Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I've got my camera ready

With his 90th birthday in July, a trip into space scheduled for later in the year and a new book out next month, 2009 promises to be an exciting time for James Lovelock. But the originator of the Gaia theory, which describes Earth as a self-regulating planet, has a stark view of the future of humanity. He tells Gaia Vince we have one last chance to save ourselves - and it has nothing to do with nuclear power

One last chance to save mankind

Your work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led eventually to a global CFC ban that saved us from ozone-layer depletion. Do we have time to do a similar thing with carbon emissions to save ourselves from climate change?

Not a hope in hell. Most of the "green" stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It's not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it'll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning. I am not against renewable energy, but to spoil all the decent countryside in the UK with wind farms is driving me mad. It's absolutely unnecessary, and it takes 2500 square kilometres to produce a gigawatt - that's an awful lot of countryside.

What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?

That is a waste of time. It's a crazy idea - and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.

Do you still advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change?

It is a way for the UK to solve its energy problems, but it is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reduction measures.

So are we doomed?

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it.

Do you think we will survive?

I'm an optimistic pessimist. I think it's wrong to assume we'll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It's happening again.

I don't think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what's coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing's been done except endless talk and meetings.

I don't think we can react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what's coming up
It's a depressing outlook.

Not necessarily. I don't think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen - a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

How much biodiversity will be left after this climatic apocalypse?

We have the example of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event 55 million years ago. About the same amount of CO2 was put into the atmosphere as we are putting in and temperatures rocketed by about 5 °C over about 20,000 years. The world became largely desert. The polar regions were tropical and most life on the planet had the time to move north and survive. When the planet cooled they moved back again. So there doesn't have to be a massive extinction. It's already moving: if you live in the countryside as I do you can see the changes, even in the UK.

If you were younger, would you be fearful?

No, I have been through this kind of emotional thing before. It reminds me of when I was 19 and the second world war broke out. We were very frightened but almost everyone was so much happier. We're much better equipped to deal with that kind of thing than long periods of peace. It's not all bad when things get rough. I'll be 90 in July, I'm a lot closer to death than you, but I'm not worried. I'm looking forward to being 100.

Are you looking forward to your trip into space this year?

Very much. I've got my camera ready!

Do you have to do any special training?

I have to go in the centrifuge to see if I can stand the g-forces. I don't anticipate a problem because I spent a lot of my scientific life on ships out on rough oceans and I have never been even slightly seasick so I don't think I'm likely to be space sick. They gave me an expensive thorium-201 heart test and then put me on a bicycle. My heart was performing like an average 20 year old, they said.

I bet your wife is nervous.

No, she's cheering me on. And it's not because I'm heavily insured, because I'm not.

James Lovelock is a British chemist, inventor and environmentalist. He is best known for formulating the controversial Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, which states that organisms interact with and regulate Earth's surface and atmosphere. Later this year he will travel to space as Richard Branson's guest aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. His latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, is published by Basic Books in February.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

No Change Coming

Chomsky: No Change Coming With Obama
The following is a Press TV interview with respected American author, political analyst and world-renowned linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky.

By Press TV

January 24, 2009 -- -Press TV: Professor Chomsky, we better start with Pakistan. The White House not commenting on the killings of people [in cross-border drone attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan]. Richard Holbrooke, someone whom you've written about in the context of Yugoslavia, is the man [President Barack] Obama has chosen to solve the situation.

Chomsky: Well, it was pretty clear that Obama would accept the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely, and there have been many case which are quite serious.

There has been for example a great deal of chaos and fighting in Bajaur province, which is a adjacent to Afghanistan and tribal leaders- others there- have traced it to the bombing of a madrassa school which killed 80 to 95 people, which I don't think was even reported in the United states, it was reported in the Pakistani press of course.

The author of the article reporting it, a well-known nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out at the time that this kind of massacre will of course engender terror and reactions, which will even threaten the state of Pakistan. And that has been what is happening. We are now seeing more of it.

The first message of the Pakistani government to General [David] Petraeus, the American General when he took command of the region was that they did not want any more bombings in Pakistan.

Actually, the first message to the new Obama administration by President [Hamid] Karzai of Afghanistan was the same, that he wanted no more bombings. He also said that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of the foreign troops, US and other troops, from Afghanistan. That was of course just ignored.

Press TV: And these three foreign envoys, well the third one has not been announced yet perhaps, but some people are expressing optimism about George Mitchell's position as Middle East envoy.

Richard Holbrooke, which have looked at. We have talked to the former Bosnian foreign minister here, who seemed to imply that he may even have had a role in the say so for the Srebrenica massacre, and of course, Dennis Ross is being talked about as an envoy for Iran.

Chomsky: well Holbrooke has a pretty awful record, not so much Yugoslavia, but earlier. For example, In the Indonesian atrocities in eastern Timor, where he was the official in charge, and evaded to stop the US support for them, and all together it's a very spotty record.

George Mitchell is, of the various appointments that have been made, he is the most decent let's say. He has a pretty decent record. He achieved something in Northern Ireland, but of course, in that case there was an objective.

The objective was that the British would put an end to the resort to violence in response to IRA terror and would attend to the legitimate grievances that were the source of the terror. He did manage that, Britain did pay attention to the grievances, and the terror stopped- so that was successful.

But there is no such outcome sketched in the Middle East, specially the Israel-Palestine problem. I mean, there is a solution, a straightforward solution very similar to the British one. Israel could stop its US-backed crimes in the occupied territories and then presumably the reaction to them would stop. But that's not on the agenda.

In fact, President Obama just had a press conference, which was quite interesting in that respect. He praised the parabolic peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements. It called for the normalization of relation with Israel, and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those "constructive elements," namely the normalization of relations.

But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long-standing international consensus and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalize relations with Israel.

Well, Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over thirty years in blocking this international consensus, by now it has totally isolated the US and Israel.

Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, the Arab League now for many years [have accepted it]. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but they are blocking it in actions constantly, (this is) happening every day in the occupied territories and also in the siege of Gaza and other atrocities.

So when he skips that it is purposeful. That entails that the US is not going to join the world in seeking to implement a diplomatic settlement, and if that is the case, Mitchell's mission is vacuous.

Press TV: Is there a contradiction in that George Mitchell of course did speak to members of the Sinn Féin, their military wing of course of the IRA.

At the same time, well on this channel [Press TV] we have been covering the Gaza conflict, its headquarters were bombed, and now we are being told that Israeli soldiers will not give their names, and the names of people are not being released for fear of prosecution.

And yet, some were saying that Obama did say that the border should be opened. Should we see any change in policy there?

Chomsky: He did say that, but he did not mention the fact that it was in the context of a lot other demands. And Israel will also say, sure the borders should be opened but he still refuses to speak to the elected government (i.e. Hamas), quite different from Mitchell in Northern Ireland.

It means Palestinians will have to be punished for voting in a free election, the way the US did not want them to, and he endorsed the Condoleezza Rice-Tzipi Livni agreement to close the Egyptian-Gaza order, which is quite an act of imperial arrogance.

It is not their border, and in fact, Egypt strongly objected to that. But Obama continued. He says we have to make sure that no arms are smuggled through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. But he said nothing about the vast dispatch of far more lethal arms to Israel.

In fact, right in the middle of the Gaza attack, December 31, the Pentagon announced that it was commissioning a German ship to send 3,000 tons of war material to Israel. That did not work out, because the government of Greece prevented it but it was supposed to go through Greece but it could all go through somewhere else. This is right in the middle of the attack on Gaza.

Actually there were very little reporting, very few inquiries. The Pentagon responded in an interesting way. They said, well this material won't be used for the attack on Gaza, in fact they knew that Israel had plans to stop the attack right before the inauguration, so that Obama would not have to say anything about it.

But the Pentagon said that this material is being used for pre-positioning for US forces. In other words, this has been going for a long time, but this is extending and reinforcing the role of Israel as a US military base on the edge of the major oil producing regions of the world. If they are ever asked why they are doing it, they will say for defense or stability, but it is just a base for further aggressive action.

