along the lines of what welfare once was, so that when people come tumbling down they don’t end up six feet under. For those who think 'welfare' sounds too radical, we could just call it a 'right to life' program, only one in which the objects of concern have already been born.

If that sounds politically unfeasible, consider this: When Clinton was cutting welfare and food stamps in the 90s, the poor were still an easily marginalized group, subjected to the nastiest sorts of racial and gender stereotyping. They were lazy, promiscuous, addicted, deadbeats, as whole choruses of conservative experts announced. Thanks to the recession, however -- and I knew there had to be a bright side -- the ranks of the poor are swelling every day with failed business owners, office workers, salespeople, and long-time homeowners. Stereotype that! As the poor and the formerly middle class Nouveau Poor become the American majority, they will finally have the clout to get their needs met.

[Barbara Ehrenreich, an initiator of 'Progressives for Obama', is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine. She lives in Florida.]


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Paradox of Israel: Imprisoned by 'The Other'

Photo: Wall between Israel and Gaza

The Paradox of Israel:
Regional Super Power
and the Largest Jewish
Ghetto Ever Created

By Ira Chernus

Jan. 2, 2009 - Trying to understand the psychology of a people at war is a lot like trying to find the bodies buried under a bombed-out building.

For more than 40 years, I've been watching my own Jewish people in wartime, repeating the same self-defeating pattern over and over. Most Jews say that they want Israel to be more secure, and they really mean it. Yet they support and vote for leaders who perpetuate the conflicts that make Israel less secure.

I've been digging for decades through the endless pieces of that paradox, trying to get to the bottom of it. Here's what I see now as the bottom layer (though there may be layers further down that I haven't reached yet): The root of the problem lies in the Jews' relationship to the non-Jewish world and, even more, in the way Jews understand that relationship.

Jews have a long, checkered history of relations with their gentile neighbors. Sometimes, in centuries past, they got along very well; Jews felt fully a part of a larger multi-ethnic community. But most of the Jews who came to Palestine to populate a Jewish state never had that connected feeling. They experienced the human world the way minority groups so often do: There's us, and then there's everybody else; there's a wall separating us from everybody else. So they could never see themselves as part of a larger Middle Eastern community, a web of interactions where each group influenced all the others.

All they could feel was a great disconnect. Before 1948, they saw themselves as a community separated by all sorts of invisible walls from the Arabs around them. After 1948, they had geographical borders that functioned as visible separators, much like the ghetto walls of old. Although Zionism began as an effort to make the Jews a "normal nation," it ended up creating the world's largest Jewish ghetto.

For many Jews, the sense of disconnection was rooted in real history. Some had ancestors who had been separated from gentiles physically by a ghetto wall. Many had ancestors who felt separated by invisible walls of law and social custom, which seemed just as thick and high.

Still others, though, came from relatively well-assimilated communities. They learned to feel separated from the non-Jewish world, for reasons of all sorts. And since the Six-Day War of 1967, many Jews in the United States and around the world, who grew up in very well-assimilated settings, have learned a similar attitude. For them, Israel is the symbol of a gulf that they imagine has always existed, and must always exist, between Jews and gentiles.

That's why many Israeli Jews, and Jews everywhere who sympathize with them, have a hard time recognizing what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: Whoever we are, whomever we live with, all the members of a community are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. That's not a moral platitude. It's a poetic way of stating a commonsense observation of fact: Whatever we do is bound to affect others in our community, just as what they do affects us; we are all responding to each other all the time.

No matter how isolated one group may feel, it is always interacting with the groups around it. A minority group knows that it's responding to the majority. It has a harder time seeing how the majority is responding to it. But in fact, the relationship is always mutual. And when anyone on either sides commits violence, the violence is actually a product of the ongoing pattern of relationship, although the majority typically holds the upper hand when it comes to force.

Since so many Jews in Palestine could not recognize that network of mutuality, they could not see how much the Arabs were responding to them. They saw themselves simply living their ordinary lives, minding their own business, on their side of the invisible wall. When the first Arab rocks were thrown at Jews, they seemed like bolts out of the blue. Most Jews could not imagine that their own behavior and their own choices were triggering the attacks. They assumed that the Arabs' had some other motivation -- anti-Semitism, many assumed -- to single them out as innocent victims.

Today, the Palestinian Arabs' rocks still fly. Bullets and bombs and rockets fly, too. And the same great disconnect remains among far too many Jews, both in Israel and around the world. They assume that there is no network of mutuality, no web of give and take. There is simply the Jewish state, trying its best to live peacefully and mind its own business, constantly victimized by attacks for reasons known only to the attackers. All the trouble, it seems, begins on the other side of the border.

This view is at the root of all Israel's military and diplomatic policies and the support they engender throughout the Jewish world. When you see the world through the lens of the great disconnect, everything that the Israeli government does makes sense, including the recent massive attack on Gaza. It's all based on the premise that no changes in Israel's policies can ever affect the basic antagonism of its neighbors.

The famous historian Benny Morris, in a recent New York Times op-ed, described just how things look from inside this great disconnect: "Many Israelis feel that the walls -- and history -- are closing in on their 60-year-old state. … The Arab and wider Islamic worlds … have never truly accepted the legitimacy of Israel's creation and continue to oppose its existence. … The West … is gradually reducing its support for Israel."

In other words: Nobody likes us, and we can't understand why. We are, as always, passive victims of unprovoked antagonism, and there ain't a thing we can do about it.

Then comes the inevitable conclusion: Though we can't change our opponents' feelings, we can change their behavior. Conciliation and compromise may produce marginal improvements. But the only way to change their behavior substantially is through the fear that comes from overwhelming force. So the best thing we can do is fight back. When the targets of our force try (quite naturally) to resist, we say: See, they really do hate us! It's a self-confirming illusion that is hard to escape.

