Friday, June 25, 2010

The Coming Era of Energy Disasters

Tomgram: The Coming Era of Energy Disasters
By Michael Klare

Posted on June 22, 2010
http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175264/

Isn’t it strange that, no matter how terrible the news from the Gulf, the media still can’t help offering a lurking, BP-influenced narrative of hope? Here’s a recent headline from my hometown paper, for instance: “Signs of Hope as BP Captures Record Oil Amounts.” The piece is based on a BP report that, last Thursday, its woefully inadequate, ill-fitting “top hat” had captured more than 25,000 barrels of the gushing oil -- that is, five times more than it long claimed was spewing from its busted well (25 times more than it originally suggested).

With semi-official estimates in the range of 35,000-60,000 barrels escaping a day (and those numbers regularly on the rise), this represents a strange version of hopeful news. Ominously enough, by the end of July, with a new, larger, “tighter” cap theoretically in place, BP is aiming to capture up to 80,000 barrels a day (that is, 20,000 barrels more than it has publicly acknowledged might possibly be spewing from the floor of the Gulf). In all such articles, the real narrative of hope, however, involves the relief wells, the first of which is now within “200 feet” of the busted well. Usually, the date for one of those wells to plug the leak is given as “early August” or “mid-August” and it’s regularly said that the drilling of those wells is advancing “ahead of schedule.”

Whatever “signs of hope” do exist, however, they’re already badly beslimed by on-gushing reality. On the very day that BP announced its 25,000-barrel capture, huge amounts of methane were also reported to be pouring into the Gulf. Until now, this had evidently been largely overlooked (or under-reported), even though methane in high concentrations can deplete water of its oxygen and so suffocate marine life, creating vast dead zones and inhibiting the natural breakdown of the spilling oil. According to John Kessler, a Texas A&M oceanographer, the Deepwater Horizon spill represents “the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history.”

Meanwhile, if you read carefully, you’ll note that those relief wells are no sure thing. They might not do the job until the fall or even, worst-case scenario, Christmas, or (even-worse-case scenario) they might fail entirely, leaving the well to spew oil and natural gas (with its methane) for an estimated two to four more years. And let’s not forget general bad weather, as well as hurricane season bearing down on the Gulf, the possibility that the well’s casing might be cracking or eroding -- meaning even more spillage or seepage -- and that a “clean-up” in which, in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s words, the Gulf ecosystem would be “restored and made whole,” may not, as Naomi Klein wrote recently, be “remotely possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around.”

Worse yet, the disaster in the Gulf is largely being dealt with as a one-shot nightmare. It isn’t. Consider our potential American Chernobyl as just a precursor to a future filled with “unexpected” energy mega-disasters, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, suggests. (To catch him discussing our dystopian energy future on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, click here.) Tom

BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come
Four Scenarios for the Next Energy Mega-Disaster
By Michael T. Klare

On June 15th, in their testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the chief executives of America’s leading oil companies argued that BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an aberration -- something that would not have occurred with proper corporate oversight and will not happen again once proper safeguards are put in place. This is fallacious, if not an outright lie. The Deep Horizon explosion was the inevitable result of a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper and more hazardous locations. In fact, as long as the industry continues its relentless, reckless pursuit of “extreme energy” -- oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium obtained from geologically, environmentally, and politically unsafe areas -- more such calamities are destined to occur.

At the onset of the modern industrial era, basic fuels were easy to obtain from large, near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and friendly locations. The rise of the automobile and the spread of suburbia, for example, were made possible by the availability of cheap and abundant oil from large reservoirs in California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and from the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But these and equivalent deposits of coal, gas, and uranium have been depleted. This means the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly relies on supplies obtained from risky locations -- deep underground, far at sea, north of the Arctic circle, in complex geological formations, or in unsafe political environments. That guarantees the equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf-oil-spill-style disasters in our energy future.

Back in 2005, the CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, put the situation about as bluntly as an oil executive could. “One thing is clear,” he said, “the era of easy oil is over. Demand is soaring like never before… At the same time, many of the world’s oil and gas fields are maturing. And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”

O’Reilly promised then that his firm, like the other energy giants, would do whatever it took to secure this “difficult energy” to satisfy rising global demand. And he proved a man of his word. As a result, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and the rest of the energy giants launched a drive to obtain traditional fuels from hazardous locations, setting the stage for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and those sure to follow. As long as the industry stays on this course, rather than undertaking the transition to an alternative energy future, more such catastrophes are inevitable, no matter how sophisticated the technology or scrupulous the oversight.

The only question is: What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)? The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities. None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.

Scenario 1: Newfoundland -- Hibernia Platform Destroyed by Iceberg

Approximately 190 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in what locals call “Iceberg Alley” sits the Hibernia oil platform, the world’s largest offshore drilling facility. Built at a cost of some $5 billion, Hibernia consists of a 37,000-ton “topsides” facility mounted on a 600,000-ton steel-and-concrete gravity base structure (GBS) resting on the ocean floor, some 260 feet below the surface. This mammoth facility, normally manned by 185 crew members, produces about 135,000 barrels of oil per day. Four companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murphy Oil, and Statoil) plus the government of Canada participate in the joint venture established to operate the platform.

