Monday, November 25, 2013

Prisoner of Pretense

Of all the perennial jailbird stories that come around on a regular basis – you know, like O.J., Mumia, that “Kennedy cousin”, whatever the hell his name is (who, it now appears, is a free man again, confined to a 100-acre estate somewhere, I'm sure) – the one with the most political significance, therefore with the greatest potential for causing rage and depression, has to be Jonathan Pollard. Now... I won't belabor the sordid details (Google it!); suffice it to say he was tried, convicted, and jailed for spying and for causing grave damage to our national security. OK so far. But who was he spying for? Israel. Oy, there's the rub. He was spying for not just an ally, but an “eternal ally”... a country for which there is no “daylight” between it and the United States... whose foreign policy and ours are synonymous. So, as I've often asked, why did they even need to spy on us? Don't we always give them anything they ask for – whether in terms of money, military support, diplomatic support, propaganda – oops, I mean media – support? Can't they walk into any secure area in Washington, DC and get immediate access to files labeled “Top Secret Crypto/Destroy Self After Reading”? Well... apparently not, unless...

... unless what Pollard did was not so bad, or so unusual, after all, and he's being held for other reasons, as a kind of twisted version of a political prisoner. Now first, as to the “badness” factor, well, he didn't give atomic bomb plans to the Russians like the Rosenbergs did, who wound up getting fried for their trouble. But in any periodic Department of Defense security briefing for the worker bees, Pollard is right up there in the pantheon of spies – as a public enemy and traitor of legendary stature. Make no mistake (say the security guys), Pollard is lower than the do-do of whatever it is that eats snake do-do. And this is part of a litany that is recycled year after year. Of course, never is it mentioned that the Israeli government has been putting crushing pressure on every administration since Pollard was first locked up to set him free so that he can live out his golden years on some kibbutz pitting peaches or something.

So here's a case where Israel is most definitely, thumpingly, not getting what it wants. And the question is why? It's quite simple, really. Even though every administration that comes along stumbles all over itself to be even more accommodating of, and to make even greater sacrifices for, Israel, it has not yet reached the point where we can openly declare ourselves a colony of Israel and proud of it. There has to be at least some appearance, however minimal, of autonomy – that we are still a sovereign nation and that the president (whoever it might be) is his own man.

So here's where Pollard comes in. He's kind of like a scapegoat, but what he actually is is a sign or symbol of the notion that we don't just take orders from Israel... that we can, in fact, even “get tough” with Israel once in a while, and assert ourselves, and declare our independence. To give Pollard up and put him on the next plane to Tel Aviv would be to, once and for all, admit that our sole reason for existing was to support the Zionist project – and that might not go over so well in some quarters (although it would make the Evangelicals and Neocons downright giddy with delight).

What this means, paradoxically, is that if we were ever to admit a bit of “daylight” between us and Israel... and stop calling them out “eternal ally” (the only time in all of history that the word “eternal” has been used in a diplomatic context, note)... we might be able to afford to let Pollard go. But as things stand, he's the one bit of evidence against the argument that we've become a wholly-owned subsidiarity of Israel, so for that reason alone he's going to have to stay in that old jailhouse.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Empire and its Discontents

A correspondent writes, regarding my previous post (Russia Takes Over, Nov. 16):

"I don't agree with you on the part about good and evil.  You seem to be saying that a nation which does any amount of evil cancels out any good which it may do, and should simply be considered to be part of the shit heap of evil nations.  As you state it, there is an assumption that good and evil are easily identifiable, divisible, and quantifiable, in the process of geopolitical power and international score keeping. I'm not sure they are. But assuming we can sort out the good things a nation does, isn't it really more of a net/sum analysis?  Who is generally more good than evil... or, at least more good than the alternatives, even if not all good, which is impossible, or even mostly good, or even occasionally good. In a world which is largely evil, even being a little good, or more good than the others, is good, or as good as it gets. I think the US still has that stature, despite the fact that it may be somewhat like winning the world championship in double amputee cross country foot racing."

My reply:

Well... I don't think "cancels out" is what I had in mind -- at least not directly.  I think the good can stand on its own, as can the evil -- but then right away we get the question of intent.  Is unintentional good as good as intentional good?  If so, then logically, unintentional evil must be as bad as intentional evil.  We can't have it both ways.  We can't get all the credit for the good we do, but then just mumble "shit happens" when we do evil or when evil results from our actions. 