That's the greatest danger of the great disconnect: If you don't acknowledge your own role in creating a conflict, you are working with an unrealistic view of what's happening. So you can't craft realistic policies that will actually make your nation more secure. When you start out from an illusion, you are bound to end up in self-contradiction -- which is just what has happened to Israel. With its political culture rooted in memories of oppression (and the eras of cooperation largely forgotten), it continues to assume that the Jews are a beleaguered minority. Its policies all stem from that premise.

But it's an illusion. Any realistic assessment of the Middle East must begin with the obvious fact that Israel has a preponderance of power over everyone else -- and a massive preponderance over the Palestinians. Imagine the United States basing its policies toward Mexico on the belief that we are seriously threatened by Mexico's power. That's pretty much how Israel deals with the Palestinians.

It isn't just absurd; it's lethal. It creates policies that get people killed -- mostly in the Occupied Territories, but far too many on Israel's side as well. Yet Israelis keep saying they only want security, while they go on electing leaders whose policies make them less secure, repeating the same excuse: "Those [fill in the blank] understand only one thing!"

It's a common refrain, a reminder that the great disconnect is hardly unique to Israel and the Jews. It shapes relations between many groups all over the world, including relations between the United States and the many groups it defines as enemies. Many Palestinians may view their conflict with Israel through the eyes of the great disconnect, too.

In fact, when I offer this analysis of the Jewish community, I'm often met with the objection: Why just criticize Israel? What about the other side, with its rockets and suicide bombers? That question, too, emerges from the viewpoint of the great disconnect. It's a way of saying, "Why focus so much on our side? Isn't the real trouble coming from the other side?" -- as if the trouble could come from only one side.

Of course the trouble comes from the relationship, to which both sides contribute. But I don't live among Palestinians. I'm not in any position to understand them. So I speak to my own people. I point out that we have no control over the choices others make. We can control only our own choices. And it's only by making new choices in our own community that we can hope to affect the choices of others.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Jews who understand this. Their numbers are growing. And they hold the key to peace and security for Israel. People who are trapped in the great disconnect are not likely to listen to anyone on the other side of the wall. Only when voices within their own community offer a new, more realistic view can they have a chance to hear it.

But the message has to speak directly to the heart of the problem at its deepest level. It has to name the great disconnect, acknowledge the real and imagined history behind it, but insist that now it is too dangerous -- for ourselves and for others -- to cling to a past memory as if it were present reality.

To explain the great disconnect is not (as some fear) to absolve Jews of their moral responsibility. In fact, it's the only way to bring the Jewish community back to its moral responsibility. The great Zionist thinker Martin Buber said that responsibility is really "response-ability:" the ability to tear down the imagined walls separating people and communities from one another, so that all can respond to the reality of the situation.

The first step toward responsibility is recognizing the reality that no one ever lives shut up behind a wall. We are always in mutual relationship with the people around us, whether we know it and like it or not. Once people tear down the imaginary walls that they think surround them, they can realize that their borders are not walls but bridges, connecting them to the people on the other side. Only then can they begin to reach across those borders and make peace.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.
© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Palestine: Defeat Is Not an Option

Photo: Gaza: You can destroy homes, but the people endure

What You Don’t
Know About Gaza

By Rashid Khalidi

Jan. 8, 2009 - NEARLY everything you’ve been led to believe about Gaza is wrong. Below are a few essential points that seem to be missing from the conversation, much of which has taken place in the press, about Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip.

Most of the people living in Gaza are not there by choice. The majority of the 1.5 million people crammed into the roughly 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip belong to families that came from towns and villages outside Gaza like Ashkelon and Beersheba. They were driven to Gaza by the Israeli Army in 1948.

THE OCCUPATION The Gazans have lived under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel is still widely considered to be an occupying power, even though it removed its troops and settlers from the strip in 2005. Israel still controls access to the area, imports and exports, and the movement of people in and out. Israel has control over Gaza’s air space and sea coast, and its forces enter the area at will. As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to see to the welfare of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.

THE BLOCKADE Israel’s blockade of the strip, with the support of the United States and the European Union, has grown increasingly stringent since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Fuel, electricity, imports, exports and the movement of people in and out of the Strip have been slowly choked off, leading to life-threatening problems of sanitation, health, water supply and transportation.

The blockade has subjected many to unemployment, penury and malnutrition. This amounts to the collective punishment — with the tacit support of the United States — of a civilian population for exercising its democratic rights.

Lifting the blockade, along with a cessation of rocket fire, was one of the key terms of the June cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. This accord led to a reduction in rockets fired from Gaza from hundreds in May and June to a total of less than 20 in the subsequent four months (according to Israeli government figures). The cease-fire broke down when Israeli forces launched major air and ground attacks in early November; six Hamas operatives were reported killed.

WAR CRIMES The targeting of civilians, whether by Hamas or by Israel, is potentially a war crime. Every human life is precious. But the numbers speak for themselves: Nearly 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the conflict broke out at the end of last year. In contrast, there have been around a dozen Israelis killed, many of them soldiers. Negotiation is a much more effective way to deal with rockets and other forms of violence. This might have been able to happen had Israel fulfilled the terms of the June cease-fire and lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

[Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming “Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East."]


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Afghan War: A Time of Great Discontent Looming

Photo: US Troops Stuck in Afghan Sands.

Obama's Wars

By Tom Hayden
Huffington Post

On January 21, President Barack Obama will take personal responsibility for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan launched under President Bush. The Afghan-Pakistan war is uniquely Democratic in origin, however. Since John Kerry's 2004 campaign, hawkish Democratic security and political consultants have asserted that Afghanistan is a good and necessary war in comparison with Iraq which they label a diversionary one.

This argument has allowed Democrats to be critical of the Iraq War without diminishing their standing as hawks who will employ force to hunt down Al Qaeda. As a result, the rank-and-file base of the Democratic Party, and public opinion in general, remains divided and confused over Afghanistan. As a result, opponents of the Afghanistan escalation remain at the margins politically for now, although backed by a healthy public skepticism given the Iraq experience.

