Archive for December, 2012
Education and National Security – An Analysis (17 December 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – What is Education For?
The last week of September, 1938 was deemed “American Education Week” and for the occasion President Franklin Delano Roosevelt released a message to the citizenry. He noted that there were competitive systems of government that were fast coming into conflict and, when it came to the practice and preservation of the political system in the U.S., public education played a vital role. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Thus did Roosevelt tie education to “national security.” Nonetheless, this was a problematic assertion. It assumed that citizens actually do choose their leaders rather than just affirming a leader chosen by elites. And, significantly, it assumed that what is taught in the schools results in the ability to make “wise” political choices.
The mission that FDR assigned to education continues to be part of a popular democratic trope that idealizes education’s mission. Yet, underneath the quixotry there are more pragmatic, and certainly less democratic concerns. In truth, education has always had two main functions:
1. To train people for the market place. Before literacy was required for the market place, schools were strictly for those few who went into specialized careers such as religious vocations, scribes and record keepers and the like. Almost everyone else learned what they needed to know through apprenticeships. For this, there were no instruction manuals to read. As early modern times saw literacy become more economically important, public schools were established to provide it. Today, literacy is so important to the economy that illiteracy is looked upon as some kind of moral failing.
2. To socialize people so that they identify with the prevailing ideology. The aim here is to produce the “good citizen.” In the age of the nation-state, that means to believe in the worth of your nation, its institutions, traditions and laws. In this regard, education has no inherent tie to democracy. The job of the schools is to teach the “rightness,” the legitimacy, of whatever system prevails.
Part II – Is National Survival At Risk?
In the United States, there is a long standing debate over the effectiveness of public education in fulfilling the requirements of the core missions noted above, particularly #1. For instance, business people allegedly complain that they can’t find enough qualified people. This seems to be a common, if only anecdotal, perception even though high school graduation rates, as well as reading and math scores on nationwide tests are the highest they have ever been. Yet, in our “NAFTA” (free trade) age, a lot of work is outsourced abroad or skilled labor is imported into the country. This is often done, not because of any lack of domestically available labor, but because it is cheaper to do it that way.
Recently the debate over public education has taken on an added dimension somewhat tangential to FDR’s 1938 message. According to a recent report, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. public schools are doing such an awful job of training for national needs that they have “put the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.” Why did the commission responsible for the report come to this hyperbolic conclusion? Well, here are some of their accusations:
1. As noted above, U.S. employers allegedly have a hard time finding enough well trained scientists, engineers, administrators, analysts and linguists. However, this time around we are not talking about the average employer. Rather, the report speaks of the need “to staff the military, intelligence agencies, and other government-run national security offices, as well as the aerospace and defense industries.”
2. The entire national education effort is lacking in strong direction. There needs to be “a national security readiness audit” to reshape the curriculum to emphasize those subjects that will “safeguard America’s future security and prosperity.” And, just so everyone knows where the buck stops in this regard, the report insists that “schools and policymakers” be held “accountable for the results.”
It should be noted that Roosevelt’s issue of educating citizens to make “wise” political choices is not among the report’s concerns. As we will see, that issue has apparently been overwhelmed by another ideological concern–the conservative holy grail of privatization.
Part III – What are the Real Motives?
The report has recently been critiqued by Diane Ravitch in the June 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books. Ravitch points out that much of the report’s complaints are not backed up with sufficient evidence to warrant the apocalyptic consequences the authors assign to them. What evidence that is offered tends to be selective–the kind of evidence one gets when “confirmation bias” is at work. Many of the report’s recommendations are also lacking in evidence that they are necessary or even doable. In addition, she points out that there have been a number of previous reports on public education all of which have been aimed at helping to improve the public education process. This report, however, has an eye for gutting the public system in favor of privatizing education via charter schools and voucher systems.
This last point is a tip-off that the report is, in truth, an ideological, rather than investigatory, exercise. It is best understood within the context of an on-going conservative attack on the non-military, non-police and non-judicial roles of government. As Ravitch notes, a good number of the participants that created the report have conflicts of interest because they were already committed to privatizing education. For instance, “Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain” and Joel Klein who, as chancellor of New York City public schools, pushed charter schools as the answer to a variety of educational problems were both members of the commission that wrote the report.