Press TV: Robert Gates and Admiral [Mike] Mullen have been talking about the 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq is just one of the options, a slight difference from what Obama has been saying in the campaign. And, Hillary Clinton famously said she was prepared to obliterate all of Iran and kill 70 million citizens. On Iraq and Iran what do you see as changes?

Chomsky: What happened in Iraq is extremely interesting and important. The few correspondents with real experience any whom know something have understood it. Patrick Cockburn, Jonathan Steele and one or two others.

What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways.

Then they went on from there to force the United States to accept at least formally a status of forces agreement, which if the Obama administration lives up to it, will abandon most of the US war aims. It will eliminate the huge permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq. It will mean the US will not control decisions over how the oil resources will be accessed and used. And in fact just every war aim is gone.

Of course there is a question of whether the US will live up to it and what you are reporting is among the serious indications that they are trying to evade living up to it. But what happened there is really significant, and a real credit to the people of Iraq, who have suffered miserably. I mean, the country has been absolutely destroyed, but they did manage to get the US to back away formally from its major war aims.

In the case of Iran, Obama's statements have not been as inflammatory as Clinton's, but they amount to pretty much the same thing. He said all options are open. Well, what does all options mean? Presumably that includes nuclear war, you know, that is an option.

There is no indication that he is willing to take the steps, say, that the American population wants. An overwhelming majority of the American population for years has been in favor, has agreed with the Non-Aligned Movement, that Iran should have the rights granted to the signers of the non-proliferation treaty, in fact to develop nuclear energy.

It should not have the right to develop nuclear weapons, and more interestingly about the same percentages, about 75 to 80%, call for the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, which would include Iran, Israel, and any US forces deployment there, within all kinds of verifications and so on.

That could eliminate probably one of the major sources of the conflict. There is no indication that the Obama administration has any thought of doing anything about this.

Press TV: Just finally Professor Chomsky, the US economy, of course where you are -that is dominating the news and the lives all Americans and arguably the people around the world- and this 825 billion dollar package. How do you think the Obama people are going to handle this?

Chomsky: Nobody really knows. I mean, what is happening with the economy is not well understood. It is based on extremely opaque financial manipulations, which are quite hard to decode. I mean, the general process is understood, but whether the $800 billion, or probably larger government stimulus, will overcome this crisis, is not known.

The first $350 billion have already been spent- that is the so-called part bailout but that went into the pockets of banks. They were supposed to start lending freely, but they just decided not to do it. They would rather enrich themselves, restore their own capital, and take over other banks- mergers and acquisition and so on.

Whether the next stimulus will have an effect depends very much on how it is handled, whether it is monitored, so that it is used for constructive purposes. [It relies] also on factors that are just not known, like how deep this crisis is going to be.

It is a worldwide crisis and it is very serious. It is suddenly striking that the ways that Western countries are approaching the crisis is exactly the same as the model that they enforce on the Third World when there is a crisis.

So when Indonesia has a crisis, Argentina and everyone else, they are supposed to raise interest rates very high and privatize the economy, and cut down on public spending, measures like that. In the West, it is the exact opposite: lower interest rates to zero, move towards nationalization if necessary, pour money into the economy, have huge debts.

That is exactly the opposite of how the Third World is supposed to pay off its debts, and that this seems to pass without comment is remarkable. These measures for the West are ones that might get the economy moving again, while it has been a disaster for others.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Damien & Sarah

whoop whoop

The Day the Earth Still Stood

What Will Obama Inherit?
By Tom Engelhardt

Inauguration day!

Gazillions of Americans descended on Washington. The rest of us were watching on TV or checking out streaming video on our computers. No one was paying attention to anything else. Every pundit in sight was nattering away all day long, as they will tomorrow and, undoubtedly, the next day about whatever comes to mind until we get bored. And in the morning, when this post is still hanging around in your inbox, you'll be reading your newspaper on… well, you know… the same things: Obama's speech! So many inaugural balls! Etc., etc.

So I'm thinking of this post as a freebie, a way to lay out a little news about the world that no one will notice. And all I can say -- for those of you who aren't reading this anyway, and in the spirit of the clunky 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still -- is: Klaatu barada nikto!

Okay, no actual translation of that phrase (to the best of Wikipedia's knowledge) exists. We do know that, when invoked, the three words acted as a kind of "fail-safe" device, essentially disarming the super-robot Gort (which arrived on the Washington Mall by spacecraft with the alien Klaatu). That was no small thing, since Gort was capable not just of melting down tanks but possibly of ending life on this planet. Still, I remain convinced, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the phrase could also mean: "Whew! We're still here!"

Though I skipped the recent remake of the film, which bombed (so to speak), I consider this post my remake, though with a slightly altered title:

January 20, 2009: The Day the Earth Still Stood.

Klaatu barada nikto has, by the way, been called "the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial." After watching the final press conference of George W. Bush, I wonder.
Now, whether Bush was the extraterrestrial and Dick Cheney the super (goof-it-up) robot, or vice-versa, is debatable, but whatever the case, let's celebrate the obvious: We're still here, more or less, and they're gone. Dick Cheney to fish and shoot. George W. to think big, big thoughts at his still-to-be-built library. Let's face it, on the day on which Barack Obama has taken the oath of office, that constitutes something of a small miracle. But a nagging question remains: just how small?

Or rather, just how large is the disaster? If the Earth still stands, how wobbly is it?
In fact, our last president -- in that remarkable final news conference of his ("the ultimate exit interview," he called it) in which he swanned around, did his anti-Sally Fields imitation (you don't like me, right now, you don't like me!), sloshed in self-pity while denouncing self-pity, brimmed with anger, and mugged (while mugging the press) -- even blurted out one genuine, and startling, piece of news. With the Washington press corps being true to itself to the last second of his administration, however, not a soul seemed to notice.

Reporters, pundits, and analysts of every sort focused with laser beam predictability on whether the President would admit to his mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere. In the meantime, out of the blue, Bush offered something strikingly new and potentially germane to any assessment of our moment.

Here's what he said:

"Now, obviously these are very difficult economic times. When people analyze the situation, there will be -- this problem started before my presidency, it obviously took place during my presidency. The question facing a President is not when the problem started, but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem. And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by [my] chief economic advisors that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

"So I've told some of my friends who said -- you know, who have taken an ideological position on this issue -- why did you do what you did? I said, well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too, which I did. And we've taken extraordinary measures to deal with the frozen credit markets, which have affected the economy."

Hold onto those "worse than the Great Depression… greater than the Great Depression" comments for a moment and let's try to give this a little context. Assumedly, our last president was referring to his acceptance of what became his administration's $700 billion bailout package for the financial system, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. He signed that into law in early October. So -- for crude dating purposes -- let's assume that his "chief economic advisors," speaking to him in deepest privacy, told him in perhaps early September that the U.S. was facing a situation that might be "worse than the Great Depression."

By then, the Bush administration had long publicly rejected the idea that the country had even entered a recession. As early as February 28, 2008, at a press conference, Bush himself had said: "I don't think we're headed to a recession, but no question we're in a slowdown." In May, his Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Edward Lazear had been no less assertive: "The data are pretty clear that we are not in a recession." At the end of July in a CNBC interview, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle typically reassured the public this way: "I think we have avoided a recession."

By late September, the president, now campaigning for Congress to give him his bailout package, was warning that we could otherwise indeed "experience a long and painful recession." But well into October, White House press spokesperson Dana Perino still responded to a question about whether we were in a recession by insisting, "You know I don't think that we know."

Lest you imagine that this no-recession verbal minuet was simply a typical administration prevarication operation, for much of the year top newspapers (and the TV news) essentially agreed to agree. While waiting for economic confirmation that the nation's gross national product had dropped in at least two successive quarters, the papers reported increasingly grim economic news using curious circumlocutions to avoid directly calling what was underway a "recession." We were said, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan put it in February, to be at "the edge of a recession," a formulation many reporters picked up, or "near" one, or simply in an "economic slowdown," or an "economic downturn."

