Archive for March, 2012
Part I – Friedman’s Frustrations
In a piece entitled “A Festival of Lies” published in the New York Times last Sunday, the 25th of March, editorialist Thomas Friedman expressed his frustration with American foreign policy in the Middle East. “It’s time to rethink everything we are doing out there” he proclaimed. To be sure he is not the only one frustrated by this situation, but in Friedman’s case it is best to ask just what it is he finds disconcerting about U.S. behavior?
Actually, he doesn’t formulate a list of his own, but instead latches on to one put together by the historian Victor Davis Hanson (a military historian whose specialty is ancient warfare) and published in the National Review. This is neither here nor there because Friedman tells us that Hanson is correct in all his particulars. So here are some examples of what Friedman via Hanson find frustrating about U.S. policy in the region:
1. Giving all that military assistance (when we really should be helping the Arabs build schools)
2. Mounting punitive attacks (but then letting the results fade away because we “fail to follow through”)
3. “Keeping clear of maniacal regimes” (which then allows these regimes to either acquire nuclear capabilities, commit genocide, or create “16 acres of rubble in Manhattan”)
4. Propping up dictators (which is “odious and counterproductive”)
Friedman notes the obvious: these sort of “policy options” cannot change the Middle East for the better. According to both him and Hanson the region is a perpetual “mix of tribalism, Shiite-Sunni Sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil – oil that constantly tempts us to intervene or to prop up dictators.”
All this might make sense to some readers of the New York Times, but it seems superficial and confused to me. And after all I am an historian too. My speciality is the development of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. So what do I find frustrating about Friedman’s frustrations?
Part II – Frustrating Frustrations
1. To reduce the Middle East to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil is just stereotyping and inappropriate reductionism. You might as well reduce the U.S. to Christian fundamentalism, tea-party fanaticism, south-west-east sectional animosity and gas guzzling pick- up trucks. Are they there? Yes. Are they the sum total of the U.S.A.? No. It is the same for the Middle East.
2. It is certainly a very good idea to stop giving so many of the region’s armies American weapons and training, but before you go using the savings to build “community colleges across Egypt” as Friedman suggests, you better consider that Egypt and many other nations in the region are awash in college graduates who cannot find employment. The economies of the Middle East suffer from structural problems, part of which have to do with their ties to a Western controlled world economy.
3. I can only imagine what Hanson and Friedman mean by “punitive interference without follow-up” being bad policy.
– Maybe they mean that when Ronald Reagan put troops in Lebanon in 1982 in support of the minority Maronite Christian attempt to subvert the country’s constitution there should have been sufficient military follow-up to decimate their rivals, the majority Lebanese Shiites. Keep in mind that a similar follow-up in Iraq in 2003 killed up to a million people.
– Or perhaps when that same president (darling of all neo-cons) attacked the home of Muammar Gaddafi in 1986, killing the man’s adopted baby daughter and setting in motion a chain of events that two years later led to the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie Scotland, he should have immediately followed through with a full scale invasion of Lybia.
– Or when George Bush Sr. chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 he should of followed-up with an invasion of the country then and there instead of following through with draconian sanctions that eventually helped kill up to a million Iraqi poor children.
Supposedly all of these “follow-ups” represent policy options that would have resulted in a better, happier and more American friendly Middle East. This sounds doubtful to me.
4. And what about the supposed mistake of “staying clear of maniacal regimes” which in turn allows for “nuclear acquisition or genocide–or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.” What the heck does this mean? It was not a “maniacal regime” that launched the 9/11 attacks; the U.S. did not stay clear of the “maniacal regime” of Saddam Hussein but instead sold it the poison gas used against the Kurds; and the Iranians (who are arguably less “maniacal” than the Israelis) have no nuclear weapons program.
What all this points out is that Thomas Friedman, one of the most widely read editorial writers in the country, is confused and unreliable when it comes to the Middle East. And, his relying on a conservative military historian venting in the National Review does nothing to sharpen his perception. What is worse is that none of this prevents Friedman from telling us that the U.S. government, which he has just accused of utter failure for decades, now has the responsibility to tell the people of the Middle East some “hard truths.” And what might they be?
Part III – Hard Truths
1. Tell the Afghans that the Karzai government is corrupt and will be abandoned by most of its troops as soon as we stop paying them. Alas, the Afghans already know this. What Friedman actually should be suggesting is that the U.S. government tell the U.S. people this hard truth.