What the good/evil dichotomy really does, IMO, is call into question the basic core premises upon which we established ourselves as a nation.  Were those principles, as noble as they sounded at the time, actually a time bomb?  I think the Civil War was already ample proof that there was something seriously wrong with our world view as a nation -- not that slavery was not evil, but we didn't fight the Civil War to end slavery, as any honest historian will admit.  It was about "preserving the union", which was ideational for some, but which boiled down to political and commercial issues for many, including cynics in the industrial sector.  Freeing the slaves was a bonus (or "collateral damage" if you were in the South).  Not that some in the North would not have been willing to make the same sacrifice just to free the slaves, but they were a minority, and considered "radicals" by the rest.  So, bottom line, the Civil War might have had one positive outcome, but the negative outcomes continue to haunt us right up to today.  The South is still treated like a defeated nation, and Southerners are treated like ignorant, backwards bigots... and all the old resentments are still alive and well.

So, I'm willing to give the US full credit for whatever it has done over the years to enhance the quality of life for the human race in general -- and full discredit for whatever it has done that has had the opposite effect.  That's not the same as saying that it all balances out, and the net sum is zero.  That would be like claiming that some great industrialist -- from Pittsburgh, say -- who oppressed his workers for many decades, but then built fine libraries and museums and concert halls, had a net score of zero.  I'm not enough of a Zoroastrian to claim that good and evil are inextricably linked, and you can't have one without the other.  I don't put them on an equal metaphysical footing.  And besides, one hopes that any good a given nation does will outlast the bad, despite what Shakespeare says about men.  One can certainly see this with ancient Rome, and (I will argue) the British Empire, although there is plenty of debate on that count.  The French Empire, I'm not so sure... and the Soviet Empire I will count as an overall disaster (but they did field some dynamite Olympic teams).  (And yet the worst colonial power was not Russia, but Belgium.  Go figure.)   

This brings us to the American Empire, and has it been of aggregate benefit to the world, or an overall liability, or too close to call?  This depends partly on how much one values democracy (without quotes) as a system, and to what extent our version of democracy -- the kind we export -- is the real thing, and whether it actually does any good.  Now, I include under the heading of democracy things like the rule of law, trial by jury, property rights, etc. -- all the Bill of Rights and related concepts that we always hope we're also exporting along with the basic idea.  And clearly, the success or failure of this enterprise is more dependent on national character than anything else.  I don't claim that some nations or peoples are "not ready" for democracy; this is condescending.  They may simply not be interested -- and I don't take this as an automatic sign of primitive ignorance, or tribalism, or religious dogmatism, etc.  What it means is that democracy, of any variety, is not a universal value -- and I don't think you have to look far to realize this is the case.  Then you add in the aggravating factor that many of the "democracies" we have established around the world are anything but -- thinly-disguised tyrannies, in fact, not a whole lot different from the "people's republics" that the Soviets set up by the score.  It is not enough to have a democratic "form" -- one also has to have a democratic mind set, and leaders who agree with that.  Heaven knows, we have enough trouble with this even within our own borders. 

Does this mean that "exporting democracy" is a farce and a hoax, and we should stop doing it (or trying to)?  If you look at the record, it's a mixed bag.  It does seem to "take" in some cultures, and provide benefits.  In others, it makes little or no difference, and in some it makes things worse.  I think Job One of the State Department should be to try and make these determinations ahead of time, so we can cut down on the waste of time and money (and resentment and hostility).  (The alternative is to forget the whole project, and I would not oppose that either.)  My preference would be that we simply try and set a good example.  The problem with this is that, to anyone looking at our political situation from without, it seems like a circus and a farce.  (Again, was it designed that way, or is it a a sign of degeneration, or are we just having a bad day, or what?)      

But I'm being wildly optimistic even there.  The project of the American Empire as it stands has nothing whatsoever to do with exporting democracy, free and fair elections, promoting human rights, property rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech, etc.  Those are propaganda buzzwords.  What it has everything to do with is economic imperialism, which is supported by political influence (both domestically and internationally).  One only has to ask the question, who is in charge and what's their bottom line?  If the answer is the international banking and financial cartel (which I believe it is), then the bottom line is money, period.  Even political influence and spying are just means to an end.  (Ask yourself this question:  Which happens more frequently, politicians getting rich or the rich getting into politics?  I rest my case.)  Now -- there are political goals embedded within this scenario, and I would characterize them as establishing a one-world secular humanist government.  But you won't be making a mistake by following the money.  (Which is the means and which is the ultimate end may, in fact, be a point of lively discussion when the Regime gets together, e.g. at Bilderburg, Davos, the Bohemian Grove, Mackinac Island, etc.  I'd love to get a transcript of some of those discussions!)