Actually, except for the specific exception noted below, American public schools are doing pretty well. Among each years’ high school graduates, you will find a bell curve range of competency in whatever subject area you chose to measure. Most graduates will not yet have the skill level to be a scientist or writer of books. But most will have the skill level to do their taxes, balance their checkbooks, write e-mail memos, keep records and sell the myriad numbers of gizmos and gadgets that now increasingly dominate our lives. Those who go to college will have the opportunity to acquire further skills in the areas of science, mathematics, research and writing but may not develop the interest to pursue these opportunities. In the modern era, it has really never been much different.
Part IV – Conclusion
If the authors of the report are really interested in poor education as a national security threat they are looking in the wrong direction. In fact, it is Ravitch, in her critique of the report, that spots the real area where these two come together. There are parts of the country where poverty and “racial isolation” result in such poor educational (and vocational) opportunities that the majority of the population has no hope of sharing in the general prosperity and promise of the country. These people will not acquire the necessary skill set, nor will they be indoctrinated with the patriotism, that education is meant to deliver. And, as far as FDR’s ideal for education, the ability to make wise political choices, it is irrelevant for those who live in ghettos that the political system has all but abandoned.
The enclaves of deep and lasting poverty are in fact areas of potential violent rebellion. This was shown to be so in the 1960s and it can happen again. That is a good reason to take Ravitch’s suggestion, “If education [is] truly the key to our national security, perhaps we should allocate sufficient funding to equalize resources in poor neighborhoods….” seriously. To do so would be a wiser investment, in terms of “national security,” than the trillion and half dollars we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To Hell With The Intelligence – An Analysis (8 December 2012) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Magdulien Abaida and the Real Libya
On 3 December 2012, BBC News reported on the plight of Libyan activist Magdulien Abaida. When the Libyan revolution broke out in Benghazi back in February 2011, she played an important part in developing a positive image of the revolt among European audiences and helped arrange material aid for the rebel forces. She did this against the backdrop of Western governments describing the rebellion as one that sought “democratic rights” for the Libyan people. Upon the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, the U.S. State Department issued a statement (2 November 2012) applauding the rebel victory as a “milestone” in the country’s “democratic transition.” This matched Ms Abaida’s expectations. Unfortunately, her subsequent experience belied the optimism.
With the rebel victory in October 2011, Abaida returned to Libya to help with the “democratic transition” and promote her particular cause of women’s rights. However, what she found in her homeland was chaos. The tribalism that underlies social organization in Libya had come to the fore. According to Amnesty International, that tribalism is reflected in the activities of “armed militias…acting completely out of control….There are hundreds of them across the country, arresting people without warrant, detaining them incommunicado, and torturing them….This is all happening while the government is unwilling or unable to rein the militias in.”
Abaida adds that “during the revolution everyone was united, all were working together.” That, of course, was when many of the tribes had a common enemy–the Qaddafi regime. Now the common enemy was gone. As it turned out, Qaddafi’s dictatorship had served for 41 years as a center of gravity–a center that kept the centrifugal tribal forces in check. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that took over after the defeat of the regime and the parliamentary elections that followed, were supposed to fill the void. They proved insufficient to the task. Ms. Abaida and her cause have now become a victim of that failure.
Upon her return she advocated for gender equality to be incorporated into any new Libyan constitution. She never had a chance. The tribes are tied to traditions that are strongly patriarchal. Also, the chaotic nature of post-revolution Libyan politics allowed free play to extremist Islamic forces that saw gender equality as a Western perversion. In October 2011, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, “the internationally-known face of the revolution and head of the rebels’ NTC used his first public speech after the fall of Gaddafi (sic) to propose making it easier for men to have more than one wife.” For Ms Abaida this was a “big shock….We wanted more rights, not to destroy the rights of half of society.”