2. Tell the Pakistanis that they are “two-faced” and the only reason that their military is not “totally against us” is because, again, we pay them. Alas, the Pakistanis know this. What Friedman actually should be suggesting is that the U.S. government tell the U.S. people this hard truth.
3. Tell the Saudis that they are a bunch of Wahhabi religious fanatics and dictators and that we don’t want their oil. But wait, it is not the U.S. that should be telling the Saudis this. It should be the European and Japanese governments because they are the ones who buy Saudi oil. We get most of ours from Mexico and Canada.
4. Tell the Israelis that they are a bunch of Jewish fundamentalist fanatics who are putting their (alleged) democracy in danger with all that settlement building on the West Bank. Before you can tell the Israelis that, you will have to tell the U.S. Congress to forego the largess of certain special interests, or even better, tell the American people that they must change the lobby based nature of their government.
Part IV – Conclusion
Friedman ends by lamenting that the U.S. government has chosen to tell the easy lie that all is OK to the Middle Eastern regimes it supports rather than tell them the hard truth. However, he has it wrong. Sure we haven’t gone around telling the corrupt, dictatorial, fanatical leaders of those regimes that they have made a mess of the place–largely because we helped them do it. The people of the Middle East know this. It is the people of the U.S. who do not. We have not been lying to those in the Middle East so much as to ourselves.
And it appears that Thomas Friedman also doesn’t know this particulat hard truth. Hence his contradictory conclusion: “…we must stop wanting good government [for them] more than they do, looking the other way at bad behavior….” It is a contradiction to say that you want good government for this region while simultaneously turning a blind eye to bad governmental behavior that you yourself have underwritten. But the contradiction is there only in Friedman’s version of history. In truth the U.S. has not and does not give a damn for either good government or good behavior in the Middle East. What it cares about are governments that cooperate with us in terms of trade, acceptance of Israel and now hostility toward Iran.
One has to wonder about Thomas Friedman. He seems to have periodic problems thinking straight. But in an oblique fashion he is on to something. There are lies aplenty when it comes to U.S. actions in the Middle East. However, they are not lies we tell to others but rather to ourselves. And from that, nothing good can come.
The vast majority of people in any given society are “locally normal.” By this I mean that they conform to the accepted outlooks and behaviors of their local society. They fit comfortably with their neighbors who fit comfortably with them. Their opinions are majority opinions that reflect local societal norms. Those norms may or may not espouse racism and a wide variety of other prejudices. It does not matter. They will be adhered to just the same because the are culturally imbedded. The “locally normal” will also adhere to their country’s standard history and mythology. Collectively, all these traits are what produce “good” citizens and so act as the glue that maintains social solidarity.
The fact that most people are “normal” in this fashion is not a mistake. There is probably a genetic inclination for such behavior. After all, if most people did not behave this way you could not maintain stable societies.
Still, there are drawbacks to being “locally normal.” For one thing, the more “normal” you are the less independent a thinker you are (at least in socio-political terms). The strange thing is that the “locally normal” would not agree that thinking outside the community box is a legitimate act of independence. Such a stance would appear, from inside the box, as not being independent so much as being antisocial and perhaps unpatriotic. And, such behavior is going to make “normal” folks suspicious and fearful. That is the genetic impulse again. Stay with the group and you stay safe. Safe from what? Safe from people on the outside, of course. If you are really looking for a “locally normal” definition of independence it is going to be an economic one: having a good job, paying your own bills, and not living with their parents.
Part II – Refuseniks – The “Locally Abnormal”
It is against this background that we might consider the plight of Israel’s refuseniks. These are Israeli Jewish citizens who are “locally abnormal” either because they refuse to serve beyond the 1967 borders (that is they refuse to go into the Palestinian Occupied Territories) or refuse induction into the Israeli military altogether. There are only between one and two thousand individuals in this group–a figure small enough to make them rare.
While there is evidence of some sympathy for the refuseniks on the far left side of the Israeli political spectrum, nothing but condemnation can be found in other quarters. Almost all Israeli politicians have labeled the refuseniks “dangerous” and some have described their behavior as treasonous and “helping the enemy.” The Israeli courts, of course, have declared that refusal to serve in the military (by all but the Ultra Orthodox) for any reason other than conscientious objection is illegal. Interestingly, one of the reasons used by the Israeli high court to condemn the actions of those who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories is that such behavior “weakens the ties that bind us as a nation.” Thus Refuseniks are so “locally abnormal” that they usually get thrown into jail.
Nonetheless, the refuseniks continue to pop up, albeit at slow intervals. The most recent one is Noam Gur (the first refusenik in 2012). She is an 18 year old Israeli Jew who has just announced that she will refuse mandatory military service. In an open letter she announced that “I refuse to join an army that has, since it was established, been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.”