The Hibernia platform is reinforced to withstand a direct impact by one of the icebergs that regularly sail through this stretch of water, located just a few hundred miles from where the Titanic infamously hit an iceberg and sank in 1912. Sixteen giant steel ribs protrude from the GBS, positioned in such a way as to absorb the blow of an iceberg and distribute it over the entire structure. However, the GBS itself is hollow, and contains a storage container for 1.3 million barrels of crude oil -- about five times the amount released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The owners of the Hibernia platform insist that the design will withstand a blow from even the largest iceberg. As global warming advances and the Greenland glaciers melt, however, massive chunks of ice will be sent floating into the North Atlantic on a path past Hibernia. Add increased storm activity (another effect of global warming) to an increase in iceberg frequency and you have a formula for overwhelming the Hibernia’s defenses.

Here’s the scenario: It’s the stormy winter of 2018, not an uncommon situation in the North Atlantic at that time of year. Winds exceed 80 miles per hour, visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter planes are grounded. Towering waves rise to heights of 50 feet or more, leaving harbor-bound the giant tugs the Hibernia’s owners use to nudge icebergs from the platform’s path. Evacuation of the crew by ship or helicopter is impossible.

Without warning, a gigantic, storm-propelled iceberg strikes the Hibernia, rupturing the GBS and spilling more than one million barrels of oil into rough waters. The topside facility is severed from the base structure and plunges into the ocean, killing all 185 crew members. Every connection to the undersea wells is ruptured, and 135,000 barrels of oil start flowing into the Atlantic every day (approximately twice the amount now coming from the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico). The area is impossible to reach by plane or ship in the constant bad weather, meaning emergency repairs can’t be undertaken for weeks -- not until at least five million additional barrels of oil have poured into the ocean. As a result, one of the world’s most prolific fishing grounds -- the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Cape Cod -- is thoroughly poisoned.

Does this sound extreme? Think again. On February 15, 1982, a giant drillship, the Ocean Ranger (the “Ocean Danger” to its habitués), was operating in the very spot Hibernia now occupies when it was struck by 50-foot waves in a storm and sank, taking the lives of 84 crew members. Because no drilling was under way at the time, there were no environmental consequences, but the loss of the Ocean Ranger -- a vessel very much like the Deepwater Horizon -- should be a reminder of just how vulnerable otherwise strong structures can be to the North Atlantic’s winter fury.

Scenario 2: Nigeria -- America’s Oil Quagmire

Nigeria is now America’s fifth leading supplier of oil (after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela). Long worried about the possibility that political turmoil in the Middle East might diminish the oil flow from Saudi Arabia just as Mexico’s major fields were reaching a state of depletion, American officials have worked hard to increase Nigerian imports. However, most of that country’s oil comes from the troubled Niger Delta region, whose impoverished residents receive few benefits but all of the environmental damage from the oil extraction there. As a result, they have taken up arms in a bid for a greater share of the revenues the Nigerian government collects from the foreign energy companies doing the drilling. Leading this drive is the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), a ragtag guerrilla group that has demonstrated remarkable success in disrupting oil company operations.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) rates Nigeria’s innate oil-production capacity at about 2.7 million barrels per day. Thanks to insurgent activity in the Delta, however, actual output has fallen significantly below this. “Since December 2005, Nigeria has experienced increased pipeline vandalism, kidnappings, and militant takeovers of oil facilities in the Niger Delta,” the department reported in May 2009. “[K]idnappings of oil workers for ransom are common and security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of the country.”

Washington views the insurgency as a threat to America’s “energy security,” and so a reason for aiding the Nigerian military. “Disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S. oil security,” the State Department noted in 2006. In August 2009, on a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised even more military aid for oil protection purposes.

Here, then, is scenario #2: It’s 2013. The Delta insurgency has only grown, driving Nigeria’s oil output down to a third of its capacity. Global oil demand is substantially higher and rising, while production slips everywhere. Gasoline prices have reached $5 per gallon in the U.S. with no end in sight, and the economy seems headed toward yet another deep recession.

The barely functioning civilian government in Abuja, the capital, is overthrown by a Muslim-dominated military junta that promises to impose order and restore the oil flow in the Delta. Some Christian elements of the military promptly defect, joining MEND. Oil facilities across the country are suddenly under attack; oil pipelines are bombed, while foreign oil workers are kidnapped or killed in record numbers. The foreign oil companies running the show begin to shut down operations. Global oil prices go through the roof.

When a dozen American oil workers are executed and a like number held hostage by a newly announced rebel group, the president addresses the nation from the Oval Office, declares that U.S. energy security is at risk, and sends 20,000 Marines and Army troops into the Delta to join the Special Operations forces already there. Major port facilities are quickly secured, but the American expeditionary force soon finds itself literally in an oil quagmire, an almost unimaginable landscape of oil spills in which they find themselves fighting a set of interlocked insurgencies that show no sign of fading. Casualties rise as they attempt to protect far-flung pipelines in an impenetrable swamp not unlike the Mekong Delta of Vietnam War fame.