At the beginning of December, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group of leading economists, made "official," as CNN wrote, "what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy" (no thanks to the press). We were not only officially in a recession, the Bureau announced, but, far more strikingly, had been since December 2007. For at least a year, that is. Suddenly, "recession" was an acceptable media description of our state, without qualifiers (though you can look high and low for a single major paper which then reviewed its economic labeling system, December 2007-December 2008, and questioned its own coverage.) Recession simply became the new norm.

Now, as times have gotten even tougher, it's become a commonplace turn of phrase to call what's underway "the worst" or "deepest" economic or financial crisis "since the Great Depression." Recently, a few brave economic souls -- in particular, columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times -- have begun to use the previously verboten "d" word, or even the "GD" label more directly. As Krugman wrote recently, "Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression." But he remains the exception to the public news rule in claiming that, barring the right economic formula from the new Obama administration, we might well find ourselves in a situation as bad as the Great Depression.

Now, let's return to our last president's news conference and consider what he claims his "chief economic advisors" told him in private last fall. His statement was, in fact, staggeringly worse than just about anything you can presently read in your newspapers or see on the TV news. What was heading our way, he claimed he was told, might be "worse" or "greater" than the Great Depression itself. Admittedly, John Whitehead, the 86-year-old former chairman of Goldman Sachs, suggested in November that the current economic crisis might turn out to be "worse than the [Great] depression." But on this, he was speaking as something of a public minority of one.

Stop for a minute and consider what Bush actually told us. It's a staggering thought. Who even knows what it might mean? In the United States, for example, the unemployment rate in the decade of the Great Depression never fell below 14%. In cities like Chicago and Detroit in the early 1930s, it approached 50%. So, worse than that? And yet in the privacy of the Oval Office, that was evidently a majority view, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

It's possible, of course, that Bush's "chief economic advisors" simply came up with a formulation so startling it could wake the dead or make a truly lame-duck president quack. Still, doesn't it make you wonder? What if, a year from now, the same National Bureau of Economic Research announces that, by January 2009, we were already in a depression?

I'm only saying that, on the question of just how steadily the Earth now stands, the verdict is out. Recent history, cited above, indicates how possible it is that, on this question, we are in the dark.

And one more thing, while we're on the subject of recessions and depressions, what if what's happening isn't, prospectively, the worst since the Great Depression, or as bad as the Great Depression, or even, worse than the Great Depression. What if it's something new? Something without a name or reference point? What then? How do we judge what's still standing in that case?

Standing Questions

If I were the Obama administration, I might be exceedingly curious about a couple of other "standing" questions right now. Here's one I might ask, for example: Just what kind of a government are the Obamanians really inheriting? When, tomorrow, they settle into the Oval Office -- or its departmental and agency equivalents -- and begin opening all the closets and drawers, what are they going to find that Bush's people have left behind?

This is no small matter. After all, they are betting the store on an enormous economic stimulus package -- approximately $550 billion in pump-priming government spending, and another $275 billion in tax cuts of various sorts, according to the present plan in the House of Representatives. All kinds of possibilities are being proposed from daringly experimental renewable energy projects to computerizing health-care records and building a national "smart" electricity grid, not to speak of rebuilding an infrastructure of bridges, roads, levees, and transport systems known to be in a desperate state of disrepair.

But what if the federal government slated to organize, channel, and oversee that spending is itself thoroughly demoralized and broken? What then?

We know that, after eight catastrophic years, some parts of it are definitely in an advanced state of wear and tear. The Justice Department is a notorious, demoralized wreck. So, infamously, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So, for that matter, is the whole Department of Homeland Security, as it has been ever since it was (ill) formed in 2002. So, evidently, is the CIA. Who knows what condition the eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency is in, or the Housing Department, or the Interior Department, or the Treasury Department, or the Energy Department after these years of thoroughgoing politicization in which all those crony capitalist pals of the Bush administration and all those industry lobbyist foxes were let loose among the federal chickens meant to oversee them?

In those same years, huge new complexes of interests formed around certain agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security, and all sorts of government functions were privatized and outsourced, often to crony corporations and often, it seems, expensively and inefficiently. Who knows how well any parts of our government now function?

All I'm saying is that it can take months, or even years, to restore an agency in disrepair or a staff in a state of massive demoralization. In the meantime, how effectively will those agencies and departments direct the Obama stimulus package? The manner in which the Treasury Department threw $350 billion down a banking hole in these last frenetic months should certainly give us pause, especially since the banking system has been anything but rescued. In the end, the U.S. government can order up hundreds of billions of dollars, but applying them well may be another matter entirely. What if, that is, the government now supposed to save us isn't itself really standing? What if it, too, needs to be saved?

And let's not forget the world out there. If you watched Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton breeze through her confirmation hearings, she seemed like the wonky picture of confidence, mixing the usual things you say in Washington ("We are not taking any option off the table at all") with promises of new policies. Looking at her, or our other new and recycled custodians of empire, it's easy enough to avoid the obvious thought: that they are about to face a world -- from Latvia to Somalia, Gaza to Afghanistan -- which may be in far greater disarray than we imagine.

Only the other day, for instance, in a hardly noticed report, "Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008)," the U.S. Joint Forces Command on worldwide security threats suggested that "two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse." One -- Pakistan -- was no surprise, though all sorts of potentially catastrophic scenarios lurk in its nasty brew of potential economic collapse, tribal wars, terrorism, border disputes, and nuclear politics. The other country, however, should make any American sit back and wonder. It's Mexico.

Here's the money passage in the report: "The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press[ed] by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

Of course, it could just be a matter of part of the U.S. military looking for new arenas of potential expansion, but let's remember that we're no longer in the frightening but strangely orderly Cold War world, nor even on a planet any longer overshadowed by a "lone superpower," the "New Rome." No indeed. Events in Mumbai reminded us of this recently. There, ten trained terrorists armed with the most ordinary of weapons and off-the-shelf high-tech equipment of a sort that could be bought in any mall managed to bring two nuclear-armed superpowers to the edge of conflict. Ten men. Imagine that.

We don't know what the world holds for us in the Obama years, but it's not likely to be pretty and some of what's heading our way may not be in any of the familiar playbooks by which we've been operating for the past half century-plus. We don't yet know if whole countries, even whole continents, may collapse in the economic, or environmental, rubble of our twenty-first century moment, or what that would actually mean.

I'm no expert on any of this, but on this day of anxious celebration, here's my question: Is the world still standing? Do you know? Really? Does anyone?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's

Chomsky: Undermining Gaza

By Sameer Dossani "Foreign Policy In Focus -- January 16, 2009

Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco

DOSSANI: The Israeli government and many Israeli and U.S. officials claim that the current assault on Gaza is to put an end to the flow of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel. But many observers claim that if that were really the case, Israel would have made much more of an effort to renew the ceasefire agreement that expired in December, which had all but stopped the rocket fire. In your opinion, what are the real motivations behind the current Israeli action?

CHOMSKY: There's a theme that goes way back to the origins of Zionism. And it's a very rational theme: "Let's delay negotiations and diplomacy as long as possible, and meanwhile we'll 'build facts on the ground.'" So Israel will create the basis for what some eventual agreement will ratify, but the more they create, the more they construct, the better the agreement will be for their purposes. Those purposes are essentially to take over everything of value in the former Palestine and to undermine what's left of the indigenous population.

I think one of the reasons for popular support for this in the United States is that it resonates very well with American history. How did the United States get established? The themes are similar.

There are many examples of this theme being played out throughout Israel's history, and the current situation is another case. They have a very clear program. Rational hawks like Ariel Sharon realized that it's crazy to keep 8,000 settlers using one-third of the land and much of the scarce supplies in Gaza, protected by a large part of the Israeli army while the rest of the society around them is just rotting. So it's best to take them out and send them to the West Bank. That's the place that they really care about and want.