Ms Gur is not sure how she came by these (for Israel) “abnormal” sentiments. At the age of 15 she started trying to make sense of the Nakba of 1948. This led her to join the small number of other “abnormal” Israeli Jews taking part in Palestinian led protests in the West Bank, thus “seeing what was going on with my own eyes.” By 16 she knew that she could not “take part in these [Israeli] crimes [against Palestinians]” and that meant she could not go into the army. She has gotten plenty of negative feedback from “locally normal” Israelis securely situated within their community box, yet Ms Nur does not find this response intimidating. “I am following what I believe in,” she says, “I don’t really care what other people might have to say about it.”
Though she has little faith that Israeli society can change from within, she still urges her peers to “look into what they are doing.” As it stands now, “most 18 year olds” bound for military service “don’t really know what they’re going into. They don’t really know what is going on in the [West Bank and Gaza Strip]. They only…see Palestinians for the first time…once they are soldiers.” The vast majority of “normal” military age Israelis refuse to look before they leap into the army.
What Gur is describing is a closed Israeli society. Much like the U.S., it doesn’t matter if there is freedom of the press and speech because education and personal interaction reinforces a broad set of perceptual norms which, over time, literally come to dictate the parameters of thought. These parameters define “normality” within the nation’s local space. If, for whatever reason you find yourself outside of the box, you’re a social mistake.
Part III – Reversing the Perceptual Frame
Is it possible to defy the socially constructed definition of “local normality” that exists in Israel, or any other state for that matter, and declare on the basis of good evidence criteria for a “universal civilized normality”? Perhaps one way to do this is to play that old religious card and “appeal to a higher power.” But in this case we do not have to look to the heavens or some divine source. All we have to do is draw our criteria of behavior from sources such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Here are some criteria for “universal civilized normality” taken from the UDHR:
1. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support their government’s practice of “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (UDHR, Article 5)
2. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support their government’s practice of “arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (UDHR Article 9)
3. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they accord all elements of their population “the right to freedom of movement and residence…. (UDHR Article 13)
4. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they accord all “men and women of full age,” residing within their country “the right to marry and found a family” “without any “limitation due to race, nationality or religion.” (UDHR Artical 16)
5. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support the “arbitrarily taking of [another resident’s] property.” (UDHR Artical 17)
6. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they demand that all residents have “the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being….including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age…”. (UDHR Article 25).
Part IV – Conclusion
Considering this sampling of criteria for “normal, civilized behavior,” where would we rank the citizens and supporters of the Israeli state? Well, a recent poll of Israeli high school students found that fully half of them “opposed equal rights for Arabs.” Another video poll revealed that “racism is rampant among Israeli youth.” As it turns out, many Israelis do support the state’s use of torture, arbitrary arrest, restriction of movement, the arbitrary confiscation of property, placing barriers in the way of marriage, and the purposeful maintenance of less than adequate standards of living for the Palestinians under their jurisdiction. Thus, one must conclude that there is a wide gap between what we might consider to be “universal standards for civilized normality” and those standards of “local normality” in place in Israel. Therefore, it turns out that Noam Gur and other Israeli Jews like her must actually defy the majority in order to preserve “civilized normality”
Maybe it is a thousand years of stress culminating in the Holocaust that turned today’s Jewish Zionists into such obsessively insecure people that they cannot accurately judge their own national interests. Maybe it is a variant on “the battered child syndrome” that has led the Israelis to batter the Palestinians and then, when they resist, call them anti-Semites. Maybe the problem is that they have allowed religious fanatics and political bigots to run their country (hardly a problem unique to Israel). Whatever is going on in the heart of the “Holy Land” it certainly has not produced a majority of “normal and civilized” people. But it has allowed for a small minority of them. And with this minority lies whatever hope there might be for a “normal and civilized” future for Israel.
Part I – The Lament
On 12 March 2012 David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, wrote a brief lament for Israeli democracy. It appeared under the title “Threatened” and can be found in the magazines Talk Of The Town comment section. Here are some of the points that Remnick made:
1. “Democracy is never fully achieved. At best, its an ambition, a state of becoming.” Remnick points to the U.S. and tells us that it has taken “generations” for many minority groups to attain “the rights of citizenship.” And, even now it is an on-going struggle for there are always those (including a number of contenders for the Republican nomination) who wish to “scale back such rights.”
