US Imperialism Spreads to Outer Space

seal_of_the_united_states_space_forceOn December 20, 2019, the United States founded a new service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Space Force (USSF). The expansion of U.S. military force into outer space created little fanfare in the media, save for social media mockery of the new branch’s camouflage uniform and an official Bible that will be used in the swearing-in of all USSF commanders. Perhaps the reason the creation of the USSF sparked so little public interest is that, currently, outer space is more interesting in the context of science fiction; science non-fiction is far less sensational. Yet the creation of the USSF should give us all pause, because it does indeed have a very specific and threatening purpose: to counter the burgeoning Chinese presence in space, poised to be a crucial part of a supposedly imminent U.S.-Chinese Cold War.

In December 2015, the People’s Republic of China created the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), of which a key component is the Space System Department, with authority over China’s military space-related assets. Earlier that year, the Chinese government had released an official document on military strategy that stated: “Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared.” On December 27, 2019, China successfully launched its Long March 5 rocket (capable of sending up to 25 tons of payload into low orbit) and plans to launch a Mars probe sometime in 2020. Although China does not rival the U.S. as a superpower, the parallels between this mounting competition and the historical “Space Race” between the U.S. and the Soviet seem obvious. Just as Moscow then then, Beijing is rapidly reforming and evolving its military capabilities, as both U.S. political parties have authorized huge increases in defense spending in the name of “national security.” This time, however, the race is to be the first nation to put human beings on Mars or to establish low-orbit space stations.

1280px-xu_and_gatesYet the idea that there is a new “Space Race” brewing rests on the presumption that the relationship between the U.S. and China resembles (or will resemble) that between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Certainly, there are “experts” who believe this must be the case. Speaking at a forum hosted by the influential Aspen Institute think tank in July 2019, John Rood, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said China was “the one country… with the ability to change our way of life in the United States, and change the global order, for good or ill.” Chris Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, warned about the designs Beijing had on the South China Sea. Presumably Brose did not address what right the U.S. had to designs on the South China Sea, where the U.S. military has strong land, air, and naval presences in the Philippines and Singapore. The U.S. has enjoyed a hegemonic position in Asia for a long time, having acquired the islands of the Philippines and Guam in 1898 from the Spanish Empire after the Spanish-American War. After the brief interruption of the war with Japan in the 1940s, the U.S. commanded unrivaled control over the region. The U.S. still has around 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and around 50,000 in Japan. Also headquartered in Japan is the U.S. 7th Fleet, the largest of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, with 60-70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 soldiers protecting U.S. interests.

Concern over the threat of China to U.S. control of Asia is nothing new in the Beltway. An element of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy was the “pivot to Asia,” which included the 2010 adoption of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine, centered on coordinating the Navy and Air Force in a possible violent confrontation with China. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pursued a trade deal that became known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), framing it as an effort to reduce Chinese influence in Asia and advance the economic status of the U.S. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he abandoned the TPP but resumed a hostile position to China, starting a prolonged trade war, which Trump recently settled to avoid further humiliation. Besides creating the USSF to counter the PLASSF’s “space warfare” program, Trump’s $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act reinforced close security ties with Taiwan and banned government agencies and their contractors from using equipment sold by Huawei, a telecom company with connections to the Chinese government. It is worth remembering that in 2013 NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, an NSA program where U.S. telecom companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others shared private Internet communications with the government. These companies were obviously never sanctioned, since the U.S. government does not object so surveillance of its citizens, but rather encourages it. What cannot be permitted is foreign governments accessing sensitive information about the U.S. government, which has perfected global espionage. An increasing amount of U.S. military action abroad takes the form of special forces raids, drone strikes, and proxy conflicts to supplement its overt military force.

330px-henry_a_kissinger_28cropped29Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. policy of hostile relations toward the Soviet Union were rationalized according to a school of international studies known as realism. The common thread running through realism and its variations is that states act according to self-interest, seeking to maximize their advantages by any means possible. Realists differ over whether this mentality is human nature or the default state of anarchy that exists in the absence of a higher power. In the end, the outcome is the same: competing states must place ideals secondary to the choices necessary for hegemony or survival. By this logic, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars constructing the largest, most sophisticated military in world history, backed up by enough nuclear weapons to end life on the entire planet. There were also countless other expenditures related to winning the Cold War, from cultural propaganda to placing a man on the lunar surface.

The irony of this stance was that the bombastic signals these actions sent to the Soviet Union only spread anti-U.S. sentiment around the world. Lacking the historical context, many people inside the U.S. did not realize it was filling the role of imperial powers when their government intervened in the former French colony of Vietnam, or on the side of white supremacist governments in apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While claiming to be a beacon of liberty and democracy, the U.S. government allied with some of the most despicable, repressive regimes in the world. The 1960 Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro were initially more nationalist in character than Marxist, but since the U.S. had supported the harsh Batista dictatorship, the Soviet Union made a natural ally. Likewise, guerilla armies who fought white-minority governments in southern Africa gravitated to Moscow less out of a passion for Marx and Lenin than the need for weapons and resources to fight right-wing white supremacist states with ties to the U.S. This is not to say ideology was meaningless; but the communist case for human liberation and ending exploitation resonated (with good reason) among the poor and oppressed of the U.S. world order. To this day, the still extant socialist states and most potent communist parties are outside the capitalist powers, in the periphery of the international political, economic, and cultural systems.

220px-socialtheoryofinternationalpoliticsIn 1992, the academic Alexander Wendt published an article titled “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” Wendt posited realism was wrong because it assumes states must act according to self-interest. Instead, realism was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; by investing so much in competing with other states, a state is naturally going to pursue conflict, especially when it enjoys superiority. The Cold War was not a natural, inevitable battle between two rival powers, but the result of policy choices that pushed both sides to conflict. As Wendt put it, “anarchy is what states make of it.” In other words, in the absence of a sovereign above them, states need not prepare for imminent war; in fact, by preparing for war, they are making war more likely. It is entirely possible for states to eschew the sort of force build-up and psychological warfare that characterized the Cold War at its darkest moments. At the very least, rival states could at least agree to a amicable agreement based on good will.

The reality that there was no inherent animus between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was on clear display during the extended period of détente in the 1960s and 1970s. Former anti-communist firebrand Richard Nixon sought a “peaceful coexistence” with Moscow while also thawing U.S. relations with Mao’s China. When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power in the early 1980s, however, it once again became conventional wisdom there could be no cooperation or even conciliation with the Soviet Union. U.S. conservatives like to give credit to Reagan for “winning” the Cold War, but this is a myth. If anything, Reagan’s bellicose saber-rattling and military build-up strengthened Soviet hardliners who were being challenged by liberalizing reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. It was only when Gorbachev implemented his reforms that the Soviet Union imploded, as the release of public frustration ended party rule. Ultimately, for all its millions in defense spending, the U.S. did not need to fire a shot to attain worldwide supremacy. The Soviet Union, having bankrupted itself trying to compete with the U.S. and its allies, destroyed itself from within, its legitimacy withering away in the eyes of its citizens.

