Archive for April, 2008

Bush Monarchy

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers Johnson 2006

Asking whether the U.S. will go the way of Rome or of Britain who “voluntarily” divested itself of its empire, Johnson completes his doomsday trilogy (The Sorrows of Empire and Blowback). This volume, while published earlier, makes an excellent companion piece to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Where Klein explicates the Chicago school-Adam Smith-Neocon creed explaining the intellectual basis and beliefs behind our bewildering current mess, Johnson provides the indisputable facts and figures of our current situation in condensed 280 very, very depressing pages.

Fort Baghdad Embassy iraqembassy.jpg

On Iraq, Johnson explains that the covert (i.e. real) reasons for the war were to secure permanent military bases in the Middle East and to secure a reliable source of oil. He says that the U.S. military will try to hold four military bases permanently in Iraq no matter what (perhaps in defiance of a new President?) including the green zone and airports where the U.S. has built hardened, permanent facilities and the world’s largest embassy on 104 acres built at a cost approaching $1 Billion. The green zone has its own power, water, and all utilities. Ironically the headquarters for the elected government of supposedly sovereign Iraq is located inside a U.S. fort! The other critical bases the U.S. military will hold onto are located next to the oil fields of course. He concurs with Klein that allowing the looting and destruction of priceless cultural artifacts and archaeological sites in Iraq was a deliberate act by the neocon Bush administration.

To tamp down violence in Iraq, at least until Bush is out of office, the military has resorted to bribing the different factions. FrontLine recently reported that Muqtada al-Sadr was given $300 million for assurances of a cease fire from his Shia Mahdi Army. That would have built a few schools and houses in New Orleans.

He notes that while Bush made the CIA the fall guys for the failure of intelligence leading to war with Iraq and largely dismantled the CIA intelligence gathering function, covert operations at the CIA are stronger than ever. He says that the intelligence role of the CIA has always been to tell the President what he wanted to hear, not to provide independent actual intelligence. He also points out that every President since Truman (i.e. since the founding of the CIA) has used the agency for covert operations. Add to the CIA covert operations, the black ops portion of the Defense Department budget and you have a huge well funded establishment beyond the scrutiny of the public or of Congress.

In Blowback, Johnson explained why various terrorist acts such as the African Embassy bombings, the Cole attack, and even 9/11 were in retaliation for U.S. activities the American people know nothing about because the U.S. acts are kept secret. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966. In 1974, in response of Nixon’s use of the CIA and FBI to spy on Americans, the FOIA was strengthened. Much of the information we have today about the secret activities of our government comes from the courts upholding FOIA requests. Even with extensive redacting (blacking out portions of the documents) much information can be gained from secret documents. The Bush administration first had a policy of complying as slowly as possible to FOIA requests and then instituted a prohibitive price of $372,999 for each search.

Until Bush, Presidential records were released to the public 12 years after the President leaves office. Bush changed this in 2001, just as key Reagan era documents were set to be released, perhaps to protect his father who escaped the Iran Contra mess largely unscathed. Now Presidential records will only be released when authorized by both the current sitting President and the former President, if still living.

Johnson gives a laundry list of countries (very long) where the CIA has interfered with, assassinated, or propped up authoritarian governments believed to be anti-Soviet. He details the CIA role in the 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected Allende of Chile and military takeover by the torturing dictator Pinochet. He also details the role of the CIA in funneling money and advanced weapons via Pakistan to the Muhajadin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

CIA 737 leaves Majorca Spain – Protestors in Shannon Ireland
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The most entertaining (if this is the right word) portion of the book was his discussion of the activities of amateur plane spotters, whose hobby since WWII has been spotting and recording the activities of military and private aircraft around the world. The internet now provides an almost complete and accurate record of the landings of all private planes anywhere. When Sweden broke the story of a special rendition (arresting two Egyptian refugees and handing them over the CIA at a private airport to be flown to Egypt), this database was used to identify the plane used in the rendition and to trace the travels of this same plane throughout the world over time. The plane was owned by a fictitious company with fictitious owners but with a P.O. box near Langley. Once outed, the plane’s ownership and identification numbers were changed, but the plane could be instantly identified from its manufacturers identification number and the tracking continued. The entire fleet of CIA planes was identified in this way and with them a complete picture of renditions; which countries cooperated in the arrests; where the prisons were located; the magnitude of the effort. The CIA seems to have been totally oblivious to this amateur network and its worldwide resources. The network estimates the number of people grabbed as more than 3,000. The victims simply disappeared either to be killed or tortured for information. The outstanding work of this amateur network at outing CIA’s fleet and tracking renditions sounds like the material for a movie. The administration and CIA strongly believes they have stopped terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. with this program. That this activity violates the rights of many innocent individuals and violates the laws of virtually every nation involved doesn’t matter in the least. Hearing the term for the first time one wag said special rendition sounds like something Pavarotti would do before a small audience.