Remnick is correct. However, it should be emphasized that the general historical trend in the U.S., particularly since the Second World War, has been toward greater inclusiveness. Sometimes its two steps forward and one step backward, but the presence of the nations first black president should be taken as a sign of the direction in which the U.S. is moving.
2. Israel is “embroiled in a crisis of democratic becoming.” Politically, Israel was built on a social democratic model and the resulting institutions should be seen as “points of pride.” And yet “an intensifying conflict of values has put its democratic nature under tremendous stress.” Remnick refers here to “an existential threat that looms within.” What is this potentially fatal threat? “Reactionary elements” who would lead Israel to the political brink, so to speak–a “descent into apartheid, xenophobia, and isolation.”
Remnick believes that the “political corrosion begins…with the occupation of the Palestinian territories…that has lasted for forty five years.” He points out that the result has been “a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist, political culture [that] has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper.” He notes that recent Israeli polls show the youth of the country “losing touch with the liberal democratic principles of the state.”
3. Remnick sees this as a horrible step backward from Theodor Herzls vision of “a pluralist Zionism” and he puts a lot of the blame on “emboldened [Jewish] fundamentalists [who] flaunt an increasingly aggressive medievalism,” the kind that has made heroes of Jewish terrorists such as the mass murder Baruch Goldstein. Such people now thrive in a political environment in which “the tenets of liberal democracy [are] negotiable in a game of coalition politics.”
4. Remnicks conclusion is that “such short-term expedience cannot but exact a long-term price: this dreamand process of democratic becomingmay be painfully, even fatally, deferred.”
Part II – Historical Corrections
Certainly many of David Remnicks observations of anti-democratic Israeli behavior are accurate but his assumption that these are relatively recent phenomena, located mainly among the settlers on the West Bank, is just historically wrong. Israels anti-democratic trends flow from structural problems that were built into the Zionist experiment that ultimately resulted in the Israeli state. Built in by the Zionist ideology itself.
The truth is that you cannot design a state, and its supporting political ideology, for one in-group only, then try to implement it in a land filled with out-groups, and not come forth with a discriminatory product. Having an exclusionary goal from the beginning, as the Zionists did, makes Israeli prejudices structural and not an accident of this or that governments policies.
Thus, an accurate reading of Theodor Herzl reveals that his “pluralistic Zionism” was a concept that assumed, indeed demanded, that the population of the state be overwhelmingly Jewish. The non-Jewish population had to be enticed or pushed out of the Jewish state. That makes Israels anti-democratic Zionist attitude one hundred seventeen years old (dating from the publication of Herzls Der Jundenstaat The Jewish State) and not, as Remnick suggests, forty five. Once Herzls desired purge was accomplished, there could them be “pluralism” among the solely Jewish population remaining. Today, we call such ethnocentrism, racism.
An accurate and open-minded look at Israels history, as can be had from the works of Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, among others, shows beyond a doubt that, from the beginning, Israeli political leaders, be they of the right or the left, secular or religious, all had the same goal of purging the country of non-Jews. If differences existed relevant to this goal, they were tactical and not strategic. And this, by the way, is why all the talk heard across the American political spectrum of how Israel is “just like us” is again, historically incorrect. While the democratic majority in the U.S. has chosen to interpret its laws and political philosophy in an inclusive manner, Israels Jewish majority has chosen to pursue the opposite goalan exclusive, ethnocentric, and ultimately racist state.
Part III – Conclusion
Nonetheless, David Remnicks brief essay is both interesting and important. It shows that there is a growing split among Zionists here in the United States. The so-called “soft Zionists” are increasingly troubled by the fact that Israels behavior contradicts their long cherished myths.
All nations have cherished myths and they are important in sustaining support for and faith in the nation itself. When the myths start to fall away you know that support must fall away as well. And so it is with Israel. You can see it in the increasing numbers of Israelis deciding to emigrate out of their country, and you can see it in David Remnicks essay which, in its own way, is an act of emigration. Seeing his imagined liberal Israel overtaken by “an increasingly aggressive medievalism,” David Remnick has apparently come to the conclusion that this is not the sort of Israel he can support.
America Gone Stupid Over Iran An Analysis (9 March 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Making The Same Mistake Twice
It is estimated that up to a million people died as a function of George Bush Jr.s decision to invade Iraq. According to Bush, that decision was made on the basis of faulty intelligence. This is the ex-presidents way of passing the blame. The decision was made by Mr. Bushs insistence that the accurate intelligence he was getting from traditional sources was false, and that the lies he was being told by other parties (for instance, Iraqi con-men such as Rafid al-Janabi) were true.