1024px-chinese_eva_spacesuit_28229It is therefore not a given that the U.S. needs to be a in a “space race” with China or preparing to defeat China in the South China Sea, or engage in any other behavior that positions China as an enemy or a rival. In fact, if anything, China is much more an ally of the U.S. than the Soviet Union ever was. Firstly, since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, China has jumped into its subordinate role in the global capitalist economy, adopting an export-oriented market trade policy, encouraging foreign investment, and providing cheap labor to manufacturing companies in the metropole countries. Remarkably, in its trade war with the U.S., “communist” China condemned protectionism and touted unrestricted free trade and globalization as desirable! To fuel its industrialization (as well as fill the rainy-day funds of party elites), China needs access to global markets, raw commodities, and the frontier technology of Silicon Valley. Unlike China, the Soviet Union had numerous allies and trading partners post-WWII so that it could operate separate from the capitalist powers, or at least to a much less degree than contemporary China. The Soviet Union failed to export goods outside Eastern Europe (the most successful export perhaps being the AK-47), whereas any random object sold in the U.S. likely bears the imprinting “Made in China.” At least as far as the government is concerned, China seems more inclined to maintain the status quo, reap the profits of the moment, and invest in development for the future. The idea that it is about to upturn the global order, much less engage in “space warfare,” is ridiculous, as China would lose.

The second reason China is unlike the Soviet Union is in their own promotion of communism, or at least in its partners “buying in” to certain systems, institutions, and policies. Soviet foreign policy revolved around the Communist International, which coordinated with communist parties in different countries to align themselves with Moscow. Military and economic aid were contingent on accepting a subordinate position to Soviet policy. The U.S. did much the same by attaching structural adjustment packages (containing neoliberal policy prescriptions and “good governance” frameworks) to financial assistance to underdeveloped countries via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Washington also puts immense value on its bases in foreign countries, even when locals denounce their presence. China, however, attaches few (if any) conditionalities to its aid. It has invested highly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but it is not funding guerilla movements or expecting governments to declare themselves communist. Instead, China is pursuing a foreign policy of “harmoniousness,” coexistence instead of competitiveness. If the Soviet Union was all about centering its ideological differences with the U.S., then contemporary China is setting aside ideological differences and concentrating 0n “win-win” results. It is the U.S. government that is being doctrinaire in its belief that there can only be one global superpower, and that it is the will of some higher power it be the United States.

Bumper stickers that read “Visualize World Peace” can sometimes be seen on U.S. roads, but it is time for people to visualize war in space. That is the direction we are heading unless it is understood that this collision course with China is happening, and that it is unnecessary. Rather than seeking to maintain unipolar U.S. hegemony from ocean to ocean, from cyberspace to outer space, we ourselves should become oriented to harmony rather than conflict. The U.S. and the planet at large barely survived one decades-long Cold War where humanity lived in the shadow of nuclear winter. We may well return to that shade if we cannot choose cooperation over conflict, peace over war.

 

Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup

192px-morales_20060113_02To understand recent events in Bolivia, it is necessary to have historical context. No event occurs in isolation from the past. With such information we can interpret the present, especially when we should be critical of the representation of events featured in Western media. Armed with the history, we see the coup against Evo Morales not as a spontaneous revolt brought on by constitutional zeal, but the latest intervention against a socialist leader in the form of a U.S.-endorsed coup, with control over natural resources and geopolitics at the center of it all. Just as indigenous rebels were suppressed in the colonial past to guarantee the smooth flow of treasure from Latin America, so too has Morales and his supporters been toppled so gas and lithium could move cheaply into factories owned by Western multinational corporations. The mainstream political left has been slow to admit it, but even presidential candidates are calling it a coup.

180px-potosi_mines_287162578429From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Spanish Empire controlled most of the New World, with the wealth of Latin America enriching the monarchy in Madrid. Silver was one of the continent’s top exports, especially a huge deposit at Potosí in modern Bolivia. In a little over a century and a half, the silver stolen by Spain from Latin America totaled three times the total European reserves. Ultimately, most of the loot went to the empire’s creditors, the patrician moneylenders of the era. Today, Bolivia still has the resources, but none of the wealth. According to the 2018 Human Development Index, an annual report by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks Bolivia with Vietnam and Palestine in terms of life expectancy, education, and quality of life. Eduardo Galeano, in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America, quotes an old lady from Potosí: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least.”

To those who study development and underdevelopment, the idea of “rich countries with poor people” is nothing new. Hundreds of billions of dollars leave Sub-Saharan Africa every year, either through the repatriated profits of multinationals or illegal deposits in offshore tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, and yet the continent contains some of worst poverty and weakest institutions in the world. So too does Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the proportion of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty increased from 9.9 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent (62 million people) in 2017. Fundamental social protections and fair wealth distributions remain as elusive today as they did in the colonial period.

160px-pongo_0436bThis is especially true for the indigenous people of Latin America, who also have historically been excluded from political power since colonialism. As in the United States, social conflict exists along racial as well as class lines. The “indios” of Latin America are associated not just with poverty but also witchcraft, anathema to right-wing Latin Catholicism. Bolivia is unique among Latin American states in having around three dozen indigenous groups totaling around half the country’s population. White Bolivians make up just 14 percent of the population, centered in the commercial city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which produces approximately 35 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product. In the 1960s, the famous communist revolutionary Che Guevara felt inspired to fight in the mountains of Bolivia against the government of Rene Barrientos, a right-wing general who had seized power with CIA backing in 1964. By then, tin had supplanted silver as Bolivia’s prized export. Notably, Bolivia did not smelt the minerals it produced; this was done in the industrial heartlands of the Midwestern U.S. and northern England. By blatantly thieving the resources of poorer nations, the capitalist powers fueled their own post-war economic boom, with the surplus wealth shared with the U.S. or British worker. For the Bolivian working class and the indigenous population, there was no investment in social services or poverty reduction, just human suffering. The so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” for the West came at the expense of the continued exploitation of Latin resources and the repression of Latin peoples.

4531933336_6f38b13f24_bIt was not until 1982 that Bolivia knew something other than military dictatorships and coups, with civilian rule finally being restored. Bolivians, however, did not control their own economy; hyperinflation had reached elevated levels, scaring off foreign investors. As it so often did in the region, the World Bank stepped in, attaching preconditions to its economic assistance. Following a program of structural adjustment, Bolivia privatized its hydrocarbon industry, its telecommunications system, its railways, and its national airlines. In late 1999, riots broke out in the city of Cochabamba over the privatization of the water system. A consortium who took control of the system began charging $20 a month for access to water, ignorant that most Bolivians only earned around $100 a month. The “Cochabamba Water War” led to the privatization being reversed.