What was called a "disengagement" in September 2005 was actually a transfer. They were perfectly frank and open about it. In fact, they extended settlement building programs in the West Bank at the very same time that they were withdrawing a few thousand people from Gaza. So Gaza should be turned into a cage, a prison basically, with Israel attacking it at will, and meanwhile in the West Bank we'll take what we want. There was nothing secret about it.

Ehud Olmert was in the United States in May 2006 a couple of months after the withdrawal. He simply announced to a joint session of Congress and to rousing applause, that the historic right of Jews to the entire land of Israel is beyond question. He announced what he called his convergence program, which is just a version of the traditional program; it goes back to the Allon plan of 1967. Israel would essentially annex valuable land and resources near the green line (the 1967 border). That land is now behind the wall that Israel built in the West Bank, which is an annexation wall. That means the arable land, the main water resources, the pleasant suburbs around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the hills and so on. They'll take over the Jordan valley, which is about a third of the West Bank, where they've been settling since the late 60s. Then they'll drive a couple of super highways through the whole territory — there's one to the east of Jerusalem to the town of Ma'aleh Adumim which was built mostly in the 1990s, during the Oslo years. It was built essentially to bisect the West Bank and are two others up north that includes Ariel and Kedumim and other towns which pretty much bisect what's left. They'll set up check points and all sorts of means of harassment in the other areas and the population that's left will be essentially cantonized and unable to live a decent life and if they want to leave, great. Or else they will be picturesque figures for tourists — you know somebody leading a goat up a hill in the distance — and meanwhile Israelis, including settlers, will drive around on "Israeli only" super highways. Palestinians can make do with some little road somewhere where you're falling into a ditch if it's raining. That's the goal. And it's explicit. You can't accuse them of deception because it's explicit. And it's cheered here.

DOSSANI: In terms of U.S. support, last week the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a cease fire. Is this a change, particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. did not veto the resolution, but rather abstained, allowing it to be passed?

CHOMSKY: Right after the 1967 war, the Security Council had strong resolutions condemning Israel's move to expand and take over Jerusalem. Israel just ignored them. Because the U.S. pats them on the head and says "go ahead and violate them." There's a whole series of resolutions from then up until today, condemning the settlements, which as Israel knew and as everyone agreed were in violation of the Geneva conventions. The United States either vetoes the resolutions or sometimes votes for them, but with a wink saying, "go ahead anyway, and we'll pay for it and give you the military support for it." It's a consistent pattern. During the Oslo years, for example, settlement construction increased steadily, in violation of what the Oslo agreement was theoretically supposed to lead to. In fact the peak year of settlement was Clinton's last year, 2000. And it continued again afterward. It's open and explicit.

To get back to the question of motivation, they have sufficient military control over the West Bank to terrorize the population into passivity. Now that control is enhanced by the collaborationist forces that the U.S., Jordan, and Egypt have trained in order to subdue the population. In fact if you take a look at the press the last couple of weeks, if there's a demonstration in the West Bank in support of Gaza, the Fatah security forces crush it. That's what they're there for. Fatah by now is more or less functioning as Israel's police force in the West Bank. But the West Bank is only part of the occupied Palestinian territories. The other part is Gaza, and no one doubts that they form a unit. And there still is resistance in Gaza, those rockets. So yes, they want to stamp that out too, then there will be no resistance at all and they can continue to do what they want to do without interference, meanwhile delaying diplomacy as much as possible and "building the facts" the way they want to. Again this goes back to the origins of Zionism. It varies of course depending on circumstances, but the fundamental policy is the same and perfectly understandable. If you want to take over a country where the population doesn't want you, I mean, how else can you do it? How was this country conquered?

DOSSANI: What you describe is a tragedy.

CHOMSKY: It's a tragedy which is made right here. The press won't talk about it and even scholarship, for the most part, won't talk about it but the fact of the matter is that there has been a political settlement on the table, on the agenda for 30 years. Namely a two-state settlement on the international borders with maybe some mutual modification of the border. That's been there officially since 1976 when there was a Security Council resolution proposed by the major Arab states and supported by the (Palestinan Liberation Organization) PLO, pretty much in those terms. The United States vetoed it so it's therefore out of history and it's continued almost without change since then.

There was in fact one significant modification. In the last month of Clinton's term, January 2001 there were negotiations, which the U.S. authorized, but didn't participate in, between Israel and the Palestinians and they came very close to agreement.

DOSSANI: The Taba negotiations?

Yes, the Taba negotiations. The two sides came very close to agreement. They were called off by Israel. But that was the one week in over 30 years when the United States and Israel abandoned their rejectionist position. It's a real tribute to the media and other commentators that they can keep this quiet. The U.S. and Israel are alone in this. The international consensus includes virtually everyone. It includes the Arab League which has gone beyond that position and called for the normalization of relations, it includes Hamas. Every time you see Hamas in the newspapers, it says "Iranian-backed Hamas which wants to destroy Israel." Try to find a phrase that says "democratically elected Hamas which is calling for a two-state settlement" and has been for years. Well, yeah, that's a good propaganda system. Even in the U.S. press they've occasionally allowed op-eds by Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniya and others saying, yes we want a two-state settlement on the international border like everyone else.

DOSSANI: When did Hamas adopt that position?

CHOMSKY That's their official position taken by Haniya, the elected leader, and Khalid Mesh'al, their political leader who's in exile in Syria, he's written the same thing. And it's over and over again. There's no question about it but the West doesn't want to hear it. So therefore it's Hamas which is committed to the destruction of Israel.

In a sense they are, but if you went to a Native American reservation in the United States, I'm sure many would like to see the destruction of the United States. If you went to Mexico and took a poll, I'm sure they don't recognize the right of the United States to exist sitting on half of Mexico, land conquered in war. And that's true all over the world. But they're willing to accept a political settlement. Israel isn't willing to accept it and the United States isn't willing to accept it. And they're the lone hold-outs. Since it's the United States that pretty much runs the world, it's blocked.

Here it's always presented as though the United States must become more engaged; it's an honest broker; Bush's problem was that he neglected the issue. That's not the problem. The problem is that the United States has been very much engaged, and engaged in blocking a political settlement and giving the material and ideological and diplomatic support for the expansion programs, which are just criminal programs. The world court unanimously, including the American justice, agreed that any transfer of population into the Occupied Territories is a violation of a fundamental international law, the Geneva Conventions. And Israel agrees. In fact even their courts agree, they just sort of sneak around it in various devious ways. So there's no question about this. It's just sort of accepted in the United States that we're an outlaw state. Law doesn't apply to us. That's why it's never discussed.

Sameer Dossani, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the director of 50 Years is Enough and blogs at

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So, I asked the UN secretary general, isn't it time for a war crimes tribunal?

Mr Ban said it would not be up to him to launch a war crimes tribunal. It was pathetic

By Robert Fisk:

January 19, 2009 "The Independent" -- -- - It's a wrap, a doddle, an Israeli ceasefire just in time for Barack Obama to have a squeaky-clean inauguration with all the world looking at the streets of Washington rather than the rubble of Gaza. Condi and Ms Livni thought their new arms-monitoring agreement – reached without a single Arab being involved – would work. Ban Ki-moon welcomed the unilateral truce. The great and the good gathered for a Sharm el-Sheikh summit. Only Hamas itself was not consulted. Which led, of course, to a few wrinkles in the plan. First, before declaring its own ceasefire, Hamas fired off more rockets at Israel, proving that Israel's primary war aim – to stop the missiles – had failed. Then Cairo shrugged off the deal because no one was going to set up electronic surveillance equipment on Egyptian soil. And not one European leader travelling to the region suggested the survivors might be helped if Israel, the EU and the US ended the food and fuel siege of Gaza.

After killing hundreds of women and children, Israel was the good guy again, by declaring a unilateral ceasefire that Hamas was certain to break. But Obama will be smiling on Tuesday. Was not this the reason, after all, why Israel suddenly wanted a truce?