Even then our self interest might have some broader benefits.  I mean, let's say that someone figured out how to make big bucks from the breakup of the Soviet Union, so they did all they could to make that happen.  They wind up rich, but the Soviet Empire goes away, much to the joy and jubilation of all (except for a few million bureaucrats, commissars, police, camp guards, etc.).  It's kind of like that "trickle-down effect" that Reagan's people were so fond of citing -- and that the other side lambastes on a regular basis.  Just as good can, paradoxically, come from evil, so good can also (unintentionally) come from good.  (Our biggest challenge when it comes to military operations is seeing to it that evil does not come from what we consider good -- a task that we've failed on spectacularly of late.)   

The ultimate question for future historians will be, was the world better off because the US existed?  Again, I say that Rome provides a possible precedent.  They did a lot of really bad things, but they also had certain principles of government and law that, in good times, served them (and their subjects) well.  We constantly point to Rome as a foundation for our own system -- not forgetting the high-jinks of such as Caligula and Nero, but consigning them to the ash heap... not allowing them to detract from the larger picture.  (I imagine much the same will eventually happen with regard to characters like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- but I digress.) 

One thing's for sure, the world would have been less interesting if the American Experiment hadn't risen up in the midst of it all.  We have at least been a source of ideas, for good or ill -- not to mention technology.  I say this fully cognizant of the fact that the political experiment has clearly run out of energy, and that we are self-destructing as a nation/culture/economy at a rapid rate.  We are a demoralized people, in that we've lost track of basic principles.  We haven't stopped mouthing words about them, but we've lost any comprehension as to what they mean.  Now... was this process inevitable?  Was it the result of an inexorable historical cycle, the inevitable growth/consolidation/decay process of any empire, nation, or political system?  I'm not prepared to say -- only to point out that there have been no exceptions as yet in history, so one is tempted to say yes, it was inevitable.   But is that, in turn, an indictment?  Again, if one does good while one can, this is not a bad thing.  Who would want to judge the worth of a human being based on his last declining days, months, years?  It wouldn't seem fair.  So we could, if we were feeling charitable, apply the same idea to nations.  Even an enterprise that is doomed might nonetheless be worth undertaking; it's a matter of what one values the most.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Russia Takes Over

Um... anyone heard anything about Syria lately? You know, that place we were all ready to invade a few weeks back, with warships gathering in the Mediterranean, bombers in the air 24 hours a day, and troops on high alert? It seems like this war, that was so critical to our national interests, has been relegated to the dreaded “page 4, below the fold” section of the paper. And as usual with the crisis of the month (or week, these days) the question arises, could it really have been that important before and this unimportant now? Or, is it still important but no one wants to talk about it? Or, was it unimportant before, and all the excitement was no more than propaganda, fear-mongering, and a downright hoax? I mean... how much do other countries, peoples, tribes... empires, even... change in just a few weeks? And on the other hand, how much does the fickle, gullible, and hysteria-prone American public change in just a few weeks? The answer is obvious.

No, what has happened is a sea change in what we call “foreign relations”, which is the interface between the American Empire and the rest of the world. And do not underestimate the magnitude of this change, or its significance! As tectonic shifts go, it's certainly the equivalent of Pearl Harbor, our ignominious defeat in Vietnam, and 9-11. It's also the latest phase in our unending relationship with Russia – lining up quite nicely with the descent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Soviets' acquisition of “the bomb”, Sputnik, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. If the 20th Century was the American century in some respects (at least beginning with World War I), then it was also the Russian century. After we got together to defeat fascism and make the world safe for communism, they became the anti-us and we became the anti-them -- huffing and puffing like professional wrestlers, pretending to be bitter enemies but actually playing the same game the same way year after year. And so it continued right up until their breakup. The Cold War, so-called, was really a finely-tuned balancing act, and both sides played it cool most of the time, with only an occasional crisis to test the waters. (What we wouldn't give now for having an enemy that's an actual country with borders, and a visible military with uniforms and flags. We didn't know how good we had it!)

What happened next was, for them, a long period of rest from empire building and a chance to get used to an economic system that we had long taken for granted – you know, the kind where there's private ownership, competition, and people are allowed to make money, and so on. Old hat to us, but completely novel to them, with virtually no living memory of how things were pre-Bolshevism. And on the foreign front, they continued to try and exert influence over the newly-liberated, i.e. escaped, former Soviet republics, with varying degrees of success. And the influence they sought was mainly political, and also economic – not military, note, except in the general sense of having a security buffer zone in all directions. No, they left that kind of nonsense to us, fully realizing that the grossly over-extended American Empire would sooner or later start to deteriorate – which it, in fact, has. This is why they didn't put up much of a fuss about our military misadventures – because they knew that it would mean our gradual weakening... militarily, economically, and diplomatically – and that could only be good news for them and their interests. And sure enough, our old alliances decayed to the point where, on a fairly regular basis, a vote at the U.N. would come out with us and Israel voting one way, and the rest of the world voting the other way. And yet, it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong with that -- we, who had everything to do with establishing the U.N. in the first place. Funny how things change.