In 2003 similar protests over the privatization of hydrocarbons led to the fall of the pro-neoliberal government and, in 2005, the historic election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin American history. Morales was a former cocalero, a grower of the coca leaf, who entered political organization just as indigenous movements across the Andes were demanding greater representation. Ironically, it was the U.S. itself that fueled these movements with the forcible expansion of its “War on Drugs” into South America and the resulting criminalization of the coca plant. Elsewhere, in Peru, the right-wing, anti-communist Alberto Fujimori government oversaw the forced sterilization of around 300,000 poor, indigenous women, one of the largest such operations since the days of Nazi Germany. While rarely mentioned in the West, such a human tragedy provides a timely reminder how exclusion can so easily lead into ethnic cleansing and even systemic genocide of marginalized populations.

With mines closing and coca farming banned, indigenous Bolivians developed powerful grassroot networks for improved social and political inclusion. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia was one such network, and Morales used its popular strength to launch a series of reforms based around (1) taking natural resources into public ownership and (2) using the wealth to invest in education, health care, and other social programs. Indeed, whatever else one thinks of Morales, it is undisputed under his administration poverty was significantly reduced for the majority of Bolivians. Morales lowered poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

320px-evo_morales_chapareMorales was part of a “pink tide” sweeping through Latin America in the early 21st century. Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist like Morales, had also come to power via the ballot box in 1998 with a similar anti-U.S., anti-neoliberal agenda. Like Chavez, Morales was a charismatic figure with an anti-imperialist message who had to instantly contend with U.S.-backed reactionary elites. Unlike Chavez, Morales did not take the profits of the 2000s commodities boom and spend it lavishly, running budget deficits as Venezuela did. Instead, Bolivia had a budget surplus every year between 2006 and 2014. Morales embraced a “socialism lite” that saw much more gradual nationalizations and more market-friendly policies. Earlier in 2019, Nicolas Maduro barely hung onto power as another U.S.-backed coup attempt sparked and fizzled. Meanwhile, Evo Morales went into a presidential election to serve a fourth term as president of Bolivia.

Morales had won his two previous elections with majorities around 60 percent, but in 2019 the vote was much closer. Morales had tried and failed to get a referendum passed that would have enabled him to circumvent a constitutional term limit (written and ratified under Morales himself) but had decided to run again anyway. When opposition members disputed results that gave Morales the victory, the Organization of American States stepped in to investigate the integrity of the election. The O.A.S., under U.S. direction since the Cold War, had been a staunch critic of Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, albeit muted on the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. dictatorships. Now it added Morales’ Bolivia to its list of rogue Latin states. The message advanced by the opposition and repeated in the Western press was that Morales’ violation of the constitutional term limits had sparked a national revolution against tyranny.

juventud-sczIt seems a tall tale to think that ordinary Bolivians would care so much about term limits that they would send their country into anarchy and possible civil war. If there was such public indignation, it was not represented by the close result of the earlier referendum vote. What was actually represented during the post-election crisis was the anti-indigenous racism and class antagonism of the wealthy Santa Cruz elites. Luis Fernando Camacho, a leader of the Santa Cruz autonomy group, has ties to a far-right paramilitary group with a history of targeting indigenous Bolivians. These are not the masses, but the local commercial bourgeoisie, the white descendants of white colonizers. They would gladly foment civil war, as their Venezuelan counterparts have tried to do, if it would mean the chance to enhance their fortunes with the blessing of Washington behind them. The rich whites of Bolivia live the anxiety of rich whites in the U.S.: exploited non-whites organizing and agitating for immense political, social, and economic reform.

It is worth remembering to those who would paint Morales’ eventual resignation as an organic act of democratization that this only happened after the military intervened. Given the long record of military coups supported by the U.S. in Latin American against left-leaning governments (Paraguay 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976, etc.), it seems absurd that anyone would believe what happened in Bolivia was not a coup. More than that, it seems naïve in the extreme to believe that it was not a coup with support from the U.S. government with the goal of forcibly dismantling socialism.

320px-20170809_bolivia_1505_crop_uyuni_srgb_283798006393129Before the coup, Morales was in the process of industrializing lithium production in Bolivia. The country contains the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, believed to have 50 to 70 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium has become a valuable commodity with the development of lithium ion batteries and a greater global turn to renewable energy sources. Typically, valuable minerals like lithium are extracted in their crudest raw forms from underdeveloped countries to be processed in the developed Western hegemons, just as silver and tin ore was smelted in Pittsburgh and Liverpool. To prevent this, Morales began investing heavily in creating all the necessary industrial capacity within Bolivia to process lithium. Assuming Morales eventually brought the lithium industry into public ownership (which would be consistent with his socialist principles, plus the social movement that produced him), Bolivia would no longer be dependent on Western countries to sell lithium ion batteries (and other lithium products) directly in the international marketplace. With the money obtained from that, the country could further invest in other domestic industries, building them up to compete with the very same Western-based corporations that once looted them. Bolivia was trying to gain independence from the U.S.-dominated world economy and having more luck than Venezuela. The consequence was yet another coup in a part of the world where they occur all too commonly. To this day, there has not been a full reckoning with how the U.S. has and continues to actively hinder democratization in Latin America as well as benefits from and contributes to its underdevelopment.

So far, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has stood alone among Democratic candidates in not only addressing the situation in Bolivia but also for identifying Morales’ downfall as a coup. While we should have no illusions that we will see a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy resulting from this election or any near-future election, we should nevertheless embrace the opportunity to support a candidate who recognizes the anti-democratic character of recent events in Bolivia. Furthermore, we should pause and consider the likely many indigenous Bolivians who will suffer due to reprisals and further political violence once the far-right opposition consolidates its hold on power. We are already seeing signs that the current de facto government is drawing up lists of political enemies and courting Catholic extremists rather than extending the olive branch to trade unions and indigenous political groups. This is not a turn toward pluralism at all, but the restoration of a white Latin aristocracy whose anger is fully directed at native Bolivians.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free market-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.

Choosing the Lesser Evil: The Candidates

For political junkies like myself, this election year has been like passing a 42-car pile-up 320px-uspe16-svgon the highway. We feel repulsed, scared, worried for ourselves — and yet we cannot turn away. Nothing about this election makes sense. A bombastic billionaire who commits gaffes that would typically kill a major campaign is doing incredibly well. A self-described socialist has garnered a wide coalition of support in a country known for intense hostility to anything remotely anti-capitalist or radically left-wing. We were promised “Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush: Dawn of Justice,” a mundane showdown between two political dynasties, and instead we are getting something totally wild and unexpected.

The lazy answer to all this is that “people are angry!” No kidding. But why are people angry? Why are establishment candidates doing especially poorly this year? Why does fear and intolerance seem to be playing so effectively this year, when just two elections ago, a candidate who ran on hope and unity performed so well? These are all questions that should be considered, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where we are as a country. It is pretty much common knowledge that we’re a deeply polarized and jaded electorate, but studying the current field of candidates illustrates just where we’re at.