Worse was yet to come. When Abaida came to Benghazi in the summer of 2012 to attend a conference on the status of women in the new Libya, she was twice abducted by an extremist militia that saw her and the conference as anti-Islamic. During her abduction she was pointedly told that she could be killed and “nobody would know.” But they did not kill her. They just beat her up and turned her loose. She was left with the strong impression that, if she stayed politically active in Libya, she would indeed die and no one would know.
Part II – Rush to Judgment
Was what happened to Ms Abaida predictable? Or, to put it more broadly, could those Western leaders who spent billions of taxpayer dollars assisting in the “liberation” of Libya have predicted, with reasonably high probability, that victory for the rebels would result in political breakdown and the empowerment of extremist groups such as the one that kidnaped and assaulted Magdulien Abaida? I think that the answer to this is yes. Indeed, I suspect that the prediction was actually made yet ignored by the powers that be.
U.S. intelligence services such as the CIA, and their equivalents in other countries, have middle level professionals who know a great deal about almost every country in the world. They know the languages, read the local newspapers, listen to the radio and television stations, and have other sources of information that come through diplomatic and private channels. When it comes to Libya, is beyond doubt that the relevant intelligence workers knew the nature of this society and the divergent tribal forces that had been so long kept in check by the Qaddafi dictatorship. It is also beyond doubt that, at this country-specific level, operatives in these intelligence agencies knew and were reporting about the relative strengths and weaknesses of extremist religious elements held in check by the regime. The normal routine is to pass such intelligence up a hierarchical bureaucratic channel. The information deemed important enough is then packaged into daily updated reports that end up, in the case of the U.S., with the president and his national security staff. Again, in the face of a serious rebellion against Qaddafi, it is more than reasonable to assume such information did get that far.
Yet, it would seem that such information caused no serious second thoughts about quickly jumping into the fray and backing the rebellion. Even with the historic consequences of our having armed al-Qaeda and similar groups during the Afghan-Soviet war, it does not appear that anyone in authority stopped long enough to ask if the U.S. might risk repeating this mistake in Libya. Instead, Washington and its allies rallied NATO, rammed through a UN resolution that allowed intervention and, in short order, was aiding and abetting the rebellion. One of the ways it did this was in supplying an almost unlimited amount of weapons to rebel forces through a conduit set up by Qatar. No one paid attention to just whom the Qataris were giving the guns to. Sure enough, some of them were given to al-Qaeda like elements.
Thus, the move to get involved in Libya occurred very quickly. The allure of destroying Muammar Qaddafi, who had for so long been the bete noir of the U.S. (though for the past few years he had reversed policy and cooperated with the West), must have been just too strong. Even Italy, which had found the Qaddafi government a dependable economic partner and secure source of affordable oil, dropped its support of the regime without much protest. In the rush to judgment, the question of who might gain power afterwards was, apparently, left to the middle echelon intelligence agents to worry about.
Now Qaddafi is gone, murdered to the acclaim of Hillary Clinton, and the tribal warlords and their militias have largely taken his place. The central government in Libya is weak and, under the present conditions, has little real chance of reigning them in. The aggressive extremists have our guns, as well as Qaddafi’s, and some of them are probably migrating to Syria to carry on their battle. As for Magdulien Abaida, she is too afraid to return to the land she tried so diligently to help.
Part III – Conclusion
As intelligence agencies go, the CIA and its like are fairly good at collecting information, analyzing it, and rendering reasoned judgments as to its meaning. (They are, of course, utterly evil when it comes to killing and torturing, but that is not the “mission” I am presently speaking of). Usually, the advice rendered by the middle level folks who do the analyzing and reporting errs on the side of caution. The problem is the political leaders all too often ignore the intelligence reports when they don’t fit with their political goals. Those goals reflect ideological and electoral concerns as well as the need to appear to be acting in strong and determined ways–more assertive protectors of “freedom” than their competitors in the opposition party. This works to make presidents and prime ministers prone to opportunism and short-sightedness. Thus, the rush to judgment in Iraq, in Libya, and maybe soon in Iran. In the end, Washington has repeatedly proven that Mark Twain was wrong when he asserted “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.”