Back on July 14, I wrote "Chasing Needles By Burning Haystacks" for the Huffington Post, a criticism of Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan proposals. In other writings for The Nation, I have been critical of the decision by liberal Democratic donors in 2008 to defund and shut down an independent media campaign that would have carried telelvision and radio messages against "McCain's wars." Now that they are becoming Obama's wars, the challenge will be more difficult, since so many millions of Americans, myself included, want our new president to succeed, restore hope, and launch a new New Deal at home, not be distracted by a quagmire abroad.

The war in Iraq already is fading from public view, although more than 140, 000 American troops remain stationed there. The major television networks have withdrawn. US casualties are far fewer than in traffic accidents on American streets. Iraqi violence is down as well, with 8,955 civilian deaths in 2008 compared to 51,894 in the bloodiest years of 2006-2007. The shift is towards a low-visibility counterinsurgency war like those that ravaged Central America in the 1970s.

The conditions for a massive social movement against the Iraq War are ebbing, for now, unless large-scale fighting suddenly resumes or President Obama unexpectedly caves in to the Pentagon and blatantly breaks his promise to withdraw combat troops in 16 months and all troops by 2011.

That makes Afghanistan the growing focal point for public debate over what counterinsurgency gurus call "the long war" against Islamic jihad.

In everyday language, Obama's proposals for Afghanistan and Pakistan can be described as either out of the frying pan and into the fire, or attacking needles by burning down haystacks.

The Pentagon paradigm is to defeat al-Qaeda militarily while refusing to address, and thereby worsening, the dire conditions that gave rise to the Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in the first place. Ahmed Rashid's new Descent into Chaos [Viking, 2008] provides a horrific portrait of Afghanistan in careful prose based on reputable sources.

It is estimated by RAND that $100 per capita is the minimum required to stabilize a country evolving out of war. Bosnia received $679 per capita, Kosovo $526, while Afghanistan received $57 per capita in the key years, 2001-2003;?- When the US installed the Hamid Karzai government, Afghanistan ranked 172nd out of 178 nations on the United Nation's Human Development Index, having the highest rate of infant mortality in the world, a life expectancy rate of 44-45 years, and the youngest population of any country; in 2005 95 percent of Kabul's residents were living without electrical power.?- Seven hundred civilians were killed in the first five months of 2008 alone, according to the United Nations.

Despite some gains in media and currency reform, plus a modest increase in children in school, this was the path of least reconstruction.

And despite media images of Afghan democracy that made loya jirga tribal gatherings appear to be the birth of participatory democracy, a warlord state was entrenched by the CIA. The government is "shot through with corruption and graft", from the police to the presidential family, writes Dexter Filkins in the New York Times. [Jan. 2, 2009]

There are some 36,000 US troops stretched across Afghanistan, another 17,500 under NATO command, and 18,000 in counterinsurgency and training roles [New York Times, July 14]. It costs the Pentagon $2 billion per month to support the American troops.

The enlarged American forces are likely to "squeeze the Taliban first". [New York Times, 12-24-08]. The target will be the support networks of the Taliban which are embedded in the vast tribal lands of Pashtun civilians, which stretch from southern Afghanistan into Pakistan. The enlarged American forces are likely to "squeeze the Taliban first". [New York Times, 12-24-08].

Even Afghanistan's client president, Hamid Karzai, complains of extra-judicial killings and civilian casualties from the American air war, a pattern of repression and suffering which will only worsen with more American troops pouring into combat zones.

Meanwhile, the war in Pakistan and other Central Asian countries will expand as the additional US troops seek to recover supply lines closed by recent Taliban attacks. [No one comments that the Pentagon is carrying out precisely what it accuses the Taliban of doing, using Pakistan as a supply and staging area for its forces in Afghanistan. Eighty percent of those supplies flow through Pakistan, according to the New York Times, Dec. 31, 2008]

According to Rashid, "Afghanistan is not going to be able to pay for its own army for many years to come -- perhaps never."

As of 2006, Afghanistan's economy still rested on producing 90 percent of the world's opium, an eerie narco-state parallel with the US counterinsurgency in Colombia from where most of America's supply of cocaine originates.

Afghanistan is an unstable police state. By 2005, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission cited 800 cases of detainee abuse at some thirty U.S. firebases. "The CIA operates its own secret detention centers, which were off limits to the US military." Ghost prisoners, known as Persons Under Control [PUCs] are held permanently without any public records of their existence. Warlords operate their own prisons with "unprecedented abuse, torture, and death of Taliban prisoners." And as the US lowered the number of prisoners at Guantanamo, it increased the numbers held at Bagram, near Kabul. As of January, 2008, there were 630 incarcerated at Bagram, "including some who had been there for five years and whom the ICRC had still not been given access to." After weeks of hunger strikes about detention conditions, the Taliban recently orchestrated a jailbreak of hundreds of Afghanis from the Kandahar prison, an inside job.

As in Iraq, the US contracted for police training in Afghanistan with DynCorp International; between 2003 and 2005, the US spent $860 million to train 40,000 Afghan police, "but the results were totally useless" according to Rashid. Even Richard Holbrooke described the DynCorp training program as "an appalling joke...a complete shambles."

When the Taliban government was overthrown, the US installed a Westernized Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, a former lobbyist for Unocal, who had been out of the country during the jihad against the Soviet Union. But the Pashtun tribes themselves were violently displaced from power for the first time in 300 years. They remain by far the largest Afghan minority at 42 percent of the population, heavily concentrated in Kandahar and the southern provinces and across the federally-administered tribal areas in western Pakistan. These are the areas that the Pentagon, the New York Times, and Barack Obama [like John Kerry before him] designate as the central battlefront of the war on terrorism.

The question is not simply a moral one, but whether the expanding war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fueled by troop transfers from Iraq, is winnable, and in what sense?

Transferring an additional 20, 000 American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, which Obama proposes, is symbolic, a step on the treadmill of escalation. The American troop level will be pushed to 58,000, in addition to 30,000 other foreign troops. Obama may be proposing an escalation simply in order not to lose, a pattern well-documented in Daniel Ellsberg's history of the Vietnam War.