Donald Trump166px-donald_trump_march_2015

Advantages: Not an establishment politician

Disadvantages: Is Donald Trump

Cinematic Equivalent: Birth of a Nation (1915)

Typical Supporter: A working class white man whose job was just outsourced to Mexico, who loves racist jokes and aspires to soon own a flamethrower

I am not being mean. The data really does indicate that most Trump supporters never went to college and come from parts of the country known for racial resentment. The most telling feature about Trump voters, however, is how impotent and vulnerable they feel. These are the American reactionaries who worry about white genocide and believe “anti-racist” is code for “anti-white.” They worry that sharia law will soon be used to decide U.S. court cases. They fear that there is a “war on Christmas,” which is just the first battle in a covert campaign to wipe out Christianity entirely. They scoff at “political correctness” as repressive and tyrannical, when in actuality it just promotes sensitivity to traditional victims of discrimination. Their anxiety stems from the idea they are losing the “culture war” against “cultural Marxism,” and that their primary source of power — the white Christian patriarchy — is under attack from phantom “feminazis” and “Islamo-Leftists.” On the cultural front, Trump promises to go after these enemies: he will ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he will stop the “flood” of Mexican immigrants, etc.

It is on the economic front that Trump supporters have grievances grounded in reality. The truth is, less-educated American men have hard it rough in terms of work and wages. According to a 2014 poll, 85% of unemployed men lack bachelor’s degrees, while 34% identified as former felons, making it hard to find any work. Thanks to globalization and technological innovations, it is more difficult than ever for unskilled laborers to find work. Due to union-busting and the loss of collective bargaining power, less-educated workers find it impossible to unionize or take industrial action that could help them increase their wages and fight income inequality. Unlike the “culture war” that exists only in the minds of reactionaries, the war on the working class in the United States is very real. Trump offers them an economic nationalism, promising (without specifics) to get the U.S. better trade deals. In contrast to the typical Republican line, Trump does not advocate laissez-faire economics or tax breaks for “job creators.” Instead, he promotes a sort of autarkic vision that could be best summarized as “American jobs for American workers.”

(For all the Republican whines that Trump is betraying the Ronald Reagan legacy on free trade, let’s not forget that Reagan implemented protectionist policies to safeguard the U.S. steel industry from those “market forces” Republicans love to celebrate.)

You might wonder why these irate working class Americans do not rally to progressive causes, like raising the minimum wage or creating a federal jobs program. To paraphrase a disputed quote by John Steinbeck, this is because working class Americans do not see themselves as exploited proletarians, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They still hold on to the American Dream, which states that success comes from hard work, and the main enemy is not the ruling class, but bureaucratic red tape. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: a millionaire who is never embarrassed, who never apologizes no matter how racist, sexist or inappropriate he is. He is not a populist, because populists possess the common touch; there is nothing “common” about Trump.

178px-ted_cruz_february_2015Ted Cruz

Advantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says

Disadvantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says (possible serial killer)

Cinematic Equivalent: God’s Not Dead (2014) or Zodiac (2007)

Typical Supporter: A church-going, Longmire-watching grandmother who could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel

Ted Cruz is a jerk. No one really disputes this. Everyone hates him. He is smug and condescending. He loves to lecture people, especially other U.S. senators. He has no qualms attacking other Republicans, including the Republican leader in the Senate (in violation of Reagan’s 11th Commandment). People who knew him in college hated him. Those who trusted his lead in bringing about the short-lived government shutdown felt betrayed by him. Yet, his in-your-face style of doing things is exactly what many Republicans want from a party they see as having been too passive in resisting the Obama administration and assorted progressive triumphs over the last eight years. Remember when House Republican leader John Boehner stood on the House floor in 2010 and shouted, “Hell no, you can’t!” in response to the passing of the Affordable Care Act? Many Republicans want more of that. Ted Cruz is just the sort of right-wing ideologue who will give them that breed of impassioned, unwavering, Goldwater-style traditionalism.

If there is one voting bloc Cruz is relying on, it’s evangelical Protestants. The Cruz campaign believes there is a silent majority of deeply religious voters who failed to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012 because the former Massachusetts governor was not tough enough on issues like abortion and “the defense of marriage.” Consequently, Cruz has taken pains to point out that he is the son of a pastor, to highlight his faith and to contrast himself against the “New York values” of Donald Trump.

His strategy hasn’t worked. As Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, evangelicals are not the monolithic entity the Cruz campaign counted on. Cruz does well among deeply religious Protestants who attend church regularly, but among those who are perhaps patriots first and Christians second, Donald Trump does better. In other words, for some evangelicals, with Trump they can have their Christian cultural war and their jingoistic nationalism, too. There’s also the fact that the Religious Right has grown disenchanted with the lack of progress on its more grandiose goals: Roe v. Wade is still standing, Planned Parenthood hasn’t folded, the “gay agenda” marches on, and so forth. In fact, in recent years, there has been a libertarian current in the Republican Party that opposes the blurring of the line between church and state. Many zealous evangelicals seem demoralized, and those that aren’t are focusing on restricting abortion access at the state level, where (unfortunately) they have had incredible success.

Plus, to return to my original point, Ted Cruz is a jerk. His win in Iowa was tainted by claims he had engaged in dirty tricks to steal votes from Ben Carson voters. More recently, Cruz had to fire a staff member for spreading lies about Marco Rubio. Typically, “good Christians” are known for at least the appearance of integrity and honesty. Cruz, however, is better known for being shrewd and conniving, with a take-no-prisoners mentality that is not troubled by moral qualms. Unfortunately for him, Christian martyrs are defined by losing honorable fights rather than winning dishonorable ones.

202px-marco_rubio_by_gage_skidmore_9Marco Rubio

Advantages: Programmed to be hip, young and Latino

Disadvantages: The Republican establishment doesn’t elect presidents

Cinematic Equivalent: I Am Number Four (2011)

Typical Supporter: A wealthy Republican donor

Marco Rubio is like a film adaptation of a popular young adult book series that flopped. In 2012, after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party published a report — an “autopsy” — that called for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities and increased outreach to young people. Like most young adult novels, the idea of Rubio did very well, as only a fantasy could. However, as sometimes happens, something got lost in the transition from conceptual framework to the live-action version. Some fans refuse to stop believing, and Rubio’s tendency to give victory speeches when he loses indicate that he hasn’t given up on his cult following of rich patrons and the conservative cocktails-and-cigars set.

Rubio sometimes seems to have been designed in a Republican lab, and not because of his infamous robotic debate performance. In 2010, he was one of the rising stars of the Tea Party movement, endearing him to the radical right, but has since shown his ability to cross the aisle on issues like immigration, winning over moderates frustrated by the GOP becoming the “party of no.” He’s proudly Cuban-American and bilingual in a party stereotyped as being full of racist whites. He’s young and purports to like dance music. The cherry on top: he comes from Florida, a swing state known for deciding presidential elections. He’s the perfect answer to the 2012 Republican autopsy: sellable to historically alienated demographics, but still firmly grounded in conservative principles.