Egypt's objections may be theatre – the US spent £18m last year training Egyptian security men to stop arms smuggling into Gaza and since the US bails out Egypt's economy, ignores the corruption of its regime and goes on backing Hosni Mubarak, there's sure to be a "compromise" very soon.

And Hamas has had its claws cut. Israel's informers in Gaza handed over the locations of its homes and hideouts and the government of Gaza must be wondering if they can ever close down the spy rings. Hamas thought its militia was the Hizbollah – a serious error – and that the world would eventually come to its aid. The world (although not its pompous leaders) felt enormous pity for the Palestinians, but not for the cynical men of Hamas who staged a coup in Gaza in 2007 which killed 151 Palestinians. As usual, the European statesmen appeared hopelessly out of touch with what their own electorates thought.

And history was quite forgotten. The Hamas rockets were the result of the food and fuel siege; Israel broke Hamas's own truce on 4 and 17 November. Forgotten is the fact Hamas won the 2006 elections, although Israel has killed a clutch of the victors.

And there'll be little time for the peacemakers of Sharm el-Sheikh to reflect on the three UN schools targeted by the Israelis and the slaughter of the civilians inside. Poor old Ban Ki-moon. He tried to make his voice heard just before the ceasefire, saying Israel's troops had acted "outrageously" and should be "punished" for the third school killing. Some hope. At a Beirut press conference, he admitted he had failed to get a call through to Israel's Foreign Minister to complain.

It was pathetic. When I asked Mr Ban if he would consider a UN war crimes tribunal in Gaza, he said this would not be for him to "determine". But only a few journalists bothered to listen to him and his officials were quickly folding up the UN flag on the table. About time too. Bring back the League of Nations. All is forgiven.

What no one noticed yesterday – not the Arabs nor the Israelis nor the portentous men from Europe – was that the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting last night was opening on the 90th anniversary – to the day – of the opening of the 1919 Paris peace conference which created the modern Middle East. One of its main topics was "the borders of Palestine". There followed the Versailles Treaty. And we know what happened then. The rest really is history. Bring on the ghosts.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Pointless War Has Led to a Moral Defeat for Israel

January 18, 2009
The Guardian

In historical terms, it is impossible to separate Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza from the long narrative of conflict and mutual grievance in the region.

In geographic terms, the war over a tiny plot of land cannot be detached from the wider involvement and strategic interests of other countries: Syria, Egypt, the US, Iran.

All of which makes it difficult to judge where - even if a unilateral Israeli ceasefire holds - the war really begins and ends.

That fact alone explains why the operation represents a defeat for Israel, as was always likely to be the outcome. The notion that the country's security problems can be resolved by the unilateral use of extreme force is a persistent delusion among Israeli politicians. In this case, the problem was perceived to be Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel; the solution was judged to be a war against Hamas. That analysis did not allow for the vital, humane recognition that, in densely populated Gaza, an all-out war against Hamas is, by necessity, an attack on the civilian population.

Even on its own terms, the campaign has failed. Israeli authorities will insist that they have limited the ability of Hamas to launch rocket attacks. But the ostensible war aim was destroying that capability completely.

Israel will also claim that its campaign has exposed a lack of support for Hamas in many Arab capitals; that Hamas' position as the ruling authority in Gaza has been undermined; and that Hamas has been revealed as little more than a terrorist proxy acting on behalf of and armed by Syria and Iran.

But the reality is that the status of Hamas as the preferred vehicle for Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation has been enhanced by the indiscriminate brutality of the military assault.

Meanwhile, that status guarantees the resurgence, in some form, of armed response, including rocket fire and terrorist attacks on Israeli soil. It is possible that Hamas' military capability has been drastically reduced. But even when Israel had full command of Gaza's external borders, it could not stop the trade in smuggled weapons. Sadly, Hamas will re-arm with or without a ceasefire agreement.

Meanwhile, any increased consideration of Iranian or Syrian sponsorship of terrorism will pale against global outrage at the extraordinary disregard shown by Israeli forces for the lives of Palestinian civilians. It is quite possible, as the Observer today reports, that an Israeli withdrawal will reveal evidence of actions deserving indictment as war crimes. Those allegations must be independently investigated.

Israel's allies in the west, chiefly the US, have traditionally defended the country on the grounds that it is a democracy besieged by despotic regimes and terrorists. But while Israeli citizens do enjoy immense political and social freedom, those values do not automatically prevent the state from committing atrocities.

The fact of Israeli democracy is not a reason to resist negotiations with Hamas. That was true before this pointless, brutal war and will remain so afterwards.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Friday, January 09, 2009

The History and "Morals" of Ethnic Cleansing

By Victoria Buch
January 06, 2009 "Counterpunch"

I arrived in Israel 40 years ago. It took me many years to understand that the very existence of my country, as it is today, is based on an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The project started many years ago. Its seed can be traced to the basic fallacy of the Zionist movement, which set out to establish a Jewish-national state in a location already inhabited by another nation. Under these conditions, one has, at most, a moral right to strive for a bi-national state; establishing a national state implies, more or less by definition, ethnic cleansing of the previous inhabitants.

Albert Einstein grasped this fallacy a long time ago. A short time after WWI "Einstein complained that the Zionists were not doing enough to reach agreement with the Palestinian Arabs…He favored a binational solution in Palestine and warned Chaim Weizmann against `Prussian style` nationalism"[1]

But such warnings passed un-heeded by the Zionist movement. So here we are, nearly a century later, with a Jewish national state dominated by militaristic and militant nationalists, who diligently pursue colonization and "judaization" of the land under Israeli control, on both sides of the Green Line (1967 border). The project has been pursued continuously and relentlessly under the different Israeli governments, recently under the cover of bogus "negotiations" with President Abbas. Most of the Israeli institutions participate in it. Young Israelis, generation after generation, join the army to provide the military cover. The young folks have been brain-washed to honestly believe that the army pursues Israel's "fight for existence". However it seems evident to the author of this article, as to many others, that the survival of the Jewish community in this country depends on establishing viable mechanisms of coexistence with the Palestinians. Thus, under the slogan of "fight for existence", the State of Israel is pursuing an essentially suicidal project.

This long-standing outlook of the Israeli governing classes was summarized succinctly in a recent book `Palestine Inside Out` by Saree Makdisi, an American academic. His book "suggests that occupation is merely a feature of an ongoing Israeli policy of slow transfer of the native Palestinian population from their lands. This policy predates the founding of the state, and all of the various practices of the occupier: illegal settlement, land confiscation, home demolition and so on, serve this ultimate purpose."[2]

If you do not believe the above assessment, consider several statements by David Ben Gurion himself, from the time before the establishment of the State of Israel (Ben Gurion was the leader of the Zionist movement before 1948 and the first Israeli Prime Minister after 1948):

"The compulsory transfer of the [Palestinian] Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the first and second Temples…We are given an opportunity which we never dared to dream of in our wildest imaginings. This is more than a state, government and sovereignty, this is national consolidation in a free homeland." [3]

"With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement]…I support compulsory transfer. I don't see anything immoral in it."[3]

During the 1948 war, about two-thirds of the Palestinians who would become refugees were in fact expelled from their homes by the nascent Israeli army, and one-third became refugees while escaping the dangers of war. All these people, 0.75-1 million of them, were prevented from returning to Israel after the armistice agreement, while their homes and property were demolished or appropriated by the State of Israel.

Among the common mantras provided to the Israelis to justify the above is the following: "Israel accepted the UN partition plan, and Arabs did not, so what happened afterwards is their own fault". What is conveniently overlooked is that Palestinian Arabs constituted between one third and one half of the population of that designated Jewish homeland (according to various UN reports). Why should these people, whose ancestors lived there for generations, accept living in somebody else's designated homeland? Imagine, for example, the reaction of French Belgians if their country were designated as a "Flemish homeland" by the UN.