The questionable premise of the coming escalation is that military success must precede any political solution. "What we need are more troops in Afghanistan because we need security, and eventually we will get a strategy", says a former Special Forces officer now with the think tank Center for a New American Security. [Dec. 23, 2008] But it could deepen the quagmire and turn more Afghans against Obama and the US as well.

In Pakistan, the Pentagon has fostered the ascension of a new Pakistani general, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, whose background includes training at Fort Benning and Fort Leavenworth. An unnamed US military official praises Kayani "for embracing new counterinsurgency training and tactics that could be more effective in countering militants in the country's tribal areas. [New York Times, Jan. 7. 2008] Over $400 million is being spent to recruit a "frontier corps" of to "turn local tribes against militants" [New York Times, Mar. 4, 2008] CIA and Special Forces operatives already have invaded Pakistan to set up a secret base from which to hunt Osama bin Laden "before Mr. Bush leaves office" as well as fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban on the ground and from pilotless Predator drones. [New York Times, Feb. 22, 2008].

This constitutes another preventive war by the United States, this one in violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and the overwhelming sentiment of Pakistan's people. On the Afghan front, the Taliban will be able to retreat in the face of greater US firepower, or attack like Lilliputians from multiple sides if the US concentrates its forces around the Pakistan border. Further violence and tides of anti-American sentiment could sweep across the region into Pakistan with unpredictable results.

Michael Scheuer, the former CIA official once charged with tracking down Osama bin Laden, suggests that the American delusion is that "by establishing a minority-dominated semisecular, pro-Indian government [in Kabul], we would neither threaten the identity nor raise the ire of the Pashtun tribes nor endanger Pakistan's national security." Scheuer wrote this year that "for the United States, the war in Afghanistan has been lost. By failing to recognize that the only achievable US mission in Afghanistan was to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their leaders and get out, Washington is now faced with fighting a protracted and growing insurgency. The only upside of this coming defeat is that it is a debacle of our own making. We are not being defeated by our enemies; we are in the midst of defeating ourselves." [Marching Toward Hell, 2008]

The beginning of an alternative may require unfreezing American diplomacy towards Iran and considering a "grand bargain" instead. Teheran is the single power, according to CIA director Deutch, who could destabilize the US withdrawal from Iraq. It happens that they were America's ally against Afghanistan not so long ago. The Iranians have lost thousands of police and soldiers themselves in a border war against Afghan drug lords. According to William Polk, "ironically, the only effective deterrent to the trade is Iran." [Violent Politics, 2008] In exchange for security guarantees against a US-directed regime change, Iran may be willing to discuss cooperation with the "Great Satan" to stabilize its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan. Improbable? That depends on whether one thinks the alternative is unthinkable.

The great reappraisal might be underway. In December 2008, Lawrence Korb and Laura Conley of the Center for American Progress published an op-ed piece calling for US-Iran talks over Afghanistan. The CAP is headed by John Podesta, senior official in the Obama transition.

Since twists and turns seem to be the only pattern in divide-and-conquer strategies, it is possible that Obama thinks being tough towards Afghanistan and Pakistan is a defensive cover for withdrawing from Iraq, and he will follow up with unspecified diplomacy after he takes office. But history shows that creeping escalations create a momentum and constituency of their own. Obama might get lucky, lower the level of the visible wars, and embrace a diplomatic offensive. But North and South Waziristan could be his Bay of Pigs.

How can this war be opposed effectively? If Obama appears to be negotiating a diplomatic solution with some success, he will enjoy wide support within the media and Congress. If the additional 20-30,000 American troops appear to be "stabilizing" the situation, public criticism may be modest in scale. But there is widespread, if latent, public opposition to anything resembling an occupation or quagmire in Afghanistan-Pakistan, especially with the American economy in dire straights. The time is coming when these will be known as Obama's wars, and seen as an unproductive distraction from his main mission as president. The deployment of top journalists like the Times' Dexter Filkins to the Afghan front already has increased the quality of press coverage. International protest is certain to grow, given official reservations already expressed by governments in Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland over civilian casualties, air strikes, human rights violations and counter-narcotics missions. The massive human rights violations in Afghanistan will also begin to produce a round of worldwide condemnation. An international anti-war movement is on the horizon.

The cost of Afghanistan will be seen as unsustainable as well; the $36 billion for annual military operations is certain to climb, while the $11 billion spent since 2002 on non-military development cannot begin to address the country's problems. Whether Obama can afford guns-and-butter in Afghanistan as America's own infrastructure and social services fall apart is a question that could move to action "cities for peace"campaigners, health care advocates, Iraq veterans and military families, among many others. And if these wars continue through Obama's first term, a great moral discontent will grow among many Americans who voted for peace in 2006 and 2008.

[Tom Hayden is a founder of 'Progressives for Obama' and the author of Ending the War in Iraq [2007], The Voices of the Chicago Eight [2008], and Writings for a Democratic Society, the Tom Hayden Reader [2008].


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gaza Crisis: A Brief History of Israel's Wars

Gaza 2008:
and Macro-Wars

By Juan Cole

Informed Comment

January 4, 2009

With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, we have entered the age of micro-wars.

The first wars that Israel fought with its Arab neighbors were conventional struggles in which infantry, artillery, armor and air forces played central roles.

Israel's enemies had few effective tools in the 1950s and 1960s. Abdel Nasser encouraged Palestinian resistance from Gaza in 1955, but it was more harassment than a serious military operation. The Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian conventional armies were what Israel's leaders worried about. Jordan was no match for the Israelis and it had a history of secret agreements with the Zionist leaders, so its military was only a threat when, as in 1967, other Arab leaders convinced the Jordanian leadership to join in a collective effort.

Israel’s policies were not merely defensive, contrary to the propaganda one constantly hears from New York.