Johnson decries the growing insensitivity of Americans and its media to innocent civilians being slaughtered by our military in bombings and ground assaults. No one counts the number. They are seldom reported and incidents are known by the Administration, the military, and our own media as collateral damage. Its as if we are to believe these death are unavoidable accidents instead of the direct result of U.S. military action. In the unlikely event the military ever accidentally destroyed a nuclear armed missile launched from the middle east, the weapons could fall anywhere in the region including Europe. The military still refers to the catastrophic potential results of such an incident as collateral damage.

Johnson really hits his stride when discussing the ever growing number of military bases occupied by U.S. forces throughout the world. The new trend is for smaller bases located closer to potential hot spots such as two islands off the coast of Venezuela where we are positioned to instantly take out democratically elected Chavez. He uses Japan with which he is most familiar to discuss the effects on the occupied country of these bases; the raping, the pollution, the damage, the noise of an insensitive military. He says the public and the military have no understanding of the ill feelings caused by all these bases (800 plus the actual count is unknown even by the military) and the damage to our reputation in the world. Japan is spending $7 Billion of its own money to help the U.S. build a new base on Guam to remove at least some occupiers from Japan.

He then turns to star wars, the ultimate military spending boondoggle. He explains that even a small military incident in space could pollute the orbits with so much junk that all satellites would be forever unusable with crippling impact to the economies of the world. The Air Force is currently running a “recruiting” ad on television showing just such an incident in space. He talks about the air force monopoly over GPS which is now indispensable both for military and civilian use. The air force currently reserves the right to shut down a region of GPS at their own discretion. The Europeans are so concerned about the air force monopoly on this critical resource, that they have funded Galileo a competing higher tech system which was to have gone online this year. When Bush threatened the Europeans to stop this deployment, the threat backfired and funds and new countries rushed to join the Galileo network. Recent setbacks may delay the start of Galileo until 2014 however. We only hope Galileo doesn’t go the way of Motorola’s Iridium satellite telephone system that was delayed so often it was obsolete by the time it was introduced.

The Imagined North Korean Threat
And the American Response (Why is Putin worried?)
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After WWII the military and military industrial complex greatly exaggerated the cold war Soviet threat so they could continue to expand defense budgets. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government toyed with the idea of making China the new evil empire. Neocon interests in trade and investment with China defeated this idea and instead they invented a new threat using poor North Korea. Much of the justification for the anti ballistic missile program lies with the idea that North Korea or another rogue state could acquire and use nuclear armed ICBMs. The military is fully aware that all their proposed programs are useless against the latest Russian build ICBM but might have a chance at a Korean ICBM (actually two antique Russian scud missiles strapped together. The last one the Koreans tested barely cleared Japan.) So the military is cynically spending billions to build weapons systems they know won’t work to address threats that don’t exist. The most ridiculous of these weapons and the most costly is the megawatt laser to be mounted in a 747. Even if the laser worked (it doesn’t) The 747 has to fly so close to its intended target that it can easily be shot down by simple existing ground to air missiles costing next to nothing. What matters is not the practicality of the weapon but the money required to build it.

The reason this all works is that the military and military industrial complex is spread throughout the entire country. In each congressional district with facilities and plants, the industry simply buys a congressman who, in return for election support and a guaranteed lifetime job when they leave Congress, will vote for any appropriation proposed. A quid pro quo agreement means that I vote for your district’s appropriations if you vote for mine. To suppress public outrage, Congress hides more and more appropriations in special earmarks and outright black ops budget items. The public is kept in line through fear (terrorism, nuclear armed rogue states, etc.) and Johnson refers to Bush as “Fear-Monger-in-Chief“. The system is thoroughly ingrained and, under Bush, totally out of control. We are guaranteed to bankrupt our system if the trend continues. As it is, the deficit limits must continually be raised. China and Japan are the two biggest holders of this massive budget debt. The system is totally corrupt and will lead to the downfall of the entire government if it continues. In summary:

The iron triangle of the Air Force, Congress, and the military industrial complex, sanctified by high tech jobs it offers to American workers, is driving our country toward bankruptcy. For some it is tempting to continue the lucrative practice of buying arcane space technologies that do not work – missile defenses, for example, simply because it keeps people employed. Meanwhile our democracy is undercut by members of Congress who use the lavish “campaign contributions” they receive – bribes by any other name – to buy elections. The only public service these bought-and-paid-for Congressmen attend to is providing a legal veneer for munition makers’ unquestioned access to the tax revenues of the government.

Johnson talks briefly about Keynesianism, where a government is justified in instituting spending and employment programs to level the business cycle. His theories were put to large scale successful tests by FDR in the great depression with works programs in the parks and the building of roads and dams. Keynes believed that military spending and employment could also be justified in times of recession and depression. The problem with a Keynesian justification of our current boondoggle military spending is that the military spending is totally insensitive to the business cycle – it only ever goes up through boom and bust.