The problem? He hasn’t won a single caucus or primary. Not one.

The reason is that the Republican rank-and-file doesn’t want to coalesce around the marketable, moderate candidate. They did that in 2008 and 2012, and what did it get them? Substantial losses to Barack Obama. They don’t want to concede to multiculturalism and embrace diversity; they want to fight it tooth and nail. They do not want a “path to citizenship” on immigration; they want “their” (white) country back. From a personage standpoint, Rubio’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. John McCain, as a war hero and foreign policy expert, had the capacity to be a statesman. Romney, with his business background, was seen as America’s potential CEO. Rubio is a parvenu, an inexperienced baby-face whose mere presence does not inspire confidence. In ideas, he is out of touch with the Republican base; in image, he is the broad-minded and cosmopolitan candidate of a party that is, for the most part, neither of those things.

169px-hrc_in_iowa_apr_2015Hillary Clinton

Advantages: Not Donald Trump

Disadvantages: Is Hillary Clinton

Cinematic Equivalent: The Iron Lady (2011)

Typical Supporter: A white Prius-driving, Good Wife-watching professional woman

You cannot talk about the Clinton campaign without acknowledging the long-standing and completely understandable desire to elect our first woman president. As a man, I’ll never be able to completely understand the immense frustration generations of American women must have felt about being underrepresented in politics, and to have issues that impact them decided almost exclusively by men. Hillary has long been the best path to the realization of the dream of a woman POTUS, and more than that, she has been successful in a number of prominent political roles: First Lady, a U.S. senator, and most recently Secretary of State. It is hard to think of a more qualified candidate (much less an actual president) in recent memory. Just in terms of name recognition alone, she has a massive advantage that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, would be envious of.

The downside of being a household name since 1992 is that she has accumulated a lot of baggage along the way. Republicans, for the most part, loathe her, for everything from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, criticize her (and her husband) for joining forces with Newt Gingrich in 1996 to advance welfare reform, her support for Hosni Mubarak, her practically unconditional support for Netanyahu’s Israel, and her support for the 2003 Iraq War. With the Occupy Wall Street movement still fresh in peoples’ minds, Hillary’s cozy relationship with the financial industry is a big liability. These are more than just accidental handicaps; Hillary has a record of intentionally aligning herself with military adventurism and Big Business. In an election where class stratification and race relations are big issues, Hillary does not possess much credibility when it comes to pontificating about income inequality or institutional racism.

In response, Hillary and her supporters have sought to downplay her Wall Street connections. She has sought to portray her rival, Bernie Sanders, as a one-issue economic populist, telling a crowd that “breaking up the banks” would not end racism or sexism. The problem with this, as eloquently argued by Roqayah Chamseddine, is that it falsely separates gender discrimination from exploitation under capitalism when the two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are often related. It does, unfortunately, fit into modern liberal feminism, with its emphasis on “leaning in” and “breaking the glass ceiling” — which, as Nancy Fraser argues, is only about enabling women to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes to achieving true social equality for women, white liberal feminists have been notoriously silent on feminist issues that do not impact women of color, such as police violence against women of color (be it Sandra Bland or the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw). By buying into the Clinton’s campaign partition of gender identity politics from anti-capitalist arguments, Clinton supporters are endorsing a form of feminist “equality” where women are “free” to be as overworked and underpaid as men, and where women of color remain regular victims of economic violence (such as the draconian welfare-to-work programs Hillary herself signed off on in the 1990s).

While Hillary has taken some punches from Bernie Sanders, 2016 does seem to be “her turn.” Once she secures the nomination, her next major hurdle will be her Republican opponent, who is likely to be Trump. Can she beat him? The very fact that this is even a question demonstrates how bizarre this election is. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer. Warts and all, at the very least she’s not a lewd narcissist who caters to racist reactionaries. On the other hand, there may be more Americans who actively dislike her than Americans who passionately want her to be president. It may be that the greatest thing working in Hillary’s favor is the two-party system and voters’ limited options.

192px-senator_of_vermont_bernie_sanders_at_derry_town_hall2c_pinkerton_academy_nh_october_30th2c_2015_b_by_michael_vadon_01_28cropped29Bernie Sanders

Advantages: Integrity

Disadvantages: Bernie who?

Cinematic Equivalent: La Chinoise (1967)

Typical Supporter: A Jacobin-reading, Democracy Now-watching college socialist

Bernie Sanders has been a failure.

I do not refer to his seeming failure to win the nomination. That was never in the cards, although no shortage of optimistic progressives seemed to believe he would, like Barack Obama in 2008, prevent Hillary from cruising to the nomination. For all his uprightness and intensity, however, Bernie never had the charisma or the appeal to minority voters that Obama used to such effect when he defeated Hillary. In fact, Bernie has a reputation for being, like Ted Cruz, a caustic jerk — as shown by his “side eye” at Hillary during one debate, his shouting, his finger-wagging, and so on. Bernie Sanders is a firebrand, an attack dog for the progressive left; he does not have the gravitas and poise one normally associates with a head of state or a head of government. I think he suspects this.

I call Bernie a failure because I think the point of his campaign was purely to challenge Hillary from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and, subsequently, push her to adopt more left-wing positions on a living wage, socialized medicine, education costs, and so on. This theory makes sense, because Bernie himself talked in 2011 about how Obama had moved so far to the right of the political spectrum because no one was attacking him from the left. If this was Bernie’s goal, it didn’t work. Hillary may have added her support for a health care public option to her campaign Web site, but that is not inconsistent with what she already supported in 2008. For the most part, she considers health care reform settled for now. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15. She has mocked Bernie’s plan for free college tuition. As noted above, rather than cave to this challenge from her left, Hillary and her campaign has used the language of feminism and social justice to dodge and evade any attacks from Bernie, keeping her platform more or less intact as it was when she first entered the race: in favor of the status quo and business-friendly.

The Bernie bandwagon was always doomed, but it’s total deflation on Super Tuesday was its death knell. Why did Bernie perform so badly in Southern states? Many pundits have pointed to black voters as “Hillary’s firewall,” crediting the “engagement” of the Clintons with black communities in the past. In my opinion, there is a much simpler explanation: no one besides progressives, political junkies and Vermonters knew who Bernie Sanders was before 2015, and most people today probably think he’s Larry David. Where has he done well? New Hampshire and Vermont, which are literally his backyard and his home state, respectively. He also did well in Iowa and Oklahoma, no doubt because of his appeal to poor working class whites. He’s done poorly generally, however, not because of some ambiguous solidarity between black voters and the Clintons, but because Hillary has been a national political icon since Yugoslavia still existed on maps. I get really frustrated when Sanders supports whine that “black voters voted against their own interests” on Super Tuesday. Newsflash: people vote against their own interests all the time. In fact, I do it in most elections myself. I vote for the Democrat, even though the Democratic Party has not come close to representing my principles in my lifetime. However, like many people who vote Democratic, Republican politicians are even further divorced from what I care about. It does not surprise me — at all — that Democrats, whatever their age or race or gender, vote for a candidate whose name they recognize and who they believe will win in a national election, if for no other reason than to keep a Republican out of office.