Moshe Sharrett's diaries demonstrate conclusively the expansionist character of the regime. Israel's leaders badly wanted the Sinai Peninsula and therefore a commanding position over the trade of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in the 1950s and 1960s. There was also some petroleum there. Israel used superiority in armor and air power in 1956 to take the Sinai, in conjunction with an orchestrated Anglo-French attack on Egypt's position in the Suez Canal (which Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized that summer). President Dwight D. Eisenhower, afraid that vestiges of Old World colonial thinking would push the Arabs into the arms of the Soviets, made Israel relinquish its prize. But hawks in Israel took the Sinai from Egypt again in the 1967 war, in which again demonstrated that armor plus air superiority always defeats armor that lacks air cover (Israel managed to destroy the Egyptian air force early in the war).

Egypt could not accept loss of its sovereign territory. As the largest Arab state, with a third of the Arab population, and a developing economic, technological and military capability, Egypt could not be dismissed. Its leader from 1970, Anwar El Sadat, found a way of striking back. Egypt launched the 1973 war as a surprise attack, and used sophisticated underwater sand-moving equipment to get across the canal and penetrate into the Sinai. By this time Egypt had Soviet SA-5 surface-to-air missiles that served as anti-aircraft batteries and was careful to keep its tanks under their umbrella. Had Egypt had a better air force, Egyptian armor could have rolled right into Israel proper in October of 1973. The Israeli cabinet is said to have feared it was the fall of the Third Kingdom. But even in the absence of a proper air force, the Soviet SAMs were a game-changer. I would argue that they were the difference between the crushing defeat of Egypt in 1967 and the draw-to-slight victory Cairo won in 1973.

The writing was on the wall. Israel could not have the Sinai. Egypt was too big and too increasingly powerful an enemy to continue to provoke it. 1973 settled that. The Egyptian public was tired of war and its expense, and so both sides were willing to conclude the Camp David Peace Treaty of 1978. Egypt got the Sinai back permanently. Israel escaped the most serious military threat in the region.

Israel's political tradition seeks expansion if possible; if not possible, it seeks a balance of power with its enemies. If that is not possible, it seeks to be held harmless from its avowed foes. If that is not possible, it is willing to wage total war to punish the enemy population until it accepts at least a cold peace. Where necessary, Israel is willing to give up territorial expansion to get the cold peace.

The 1982 Lebanon War was a hybrid. Israel deployed a conventional army against the Palestine Liberation Organization and Lebanon. The PLO fought an unconventional struggle in Beirut, and reached out diplomatically to the US, France and Italy to achieve a negotiated outcome rather than an outright defeat. The PLO had to leave Beirut. But Israel's victory was pyrrhic.

1. The Lebanon War was highly unpopular at home and abroad because it seemed unprovoked.
2. The PLO was not destroyed.
3. Israel's old expansionist tendencies kicked in and it was unwilling to relinquish South Lebanon, such that it began occupying yet another Arab country.
4. Israel's occupation helped create the Shiite resistance we now call Hizbullah, which evolved into a highly effective unconventional military force.

Jordan's government was neutralized in the early 1990s with a peace treaty, just as Egypt's had earlier been with Camp David. The PLO also engaged in the peace process off and on, and with the death of Arafat the old guerrilla PLO seemed to end, as Fatah became a political party.

That development left Israel with three main regional enemies: Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Hizbullah in turn gradually attracted Iranian patronage. In the case of the Levantine players, the main issue was Israeli occupation of their land--south Lebanon and the Shebaa Farms for Hizbullah, the Golan Heights for Syria, and Gaza for Hamas.

The Arab-Israeli wars of the opening years of the 21st century have not been conventional wars. They have been micro-wars. Israel had demonstrated in the earlier Arab-Israeli wars that it could generally win a conventional struggle.

The new repertoires of struggle against Israel had four dimensions.

First, they depended on fundamentalist religious party organization (Hizbullah, Hamas), wherein cadres gained popularity in their own base by providing aid and services (e.g. hospitals, soup kitchens, etc.) This development marked a distinctive move away from the leftist romantic guerrilla model of the late 1960s and the 1970s, which was secular and less organic. Because they are religious and political communities, they can lace their guerrilla organizations and materiel through the civilian sphere. Guerrilla operations might be planned out in a civilian apartment building. Rockets might be stored in a mosque.

Second, they deployed new tactics such as suicide bombing, sophisticated tank-piercing explosively formed projectiles, and the launching of small rockets on Israeli settlements and nearby towns. (Large rockets are vulnerable to the Israeli air force; small rocket launchers are mobile and hard to locate).

Third, the micro-warriors depended on regional-power backing (Syria, Iran) and technical help in the modification of rocket technology and in other areas, such as breaking Israeli codes and gaining the ability to monitor Israeli military communications.

Fourth, they targeted Israel's Achilles heel, its demographic vulnerability. Jewish communities are economically thriving and well integrated in the industrial democracies, and there are significant pull factors encouraging Israeli emigration. Some Israeli demographers think that if one counts the second generation, there are 900,000 Israelis outside of Israel. There are as many as 200,000 Jews now in Germany, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who preferred to go there rather than to Israel. During the Second Intifada or Palestinian uprising, in some years Israel's retention rate of new immigrants fell to unheard-of low levels. Some 50 percent of American immigrants to Israel have returned to the US, and Israel has lost nearly 10% of its one million Russian immigrants. All the violence is nervous-making. The micro-wars, the wars of the rockets, are intended to discourage in-migration to Israel by the Russians and other former East Bloc Jews, and to foster out-migration by Israeli Jews, which the Israeli leadership and Zionism generally view as a dire threat to the character of the Israeli state.

All four dimensions played a part in Hizbullah's success in forcing Israel to end its occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. That forced withdrawal was micro-war's first big success, and a more decisive victory than Egypt gained with conventional arms in 1973. Israel had to give up its claim on a slice of Arab territory without receiving any guarantees of peace or any advantage whatsoever.