Now there is Iran. Over and again the intelligence community has told the powers that be that Iran is not engaged in a nuclear weapons program. And over and again the men and women in Congress and the White House have insisted that these traditional sources of information are wrong and that the stories that are coming from other sources (in this case the Israeli government and its special interest agents in Washington) know better. As in 2003, so it is in 2012. The politicians appear to be out for blood. One wonders how many dead and maimed bodies will satisfy them? Perhaps it will be a million dead Iranians.
The only difference is that today, we have a president who is hesitant to go to war this very moment. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has put it, the major difference between the U.S. and Israel on military action against Iran is timing. For President Obama, first comes the diplomacy of ultimatums combined with draconian sanctions, and then comes the slaughter. Perhaps it will come in his anticipated second term.
I have written about this more than once before and it is hard to find anything new to say. Yet, given the play of events, what has been said before warrants being said again. Therefore, below your will find a piece originally posted on the 10th of June 2011, but amended where necessary to bring it up to date.
Part I Is there an Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program?
On Friday 3 June 2011 the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh gave an interview to Amy Goodman for the radio program Democracy Now! The topic was Iran and whether or not it is developing nuclear weapons. Hersh answered this question definitively for Goodman as he did shortly thereafter in a comprehensive piece for The New Yorker (6 June 2011 ) entitled Iran and the Bomb: How Real is the Threat? His answer: there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program. There is no threat. This position has been confirmed by two National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on the question of Iran and nuclear weapons. These expressed the collective opinion of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. Their unanimous conclusion has been that there is no evidence of any weaponization. This was reconfirmed in mid February 2012 by an array of top U.S. intelligence chiefs appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to give their annual report on current and future worldwide threats to national security.
Hersh set his understanding of the issue against the background of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In that case there was no credible evidence for weapons of mass destruction yet we had high government officials going around talking about the next world war and mushroom clouds over American cities. Both the U.S. Congress and the general population bought into this warmongering. Hersh is obviously worried about a replay of that scenario. Thus, in his interview, he said you could argue its 2003 all over again .Theres just no serious evidence inside that Iran is actually doing anything to make nuclear weapons .So, the fact is that we have a sanctions program thats designed to prevent the Iranians from building weapons theyre not building.
In 2003 those kind of sanctions, applied to Iraq, along with the accompanying misinformation campaign, led to a tragic and unnecessary war. Are we now doing it all over again? As Amy Goodman pointed out, the Obama White House has repeatedly cited Irans nuclear program as a threat to the world. President Obama asserted as much in a 22 May 2011 speech before AIPAC and again in his 4 March 2012 talk to the same organization. On the latter occasion Obama told his audience, I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran .an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency. All this for something that is simply not happening.
If this is the case, what in the world was President Barack Obama talking about when addressing AIPAC? And what are the members of Congress talking about when they address this same issue? The vast majority of them take the same line not of President Obama, but of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu who thinks Obama is weak and naive and that their should be war against Iran now. In addition, this morbid fantasizing about Irans nuclear ambitions has captured the attention of the mainstream press. Amy Goodman asked Hersh about a New York Times report (24 May 2011) stating the worlds global nuclear inspection agency [IAEA] revealed for the first time that it possesses evidence that Tehran has conducted work on a highly sophisticated nuclear triggering technology that experts said could be used for only one purpose: setting off a nuclear weapon. Hersh quickly pointed out the that the word evidence never appeared in the IAEA report and, it turns out, the type of nuclear trigger the New York Times was referring to is so fraught with technical problems that, according to Hersh, there is no evidence that anybody in their right mind would want to use that kind of a trigger. So, what in the world is the New York Times telling us?
Part II What is Real?
Questions One and Two: The questions about Irans nuclear program are not open ended. They have real answers. First, is Iran developing nuclear energy? The answer to this is a definitive yes. No one, Iranian or otherwise, denies this. Their aim here is energy production and medical applications. This is all legal. Second, is it developing nuclear weapons? According to every reliable expert within the intelligence agencies of both the United States and Europe, the answer is no. These answers describe reality in relation to Iran and its nuclear activities.
Question Three: The really important question. Why do American politicians and military leaders refuse to accept reality as regards this issue? That too must have an answer. And intelligent people who investigate these matters should be able to figure it out. I consider myself in this crowd, and so I am going to venture forth with my answer.
Answer to question three: It is Politics. However, it is not just U.S. politics. Others have helped write the script. These others can be identified by asking to whom are American officials pledging to pursue the Iranian nuclear weapons fantasy? The presidents pledge has gone to AIPAC and the Israelis. Members of Congress have done the same.