The King Makers
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The President’s constitutional job is to carry out the laws passed by Congress. When Clinton tried to veto single line items in a legislative bill, the Supreme Court ruled this was unconstitutional. The President must either sign or veto a bill in its entirety. Bush instituted a new approach called a signing statement wherein the President reserves the right not to enforce provisions of a bill with which he disagrees. In a Bush stacked Supreme Court, who after all appointed his majesty in the first place, the signing statements have not been challenged. Bush used a signing statement to gut John McCain’s 2005 anti torture provision. Bush disagrees with it and refused to enforce it, end of discussion. With this simple devise, Bush has totally undermined the separation of powers and has rendered Congress virtually powerless.

Another terrible precedent of the Bush era is the extensive use of the low level fall guy. Torture at Abu Ghraib came to light with the leaking of photographs to the press. The ACLU was able to get ahold of key documents establishing responsibility for torture at the prison through FOIA lawsuits. Today we have a picture of the all the leading White House officials sitting around a conference table in the White House discussing torture. Who was prosecuted? The top official held accountable was Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, a woman and reserve officer who was briefly in charge of all U.S. prisons in Iraq. She received a reprimand and was demoted to colonel even though she clearly was not an instigator of the torture program. Johnson asks what does this do to a military command structure? As a soldier do you blindly carry out the commands of your superior officers even if you think they are illegal? Why weren’t officers and officials at the highest level held accountable if the commands were illegal? Does a soldier need to consult a lawyer before obeying orders in the future?

To be fair, Bush has used higher level fall guys as well; Scooter Libby, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzales are prominent examples.

What a depressing picture. A Congress bought and paid for by the weapons makers. A President with a total disregard for the American Constitution. A Supreme Court who appoints a monarch and stands ready to do his bidding. The only bright spot Johnson can see is that there is unlikely to be a military coup for two reasons; The generals have very good lives with absolute security and luxury as it is and second, the soldiers may now refuse to follow orders if those orders are seen to be illegal such as overthrowing the government. OK, I know, but this will have to stand for optimism in an otherwise totally depressing account.

Numbers Man

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, 2005

Three Gorges Dam China threegorges.jpg

Diamond is a Professor at UCLA specializing in evolutionary biology and bio-geography. This book looks at man’s effects on the environment today and in the past. He is interested in decisions that cause some societies to collapse and others to sustain themselves successfully for thousands of years. The book’s blurbs and Diamond himself try to give reason to hope, but the facts and figures of the situation in the modern world are pretty depressing reading, particularly the discussion of modern China. But Australia is pretty depressing reading as well. And I skipped altogether reading the chapters on Rwanda and Haiti.

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His central thesis seems to be that some people in the past have made enlightened decisions, some by highly centralized governments like Japan, and some by highly decentralized systems like New Guinea. He also finds optimism in some corporations who find economic reasons to act responsibly in the environment to avoid the massive cleanup costs of destructive mistakes. He sites a Chevron subsidiary (since spun off) that is such a model of environmental stewardship in New Guinea that their project is, in effect, the countries largest and most successful wildlife preserve. Of Chevron’s and Shell’s project in Nigeria, Diamond says merely that the project is older and the government of Nigeria is corrupt.

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His discussion of the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula in Montana was extensive. It seems that Montana, which has fallen to one of the lowest income states in America is now best suited for fat cat vacation homes such as those of Charles Schwab’s 2600 acre Bitterroot Stock Farm, 125 home sites with 6,000 sq ft million dollar homes of in a gated community. The only contact with the local population is when the fat cats show up at a local bar to enjoy the Montana Western fauna. Ted Turner’s buffaloes are elsewhere in the state. Is this a success or a failure? Preserve the environment for the wealthy?

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Bitterroot Shack bitterrootshack.JPG

Gated Mansion in Bitterroot Valley dalymansion.jpg

His reasons for optimism at the end are a little strange; e.g. we could have been hit by a huge meteor over which we have absolutely no control, instead of the current man made disaster. If man did it, surely man can undo it. Really? It seems that man’s impact and control over the environment is why we are in this mess to begin with.

Okie Song

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Harpsong, Rilla Askew, 2007

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Harlan Singer is a part Cherokee musical hobo who unlike Woodie Guthrie, cannot seem to get very far away from Oklahoma. Harlan, taught by a black shoe shine boy, he plays the harmonica and can imitate almost any sound in nature from birds to wind, is always creating new songs with new lyrics to describe what he sees. He wins the heart of a fourteen year old Oklahoma farm girl, Sharon, and together they jump freight trains to Hoovervilles throughout the Midwest. Unlike Steinbeck’s Okies, they never get to California.

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Harlan is looking for Profit, a bible spouting old man Harlan is indebted to in some unknown way. They return to Oklahoma time and again to look for Sharon’s family who have moved on when their farm is foreclosed, and to visit Calm Bledsoe, the Cherokee trapper (the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma from the Great Smokies Mountains of Tennessee – North Carolina see) who is Harlan’s only friend and confidant. Set in the depth of the great depression we revisit the farm foreclosures and bank failures, the useless miner’s strikes, and the dust bowl.

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Written alternately from Sharon’s and Harlan’s points of view, with occasional visits to the folk legends they become, we get a real sense of time and place.