All four dimensions were also at play in the summer, 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War. Hizbullah deployed its rockets so effectively that one fourth of Israelis were forced to flee their homes temporarily. Although the earlier Arab-Israeli wars did sometimes send Israelis to bomb shelters, I don't believe that as much of a fourth of the population was ever made to flee their own dwellings before. Hizbullah benefited from the loyalty to it of villagers and townspeople it had helped with clinics and other social services. Hizbullah was able to penetrate Merkava tanks and even hit an Israeli ship at sea. With Iranian and Syrian help, they had cracked Israeli codes and could listen in on their enemy's military communications. The Israelis had no idea where their caves and tunnels were. Israel lost the war with Hizbullah in the sense that the latter proved resilient. Only by ratcheting the struggle up to a total war, in which Israel hit Lebanese infrastructure in general and killed over 1000 Lebanese, many of them not Hizbullah or even Shiites, was it able to convince the other Lebanese and the UN/Europeans to intervene to restrain Hizbullah. The Israeli attempt to permanently ethnically cleanse the Shiites from Lebanon's deep south near the Israeli border by the use of cluster bombs failed. The ensuing de facto truce allowed Hizbullah to re-arm with rockets and to gain legitimacy as part of the Lebanese cabinet, but the European border patrols under the banner of UNIFIL (UN peacekeepers) have forestalled further micro-warfare against Israel for the moment.

Even as the northern front quieted from fall of 2006, despite Israel having achieved few of its war goals, a new microwar broke out in Gaza.

In the 1980s, when the secular, left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization predominated as the Palestinian political force, Israeli intelligence funneled some aid to Hamas (descended from the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), a fundamentalist group, in hopes of dividing and ruling the Palestinians. That part of the plan worked, but Israeli intelligence created a monster, since as Hamas grew in strength and popularity, it grew increasing vocal about its rejection of Israel and its ambition to see the state dismantled, allowing the emergence of a fundamentalist Muslim Palestinian state where Israel now stands.

The current Israeli military effort to substantially weaken Hamas in Gaza follows on the contradictions in Kadima Party policy. In 2005 Kadima, led by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which Israel had occupied in 1967. But since Kadima refused to negotiate with Hamas, Israel was unable to shape the political structures of its former colony, leaving the outcome to chance.

It was not a stable place. By 2005 Gaza had a population of 1.5 million. Although it was a relatively nice little Mediterranean region before the rise of modern nation states, its traditional markets were Egypt and Jordan, and after 1967 its only outlet was Israel, which already produced much the same things as Gaza did. So Gaza had become trapped economically.

Hamas became popular in Gaza in part because of services and in part because of its rejectionism vis-a-vis Israel, and it won the January, 2006, elections for the Palestinian Authority. Because of its rejectionist ideology and its willing to deploy terrorism and micro-war against Israel, Israel and the United States boycotted the PA under Hamas and strove to undo the results of the election.

Here is Aljazeera's timeline for what happened next:

June 25, 2006: Palestinian fighters conduct an operation in Israel, killing two Israeli soldiers capturing another, Corporal Gilad Shalit.

June 28, 2006: Israel launches Operation Summer Rains in what it says is an attempt to recover the captured soldier. Israel launches air strikes against of bridges, roads, and the only power station in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians are killed during aerial and ground attacks over the following months.

June 29, 2006: Israel captures 64 Hamas officials, including eight Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers and up to twenty members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

September 8:, 2006 UN officials say Gaza is at "breaking point" after months of economic sanctions and Israeli attacks.'

By summer of 2007, the Israelis and the US had managed to sponsor a coup in which the secular Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, took back over the West Bank, and Hamas was confined to Gaza. Hamas pursued the tactic of sending small home-made missiles against nearby Israeli towns, mainly Sderot, emulating what Hizbullah had been doing to the Israeli colony in the occupied Shebaa Farms in 2005-2006. Israel responded primarily by squeezing the Gaza public, denying it enough food, fuel, electricity and services to function healthily, in hopes that it could be made to turn against Hamas. This punishment of the civilian population (half of which consists of children and some large proportion of which does not anyway support Hamas) is illegal in international law, and failed in its purpose. Hamas became ever more entrenched.

Israel's current attack on Gaza is aimed at forestalling an ever more successful microwar waged by Hamas. Its rockets were inaccurate and most seem to have fallen uselessly in the desert. But they did do some property damage and killed 15 Israelis over 8 years, and they also inflicted psychological blows on the fragile Israeli psyche. The Israeli leadership saw a danger that Hamas would become ever better entrenched, organically, in Gaza society and gain all the advantages such a social penetration offers, and that monetary aid from Iran and explosives smuggling through tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai would allow them eventually to wage a truly effective micro-war.

The Israeli leadership knew that it could not reply to Hamas's microwar without engaging in total war on the Gaza population, and that this step would be unpopular with the world's publics. But the Israeli leadership has successfully thumbed its nose and world public opinion so often and so successfully that this sort of consideration does not even enter into their practical calculations (except to the extent that they are careful to do a lot of propaganda for their war effort). Their estimation that they will suffer no practical bad consequences of attacks on civilians is certainly correct in the short to medium term.

The Israel lobbies are wealthy and powerful, and the US congress depends heavily on them for campaign funding. If the US legislators voted on the Gaza operation, they would support Israel except for the same 10 who objected to the war on Lebanon (the 10 are mostly from congressional districts with a lot of Arab-Americans). Israel will suffer no practical sanctions from any government. Egypt and Jordan are afraid of Hamas and are more or less handmaidens of Israeli policy toward Gaza. Syria and Lebanon are weak. Iran, for all the hype it generates, is distant and relatively helpless to intervene. European governments have largely ceded the Palestinian-Israeli issue to the US and Israel.

The main immediate problem for the Israelis is that simply preventing Hamas from waging an ever more sophisticated microwar is an extremely short-term and technical objective. It may or may not be achievable by the methods of the current war, which appear so far to be conventional methods. Its outcome is not very material to a settlement of the larger issues.