Part III Other Peoples Fantasies Become Americas Fears
Israeli politicians are addicted to the Iran threat. Iran serves, alongside the Palestinians, as the latter day ruthless anti-Semite who would destroy the Jews. Zionists seem to need this kind of existentialist enemy. This is the equivalent of the Islamic fundamentalist taking the place of the hateful communist as the great enemy that the United States also seems to need. And, as it turns out, the Israeli lobby is more influential in formulating U.S. foreign policy toward Iran than all of the nations intelligence services put together. Hence our politicians from the President on down, chase shadows. Not just verbally, mind you, but in terms of definable policy (like sanctions against Iran).
U.S. politicians can not talk like this and create policy like this without the mainstream press following along. Where there is smoke, there must be fire. Plus, ever since the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), Americans have been told that the Iranians hate us. So, whether it is Fox TV, whose fanatical conservative backers have always lived in a bi-polar fantasy world of good and evil, or the New York Times, whose quasi-liberal backers empathize with Israel just enough to buy into that countrys paranoia, the message is that the Iranians are crazy people out to destroy the West. And the evidence? Who needs it?
Part IV- The Real Danger is Acting on False Assumptions
What happens when a well armed individual can not tell the difference between reality and unreality? What happens when a well armed individual just knows, in his gut, that the other guy is plotting to destroy him? Chances are something horrible will happen. And, the American public ought to know that this is so, because collectively we have already lived out this tragedy in 2003. In that year we had leadership who were much more influenced by their guts, by religious imagery, by duplicitous Iraqi con men, by scheming Zionists and ideologically driven neo-cons, than anything vaguely resembling hard evidence. That something horrible cost the lives of up to a million human beings.
So let us get this straight. It seems there are two worlds. The real world of facts and evidence and the unreal world of fantasy. Our political leaders and their advisers are, apparently, stuck in the unreal one. Their words, and their policies, are built on the assumptions of this fantasy world. They go to war and kill people based on beliefs that are demonstrably false. And the rest of us? Most of us are stuck in our own local niches and beyond them we do not know what is real or unreal. So we rely on others to tell us what to believe. Who are the others? They just happen to be our political leaders, their advisers, and follow-the-leader media commentators. Well, that makes a nice little circle. And, a fatal one at that.
Ignorance and 9/11 An Analysis (15 September 2011) by Lawrence Davidson
On Monday 12 September 2011 I had sixty five students in a Twentieth Century World history class ask me what I thought were the origins of the 9/11 attacks. I said I was quite willing to tell them what I thought, but first they had to give me their opinions. The vast majority believed that Muslim fanaticism led to the tragedy. The only other competitive theory, held by a small minority, was that the attacks were the result of a conspiracy located within the U.S. government itself.
I made it clear that I do not believe in the conspiracy explanation, if for no other reason than it would be impossible to keep that sort of thing secret in a political environment (Washington DC) which leaked information like a sieve. I was more interested in why they thought Muslim fanaticism caused the attack. They could not answer the question in any specific way. It was just the majority opinion that was somehow in the air. And, indeed, it is what our leaders and the media suggest and is, by now, part of a shared national consciousness.
Next I inquired why they asked me this question? They answered that as the fellow in the History Department who taught about the Middle East, they saw me as a credible source of information. With that established, I agreed that this was a good and indeed necessary use of class time. So I began.
I told them that Muslim fanaticism did not cause the attack. Clearly the belief that one was acting in a way approved by God made it easier to hijack the planes and crash them into their targets. But that belief was not the motivation for these acts. Rather the attacks on September 11, 2001 were performed as revenge for decades of U.S. foreign policy decisions that had caused enormous suffering in the Middle East.. Student reaction was something like: foreign policy, what foreign policy? I told those sixty five students that was exactly the right question. It was time (actually it was long past due) that they understood 9/11 in its historical context. I then led them through a brief description of the following events, all of which identified the United States as an enemy of justice and democracy in the Middle East:
1. In 1953 the U.S. overthrow the democratically established government of Iran and installed the Shahs dictatorship.
2. In 1958 the U.S. landed troops in Lebanon in support of a Maronite Christian president who was seeking to subvert the Lebanese constitution. We repeated the mistake 25 years later, in 1983, when Ronald Reagan once more sent U.S. forces into Lebanon and quickly lost 241 servicemen to a suicide bomber.