To his credit, Bernie hasn’t smeared Hillary, only calling her out on her record and her policies. He didn’t use any dirty tricks against her, and quite appropriately called out the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails a Republican-orchestrated circus. He won’t make an independent run for the White House, which would only split the Democratic vote. This whole episode will likely mean Bernie going out of politics in a blaze of glory, his one last contribution to the progressive moment. It is just too bad it will have been unsuccessful.

Still, there is hope in the fact that a self-declared socialist ran for the Democratic nomination this year and had some success. It just goes to show that, while the status quo may triumph in the end (with a Hillary victory in November), we still live in an unsettled world. As long as that remains true, there is still hope that we can, from the ruins of the old one, create a better and more equitable world for ourselves and future generations.

 

The Neo-Imperialism of Intervention: Syria & the West

Media outlets reported on Friday that Bashar al-Assad’s government killed 37 more people in the ongoing crackdown in Syria against pro-democracy protesters. This mounting death toll, combined with horrific images of activists and civilians alike mowed down by tanks and machine guns, will surely contribute to the growing consensus that the West should intervene to stop the massacres. Considering NATO displayed a marked keenness to step in when Muammar Gaddafi brutally repressed the insurgents who rose up against him, many observers have denounced what they have perceived as hypocrisy. Are Syrian lives somehow worth less than Libyan lives? Is al-Assad any less of a cruel despot than Gaddafi was? The West, these commentators argue, has nothing less than a moral obligation to intercede on behalf of the Syrian people, who stand no chance against the much more well-armed Syrian security forces. Institute a no-fly zone, begin bombing Damascus, supply weapons to the rebels – the whole nine yards.

Of those voices sounding off against intervention, they offer a rationale that Syria represents a different situation than Libya did when the West rode in to the rescue. Unlike Libya, they say, civil war has not torn Syria asunder. The anti-government movement holds no territory of its own, and given the dominance and sophistication of the Syrian armed forces, any internal conflict is likely to be a one-sided affair. Additionally, Syria can count on support from its nearby allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, whereas Gaddafi lacked friendly neighbors. Gaddafi could also not credibly warn that he would launch a suicidal attack on Israel the moment the first U.S. cruise missile hit his country’s soil. On top of all this, these voices note, Russia and China – two illiberal countries exasperated with the Arab Spring and this whole fascination with free and fair elections – are putting their collective feet down, putting the kibosh on an emerging precedent of the West liberating citizens aspiring for freedom under authoritarian rulers. In other words, the West is not being hypocritical in “freeing” Libya and leaving Syria to descend into chaos; it is just that Libya represented a unique opportunity, with its tribal divisions, pariah state status and lack of resources. His tyranny only needed a slight push (in the form of air raids and drone strikes, plus crates of automatic weapons) to bring down.

The only thing keeping the West from fulfilling its ethical responsibility of preventing slaughter of the innocent, according to this line of thinking, are unfavorable conditions particular to the Syrian case. Yet Western inaction concerning Syria is not the exception; it is by far the norm. You might find reams of words on “respected” news and commentary Web sites dedicated to Western outrage over oppression and butchery in Syria, and going back a little farther, will find similar impassioned editorials and blog posts about the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda or the “ethnic cleansing” of Africans by Arabs in Darfur. You will find much fewer paragraphs demanding a Western intervention in places like Bahrain, where over a dozen people have died over the last year due to government use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, or Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are illegal and the Shiite minority in the eastern provinces has been viciously dealt with, sometimes fatally. In addition, could you imagine the backlash that would occur if The New Republic or The Atlantic – much less TIME or The Washington Post – ran a piece advocating that the United States bomb or invade Israel to end its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which leaves a densely populated area without access to imported food, machinery and medicine?

The scholar Mahmood Mamdani has done an excellent job studying why some human right violations and global bloodbaths receive more attention than others do. In his deconstruction of the campaign to save Darfur, Mamdani notes the silence in the West when the United Nations reported that 1,000 people were dying every day in Angola between May and October 1993, and how 3.9 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not raise a murmur in 2004. By way of explanation, Mamdani cited the work of the journalist Lara Pawson, who observed that it was no coincidence that the U.S. received eight percent of its oil imports from Angola during its spiral into violence, while 18 British-based companies currently enjoy access to Congo’s rich mineral deposits.  It would therefore not be in the economic interest of the West for military operations to disrupt the extraction happening in these countries, despite the bloodshed. Yet Mamdani goes beyond economic factors, and argues that the “Save Darfur” campaign framed a complex and nuanced problem as simplistic acts of political violence. It did not inform Westerners about what happened or was happening in Sudan, but played into the hands of the War on Terror, providing yet another example of “Arab Muslims behaving badly.” As in all marketing strategies, the message was clear enough for all to understand: “Muslims, who are evil and just so crazy, are killing Christians, and we all know how religion just makes people do crazy things, not like here in the secular world, am I right?”

It is mentally easy to connect war with profiting from natural resources, to boil wars down to “blood for oil.” Yet I tend to agree with Mamdani as well as the analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein that Western governments and civic institutions are not riled up for refineries, diamond mines and gas reserves alone. There is also genuine bleeding heart liberal faith that the West has a “responsibility to protect,” to institute a “liberal imperialism” to defeat the “bad guys” and preserve the right to life, liberty and the American way – which, at Fukuyama’s “End of History,” is now the international way. If this sounds like the neoconservative ideology, that is because it is. Critics of Mamdani have reviled him for linking the “Save Darfur” movement, an offspring of the U.S. Left, with Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons. Let us not forget, however, the reason why the intellectual originators of neoconservatism are not called simply “conservatives” is that they used to be radical left-wingers, yet flocked to the imperialist right-wing over what they perceived as a lack of adamant democracy promotion – such as through regime change. It would of course be incorrect to lump all pro-interventionist left-wingers and neoconservatives together, but in essence, their idealism springs from the same conceit: that the West, with its unchallenged power and enormous wealth, has license to stop the worst excesses of humanity, embodied by the Holocaust, from ever taking place again. The West, like a global Robespierre, should decide who lives and who dies, all for the sake of making the world “better.”

There has been a lot of hand-wringing on the Left over siding with traditional anti-imperialist arguments or being guilt-tripped into supporting excursions to topple dictators, end wanton murders and establish democracies. Yet those who struggle with this question should remember the adage to judge a policy by its consequences, not its intentions. Western interventions, even when they have been “successful,” have done little to get at the heart of a cleavage or a conflict, to address the long-standing issues that led to this civil war or that uprising. They have been flash-in-the-pan exercises – bombs and bullets, followed by rushed negotiated settlements that either unravel or barely contain the unsatisfied resentments of all parties. The bottom line is that the “white man’s burden” – to bring civilization and order to backward, bloodthirsty “savages” – is morally bankrupt, regardless of whether it is used as cover by the self-interested or is sincerely believed by naïve pseudo-leftists.

