Chelsea Clinton On The Iraq War: A Worthy Inheritor Of The Clinton Mantle

Chelsea Clinton has been groomed for a long time to take over the Clinton Empire. Her education, which has essentially consisted of a long, slow, drive through the salubrious gardens of the Ivy League and Oxbridge, thus providing adequate insulation against the hard edges of social and political reality, form an important component of this preparation. (Her marriage to a hedge-funder, and early entry to the top-dollar speaking circuit, hasn’t hurt.) Her qualifications as Heir Apparent were never better on display than in the following exchange:

“Has your mother shown any remorse for the fact that her vote cost Iraqis a million of their lives?” a student asked Chelsea Clinton on Monday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ms. Clinton replied: “She cast a vote based on the best available evidence. Perhaps you had clairvoyance then, and that’s extraordinary.”

Some American folksinger once wrote that “you don’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.” Well, I have news for Chelsea Clinton: you didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to see which way an American invasion of a Muslim country in the Middle East, one which had nothing to do with 9/11, would go. You merely had to have the reading skills of a senior undergraduate student, all the better to read a National Intelligence Estimate with, you know the briefings that are given to US Senators to enable them to make, uh, educated and informed decisions with.

As Doug Henwood notes in My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets The Presidency:

Hillary cast her vote for the Iraq War without having read the full National intelligence Estimate, which was far more skeptical about Iraq’s weaponry than the bowdlerized version that was made public. This was very strange behavior for someone as disciplined as Hillary, famous for working late and taking a stack of briefing books home. Senator Bob Graham, one of the few who actually did take the trouble to read the NIE, voted against the war in part because of what it contained. We can never know why she chose not to read the document, but it’s hard not to conclude that she wanted to vote for war more than she wanted to know the truth.

Why would Hillary have wanted to vote for the war, which always looked like being, and eventually became, a moral, political, and economic catastrophe, a crime that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans? Well, at the least, it would have been a politically popular vote, an easy capitulation to expediency, a way to join, and chime in with the warmongering chorus that animated  American politics then. It was a cheap and easy way to proclaim your patriotism, to affirm your desire to exact retributive revenge, to ‘go with the flow.’ It was the kind of thing that a political opportunist would delight in.

It was, in short, a classic, signature, Clinton move. Chelsea Clinton has learned well, and she’s letting us know she’s got the chops. We’re not done with this dynasty yet.

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.

Sanctimony, Hypocrisy, Nuclear Weapons, and Drones

A couple of days ago, on this blog, I wrote a post attempting to refute the charge of ‘selective outrage’ that is often leveled against critics of Israeli policies in the current conflict in Gaza. In it, I pointed out how the accusation of hypocrisy made against the proponent of a claim does not affect its logical force, but must still be reckoned with for its rhetorical impact. Today, I want to note how accusations of hypocrisy often derail American attempts to provide moral instruction and leadership to the rest of the world.

Consider, for instance, Barack Obama’s statements during a White House briefing session yesterday:

President Barack Obama somberly warned on Friday that a forthcoming Senate Intelligence Committee report will show that the United States “tortured some folks” before he took office. But he dismissed “sanctimonious” calls to punish any individuals responsible and rejected calls for CIA Director John Brennan’s resignation.

In response, on a Facebook comment space, I wrote:

Why, oh why, is the world so strangely reluctant to accept our leadership in all things moral?

Many US presidents–and their administrations–before Barack Obama–and his staff–have used the bully pulpit provided by their office and delivered countless, sonorous, lectures to the rest of the world on the ethical and moral values that should underwrite their political policies.  They, and many Americans, have often wondered why these instructions are not taken more seriously, and are instead responded to with a febrile mix of resentment, rage, and sometimes outright violence. These reactions then provoke the plaintive suggestions that these behavioral patterns are merely the ressentiment of the weak, or perhaps more ambitiously, an expression of an underlying hatred of the American way of life and its unique freedoms.

The answer is considerably less complicated.  As I noted in a post on the problem of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation:

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:

[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own. [from: Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38),]

The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most.  This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.