3. We have subsequently backed numerous ME dictators, among them Mubarak in Egypt, Abdullah in Jordan, the Saudi monarchy in Arabia, the king of Bahrain, etc. even while selectively opposing others such as those in Syria and Lybia. Our criterion for support is not whether a government is a dictatorship or democracy, but rather whether it cooperates or not with American policies in the region.
4. The notorious regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was an excellent example of this criterion. For a number of years this dictator was the beneficiary of American support (we sold him his poison gas and biological agents). However, he eventually invaded Kuwait (which the British had lopped off from Iraq in 1913) and we then turned against him. Following the First Gulf War a U.S. sponsored blockade of Iraq resulted in the death of over half a million Iraqi poor people and children. I quoted Secretary of State Madeleine Albrights infamous 1996 confession on the TV program 60 Minutes that she thought all those deaths were worth it. I am sure that Osama bin Laden thought exactly the same way about the deaths of the civilians in the Twin Towers and the hijacked airplanes.
5. And, of course, there is the consistent U.S. support of Israel in its policy of relentless absorption of Palestinian land. Which, in the eyes of many in the Middle East, makes Washington an accomplice in an imperialist and colonialist foreign occupation. As a function of this support U.S. sought to overturn the 2006 fair and free democratic election of the Hamas government in Palestine.
Finally, I explained to the students that however U.S. officials might rationalize these policies, it is simply naive to expect that those who do not like our behavior will stand by and do nothing. And they havent. As it turns out, most of those who have turned violent against us are non-state actors such as those associated with Al Qaeda because, over the last 60 odd years, those Middle Eastern governments that opposed the U.S., and also Israel, have been proven impotent.
The vast majority of Americans have no clue about this history of U.S. behavior. And, the truth is that we simply cannot think critically about what we do not know. As a consequence Americans have no historical context through which to understand the blowback such behavior engenders. That being the case they are susceptible to whatever fantasies the media and their leaders feed them, as well as innumerable conspiracy theories. Most Americans accept the story that the terrorism of September 11 was motivated by religious fanaticism and carried out by those who hate our freedoms. (To this contention I reply that those who fight against the U.S. do not care what we Americans do in our country, they care what we do in their countries). The sceptics gravitate to the conspiracy stories. They too have it wrong though oddly the U.S. government, by acting in the way described above, did engineer the disaster.
In the case of my students I have filled in the knowledge gaps. It is hard to know how deeply they will ponder this new information and what they can do with it if they do think it through. In any case, as the saying goes, they are but a drop in the ocean. I know that is a depressing thought, but it is an accurate one.
I have come to the conclusion that the United States, for all its ability to project force, is in decline. It is in decline for the same reason that most past empires and power states have faltered. They falter because, over time, their elites become self-deluded and the general public kept in ignorance. The elites come to mistake their own perceptions, limited by narrow interest and/or distorted by ideologies, for objective reality. None of them have ever seen fit to integrate a devils advocate into their deliberations. Those who can see the world objectively are more likely than not to be ignored or outright fired. Without such people in the halls of power and the offices of the media we are blind. And, as the English poet Gerald Massey once observed, in blindness we gather thorns for flowers.
On The Claim of Exceptionalism – An Analysis (1 March 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Ain’t We Great
Everyone wants to be exceptional, to be special, to be great at something. Parents spend a lot of time assuring their children that they are indeed exceptional, even though they often know that the their offspring will spend their working lives selling mattresses or cars. So they leave aside the fact that the child is not exactly an A student, and stick to: “You’re cute as a button.” “You have such a winning smile.” “You’re good at sports.” “You really have a nice singing voice,” “You can bench press that much!” etc. When it comes to individuals there is a very wide range of achievements that can make you stand out. Everyone can be exceptional in some way or other.
Yet it is not only individuals who need to feel themselves exceptional or great. It seems that entire nations, working at some level of collective consciousness, yearn for this status as well. This is particularly true of the citizenry of the USA, who are often told by their politicians that their country is exceptional, special, great – the most talented child in the family of nations. It presently being the political campaign season, one gets these assertions almost daily. Here are some examples:
1. Mitt Romney: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world….”
You know back in the 1960s, when citizens’ ears were more attuned to the country’s sins, the first part of this statement would have suggested God’s complicity in genocide. After all, just how was America “created”? Well, over the dead bodies of innumerable Native Americans. Yet here Mr. Romney is looking in the wrong direction for American specialness. Colonial massacres were not at all exceptional.