The Truly Dangerous: Iran vs. the West

Earlier this week, a classmate and I discussed the recent posturing by both the United States and Iran, which has caused many observers to pontificate on the possibility of a war between the two countries. I argued that such a conflict was unlikely, as it was difficult to perceive how it would benefit anyone. My classmate, however, claimed that, if pushed far enough, the Iranian government could very well start a war, even if defeat was certain. The kernel of his assertion was that Iran’s leaders – specifically the hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard officers – would be open to going out “guns blazing” if pressure, internal and external, became so great that their continued rule became unviable. In other words, while Iranian elites may act rationally under normal conditions, the ideology of political Islam means that irrational, self-destructive behavior is a distinct and dangerous possibility under the right circumstances.

My sole objection to this line of thinking is that it ascribes hazard only to the Iranians and their “exotic” and “inscrutable” culture and beliefs. Just because it is hard to fathom why so many Iranians, past to present, support the authoritarian theocracy that dominates their lives and curbs their freedoms, this does not mean that Iranians, even the vehement ultra-conservatives, possess alien mentalities beyond Western ken. It is just that their values are different from ours, their historical experiences vastly dissimilar. Various world powers have besieged Iran since the end of the 17th century, and while it no longer contends with Ottoman encroachment or European colonialism, Iran continues to view its relation to the world with a siege mentality. Today, the country is rightfully wary of an unchallenged, militaristic and arrogant superpower that has invaded and occupied two Middle Eastern countries and seeks to promote its imperial grand strategy of permanent world hegemony. Closer to home, Iranians still remember the 1981 Israeli airstrike that took out a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq, solely on the Israeli suspicion that it would be used for nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was planning to pursue a nuclear arsenal or attack Israel in 1981, what is relevant is that Israel launched an attack based on mere mistrust rather than hard proof.

Military action based on suspicion and hunches has become the new normal. The 1981 Israeli airstrike on Osirak and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq both serve as sterling examples of preventive strikes – not pre-emptive ones, arising from an imminent threat, but ones designed to weaken an enemy, real or imagined, for the sake of regional or international interests. As the historian and activist Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor previously embodied preventive strikes in the American mindset, reinforcing the natural distaste for treacherous acts of unwarranted aggression. Now, preventive strikes receive praise rather than denunciation. During the 1980s, the U.S. actively supported the Contras in their insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, not because the country had become a “second Cuba,” but because it might eventually. The U.S., the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, felt compelled to intervene at the prospect of the Soviet Union, well on the decline, having not just one but two friends in all of the Americas. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the U.S. could no longer claim its unprovoked intrusions were acts of self-defense, no matter how absurd claims like Nicaragua had been. Briefly, the U.S. and her allies promoted “humanitarian interventions” in conflict-ridden states, even though these police actions did little in the long-term to settle long-standing ethnic and religious cleavages and were geared more toward positive publicity for the continuance of NATO than truly ending genocide and civil wars. The U.S. struggled to convince either the world or its own population that it could be a global police officer, so much so that by 2000 George W. Bush actually ran as a non-interventionist skeptical of regime change. The September 11, 2001 attacks, however, provided an opportunity for the U.S. to initiate military operations as “defensive” measures. The “War on Terror” proved an even greater godsend than the Cold War, as “terror” – unlike the Soviet Union – would never fade away or surrender. Ironically, the various wars, bombing campaigns and drone attacks carried out under the “War on Terror” banner have produced far-reaching resentment against U.S. jingoism and bravado, gifting anti-Western terrorists with greater recruitment tools than they could have envisioned.

In contrast to the U.S., Israel can point to Arab invasions and acts of terrorism committed against it throughout its existence, in addition to the anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jewish people for time out of mind. Traditionally, foreign states have acknowledged Israeli appeals to its right to defend itself and provided it with exceptional leeway. Yet, in the last decade at least, that leeway has reached its breaking point. Israeli hawks have become so excessive in their fight for “national security” that they have blockaded Gaza and induced its people to tremendous suffering, and apparently fail to see how decisions – such as the 2010 lethal raid on a ship that tried to break the blockade and bring humanitarian supplies to the Gazans – might invite disgrace and condemnation. It has gotten to the point where some U.S. politicians, usually thoroughly faithful in their support for Israeli policies, have begun to question the Israeli inclination to shoot first and ask questions later. There has not been much disquiet in regards to Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, which is ironic, as the U.S. was notably silent about Israel’s own nuclear program dating to the late 1940s and has not, as in the case with Iran, demanded inspections and promises of peaceful purposes from the Israeli government. This is despite the fact that Israel has been ruthless in suppressing any knowledge of its nuclear weapons. When Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s stockpile to the British press in 1986, he was soon thereafter drugged by Israeli agents, sentenced in a secret trial and imprisoned for 18 years, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. One would think that Tel Aviv would have softened in such brutal treatment of a prisoner of conscience, but since his release in 2004, he has been re-jailed several times, usually for talking with foreign journalists and trying to leave the country that persecutes him.

The above facts alone may be enough to understand not only why Iran has been less than submissive to Western demands, but why so many regular Iranian citizens support the actions of the government. During the Arab Spring, Western observers were usually shocked when they saw counter-demonstrations by supporters of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad. That so-called “rogue states” would rush into the arms of the West were they freed from their despotic rulers remains a popular trope in the U.S., most dangerously within the minds of neo-conservative thinkers. For example, the media pays little attention to the fact that Iranian reformers, including Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, generally oppose Iran giving up its desires for nuclear technology. The popular desire in Iran to refuse dictates issued from abroad are perhaps only equaled by U.S. and Israeli rejection of abiding by international law and U.N. resolutions.

“Still,” my classmate might say, “at least Mousavi would not threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and possibly cause World War III.” Wouldn’t he? What choice would he have? Rationality, it must be remembered, is defined as the proper exercise of reason and realizing what one’s reality is. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran employed the Basij, a volunteer militia comprised of young boys and old men, in human wave attacks, sending them in rows, unarmed, against Iraqi positions. Irrational on the face of it, such a tactic makes perfect sense when one side in a conflict suffers from a technological inferiority but a surplus in population. The Soviet Union used the tactic to great effect against Nazi Germany, after all. Similarly, suicide bombings – including those performed by members of Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran – are generally viewed as irrational, considering they inevitably result in casualties to your side as well as the enemy’s. Yet, when weighed against the alternative, there is no feasible way in which Hezbollah or any terrorist group can, at least on a consistent basis, fight a conventional war, guerilla or otherwise, against a highly advanced and sophisticated opponent. We should be careful to draw a distinction between suicidal tactics and a suicidal strategy.