So they beheld our follies and kept a safe distance. Sure, they had their problems, internally, with Islamic activism and attacks – but nothing on the order of 9-11 (which, as we all know – ahem! -- was an attack from halfway around the world). They saw that, sooner or later, the U.S. and Israel would die in each other's arms, like a couple of characters from some opera – singing, with our last breath, about the awfulness and apathy of the rest of the world, which consists mainly of “haters”, racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. Oh the tragedy! Oh the humanity!

And yet... Russia has its “interests”, just as we do. Isn't that fair? (Apparently not.) It has its sphere of influence... its “turf”, and it turns out (no surprise) that Syria is part of that turf. I mean... as far as Russia is concerned, we can go ahead and nuke Afghanistan; it would serve them right after what they did to our patriotic and heroic boys who wore the red star. And they don't seem to have any great interest in Iraq (Iran being, perhaps, a different matter – which may be why we haven't attacked it yet). But Syria? Um, yeah... too close to home. So it was time to put their foot down. Plus, they sensed a weakness – a number of weaknesses, in fact. This country was in the middle of a civil war of words... a culture war... “occupiers”, “tea partiers”, budget crises, debt crises, a questionable “recovery” from the Great Recession (AKA not-great depression), and a president whose foreign policy is incoherent even on the best days, and whose inner circle consists of a bunch of power-crazed mediocrities. Americans were not “war-weary” (as is often stated by the media) but the military (not to mention the economy) had paid the price for two endless wars. Plus, Israel had ruled the roost in the Middle East for far too long, with us as errand boys, gofers, and cannon fodder. It was a great time to draw a line in the sand, and they did. And in response, we, basically, collapsed. Oh yeah, it was all “we're not giving up, we expect 'progress' or else”, etc. We're still a contender... I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille... and other icons of delusion. But everyone knew that we'd been called out, and had blinked. And Russia, just to rub it in, didn't jump up and down, or shout, or scream – they just very calmly played the part of the older and wiser (and more rational) nation, gently but firmly telling us to stand down and butt out. The message was “we've got this, OK?” And apparently Israel got the message as well – at least well enough not to mount a full-scale attack all by their lonesome (as if!). And.... oh yeah, I almost forgot Britain and France, who headed for the tall grass the first time they made eye contact with Vladimir Putin. “Hey, no problem! No empires for us, thanks – been there, done that. Have a nice day.” At least we still have some small, residual sense of shame.

So... what happens now? Are we just on sick leave, and once we're feeling better we'll jump back into the ring? I don't think so, because Russia is not about to leave. They stepped up, identified themselves as peacemakers (take that, Nobel Prize nerds!), but in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of speaking softly but carrying a bit stick. We've been displaced, and I don't care how much of the time John Kerry shows his prune face over there, we're now strap hangers and they're driving the train. Israel, of course, must be fit to be tied, but they know better than to show it. Just a temporary setback, you know, and, well, maybe we can get rid of Assad some other way, etc. But they have to be feeling a chill in the air, because it's the first serious setback for them (or us) over there since Israel came to be. And if it can happen with Syria, it can also happen with any number of other places – and thus their isolation (and ours) becomes more profound with each passing day. How long can we expect to be in charge if we're increasingly marginalized? The fact is, we're not in charge – and haven't been for quite a while. We're the big, stupid muscle guy who takes orders from everyone else. And I'm not saying that the Regime (cabal, whatever) has met its match in Russia, but it has certainly taken a shot off the bow, and the effects are clearly sobering. Russia has been gathering its strength all this time, and if it should ever waver, China is not far behind.

It's a new world, and I, for one, can't say that I'm sorry. We may have had some moral superiority at the time of World War II and immediately afterward, but it started to fray with Korea and pretty much vanished without a trace in Vietnam. Everything since has been about empire, pure and simple – not right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, but power... influence... turf. We've become just another country throwing its weight around. This is not the way things were supposed to be... and if less power means less abuse of power, so be it. It is better to be remembered for the good one has done in the past than feared for the evil one is doing in the present.