The big long-term problem Israel has is that its assiduous colonization of the West Bank has made a two-state solution almost impossible, turning it into an Apartheid state. And if you go on practicing Apartheid long enough, that begins to attract boycotts and sanctions. And forestalling a Palestinian state means that likely the Palestinians will all end up Israeli citizens.

I was on the radio recently with John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, and he expressed the hope that Egypt would take back Gaza and Jordan what is left of the West Bank. You may as well dream of pink unicorns on Venus. It isn't going to happen. The Palestinians are Israel's problem. War on them, circumscribe them, colonize them all you like. They aren't going anywhere, and you can't keep them stateless and virtually enslaved forever, occasionally exterminating some of them as though they were vermin when they make too much trouble. That, sooner or later, will lead to boycotts by rising economic powers and by Europe that could be extremely damaging to Israel's long-term prospects as a state.

It may still be 10 or 20 years in the future. But because of Israel's economic and demographic vulnerabilities, for it to lose the war of global public opinion may ultimately be more consequential than either macro-war or micro-war.

[From Cole’s ‘Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion’. Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute.]


Friday, January 2, 2009

Crimes and War: 'Getting it' and Not Getting It

On Gaza

By Starhawk

December 30, 2008 - All day I've been thinking about Gaza, listening to reports on NPR, following the news on the internet when I can spare a moment. I've been thinking about the friends I made there four years ago, and wondering how they are faring, and imagining their terror as the bombs fall on that giant, open-air prison.

The Israeli ambassador speaks movingly of the terror felt by Israeli children as Hamas rockets explode in the night. I agree with him-that no child should have her sleep menaced by rocket fire, or wake in the night fearing death.

But I can't help but remember one night on the Rafah border, sleeping in a house close to the line, watching the children dive for cover as bullets thudded into the walls. There was a shell-hole in the back room they liked to jump through into the garden, which at that time still held fruit trees and chickens. Their mother fed me eggs, and their grandmother stuffed oranges into my pockets with the shy pride every gardener shares.

That house is gone, now, along with all of its neighbors. Those children wake in the night, every night of their lives, in terror. I don't know if they have survived the hunger, the lack of medical supplies, the bombs. I only know that they are children, too.

I've ridden on busses in Israel. I understand that gnawing fear, the squirrely feeling in the pit or your stomach, how you eye your fellow passengers wondering if any of them are too thick around the middle. Could that portly fellow be wearing a suicide belt, or just too many late night snacks of hummus? That's no way to live.

But I've also walked the pock-marked streets of Rafah, where every house bears the scars of Israeli snipers, where tanks prowled the border every night, where children played in the rubble, sometimes under fire, and this was all four years ago, when things were much, much better there.

And I just don't get it. I mean, I get why suicide bombs and homemade rockets that kill innocent civilians are wrong. I just don't get why bombs from F16s that kill far more innocent civilians are right. Why a kid from the ghetto who shoots a cop is a criminal, but a pilot who bombs a police station from the air is a hero.

Is it a distance thing? Does the air or the altitude confer a purifying effect? Or is it a matter of scale? Individual murder is vile, but mass murder, carried out by a state as an aspect of national policy, that's a fine and noble thing?

I don't get how my own people can be doing this. Or rather, I do get it. I am a Jew, by birth and upbringing, born six years after the Holocaust ended, raised on the myth and hope of Israel. The myth goes like this:

"For two thousand years we wandered in exile, homeless and persecuted, nearly destroyed utterly by the Nazis. But out of that suffering was born one good thing-the homeland that we have come back to, our own land at last, where we can be safe, and proud, and strong."

That's a powerful story, a moving story. There's only one problem with it-it leaves the Palestinians out. It has to leave them out, for if we were to admit that the homeland belonged to another people, well, that spoils the story.

The result is a kind of psychic blind spot where the Palestinians are concerned. If you are truly invested in Israel as the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, then you can't let the Palestinians be real to you. It's like you can't really focus on them. Golda Meir said, "The Palestinians, who are they? They don't exist." We hear, "There is no partner for peace," "There is no one to talk to."

And so Israel, a modern state with high standards of hygiene, a state rooted in a religion that requires washing your hands before you eat and regular, ritual baths, builds settlements that don't bother to construct sewage treatment plants. They just dump raw sewage onto the Palestinian fields across the fence, somewhat like a spaceship ejecting its wastes into the void. I am truly not making this up-I've seen it, smelled it, and it's a known though shameful fact. But if the Palestinians aren't really real-who are they? They don't exist!-then the land they inhabit becomes a kind of void in the psyche, and it isn't really real, either. At times, in those border villages, walking the fencelines of settlements, you feel like you have slipped into a science fiction movie, where parallel universes exist in the same space, but in different strands of reality, that never touch.

When I was on the West Bank, during Israeli incursions the Israeli military would often take over a Palestinian house to billet their soldiers. Many times, they would simply lock the family who owned it into one room, and keep them there, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days parents, grandparents, kids and all. I've sat with a family, singing to the children while soldiers trashed their house, and I've been detained by a group of soldiers playing cards in the kitchen with a family locked in the other room. (I got out of that one-but that's another story.)

It's a kind of uneasy feeling, having something locked away in a room in your house that you can't look at. Ever caught a mouse in a glue trap? And you can't bear to watch it suffer, so you leave the room and close the door and don't come back until it's really, really dead.

Like a horrific fractal, the locked room repeats on different scales. The Israelis have built a wall to lock away the West Bank. And Gaza itself is one huge, locked room. Close the borders, keep food and medical supplies and necessities from getting through, and perhaps they will just quietly fade out of existence and stop spoiling our story.

"All we want is a return to calm," the Israeli ambassador says. "All we want is peace."

One way to get peace is to exterminate what threatens you. In fact, that may be the prime directive of the last few thousand years.

But attempts to exterminate pests breed resistance, whether you're dealing with insects or bacteria or people. The more insecticides you pour on a field, the more pests you have to deal with-because insecticides are always more potent at killing the beneficial bugs than the pesky ones.