But the main mantra drummed into the conscience of an Israeli citizen from kindergarten, is that in 1948 "it was either them or us", "Arabs would have thrown us into the sea if we did not establish a Jewish majority state with a strong army", etc. I have my doubts about that line, too, but let us suppose for the moment that in fact, it was so. And then came the year 1967, and the Six Day War. Another chapter in the Israeli "fight for existence" against recalcitrant Arabs who just keep trying to throw us into the sea. On the face of it, that is how it seemed. I together with most of my compatriots believed for years that 1967 was in fact a moment of existential danger for Israel. Until I stumbled upon some telling quotes, uttered by our very own leaders [4]:

"(a) The New York Times quoted Prime Minister Menachem Begin`s (1977 - 83) August, 1982 speech saying: `In June, 1967, we had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that (President Gamal Abdel) Nasser (1956 - 70) was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.`

(b) Two-time Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1974 - 77 and 1992 - 95) told French newspaper Le Monde in February, 1968: `I do not believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.`

(c) General Mordechai Hod, Commander of the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War said in 1978: `Sixteen years of planning had gone into those initial eighty minutes. We lived with the plan, we slept on the plan, we ate the plan. Constantly we perfected it.`

(d) General Haim Barlev, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief told Ma`ariv in April 1972: `We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the six-day war, and we had never thought of such a possibility.`"

So: instead of "thwarting an existential danger", in 1967 the State of Israel carried out an effective military operation to acquire some real estate. There is nothing new about that "existential danger" propaganda. Acquisition of real estate by conquest has been already called pleasing names by various other conquerors and occupiers, throughout the old and new history: such as "manifest destiny", "white man's burden", "spreading true religion / culture / democracy", whatnot.

The reader may like to know that the 1967 real estate acquisition by the State of Israel was anticipated some twenty years earlier by Ben-Gurion, at the time of the partition plan (which was supposedly accepted by the Zionist leadership). See the following quotes of Ben-Gurion, which can be found in the book by an Israeli historian[5]:

"Just as I do not see the proposed Jewish state as a final solution to the problems of the Jewish people, so I do not see partition as the final solution of the Palestine question. Those who reject partition are right in their claim that this country cannot be partitioned because it constitutes one unit, not only from a historical point of view but also from that of nature and economy".

"After the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the [Jewish] state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of the Palestine".

I wonder if at any point in history there was any association of people who acquired goodies by brute force, and who viewed themselves candidly as such. Times and again, conquerors considered themselves unwilling victims of circumstances, and the barbarians (their own victims!) against whom they have to regretfully protect their rights. Consider the following pronouncements of Benny Morris, a historian who documented the 1948 ethnic cleansing. In a 2004 interview with Morris which was published in Haaretz one reads[6]:

Q: The title of the book you are now publishing in Hebrew is "Victims." In the end, then, your argument is that of the two victims of this conflict, we [Israelis] are the bigger one.

Morris: "Yes. Exactly. We are the greater victims in the course of history and we are also the greater potential victim. Even though we are oppressing the Palestinians, we are the weaker side here. We are a small minority in a large sea of hostile Arabs who want to eliminate us.

The above opinion is representative of the Israeli mainstream. It has been raised to the status of axiom over the years, and no reasonable peace offers (such as the latest Saudi one) are likely to put a dent in it. Israelis are using this slogan to exempt themselves from normal human decency towards Palestinians. Most Israeli Jews have convinced themselves that they have a moral right to expropriate and expel Palestinians because Palestinians are such barbarians, who did not respond to Israel's"generous peace offers" and "only wanted to throw us to the sea". Because we are a nation of Holocaust survivors. My compatriots imagined themselves starring in a modern version of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" - starring as beautiful elves, of course, who were forced by sad fate to fight ugly goblins the Palestinians (goblins = "terrorists"). Human mercy does not apply to "terrorists". You do not make territorial compromises or peace agreements with "terrorists".

The above explains the mass participation of otherwise normal and more-or-less decent Israelis in the ongoing ethnic-cleansing projects. How else can you account for a dying elderly man and his wife being dragged out of their east Jerusalem apartment to make space for Jewish settlers. Building the Jerusalem "Museum of Tolerance" on the site of an ancient Muslim graveyard. Onslaught on West Bank orphanages supported by Islamic charities. State-subsidized Jewish settler-thugs conducting pogroms against Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere in the Occupied Territories. Widespread sadism practiced by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian detainees. Trashing of Palestinian homes during nightly military incursions in Palestinian towns and villages. Demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem under the brazen pretext of "illegal construction". Extensive land grab for settlers. And much more.[7]

The Gaza Strip is the place where the self-righteous Israeli sadism has reached new heights. The Strip is densely populated, mostly by descendants of Palestinians expelled in 1948. Well before the Second Intifada, choice Gazan real estate along the beach (about ¼ of the Strip land) was confiscated for a few thousand Jewish settlers. Still, a million and a half Gazan Palestinians had a sort of normal life (under the Israeli occupation) – growing fruits and vegetables, making construction materials and other products for Israeli markets, and working as laborers within the Green Line. Before the second Intifada, very little terror was coming from there to Israel.

However, since the beginning of the Intifada (a year and a half before the first Palestinian rocket landing across the border) the Israeli army embarked on the systematic destruction of the Strip. Incursions were carried out every few weeks and included the destruction of factories and workshops, roads, agricultural land, homes, and whatnot. Access to the Israeli economy was closed. Eventually, desperate Palestinians resorted to shooting Qassam rockets which rarely caused casualties or real damage but served as an excellent pretext for Israeli military "action".

And then Sharon carried out his brilliant propaganda move of "disengagement" from Gaza. The whole operation was marketed as a demonstration of Israeli good will. The Israeli settlements in Gaza were in fact removed, but the army was redeployed around the Strip, and the Strip was converted to a large scale prison. The economic strangulation of Gaza was tightened to a draconian extent, especially after the Hamas government suppressed the Israel-cum-USA sponsored Fatah putsch. (I am no fan of Hamas but their government was democratically elected by the Palestinians) Hamas offered several times to conduct negotiations with Israel, based on 1967 borders, but the offers were under-reported and ignored. It is likely that such negotiations would have stopped the Qassams, but Israeli leaders appeared interested in continuation of the violence. The Qassams created a great opportunity for more "poor little us" propaganda, and a great pretext to wiggle out of legitimate international requests to stop the massive colonization of the West Bank.

Finally, a truce with Hamas was negotiated. Since the beginning of the truce defense minister Barak commenced preparations for a massive attack on Gaza[8]. On November 14th the working truce with Hamas was deliberately broken on Barak's orders, by killing several Hamas fighters. A totally predictable Palestinian response ensued - cancellation of the truce and a barrage of rockets. The barrage was used by Barak as a pretext for that large-scale operation, including the slaughter of hundreds of people in Gaza with missiles deployed from airplanes. This muscle-flexing is an obvious part of Barak's and Livni's forthcoming election campaign, at the price of hundreds of Palestinian casualties, and several Israeli ones (as meanwhile Palestinians have improved their aim). In a forthcoming ground operation Israeli soldiers are also likely to pay with their lives for this form of electioneering.

Do you know what mainstream Israelis make of the above? 'We, Israelis, in an act of self-sacrifice, removed poor Jewish settlers from their "homes" in the Gaza Strip and gave Palestinians a chance for free and happy existence. But the Palestinians spurned our peace efforts and preferred instead to pursue their addiction to "throwing Jews to the sea." Gaza could have become a new Singapore, but the Gazans chose instead to shoot rockets at Israelis.'

The disengagement was thus an act of brilliance on part of that evil genius, Sharon. He provided mainstream Israelis with a sweeping moral absolution. Palestinians "disappointed" them. Now the Israeli leaders can do anything they wish to Palestinians. Do not expect a squeak of public protest from the Israeli Jewish public, except for a tiny minority of "self hating Jews" like yours truly.