Sound implausible? Consider this: in May 2008, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Command conducted a crisis simulation at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that involved precisely such a scenario, also set in 2013. The simulation, “Unified Quest 2008,” was linked to the formation of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the new combat organization established by President Bush in February 2007 to oversee American military operations in Africa. An oil-related crisis in Nigeria, it was suggested, represented one of the more likely scenarios for intervention by U.S. forces assigned to Africom. Although the exercise did not explicitly endorse a military move of this sort, it left little doubt that such a response would be Washington’s only practical choice.

Scenario 3: Brazil -- Cyclone Hits “Pre-Salt” Oil Rigs

In November 2007, Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras), announced a remarkable discovery: in a tract of the South Atlantic some 180 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, it had found a giant oil reservoir buried beneath a mile and a half of water and a thick layer of salt. Called “pre-salt” oil because of its unique geological positioning, the deposit was estimated to hold 8 to 12 billion barrels of oil, making this the biggest discovery in the Western Hemisphere in 40 years. Further test drilling by Petrobras and its partners revealed that the initial find -- at a field called Tupi -- was linked to other deepwater “pre-salt” reservoirs, bringing the total offshore potential to 50 billion barrels or more. (To put that in perspective, Saudi Arabia is believed to possess reserves of 264 billion barrels and the United States, 30 billion.)

With this discovery, Brazil could “jump from an intermediate producer to among the world’s largest producers,” said Dilma Rousseff, chief cabinet official under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and thought to be his most likely successor. To ensure that the Brazilian state exercises ultimate control over the development of these reservoirs, President da Silva -- “Lula,” as he is widely known -- and Rousseff have introduced legislation in the Brazilian Congress giving Petrobras control over all new fields in the basin. In addition, Lula has proposed that profits from the pre-salt fields be channeled into a new social fund to alleviate poverty and underdevelopment in the country. All this has given the government a huge stake in the accelerated development of the pre-salt fields.

Extracting oil a mile and half under the water and from beneath two-and-a-half miles of shifting sand and salt will, however, require the utilization of technology even more advanced than that employed on the Deepwater Horizon. In addition, the pre-salt fields are interspersed with layers of high-pressure gas (as appears to have been the case in the Gulf), increasing the risk of a blow-out. Brazil does not experience hurricanes as does the Gulf of Mexico, but in 2004, its coastline was ravaged by a surprise subtropical cyclone that achieved hurricane strength. Some climatologists believe that hurricane-like storms of this sort, once largely unknown in the South Atlantic, will become more common as global warming only increases.

Which brings us to scenario #3: It’s 2020, by which time the pre-salt area off Rio will be host to hundreds of deepwater drilling rigs. Imagine, then, a subtropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds and massive waves that suddenly strikes this area, toppling dozens of the rigs and damaging most of the others, wiping out in a matter of hours an investment of over $200 billion. Given a few days warning, most of the crews of these platforms have been evacuated. Freak winds, however, down several helicopters, killing some 50 oil workers and flight crew members. Adding to the horror, attempts to seal so many undersea wells at such depths fail, and oil in historically unprecedented quantities begins gushing into the South Atlantic. As the cyclone grows to full strength, giant waves carry the oil inexorably toward shore.

Since the storm-driven assault cannot be stopped, Rio de Janeiro’s famous snow-white beaches are soon blanketed in a layer of sticky black petroleum, and in a matter of weeks, parts of Brazil’s coastal waters have become a “dead ocean.” Clean-up efforts, when finally initiated, prove exceedingly difficult and costly, adding immeasurably to the financial burden of the Brazilian state, now saddled with a broken and bankrupt Petrobras. Meanwhile, the struggle to seal all the leaking pre-salt wells in the deep Atlantic proves a Herculean task as, month after month, oil continues to gush into the Atlantic.

Scenario 4: East China Sea -- A Clash Over Subsea Gas

At one time, most wars between states were fought over disputed borders or contested pieces of land. Today, most boundaries are fixed by international treaty and few wars are fought over territory. But a new type of conflict is arising: contests over disputed maritime boundaries in areas that harbor valuable subsea resources, particularly oil and natural gas deposits. Such disputes have already occurred in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the East and South China Seas, and other circumscribed bodies of water. In each case, the surrounding states claim vast offshore tracts that overlap, producing -- in a world that may be increasingly starved for energy -- potentially explosive disputes.

One of them is between China and Japan over their mutual boundary in the East China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries have signed, each is allowed to exercise control over an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles (about 230 standard miles) from its coastline. But the East China Sea is only about 360 miles across at its widest point between the two countries. You see the problem.

In addition, the U.N. convention allows mainland states to claim an extended EEZ stretching to their outer continental shelf (OCS). In China’s case, that means nearly all the way to Japan -- or so say the Chinese. Japan insists that the offshore boundary between the two countries should fall midway between them, or about 180 miles from either shore. This means that there are now two competing boundaries in the East China Sea. As fate would have it, in the gray area between them houses a promising natural gas field called Chunxiao by the Chinese and Shirakaba by the Japanese. Both countries claim that the field lies within their EEZ, and is theirs alone to exploit.