Nuclear nonproliferation is a very good idea, as is nuclear disarmament; they can be backed up by very good economic, political, and moral arguments, and many of these have been made by very eloquent spokespersons. Their efforts, however, have always been handicapped because, all too often, they were deployed by the self-serving, sanctimonious, hypocritical members of the Nuclear Weapons Club, which merely seemed to be serving double-helpings of ‘pull up the ladder, I’m aboard.’ (I can personally testify that during my university years, as a young hot-head, despite having internalized quite well the arguments against India’s going nuclear for its domestic energy needs–on grounds of inappropriate technological fit especially–I was left almost speechless with rage on reading American lectures on the same topic; these also, for good measure, very often suggested Indians were simply incapable of managing technology of such sophistication.)

Barack Obama warns us against sanctimony, blithely unaware of his own. His listeners however, are not. They are similarly aware that when he ponders the question of which country would tolerate missiles being rained down on it from on high, he is conveniently forgetting about things that fly in the sky and rhyme with ‘phone.’

The Asymmetric Fallout of Operation Protective Edge

Collateral damage‘ and ‘friendly fire‘ seem to be two euphemisms with which we–as a civilization–are doomed to be persistently reacquainted. Especially if war continues to retain its popularity as an instrument of foreign policy or even law and order maintenance.

Which brings me, of course, to Israel, Gaza, and Hamas. Cycle of violence narratives are wearisome, and the Israeli-Palestinian one is no exception. Now again, there is violence against Israeli citizens, and then violent retaliation, which as on too many previous occasions, kills innocent men, women, and children. The discourse triggered by this latest eructation in the Middle East unsurprisingly follows a familiar pattern. Here are Israeli talking points: Israel is locked in an existential battle for its survival by any means necessary; Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel; no nation can tolerate indiscriminate violence directed against its citizens; Hamas uses civilians as human shields’; the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) does the best it can, scrupulously limiting harm to civilians; the real blame rests on Hamas. The public relations disaster this latest episode seemingly engenders–accusations of war crimes and the use of disproportionate force, the gory images of dead children, the gap between Israeli pronouncements and their actions–mean little to Israel’s minders: they know news and commentary flowing out of Gaza does little to convince or sway anyone. Most minds are already made up on the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict.’

Which is not good news for the Israelis, but it’s worse for the Palestinians. Certainly, there is ample worldwide rhetorical support for their cause, but the material circumstances of their being and the imbalance in the reckoning of Israeli and Palestinian resources–the former backed up by the not inconsiderable economic and military might of the US, and by its reluctance to exert its diplomatic will to bring a halt to the fighting–mean this conflict, and the others like it that will follow, will weaken the Palestinian cause further. If Hamas’ hope is that by firing rockets–remarkably poorly directed and carrying little explosive punch–into Israel, it will provoke Israel into the kinds of actions that will increase Palestinian resentment and find more recruits–worldwide–for its cause, then it has reckoned accurately but perhaps not too wisely. (Its refusal of a ceasefire shows further lack of clear thinking.) There is diminishing support for the Palestinians in Israel, especially among those formerly undecided; Israelis themselves–as the retaliatory lynching of Palestinians and social media evidence demonstrates–are becoming increasingly radicalized and descending into a rhetorical space marked by bloodcurdling calls for genocidal acts against Palestinians. Indeed, they may even count on criticism of Israel as provoking a useful defensiveness and circling of the wagons.

The radicalization of resistance to Israel does not have the same implications for Israel as the radicalization of Israel has for Palestine. Once–perhaps in some mythical time–Israeli liberal and progressive factions could be counted on to mount some rhetorical and active resistance to that nation’s actions against the West Bank and Gaza; now, those same groups have shrunk and have ceded the discursive space to those of Netanyahu’s ilk. For two parties locked in war, extremist tendencies in the polity of the more powerful one can only have worse consequences for the other.

A pox has already fallen on both houses; one bears the brunt just a little more.

Iraq and the Pottery Barn Rule: Don’t Break It Any More Please

As turban-wearing hordes ride down on their stallions from the hills, their sharpened scimitars gleaming in the bright Mesopotamian sunshine, threatening to add to the steadily growing mound of heads separated from their now-twitching bodies, should the United States saddle up, lock and load, and ride out to meet them? Should  it crush its enemies, see them driven before its eyes (and possibly, hear the lamentation of their women)? Should it, having broken it, now buy it?

Ja oder nein?