Believe me, these Jewish-Israeli mainstreamers are not natural-born monsters. They just do not know any better. Alas, I used to be one of them. Then one day I stumbled, more or less by chance, into the West Bank with a group of activists. I acquired some Palestinian friends and finally understood the criminality of the treatment of the Palestinians by my country. And I learned to ignore the daily portion of preposterous propaganda which is provided to my compatriots by the media in lieu of "news". But how to convince my compatriots not to listen to this propaganda? I do not know.

Then again, it does not have to be so. In addition to four million or so stateless Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, there are about a million Palestinians living within the Green Line and carrying Israeli citizenship. Despite the very considerable internal racism, many of these Palestinian citizens are deeply involved in Israeli society. You meet Arab doctors and nurses in Israeli hospitals, Arab students in Israeli universities etc. There is quite an element of coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs there. But a mainstream Jewish-Israeli colleague who might treat his or her Arab co-worker perfectly decently would still be proud of a soldier son who is "serving the country" in the Occupied Territories. He or she would still repeat racist propaganda about the "demographic danger" to the State of Israel from its Arab citizens, and believe the bloodthirsty speeches of generals and ex-generals on the TV. And vote for any of the three major Zionist parties, Likud, Kadima and Labour, whose leaders have been dedicated ethnic cleansers over the years.

For the sake of both nations living in this country, this outrage must be stopped. It must be stopped by pressure from outside, because at present within Israel there are no significant political forces to oppose it. Please do something, my friends, and do it urgently. And kindly ignore the endless "negotiations" between our government and the powerless Palestinian Authority, they are just a cover for more ethnic cleansing. If you do not believe me, come and see the massive settlement construction in East Jerusalem and West Bank. And the walls of the Palestinian ghettos.

Victoria Buch is an Israeli academic and anti-Occupation activist.

[1] From "The Pity of It All", a book by Amos Elon on German Jews.
[2] From a review of Makdisi's book: `Palestine Inside Out`, by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, IMEU 2008.
[3] From "Righteous Victims" by Benny Morris
[4] Collected by Stephen Lendman, see )
[5] From The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities,by Simha Flapan
[6] The full text of the interview can be found in the Counterpunch website
[7] *Information can be found, e.g., in the Occupation Magazine, the website of Israeli anti-Occupation activists.
[8] "Disinformation, secrecy and lies: How the Gaza offensive came about" By Barak Ravid, Haaretz

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Body Count Nation

The Ponzi Scheme Presidency - Bush's Legacy of Destruction
By Tom Engelhardt

It may finally be 2009, but in some ways, given these last years, it might as well be 800 BCE.

From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings who ruled the Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled with enough dead bodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting -- in almost comic strip-style -- various bloody royal victories and conquests. At least one of them shows Assyrian soldiers lopping off the heads of defeated enemies and piling them into pyramids for an early version of what, in the VCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s, Americans came to know as the "body count."

So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recorded the numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian scribes had recorded counts of severed hands for victorious Pharaohs).

Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt's burghers staring out at you across the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant past. In a darker sense, it's no less a reminder of our kinship across time to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making his count, and -- eerily enough -- feel at home. What a measure of just how few miles "the march of civilization" (as my parents' generation once called it) has actually covered.

Prejudiced Toward War

If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration, here's one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn't help it. They just had to count.

In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons, his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries, and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it's easy enough to imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been teleported into his world. True, his White House didn't have friezes of his victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was Saddam Hussein's captured pistol proudly stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later, however, Bush's "scribes," still traveling with the imperial forces, continued to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani borderlands, and elsewhere.

Many of those body counts were duly made public. This record of American "success" was visible to anyone who visited the Pentagon's website and viewed its upbeat news articles complete with enumerations of "Taliban fighters" or, in Iraq, "terrorists," the Air Force's news feed listing the number of bombs dropped on "anti-Afghan forces," or the U.S. Central Command's stories of killing "Taliban militants."

On the other hand, history, as we know, doesn't repeat itself and -- unlike the Assyrians -- the Bush administration would have preferred not to count, or at least not to make its body counts public. One of its small but tellingly unsuccessful struggles, a sign of the depth of its failure on its own terms, was to avoid the release of those counts.

Its aversion to the body count made some sense. After all, since the 1950s, body counting for the U.S. military has invariably signaled not impending victory, but disaster, and even defeat. In fact, one of the strangest things about the American empire has been this: Between 1945 and George W. Bush's second term, the U.S. economy, American corporations, and the dollar have held remarkable sway over much of the rest of the world. New York City has been the planet's financial capital and Washington its war capital. (Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War, always came in a provincial second.)

In the same period, the U.S. military effectively garrisoned much of the globe from the Horn of Africa to Greenland, from South Korea to Qatar, while its Navy controlled the seven seas, its Air Force dominated the global skies, its nuclear command stood ready to unleash the powers of planetary death, and its space command watched the heavens. In the wake of the Cold War, its various military commands (including Northcom, set up by the Bush administration in 2002, and Africom, set up in 2007) divided the greater part of the planet into what were essentially military satrapies. And yet, the U.S. military, post-1945, simply could not win the wars that mattered.

Because the neocons of the Bush administration brushed aside this counterintuitive fact, they believed themselves faced in 2000 with an unparalleled opportunity (whose frenetic exploitation would be triggered by the attacks of 9/11, the "Pearl Harbor" of the new century). With the highest-tech military on the planet, funded at levels no other set of nations could cumulatively match, the United States, they were convinced, was uniquely situated to give the phrase "sole superpower" historically unprecedented meaning. Even the Assyrians at their height, the Romans in their Pax Romana centuries, the British in the endless decades when the sun could never set on its empire, would prove pikers by comparison.

In this sense, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and the various neocons in the administration were fundamentalist idolaters -- and what they worshipped was the staggering power of the U.S. military. They were believers in a church whose first tenet was the efficacy of force above all else. Though few of them had the slightest military experience, they gave real meaning to the word bellicose. They were prejudiced towards war.

With awesome military power at their command, they were also convinced that they could go it alone as the dominating force on the planet. As with true believers everywhere, they had only contempt for those they couldn't convert to their worldview. That contempt made "unilateralism" their strategy of choice, and a global Pax Americana their goal (along with, of course, a Pax Republicana at home).

If All Else Fails, Count the Bodies

It was in this context that they were not about to count the enemy dead. In their wars, as these fervent, inside-the-Beltway utopians saw it, there would be no need to do so. With the "shock and awe" forces at their command, they would refocus American attention on the real metric of victory, the taking of territory and of enemy capitals. At the same time, they were preparing to disarm the only enemy that truly scared them, the American people, by making none of the mistakes of the Vietnam era, including -- as the President later admitted -- counting bodies.
Of course, both the Pax Americana and the Pax Republicana would prove will-o'-the-wisps. As it turned out, the Bush administration, blind to the actual world it faced, disastrously miscalculated the nature of American power -- especially military power -- and what it was capable of doing. And yet, had they taken a clear-eyed look at what American military power had actually achieved in action since 1945, they might have been sobered. In the major wars (and even some minor actions) the U.S. military fought in those decades, it had been massively destructive but never victorious, nor even particularly successful. In many ways, in the classic phrase of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, it had been a "paper tiger."

Yes, it had "won" largely meaningless victories -- in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983; against the toothless Panamanian regime of Manuel Noriega in Operation Just Cause in 1989; in Operation Desert Storm, largely an air campaign against Saddam Hussein's helpless military in 1990 (in a war that settled nothing); in NATO's Operation Deliberate Force, an air war against the essentially defenseless Serbian military in 1995 (while meeting disaster in operations in Iran in 1980 and Somalia in 1993). On the other hand, in Korea in the early 1950s and in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from the 1960s into the early 1970s, it had committed its forces all but atomically, and yet had met nothing but stalemate, disaster, and defeat against enemies who, on paper at least, should not have been able to stand up to American power.