For years, Chinese and Japanese officials have been meeting to resolve this dispute -- to no avail. In the meantime, each side has taken steps to begin the exploitation of the undersea gas field. China has installed drilling rigs right up to the median line claimed by Japan as the boundary between them and is now drilling for gas there; Japan has conducted seismic surveys in the gray area between the two lines. China claims that Japan’s actions represent an illegal infringement; Japan says that the Chinese rigs are sucking up gas from the Japanese side of the median line, and so stealing their property. Each side sees this dispute through a highly nationalistic prism and appears unwilling to back down. Both sides have deployed military forces in the contested area, seeking to demonstrate their resolve to prevail in the dispute.

Here, then, is Scenario #4: It’s 2022. Successive attempts to resolve the boundary dispute through negotiations have failed. China has installed a string of drilling platforms along the median line claimed by Japan and, according to Japanese officials, has extended undersea drill pipes deep into Japanese territory. An ultra-nationalistic, right-wing government has taken power in Japan, vowing finally to assert control over Japanese sovereign territory. Japanese drill ships, accompanied by naval escorts and fighter planes, are sent into the area claimed by China. The Chinese respond with their warships and order the Japanese to withdraw. The two fleets converge and begin to target each other with guns, missiles, and torpedoes.

At this point, the “fog of war” (in strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous phrase) takes over. As a Chinese vessel steams perilously close to a Japanese ship in an attempt to drive it off, the captain of that vessel panics, and orders his crew to open fire; other Japanese crews, disobeying orders from superior officers, do the same. Before long, a full-scale naval battle ensues, with several sunken ships and hundreds of casualties. Japanese aircraft then attack the nearby Chinese drill rigs, producing hundreds of additional casualties and yet another deep-sea environmental disaster. At this point, with both sides bringing in reinforcements and girding for full-scale war, the U.S. president makes an emergency visit to the region in a desperate effort to negotiate a cease-fire.

Such a scenario is hardly implausible. Since September 2005, China has deployed a naval squadron in the East China Sea, sending its ships right up to the median line -- a boundary that exists in Japanese documents, but is not, of course, visible to the naked eye (and so can be easily overstepped). On one occasion, Japanese naval aircraft flew close to a Chinese ship in what must have seemed a menacing fashion, leading the crew to train its antiaircraft guns on the approaching plane. Fortunately, no shots were fired. But what would have happened if the Japanese plane had come a little bit closer, or the Chinese captain was a bit more worried? One of these days, as those gas supplies become even more valuable and the hair-trigger quality of the situation increases, the outcome may not be so benign.

These are, of course, only a few examples of why, in a world ever more reliant on energy supplies acquired from remote and hazardous locations, BP-like catastrophes are sure to occur. While none of these specific calamities are guaranteed to happen, something like them surely will -- unless we take dramatic steps now to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and speed the transition to a post-carbon world. In such a world, most of our energy would come from renewable wind, solar, and geothermal sources that are commonplace and don’t have to be tracked down a mile or more under the water or in the icebound north. Such resources generally would not be linked to the sort of disputed boundaries or borderlands that can produce future resource wars.

Until then, prepare yourselves. The disaster in the Gulf is no anomaly. It’s an arrow pointing toward future nightmares.




Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, TomDispatch.com regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation. To catch him discussing our dystopian energy future on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, click here.

Copyright 2010 Michael T. Klare



© 2010 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175264/

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mayhem, mayhem, mayhem

Fighting Talk: The New Propaganda

Journalism has become a linguistic battleground – and when reporters use terms such ‘spike in violence’ or ‘surge’ or ‘settler’, they are playing along with a pernicious game.

By Robert Fisk

June 21, 2010 "The Independent" -- Following the latest in semantics on the news? Journalism and the Israeli government are in love again. It's Islamic terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, activist terror, war on terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror, anti-Semitic terror...

But I am doing the Israelis an injustice. Their lexicon, and that of the White House – most of the time – and our reporters' lexicon, is the same. Yes, let's be fair to the Israelis. Their lexicon goes like this: Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.

How many times did I just use the word "terror"? Twenty. But it might as well be 60, or 100, or 1,000, or a million. We are in love with the word, seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double syllable, the prime time-theme song, the opening of every television symphony, the headline of every page, a punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop. "Terror, terror, terror, terror". Each repetition justifies its predecessor.

Most of all, it's about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable. We journalists have let this happen. Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons. Remember the "bunker buster" and the "Scud buster" and the "target-rich environment" in the Gulf War (Part One)? Forget about "weapons of mass destruction". Too obviously silly. But "WMD" in the Gulf War (Part Two) had a power of its own, a secret code – genetic, perhaps, like DNA – for something that would reap terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. "45 Minutes to Terror".

Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.

In the Western context, power and the media is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops "correct" our spelling, "trim" our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?

For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words "peace process" to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people. I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo – although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis.

Poor old Oslo, I always think. What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty – in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies, even timetables – were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.

And how easily we forget the White House lawn – though, yes, we remember the images – upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Koran, and Arafat who chose to say: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr President." And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was "a moment of history"! Was it? Was it so?