2. Mitt Romney, part II: “I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am your President.”
Making such a statement begs the question of just what it takes to assure that the U.S. is the “strongest nation on Earth.” Well the man from Massachusetts gives the recipe in his 2010 book, No Apology: the Case for American Greatness. The recipe: “expand American military programs and their funding. He recommends adding a minimum of 100,000 soldiers to the Marines and Army specifically. He writes as well about updating America’s nuclear stockpile, building a missile defense system and researching into cyber-warfare.” Want to be great? Muscle up! As we will see this is a very traditional position.
3. Rick Santorum: To assure that American exceptionalism is recognized and promoted, American leaders must a) never suggest that any past policies could have been wrong b) never apologize for anything and c) never suggest that anyone can possibly be as exceptional as we are.
Having gotten that straight, Santorum also goes the muscle up route. American greatness is dependent on recruiting more soldiers because “America is in a war” with evil, which we must learn to recognize for “what it is” like, among other things, “Sharia law.”
It is said that Santorum is “selling himself as a conservative crusader.” However, he sounds like a spoiled child to me: “I won’t say I’m wrong!” I won’t apologize!” I am definitely better than you are!” And if you push me, I’ll call you evil and beat you up!” How great is that?
4. Newt Gingrich: “What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you.” That means, “in America no politician, no bureaucrat, no judge can take those rights away.” Oh boy. I don’t know about his rights, but someone should definitely take Newt’s Ph.D. away from him.
Despite Thomas Jefferson’s hyperbole in the Declaration of Independence, rights most definitely come from the state via the Constitution. As far as I know Habeas Corpus appears nowhere in the Bible. The fact that rights come from the state and not God means that, by making up new categories such as “enemy combatants,” the state can, and indeed has, taken rights away from citizens as well as others. Newt must have been out to lunch when this happened.
As for the assertion that it is only Americans who claim that God directly sends them “power” in the form of rights, it is just plain wrong. Among others, Muslims make this claim. God is always with the Muslim. He is “closer to you than your own veins” (Quran 50.16). Allah has delivered rights and obligations to all and, if you heed them, they will put you on the “straight path” to salvation.
5. President Obama also believes in American exceptionalism. He finds it in the nation’s “unmatched military capability,” the great size of its economy, and “a set of core values” such as free speech that are “enshrined in its Constitution, laws and democratic practices.”
Actually, what makes Obama different than his political foes is not only leaving God out of this, but also his willingness to concede that other countries have exceptional qualities too and that, on occasion, Americans do stupid things for which they should apologize. Maybe coming from an African American background has something to do with these insights.
Part II – Historically, Why Are Nations Thought To Be Great?
Throughout history there has been one major definition for national greatness (or exceptionalism) and that is great military power. As we see, all the mentioned politicians pick up on this theme and those challenging Obama want more troops, more missiles, more nukes. It has long been this way. Why were the Romans great? Conquest. Why was France under Napoleon exceptional? Conquest. Why was the British Empire great? Conquest. And why is America exceptional? The alleged capacity to force most of the world to its will. Oh, there are other things people sometimes mention: Roman law and great architecture; the Napoleonic Code and freeing the Jews from their ghettos; England making the seas safe from pirates and introducing the world to Indian food; and finally, when it comes to the U.S., there is that multifaceted thing called “freedom.” But all that is really secondary. The first and foremost historical criterion for national greatness is: going out, hitting your neighbor over the head and stealing his stuff. That is why “great powers” are great.
Part III – Alternative Criteria For Greatness
Here are some achievements other than military might and conquest that ought to have a higher claim on national greatness or exceptionalism:
1. The ability to eliminate hunger among citizens.
2. The ability to provide decent housing for all citizens.
3. The ability to provide healthcare for all citizens.
4. The ability to provide affordable education for all citizens.
5. The ability to provide citizens with productive work at a living wage.
The nation that can provide these primary needs for its people is well on its way to greatness. Indeed, the other things that Americans so value, such as freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, or even the very right to vote, are only fully convincing as “inalienable rights” when you are not chronically hungry and your kids aren’t dying of curable diseases. That doesn’t mean that they are not important and should not be fought for, it just means that rights come in the form of an hierarchical package and the American package is incomplete.
Part IV – Conclusion
The sound bite versions of greatness or exceptionalism that come from our politicians are so superficial and decontextualized as to be meaningless. They are the verbal equivalent of that little hammer doctors use to make your lower leg jump forward. Sure, they get a response, but do you really know what it all means? Then again many Americans just can’t see beyond the big army, big navy (ah, those navy seals), and big air force. Guns, guns, guns, that is the traditional, historical road to greatness. Just read a bit of history. All the rest is fluff.