It was in the context of defeat and then frustration in Korea that the counting of enemy bodies began. Once Chinese communist armies had entered that war in massive numbers in late 1950 and inflicted a terrible series of defeats on American forces but could not sweep them off the peninsula, that conflict settled into a "meatgrinder" of a stalemate in which the hope of taking significant territory faded; yet some measure of success was needed as public frustration mounted in the United States: thus began the infamous body count of enemy dead.

The body count reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War, again as a shorthand way of measuring success in a conflict in which the taking of territory was almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to distinguish from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely unable to strengthen themselves. Those tallies of dead bodies, announced daily by military spokesmen to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the public face of American "success" in the Vietnam era. Each body was to be further evidence of what General William Westmoreland called "the light at the end of the tunnel." When those dead bodies and any sense of success began to part ways, however, when, in the terminology of the times, a "credibility gap" opened between the metrics of victory and reality, the body count morphed into a symbol of barbarism as well as of defeat. It helped stoke an antiwar movement.

This was why, in choosing to take on Saddam Hussein's hapless military in 2003 -- the administration was looking for a "cakewalk" campaign that would "shock and awe" enemies throughout the Middle East -- they officially chose not to release any counts of enemy dead. General Tommy Franks, commander of the administration's Afghan operation in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq thereafter, put the party line succinctly, "We don't do body counts."

As the President finally admitted in some frustration to a group of conservative columnists in October 2006, his administration had "made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team." Not intending to repeat the 1960s experience, he and his advisors had planned out an opposites war on the home front -- anything done in Vietnam would not be done this time around -- and that meant not offering official counts of the dead which might stoke an antiwar movement… until, as in Korea and Vietnam, frustration truly set in.

When the taking of Baghdad in April 2003 proved no more of a capstone on American victory than the taking of Kabul in November 2001, when everything began to go disastrously wrong and the carefully enumerated count of the American dead in Iraq rose precipitously, when "victory" (a word which the President still invoked 15 times in a single speech in November 2005) adamantly refused to make an appearance, the moment for the body count had arrived. Despite all the planning, they just couldn't stop themselves. A frustrated President expressed it this way: "We don't get to say that -- a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It's happening. You just don't know it."

Soon enough the Pentagon was regularly releasing such figures in reports on its operations and, in December 2006, the President, too, first slipped such a tally into a press briefing. ("Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.")

It wasn't, of course, that no one had been counting. The President, as we know from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, had long been keeping "'his own personal scorecard for the [global] war [on terror]' in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists -- each ready to be crossed out by the President as his forces took them down." And the military had been counting bodies as well, but as the possibility of victory disappeared into the charnel houses of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the president finally gave in. While this did not stoke an antiwar movement, it represented a tacit admission of policy collapse, a kind of surrender. It was as close as an administration which never owned up to error could come to admitting that two more disastrous wars had been added to a string of military failures in the truncated American Century.

That implicit admission, however, took years to arrive, and in the meantime, Iraqis and Afghans -- civilians, insurgents, terrorists, police, and military men -- were dying in prodigious numbers.

The Global War on Terror as a Ponzi Scheme

As it happened, others were also counting. Among the earliest of them, a website, Iraq Body Count, carefully toted up Iraqi civilian deaths as documented in reputable media outlets. Their estimate has, by now, almost reached 100,000 -- and, circumscribed by those words "documented" and "civilian," doesn't begin to get at the full scope of Iraqi deaths.

Various groups of scholars and pollsters also took up the task, using sophisticated sampling techniques (including door-to-door interviews under exceedingly dangerous conditions) to arrive at reasonable approximations of the Iraqi dead. They have come up with figures ranging from the hundreds of thousands to a million or more in a country with a prewar population of perhaps 26 million. United Nations representatives have similarly attempted, under difficult circumstances, to keep a count of Iraqis fleeing into exile -- exile being, after a fashion, a form of living death -- and have estimated that more than 2 million Iraqis fled their country, while another 2.7 million, having fled their homes, remained "internally displaced."

Similar attempts have been made for Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has, for instance, done its best to tally civilian deaths from air strikes in that country (while even TomDispatch has attempted to keep a modest count of wedding parties obliterated by U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq). But, of course, the real body count in either country will never be known.
One thing is certain, however: it is an obscenity of the present moment that Iraq, still a charnel house, still in a state of near total disrepair, still on the edge of a whole host of potential conflicts, should increasingly be portrayed here as a limited Bush administration "surge" success. Only a country -- or a punditry or a military -- incapable of facing the depths of destruction that the Bush administration let loose could reach such a conclusion.

If all roads once led to Rome, all acts of the Bush administration have led to destruction, and remarkably regularly to piles of dead or tortured bodies, counted or not. In fact, it's reasonable to say that every Bush administration foreign policy dream, including its first term fantasy about a pacified "Greater Middle East" and its late second term vision of a facilitated "peace process" between the Israelis and Palestinians, has ended in piles of bodies and in failure. Consider this a count all its own.

Looked at another way, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror and its subsidiary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, in effect, been a giant Ponzi scheme. At a cost of nearly one trillion taxpayer dollars to date (but sure to be in the multi-trillions when all is said and done), Bush's mad "global war" simply sucked needed money out of our world at levels that made Bernie Madoff seem like a small fry.

Madoff, by his own accounting, squandered perhaps $50 billion of other people's money. The Bush administration took a trillion dollars of ours and handed it out to its crony corporate buddies and to the Pentagon as down payments on disaster -- and that's without even figuring into the mix the staggering sums still needed to care for American soldiers maimed, impaired, or nearly destroyed by Bush's wars.

With Bush's "commander-in-chief" presidency only days from its end, the price tag on his "war" continues to soar as dollars grow scarce, new investors refuse to pay in, and the scheme crumbles. Unfortunately, the American people, typical suckers in such a con game, will be left with a mile-high stack of IOU's. In any Ponzi scheme comparison with Madoff, however, one difference (other than size) stands out. Sooner or later, Madoff, like Charles Ponzi himself, will end up behind bars, while George, Dick, & Co. will be writing their memoirs and living off the fat of the land.

Eight years of bodies, dead, broken, mutilated, abused; eight years of ruined lives down countless drains; eight years of massive destruction to places from Baghdad to New Orleans where nothing of significance was ever rebuilt: all this was brought to us by a President, now leaving office without apology, who said the following in his first inaugural address: "I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility… to call for responsibility and try to live it as well."

He lived, however, by quite a different code. Destruction without responsibility, that's Bush's legacy, but who's counting now that the destruction mounts and the bodies begin to pile up here in the "homeland," in our own body count nation? The laid off, the pension-less, the homeless, the suicides -- imagine what that trillion dollars might have meant to them.
It's clear enough in these last days of the Bush administration that its model was Iraq, dismantled and devastated. The world, had he succeeded, might have become George W. Bush's Iraq.

Yes, he came up short, but, given the global economic situation, how much short we don't yet know. Perhaps, in the future, historians will call him a Caesar -- of destruction.
Veni, vidi, vastavi... [I came, I saw, I devastated...]

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years now ending.

[Tom's Note: I rely on many wonderful sources and websites in putting together, but as 2009 starts, I would feel remiss if I didn't credit three in particular:, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's The War in Context. Each is invaluable in its own way; each made my task of trying to make some sense of George W. Bush's world so much easier. A deep bow of thanks to all three. Finally, I can't help wondering about one missing Iraqi who remains on my mind: a young Sunni woman living in Baghdad in 2003, who adopted the pseudonym Riverbend. She began her "girlblog from Iraq," Baghdad Burning, with this epigraph: "...I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend..." For several years, she provided a vivid citizen's reportage on Bush's disaster that should have put most journalists to shame. As I wrote in 2006, hers was "an unparalleled record of the American war on, and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). [It represents] simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of the hell into which we've plunged that country." Her last report from Syria -- she had just arrived as a refugee -- was posted on October 22, 2007. Since then, as far as I know, she has not been heard from.]

I too miss Riverbend and worry about her - does that sound silly?

No I don't think so either.