Do you remember what Arafat called it? "The peace of the brave". But I don't remember any of us pointing out that "the peace of the brave" was used by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.

Same again today. We Western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan, as saying their war can only be won with a "hearts and minds" campaign. No one asked them the obvious question: Wasn't this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War? And didn't we – didn't the West – lose the war in Vietnam? Yet now we Western journalists are using – about Afghanistan – the phrase "hearts and minds" in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition, rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades.

Just look at the individual words we have recently co-opted from the US military. When we Westerners find that "our" enemies – al-Qa'ida, for example, or the Taliban – have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it "a spike in violence".

Ah yes, a "spike"! A "spike" is a word first used in this context, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase, our journalistic invention. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up then sharply downwards. A "spike in violence" therefore avoids the ominous use of the words "increase in violence" – for an increase, of course, might not go down again afterwards.

Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar – a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands – they call this a "surge". And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these "surges" really are – to use the real words of serious journalism – are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to conflicts when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about "surges" without any attribution at all. The Pentagon wins again.

Meanwhile the "peace process" collapsed. Therefore our leaders – or "key players" as we like to call them – tried to make it work again. The process had to be put "back on track". It was a train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC. But there was a problem when the "peace process" had repeatedly been put "back on track" – but still came off the line. So we produced a "road map" – run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who – in an obscenity of history – we now refer to as a "peace envoy". But the "road map" isn't working. And now, I notice, the old "peace process" is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And earlier this month, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies whom the TV boys and girls call "experts" told us again that the "peace process" was being put "back on track" because of the opening of "indirect talks" between Israelis and Palestinians. This isn't just about clichés – this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between the media and power; through language, we, the media, have become them.

Here's another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are "competing narratives". How very cosy. There's no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. "Competing narratives" now regularly pop up in the British press.

The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly "competing narratives", a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – "in competition". And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.

So an "occupation" becomes a "dispute". Thus a "wall" becomes a "fence" or "security barrier". Thus Israeli acts of colonisation of Arab land, contrary to all international law, become "settlements" or "outposts" or "Jewish neighbourhoods". It was Colin Powell, in his starring, powerless appearance as Secretary of State to George W Bush, who told US diplomats to refer to occupied Palestinian land as "disputed land" – and that was good enough for most of the US media. There are no "competing narratives", of course, between the US military and the Taliban. When there are, you'll know the West has lost.

But I'll give you an example of how "competing narratives" come undone. In April, I gave a lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper. And from the start, I could see that the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the Globe and Mail always tell us, "hotly dispute" that this was a genocide.

So the interviewer called the genocide "deadly massacres". Of course, I spotted her specific problem straight away. She couldn't call the massacres a "genocide", because the Turkish community would be outraged. But she sensed that "massacres" on its own – especially with the gruesome studio background photographs of dead Armenians – was not quite up to defining a million and a half murdered human beings. Hence the "deadly massacres". How odd! If there are "deadly" massacres, are there some massacres which are not "deadly", from which the victims walk away alive? It was a ludicrous tautology.

Yet the use of the language of power – of its beacon words and its beacon phrases – goes on among us still. How many times have I heard Western reporters talking about "foreign fighters" in Afghanistan? They are referring, of course, to the various Arab groups supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The generals called them "foreign fighters". Immediately, we Western reporters did the same. Calling them "foreign fighters" meant they were an invading force. But not once – ever – have I heard a mainstream Western television station refer to the fact that there are at least 150,000 "foreign fighters" in Afghanistan, and that all of them happen to be wearing American, British and other NATO uniforms. It is "we" who are the real "foreign fighters".

Similarly, the pernicious phrase "Af-Pak" – as racist as it is politically dishonest – is now used by reporters, although it was originally a creation of the US State Department on the day Richard Holbrooke was appointed special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase avoids the use of the word "India" – whose influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story. Furthermore, "Af-Pak" – by deleting India – effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir – after all, Holbrooke was made the "Af-Pak" envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing Kashmir. Thus the phrase "Af-Pak", which completely avoids the tragedy of Kashmir – too many "competing narratives", perhaps? – means that when we journalists use the same phrase, "Af-Pak", which was surely created for us journalists, we are doing the State Department's work.

Now let's look at history. Our leaders love history. Most of all, they love the Second World War. In 2003, George W Bush thought he was Churchill. True, Bush had spent the Vietnam War protecting the skies of Texas from the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing up to the "appeasers" who did not want a war with Saddam who was, of course, "the Hitler of the Tigris". The appeasers were the British who didn't want to fight Nazi Germany in 1938. Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill's waistcoat and jacket for size. No "appeaser" he. America was Britain's oldest ally, he proclaimed – and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.

But none of this was true. Britain's oldest ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during the Second World War, which flew its national flags at half-mast when Hitler died (even the Irish didn't do that).

Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the Luftwaffe blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality, and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Similarly, back in 1956, Eden called Nasser the "Mussolini of the Nile". A bad mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not hated as Mussolini was by the majority of Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The Mussolini parallel was not challenged or questioned by the British press. And we all know what happened at Suez in 1956. When it comes to history, we journalists let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.