On the face of it, threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and discussing how easy it would be to do so seems self-destructive. Yet Iran knows as well as anyone else that the U.S. Fifth Fleet would respond almost immediately to restore the flow of oil from the Gulf. It also knows that its own economy would suffer from a lack of petroleum exports. It admittedly would be a lose/lose situation, but it is also the only viable situation Iran can present in which the West loses at all. Otherwise, it has no reply to the West using sanctions and other economic warfare to get Iran to do what it wants. While the West reconsiders whether it wants to pay the cost of an oil crisis to prevent Iran’s uranium enrichment, Iran in the meantime improves relations with major players outside the West, such as Russia, China and Latin American countries, to work to keep its economy functioning in the wake of closed Western markets. It may not be orthodox foreign policy, but when the choice is between audacious brinksmanship and surrendering sovereignty and losing domestic support, can we really believe Mousavi would choose the latter course?

I will not argue that the Iranian leadership will always act in a sane fashion. A person can no more predict human behavior than count the stars in the sky. Certainly, there are ample precedents where regimes, faced with almost certain downfall, have opted to take as many others with them as they collapse. I will argue, however, that there is nothing about Tehran’s words or deeds that gives credence to fears that the saber-rattling has been anything but the usual posturing. In my opinion, the greatest menace to the continued existence of humanity appears not on distant horizons but within our own country. It is the United States, with its bellicose approach to world affairs and its dismissive attitude to international laws and conventions, that has most exercised the will and the means to scorn peace and make unjust war in recent history. If we want to oppose countries engaged in “irrational, self-destructive behavior,” then the battle begins at home.

The Obvious Offense We See: Afghanistan

In a story that is still developing, an Internet video has surfaced that apparently portrays four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. The U.S. government has of course condemned what the video depicts, and it appears as though the military has already identified the soldiers responsible.

The video has already sparked outrage in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, as it continues an unfortunate trend in which the U.S. has cast human rights to the wayside when it comes to Islam and Islamic insurgents. In 2005, Newsweek reported that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Quran by flushing it down a toilet. Afghans attacked U.N. employees last year when American pastor Terry Jones followed through on his on-again, off-again threat to burn the Islamic holy book. More than a few outlets have compared this latest debacle to the photos that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2004, which revealed that U.S. Army personnel and others had been torturing and abusing detainees held in Iraq.

Interestingly, the group you would most expect to be livid over the video, the Taliban, has stated that it will not deter them from participating in possible peace negotiations with the U.S. and Afghan governments. They are, they claim, not surprised by the latest insult in a string of disrespectful and barbaric practices the West has subjected them to in the course of its occupation. The problem with this position is not that it is irrational rhetoric by a band of militant zealots. Given our record in Afghanistan, it is actually quite logical.

It is easy to be angry and ashamed watching the video in question. The disregard for the dead is obvious; the conduct of men representing the United States is clearly juvenile and dishonorable. What is less evident – and therefore less discussed and rarely denounced – is how the war in Afghanistan has long been lacking in honor, and that the U.S. has not only repeatedly dismissed concern for slain combatants but for living innocents. No one has captured on film all the Afghan civilians killed in their fields and their homes in countless air raids and drone attacks. No one has piled high the child corpses that the war has claimed as “collateral damage” in the more than a decade this war has gone on. Granted, no one may have urinated on those bodies, but their deaths nevertheless speak to how brutal and callous modern “warfare” has become and how indiscriminate the daily slaughter is.

The difference, some would say, is that urinating on dead Taliban militants serves no purpose, whereas the deaths of civilians, while tragic, is an unavoidable byproduct in our overall mission to liberate Afghanistan and defeat terrorism. If this is the case, then that overall mission has been a failure.

Afghanistan is certainly not free, except in that it possesses the “freedom” to do what the U.S. allows it to do. Last year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced a ban on the bombing of houses due to the mounting number of noncombatant deaths such bombings caused, and the furor that arose as a result. U.S. officials quickly noted that Karzai did not have the power to veto who or what the U.S. wanted to bomb in his country. More recently, Karzai has protested NATO (in other words, U.S.) night raids into Afghan homes, again due to civilian casualties but also due to the understandable dislike Afghans feel about having their private sanctuaries violated without their permission. Coming from Oklahoma, I could not imagine U.S. troops invading civilian homes at 4 a.m. without judicious exercise of the Castle Doctrine, much less foreign troops. I could also not imagine any popularly elected politician who allowed such raids to happen to enjoy much support, and with Karzai’s decisions and interest articulation rendered to mere suggestions by overruling U.S. orders, it is hard to envision Karzai having much credibility with his citizenry. After all, he has been the main native facilitator behind NATO (again, U.S.) military operations in Afghanistan, and those are deeply unpopular.

So is, admittedly, the Taliban. Yet the Taliban’s political arm knows that it does not need popularity; it just needs Afghans to see Karzai as a Western stooge, an illegitimate ruler propped up by Western wealth and power. In that instance, whatever organization can claim a legacy of resistance against the deprival of sovereignty, against civilian slaughter, against endless occupation will mobilize support to its side. Much as how Hamas evolved from a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood into a Palestinian nationalist party, it is feasible that the Taliban could coalescence Afghan grievances into an endorsement for its radical opposition to the West, if not for its strident adherence to the ascetic lifestyles of the Prophet Muhammad’s early followers. The Taliban could transition from a revolutionary movement into a democratic institution. Again, the potential parallels with Hamas are striking. Just as Israel, with U.S. support, bestowed legitimacy upon Hamas repeatedly even when it was on the verge of alienating Palestinians with the strident elements of its platform, the U.S. may very well instigate a repeat of the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which transformed Hamas overnight from a terrorist group to a democratically elected government.

As to the charge that the Afghan war has not defeated terrorism, the proof should be common sense. Many in the Muslim world did not “hate us for our freedom” circa 2001, but since then many have to come to despise us the appalling incidents that have colored our occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In the background to these events, too, has been a persistent Islamophobia, evidenced by everything from the outcry over the so-called “World Trade Center mosque” to the sudden respectability of virulent atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, who (for some reason) seemed to receive attention when he directed his ire against Islam specifically. When some of us read about efforts in Oklahoma to ban the implementation of sharia law, it is natural (and appropriate) for us to roll our eyes and laugh it off. How many of us, however, pause to consider what the impact is when this nonsense is reported in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi or Kuala Lumpur? How long can you denigrate an entire religious community, the third largest in the world, before that breeds resentment, manifest in this case for, if involvement, then at the least sympathy for anti-Western causes?

There is no defense for the actions of the Marines displayed in the urination video. No matter how much some apologists may retreat into jingoistic comments or vague “war is hell” arguments, nothing can surpass the basic fact that those who wear our country’s uniforms represent us all, and undoubtedly most Americans would not want such behavior undertaken in their name. Yet we must also ask ourselves whether the incessant mowing down of countless militants as well as innocent bystanders is something else we want done in our name as well.

It is easy to feel anger for the obvious offense that we see. It is more difficult to feel anger for the injustice we are made less aware of, but exists nonetheless.