The harshness, the crackdowns, the border closings, the checkpoints, the assassinations, the incursions, the building of settlements deep into Palestinian territory, all the daily frustrations and humiliations of occupation, have been breeding the conditions for Hamas, or something like it, to thrive. If Israel truly wants peace, there's a more subtle, a more intelligent and more effective strategy to pursue than simply trying to kill the enemy and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity.

It's this-instead of killing what threatens you, feed what you want to grow. Consider in what conditions peace can thrive, and create them, just as you would prepare the bed for the crops you want to plant. Find those among your opponents who also want peace, and support them. Make alliances. Offer your enemies incentives to change, and reward your friends.

Of course, to follow such a strategy, you must actually see and know your enemy. If they are nothing to you but cartoon characters of terrorists, you will not be able to tell one from another, to discern the religious fanatic from the guy muttering under his breath, "F-ing Hammas, they closed the cinema again!"

And you must be willing to give something up. No one gets peace if your basic bargaining position is, "I get everything I want, and you eat my shit." You might get a temporary victory, but it will never be a peaceful one.

To know and see the enemy, you must let them into the story. They must become real to you, nuanced, distinctive as individuals. But when we let the Palestinians into the story, it changes. Oh, how painfully it changes! For there is no way to tell a new story, one that includes both peoples of the land, without starting like this:

"In our yearning for a homeland, in our attempts as a threatened and traumatized people to find safety and power, we have done a great wrong to another people, and now we must atone."

Just try saying it. If you, like me, were raised on that other story, just try this one out. Say it three times. It hurts, yes, but it might also bring a great, liberating sense of relief with it.

And if you're not Jewish, if you're American, if you're white, if you're German, if you're a thousand other things, really, if you're a human being, there's probably some version of that story that is true for you.

Out of our own great need and fear and pain, we have often done great harm, and we are called to atone. To atone is to be at one-to stop drawing a circle that includes our tribe and excludes the other, and start drawing a larger circle that takes everyone in.

How do we atone? Open your eyes. Look into the face of the enemy, and see a human being, flawed, distinct, unique and precious. Stop killing. Start talking. Compost the shit and the rot and feed the olive trees.

Act. Cross the line. There are Israelis who do it all the time, joining with Palestinians on the West Bank to protest the wall, watching at checkpoints, refusing to serve in the occupying army, standing for peace. Thousands have demonstrated this week in Tel Aviv.

There are Palestinians who advocate nonviolent resistance, who have organized their villages to protest the wall, who face tear gas, beatings, arrests, rubber bullets and real bullets to make their stand.

There are internationals who have put themselves on the line-like the boatload of human rights activists, journalists and doctors on board the Dignity, the ship from the Free Gaza movement that was rammed and fired on by the Israeli navy yesterday as it attempted to reach Gaza with humanitarian aid.

Maybe we can't all do that. But we can all write a letter, make a phone call, send an email. We can make the Palestinian people visible to us, and to the world. When we do so, we make a world that is safer for every child.

Below is a good summary of some of the actions we can take. Please feel free to repost this. In fact, send it to someone you think will disagree with it.

*-- Starhawk*

*Updated Action Alert on Gaza: * We Need "Sustained, Determined Political Action" December 29, 2008

As of this writing, a third consecutive day of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip have killed an estimated 315 Palestinians and injured more than 1,400. According to the UN, at least 51 of the victims were civilians and 8 were children. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has vowed ominously "a war to the bitter end."

Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip are being carried out with F16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and naval gunboats all given to Israel by the United States with our tax dollars.

From 2001-2006, the United States transferred to Israel more than $200 million worth of spare parts to fly its fleet of F16's and more than $100 million worth of helicopter spare parts for its fleet of Apaches. In July 2008, the United States gave Israel 186 million gallons of JP-8 aviation jet fuel and signed a contract to transfer an addition $1.9 billion worth of littoral combat ships to the Israeli navy. Last year, the United States signed a $1.3 billion contract with Raytheon to transfer to Israel thousands of TOW, Hellfire, and "bunker buster" missiles.

Make no mistake about it-Israel's war on the Gaza Strip would not be possible without the jets, helicopters, ships, missiles, and fuel provided by the United States.

Information for action -- you can go directly to two websites:

End the Occupation

And United for Peace and Justice and get to working links.

You can email Obama or post comments at

Ali Abunimah, of The Electronic Intifada , wrote, "Palestinians everywhere are asking for solidarity, real solidarity, in the form of sustained, determined political action." In light of our country's enabling role in Israel's war on the Gaza Strip, it is the least we can do. Here's how:

1. Attend a protest or vigil, or organize one yourself.

2. Contact the White House, the State Department, your Representative and Senators, and the Obama Transition Team to protest Israel's war on Gaza and demand an immediate cease-fire.

White House: 202-456-1111 or

State Department: 202-647-6575

Congress: 202-224-3121

3. Make your voice heard in the media. Contact your local media by phoning into a talk show or writing a letter to the editor. . 4. Tell President-Elect Barack Obama that we need a change in Israel/Palestine policy.

5. Sign up to organize people in your community to end U.S. military aid to Israel. . 6. Come to Washington, DC for Inauguration Day on January 20. Upwards of 4 million people are expected in Washington, DC for President-Elect Obama's inauguration. This is a perfect time for us to reach out to and educate our fellow citizens about U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel. . 7. Join Democracy in Action in Washington, DC for a Grassroots Advocacy Training and Lobby Day on February 1-2.

Interfaith Peace-Builders and the US Campaign are organizing this exciting two-day event, featuring interactive, skills-building workshops and the chance to meet with your Representative and Senators to discuss U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine. Spaces are filling up fast. ------------------------------

Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of *The Earth Path*, as well as *Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising*, *The Fifth Sacred Thing*; and eight other books on feminism, politics and earth-based spirituality. She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills, and works to offer training and support for mobilizations around global justice and peace issues.

Copyright (c) 2008, 2009 by Starhawk. All rights reserved. This copyright protects Starhawk's right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission. Readers are invited to visit the web site:


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