Yet the most dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use of the words of power – though it is not a war, since we have largely surrendered – is that it isolates us from our viewers and readers. They are not stupid. They understand words in many cases – I fear – better than we do. History, too. They know that we are drawing our vocabulary from the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation. Thus we have become part of this language.

Over the past two weeks, as foreigners – humanitarians or "activist terrorists" – tried to take food and medicines by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should have been reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today: which Western journalist – since we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?

Instead, what did we get? "Activists" who turned into "armed activists" the moment they opposed the Israeli army's boarding parties. How dare these men upset the lexicon? Their punishment was obvious. They became "terrorists". And the Israeli raids – in which "activists" were killed (another proof of their "terrorism") – then became "deadly" raids. In this case, "deadly" was more excusable than it had been on CTV – nine dead men of Turkish origin being slightly fewer than a million and a half murdered Armenians in 1915. But it was interesting that the Israelis – who for their own political reasons had hitherto shamefully gone along with the Turkish denial – now suddenly wanted to inform the world of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This provoked an understandable frisson among many of our colleagues. Journalists who have regularly ducked all mention of the 20th century's first Holocaust – unless they could also refer to the way in which the Turks "hotly dispute" the genocide label (ergo the Toronto Globe and Mail) – could suddenly refer to it. Israel's new-found historical interest made the subject legitimate, though almost all reports managed to avoid any explanation of what actually happened in 1915.

And what did the Israeli seaborne raid become? It became a "botched" raid. Botched is a lovely word. It began as a German-origin Middle English word, "bocchen", which meant to "repair badly". And we more or less kept to that definition until our journalistic lexicon advisors changed its meaning. Schoolchildren "botch" an exam. We could "botch" a piece of sewing, an attempt to repair a piece of material. We could even botch an attempt to persuade our boss to give us a raise. But now we "botch" a military operation. It wasn't a disaster. It wasn't a catastrophe. It just killed some Turks.

So, given the bad publicity, the Israelis just "botched" the raid. Weirdly, the last time reporters and governments utilised this particular word followed Israel's attempt to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in the streets of Amman. In this case, Israel's professional assassins were caught after trying to poison Meshaal, and King Hussain forced the then Israeli prime minister (a certain B Netanyahu) to provide the antidote (and to let a lot of Hamas "terrorists" out of jail). Meshaal's life was saved.

But for Israel and its obedient Western journalists this became a "botched attempt" on Meshaal's life. Not because he wasn't meant to die, but because Israel failed to kill him. You can thus "botch" an operation by killing Turks – or you can "botch" an operation by not killing a Palestinian.

How do we break with the language of power? It is certainly killing us. That, I suspect, is one reason why readers have turned away from the "mainstream" press to the internet. Not because the net is free, but because readers know they have been lied to and conned; they know that what they watch and what they read in newspapers is an extension of what they hear from the Pentagon or the Israeli government, that our words have become synonymous with the language of a government-approved, careful middle ground, which obscures the truth as surely as it makes us political – and military – allies of all major Western governments.

Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power. How many news organisations thought to run footage, at the time of the Gaza disaster, of the airlift to break the blockade of Berlin? Did the BBC?

The hell they did! We prefer "competing narratives". Politicians didn't want – I told the Doha meeting on 11 May – the Gaza voyage to reach its destination, "be its end successful, farcical or tragic". We believe in the "peace process", the "road map". Keep the "fence" around the Palestinians. Let the "key players" sort it out. And remember what this is all about: "Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror."

Monday, June 21, 2010

#nzl #worldcup

wow that was cool

proud day for us kiwis

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Afghanistan Mineral Riches: Beware the Hype

By James Joyner

News that "United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself" should be taken with several doses of salt.
James Risen of the NYT broke the story, which has the security blogosphere buzzing. It gushes,

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.

But, as Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell points out, the discovery in question dates to 2007, has been widely documented on US government websites for years, and the $1 trillion figure seems to have been conjured from thin air. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder points to evidence that the Soviets had documented this trove way back in 1985!

Katie Drummond of Wired's Danger Room adds, "it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Minestry," citing a Wall Street Journal report noting it “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments."

That this story has gotten front page placement in the country's top newspaper has Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, OTB's Doug Mataconis, and others questioning the timing. Ambinder, noting the on-the-record quotes from the highest levels of the U.S. military, goes so far as to characterize this as "a massive information operation."

Aside from the fact that the news isn't actually new and that there's good reason to believe that the potential benefits are being wildly exaggerated for political reasons, we should also be skeptical of the idea that Afghanistan is going to suddenly leap forward several centuries into modernity by virtue of a natural resource find.

First, as Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress notes, it's quite likely that the actual extraction will be performed by non-Afghan companies who bid on the mineral rights at a fraction of their actual value.

Second, given the corruption that is endemic in the Afghan governance culture, it's quite likely that most of the money will be skimmed off the top rather than benefiting the Afghan people.