Ich glaube nicht. In the Middle East, the US is not just the proverbial bull in a china shop, it is a heavily armed and irresponsible member of Bos Taurus.  The last time the US went into Iraq, it was for an illegal war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; it set off a series of cosmic political earthquakes which sparked some of the most bitter and bloody internecine conflict seen in the region (and trust me, given that region’s history, that takes some doing.) The war criminals that conducted that war–George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–are now comfortably retired and unlikely to face charges in a court any time soon; the political pusillanimity of Barack Obama and many others has ensured their great escape. But their ghoulish minions and their associated sensibility would presumably like to run the highlights reel of the Iraq War in repeat mode, thus ensuring a particularly nightmarish version of the eternal recurrence for all concerned, whether they be Iraqis or Americans.

Genug ist genug. There are, quite possibly, some domains in which a judicious application of overwhelming American military force might work to bring about better political outcomes–though I have to admit, I’m having a hard time thinking of any off the top of my head. Still, even if the set of nations ripe for American military intervention is a non-empty one, its characteristic function would most certainly reject any member of the set {x: x is a Muslim country in the Middle East} as an element. The US did not seem to realize, back in 2003, that armed invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation was geo-political dynamite–the kind that blows off your fingers in the most favorable of eventualities. More often than not, it incapacitates you permanently, permanently foreclosing many future paths of action. As it has.

Whatever strategy the US adopts in its response to the ISIS, it should not be one that includes high explosives–whether dropped with laser-guided precision or merely steered into the arsenals of one of the combatants. These options will ensure–I find myself saying this with some mysterious foreknowledge–an even more catastrophic denouement than the one currently under way.

The United States is the mother of all superpowers; it should find ways to express that power through channels other than the military. We are often reminded of American ingenuity and innovation, its most distinctive features in a world populated by unimaginative copycats; now might be good time to dig into the stores and put some of those on display.

But no more shock and awe please.

‘Prohibited’ and ‘Acceptable’ Weapons and Targets in War

In my last two posts on Syria on these pages–here and here–I’ve tried to express my discomfort at the threat made by the US to launch cruise missile strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In them, I was trying to make a distinction which I did not clearly articulate, one whose provenance goes back to the debates over nuclear deterrence at the time of the Cold War, or to be more precise, the 1950s, when the threat of mutually assured destruction was first made manifest:

[T]he crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war [is] not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets. [From: Michael WalzerJust and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illuminations, 3rd ed., Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 276]

Indeed, insofar as a ‘prohibited’ weapon is to be viewed as such, it is because its effects are likely to be–or have been–disproportionately borne by ‘prohibited’ targets i.e., non-combatants, civilians, innocents, bystanders, call them what you will.  The use of a tactical nuclear weapon, say in the Second World War, on a battlefield, perhaps against massed infantry or armored formations, or out at sea, against a massive fleet of warships, would have provoked considerably less angst than its actual use against the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. (Despite Paul Fussell‘s–sometimes ad-hominem–dismissal of critics of the decision to use the bomb, there are good arguments to suggest it was a criminal act c.f the Walzer reference provided above, and especially the discussion on pages 263-268.)

This distinction, once established, now lets me make more explicit the incoherence in our attitudes toward war and weapons that I had suggested in my earlier posts on this topic. Drawing a so-called ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and hypocritical when those that have charged themselves with the enforcement of a supposed norm against such use are:

a) confused about the right norm to be observed;

b) guilty of violating the appropriate norm themselves.

A ‘limited’ US cruise missile attack on Syria–one committed to no other objectives other than the preservation of the ‘red line’–then, would have been problematic on both these counts. It would have flirted with the implicit claim that the slaughter of civilians is acceptable, or tolerated, so long as it is carried out by conventional weapons;  it would have established that the US, which is guilty of violating the norm against killing noncombatants in its drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, was taking upon itself the responsibility to enforce its confused reading of it elsewhere.

In response to the cries of ‘What do you want us to do while civilians–prohibited targets–are being gassed?’, I’d suggest that in this case–this Syria, with its warring parties, at this point in time–all options short of armed retaliation be explored first, especially when such an action is likely to cause further loss of life, destabilize the region and perhaps invite retaliation by Assad, using conventional weapons this time, against the same non-combatants. (My post at The Washington Spectator alluded to some of these possibilities.)

Note: I realize that recent diplomatic maneuvers involving Russia have made a US attack less likely, but the threat has not completely receded, which suggests this discussion is still relevant.