Third, there's real reason to worry about a developing country relying on resource extraction to build their economy. CNAS senior fellow' Andrew Exum points to Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion and sees dark days ahead for the NATO coalition effort:

Collier describes the characteristics that "trap" countries in cycles of civil conflict: low income, slow growth, and dependence on primary commodity exports. I don't need to tell you Afghanistan has the first and third characteristics in spades, and you may have noticed that Afghanistan has already been in a pretty miserable cycle of civil conflict since the PDPA coup in 1978. Does this resource find make civil war more or less likely? The statistics, I'm afraid, suggest the former.

The presence of civil war is not reason alone to give up on Afghanistan and bring the boys home. I have previously argued that yes, Afghanistan is in a civil war, and that we should take sides in that civil war to advance U.S. and allied interests. That's basically what we are doing today. But counterinsurgency strategies rest on the assumption that you can eventually weaken anti-government forces and reduce levels of violence to the point where a political process can take place in more peaceful circumstances. We now have one trillion fresh reasons why this assumption might not be valid for Afghanistan.

The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman, noting that "Afghanistan’s economy is based around opium and foreign aid," agrees:

[I]n emerging and underdeveloped states, weak legal systems and official corruption create incentives for powerful people to exploit those resources, rather than allow mineral wealth to fuel national renewal. Think Congo or Sierra Leone. It’s easy to tick off the ways in which what political scientists call the “Resource Curse” applies to Afghanistan: a tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption throughout the political system; an uneasy and unstable relationship between provincial and national authorities; and an uneasy and unstable relationship in provinces and districts with instruments of local governance as well as national governance.

Let's hope that retired Green Beret and DoD senior executive Pat Lang is right that "the lives of ordinary Afghans will be profoundly changed perhaps for the better." After decades of war and centuries of poverty, it would be wonderful. But a lot needs to go right for the rosier side of the perhaps to come true. And there's not much in Afghan history that would lead me to bet on it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Today, the cruel legacy of a failed peace lives on

The Real Threat Aboard the Freedom Flotilla

By Noam Chomsky

June 08, 2010 "In These Times"

Israel’s violent attack on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza shocked the world.

Hijacking boats in international waters and killing passengers is, of course, a serious crime.

But the crime is nothing new. For decades, Israel has been hijacking boats between Cyprus and Lebanon and killing or kidnapping passengers, sometimes holding them hostage in Israeli prisons.

Israel assumes that it can commit such crimes with impunity because the United States tolerates them and Europe generally follows the U.S.’s lead.

As the editors of The Guardian rightly observed on June 1, “If an armed group of Somali pirates had yesterday boarded six vessels on the high seas, killing at least 10 passengers and injuring many more, a NATO task force would today be heading for the Somali coast.” In this case, the NATO treaty obligates its members to come to the aid of a fellow NATO country—Turkey—attacked on the high seas.

Israel’s pretext for the attack was that the Freedom Flotilla was bringing materials that Hamas could use for bunkers to fire rockets into Israel.

The pretext isn’t credible. Israel can easily end the threat of rockets by peaceful means.

The background is important. Hamas was designated a major terrorist threat when it won a free election in January 2006. The U.S. and Israel sharply escalated their punishment of Palestinians, now for the crime of voting the wrong way.

The siege of Gaza, including a naval blockade, was a result. The siege intensified sharply in June 2007 after a civil war left Hamas in control of the territory.

What is commonly described as a Hamas military coup was in fact incited by the U.S. and Israel, in a crude attempt to overturn the elections that had brought Hamas to power.

That has been public knowledge at least since April 2008, when David Rose reported in Vanity Fair that George W. Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Elliott Abrams, “backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”

Hamas terror included launching rockets into nearby Israeli towns—criminal, without a doubt, though only a minute fraction of routine U.S.-Israeli crimes in Gaza.

In June 2008, Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire agreement. The Israeli government formally acknowledges that until Israel broke the agreement on Nov. 4 of that year, invading Gaza and killing half a dozen Hamas activists, Hamas did not fire a single rocket.

Hamas offered to renew the cease-fire. The Israeli cabinet considered the offer and rejected it, preferring to launch its murderous invasion of Gaza on Dec.27.

Like other states, Israel has the right of self-defense. But did Israel have the right to use force in Gaza in the name of self-defense? International law, including the U.N. Charter, is unambiguous: A nation has such a right only if it has exhausted peaceful means. In this case such means were not even tried, although—or perhaps because—there was every reason to suppose that they would succeed.

Thus the invasion was sheer criminal aggression, and the same is true of Israel’s resorting to force against the flotilla.

The siege is savage, designed to keep the caged animals barely alive so as to fend off international protest, but hardly more than that. It is the latest stage of longstanding Israeli plans, backed by the U.S., to separate Gaza from the West Bank.

The Israeli journalist Amira Hass, a leading specialist on Gaza, outlines the history of the process of separation: “The restrictions on Palestinian movement that Israel introduced in January 1991 reversed a process that had been initiated in June 1967.

“Back then, and for the first time since 1948, a large portion of the Palestinian people again lived in the open territory of a single country — to be sure, one that was occupied, but was nevertheless whole. …”

Hass concludes: “The total separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli politics, whose overarching objective is to prevent a solution based on international decisions and understandings and instead dictate an arrangement based on Israel’s military superiority.”

The Freedom Flotilla defied that policy and so it must be crushed.

A framework for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict has existed since 1976, when the regional Arab States introduced a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state settlement on the international border, including all the security guarantees of U.N. Resolution 242, adopted after the June War in 1967.

The essential principles are supported by virtually the entire world, including the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran) and relevant non-state actors, including Hamas.

But the U.S. and Israel have led the rejection of such a settlement for three decades, with one crucial and highly informative exception. In President Bill Clinton’s last month in office, January 2001, he initiated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Taba, Egypt, that almost reached an agreement, participants announced, before Israel terminated the negotiations.

Today, the cruel legacy of a failed peace lives on.

International law cannot be enforced against powerful states, except by their own citizens. That is always a difficult task, particularly when articulate opinion declares crime to be legitimate, either explicitly or by tacit adoption of a criminal framework—which is more insidious, because it renders the crimes invisible.

That's Not My Name

I'm generally not a big fan of today's mashup culture but this one ticks all the bob boxes... yep, silly, fun, wrong oh so wrong, fun...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The World Teeters on the Brink of a New Age of Rage

By Simon Schama

Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can't smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage. The Spanish unions have postponed a general strike; the bloody barricades and the red shirts might have been in Bangkok not Berlin; and, for the moment, the British coalition leaders sit side by side on the front bench like honeymooners canoodling on the porch; but in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage. Historians will tell you there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury. In act one, the shock of a crisis initially triggers fearful disorientation; the rush for political saviours; instinctive responses of self-protection, but not the organised mobilisation of outrage. Whether in 1789 or now, an incoming regime riding the storm gets a fleeting moment to try to contain calamity. If it is seen to be straining every muscle to put things right it can, for a while, generate provisional legitimacy.

Act two is trickier. Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that 'Someone Else' must have engineered the common misfortune. The stock epithet the French revolution gave to the financiers who were blamed for disaster, was "rich egoists". Our own plutocrats may not be headed for the tumbrils but the fact that financial catastrophe, with its effect on the "real" economy came about through obscure transactions designed to do nothing except produce short-term profit aggravates a sense of social betrayal. At this point, damage-control means pillorying the perpetrators: bringing them to book and extracting statements of contrition. This is why the psychological impact of financial regulation is almost as critical as its institutional prophylactics. Those who lobby against it risk jeopardising their own long-term interests. Should governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation.

At the very least, the survival of a crisis demands ensuring that the fiscal pain is equitably distributed. In the France of 1789, the erstwhile nobility became regular citizens, ended their exemption from the land tax, made a show of abolishing their own privileges, turned in jewellery for the public treasury; while the clergy's immense estates were auctioned for La Nation. It is too much to expect a bonfire of the bling but in 2010 a pragmatic steward of the nation's economy needs to beware relying unduly on regressive indirect taxes, especially if levied to impress a bond market with which regular folk feel little connection. At the very least, any emergency budget needs to take stock of this raw sense of popular victimisation and deliver a convincing story about the sharing of burdens. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a bad situation gets very ugly, very fast.

So we face a tinderbox moment: a test of the strength of democratic institutions in a time of extreme fiscal stress. On the one hand, we should be glad that the mobilisation of public energy inelections can channel mass unhappiness into change. That is what we must believe could yet happen in Britain. Elsewhere the outlook is more forbidding. In the sinkhole that is the Eurozone, animus is directed at unelected bodies - the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - and is bound to build on itself. Those on the receiving end of punitive corrections - in public sector wages or retrenched social institutions - will lash out at their remote masters. Those in the richer north obliged to subsidise what they take to be the fecklessness of the Latins, will come to see not just the single currency, but the European project as an historic error and will pine for the mark or franc. Chauvinist movements will be reborn, directed at immigrants and Brussels dictats, with more destructive fury than we have seen since the war.

The same kind of pre-lapsarianromanticism targeted at an elitist federal authority is raging through the US like a fever. The best way to understand the Tea Party, which has just scored its first victory with the libertarian Rand Paul defeating the choice of the official Republican party, is to see it as akin to the Great Awakenings and the Populist furies of the end of the 19th century. There are calls to abolish the Federal Reserve or in some cases Social Security, fuelled by the conspiratorial belief that it was an excess, not a deficit, of government regulation that brought on the financial meltdown. Claims that Washington has been captured for socialism are preached on right-wing talk radio as gospel truth. As they did in the 1930s with Father Coughlin, the radio demonisers are pitch-perfect orchestrators of hatred for listeners in bewildered economic distress.

Against this tide, facts are feeble weapons. When Senate Republicans succeed in briefly blocking financial regulation by representing it as an infringement on liberty not as a measure minimally needed for the security of the commonwealth, you know the mere truth needs help from the Presidential Communicator-in-Chief. He is back on the stump, but as with the case for healthcare reform, his efforts are belated and cramped by misplaced obligations of civility. But if his government is to survive the November elections with a shred of authority, it will need Barack Obama to be more than a head tutor. It will need him to be a warrior of the word every bit as combative as the army of the righteous that believes it has the Constitution on its side, and in its inchoate thrashings, can yet bring down the governance of the American Republic.

The writer is an FT contributing editor and author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Thursday, June 03, 2010