Apathy kills Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 

WikiLeaks has just released a rather disturbing document. The leaked document comes from the CIA, and it details how the manipulation of public opinion should be used to bolster support for our war in Afghanistan. The CIA is apparently concerned with the possibility of a “Dutch-style debate” in other NATO countries, “notably France and Germany.” The Dutch, of course, made news last month after their government collapsed amid debates as to whether the country should keep its troops in Afghanistan or not. The Dutch will pull their troops out by August.

Naturally, the U.S. government is very concerned about this. If a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to other countries, the mission in Afghanistan could be jeopardized. They know this because they know their war in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly opposed by the public. (You can read my post on why I think the Afghanistan War is fundamentally wrong here.) The CIA acknowledges, “Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments, according to INR polling in fall 2009.”

I believe this has something to do with one of the conclusions I came to in a post about the way democracy in the United States functions: the public is supposed to be marginalized and its opinion ignored. I don’t pretend this is limited to the United States. The CIA readily admits “French and German leaders” have been able to “disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).” The CIA notes that Germany and France “have counted on public apathy about Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the mission.” But if a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to these countries, they may not be able to rely on apathy any longer to continue their involvement in Afghanistan. Apathy could quickly “turn into active and politically potent hostility,” and worsening conditions “could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal.” This is bad news because the CIA fears “politicians elsewhere might cite a precedent for ‘listening to the voters.'” We can’t have politicians listening to voters…

Thus, the report recommends the United States government be involved in a campaign to alter the public’s opinion, or what has been referred to as “the manufacture of consent.” In normal parlance we might refer to this as propaganda. The report mentions, “Western European publics might be better prepared to tolerate a spring and summer of greater military and civilian casualties if they perceive clear connections between outcomes in Afghanistan and their own priorities.” Therefore, there is a need for “A consistent and iterative strategic communication program” that would give “tailored messages” to the public, in order to get them “to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties.” The report suggests the U.S. government “could leverage French (and other European) guilt.” If we monger fear, particularly about “the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress” and “a refugee crisis,” we could “provoke French indignation.”

One of the key resources we have in doing this is President Obama. It’s fairly hard for anyone to ignore how muted the subject of war has become, particularly in left and Democratic circles, after the election of President Obama. Him being a Democrat has helped the hawks in calming the anti-war movement, which has a strong core of Democrats and leftists (though there are also many right-libertarians as well). The CIA recognizes this fact. The CIA is quick to boast about the “confidence of the French and German publics in President Obama’s ability to handle foreign affairs in general and Afghanistan in particular.” They suggest there is a “significant sensitivity to disappointing a president seen as broadly in sync with European concerns.” Therefore, President Obama is a wonderful asset for the U.S. government to sell the war.

If our government being involved in the manipulation of opinion in other countries doesn’t unsettle you in the slightest, perhaps it would be even harder to not be disturbed by how it is actively going after Web sites like WikiLeaks that expose secrets of corrupt governments and corporations. WikiLeaks.org has been described as a “controversial but essential example of what the web does best,” that “takes power away from the powerful and hands it to citizens.” This is precisely what has the U.S. government concerned. Writes The New York Times, “To the list of the enemies threatening the security of the United States, the Pentagon has added WikiLeaks.org, a tiny online source of information and documents that governments and corporations around the world would prefer to keep secret.” This is following WikiLeak’s release of a document prepared by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center that discusses how it sees WikiLeaks as being a threat to the national government.

I think little else need be said.

Obama evinces the truth: the crisis of democracy Tuesday, Oct 6 2009 

Today, President Obama announced that what I and others have been saying about democracy is true. Namely, it doesn’t function in the United States. As I point out in my post about democracy in the United States, it functions just as Dana Perino explains it: You get your say every four years, and you’re supposed to shutup in between those years. That is, you’re supposed to be relegated to be spectators in this “democracy,” not participants.

So when Obama declares he won’t listen to the public or Congress in how to handle the Afghanistan War, a war that is fundamentally wrong, he is implicitly agreeing with Perino and others who argue that the public should have no input on how the country is run.

These ideas are not new by any means either. This is essentially how it was designed by the Framers. This is what Madison meant when he said government’s role was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The public was not to interfere with what he called the “Wealth of the nation.” Therefore, government is to be comprised of the “more capable set of men,” which “ought to come from, & represent, the Wealth of the nation.” That’s Obama’s role. Obama (and Congress) is there to represent elite opinion and interests (against the interests of the majority, i.e. the public). That’s how it was designed by the Framers.

One of the biggest supporters of this idea has been Walter Lippmann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was renowned by the progressives of his era. The public, what he called the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” should occasionally “lend their weight” to a small choice of the “responsible men” (what we call elections), but should, for the most part, be spectators rather than active participants in democracy. That’s because he considered public involvement in governing a “false ideal.” This idea was supported quite widely, even among the liberals. Take Harold Lasswell, for example — “a leading American political scientist and communications theorist.” He argued that we should ignore “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests” because “men are often poor judges of their own interests” and because the “masses are still captive to ignorance and superstition.” These views are consistent with Lippmann’s, who argued for an elite class of men to rule (a vanguard of sorts) because, as Lasswell points out, men are not good judges of their own interests but “we are” (the “we” being elitists). So “we” have to stave off “the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd” (that is, the public).

So, yes, Obama takes the elitist view when he declares that the public does not know what’s best for them. That’s what the “more capable set of men” are there to do. (And it should be no surprise that these “responsible men” “represent the Wealth of the nation” and not the public.) The public has no illusions either. They know it. Some 80% of Americans recognize that government is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” and not “for the benefit of all the people.” That’s why 94% say government should “pay attention to the views of the people” more than every four years. But that’s now how the system is set up. Obama knows this.

But I think it also highlights another important subject, which is taxes. Michael Moore brings up a good point about them in a question and answer at a university regarding his new film on capitalism. People in America are upset about taxes. We’ve all seen the protests as of late. But if we look at places like France, which is no stranger to protests, we don’t see the public enraged over taxes, which are substantially higher there than here. Why the difference? Perhaps it’s because the lack of involvement by the public in deciding how their taxes are used here in America. Half of every tax dollar collected goes to the military, when a large majority of the population supports decreasing the radical spending on the military, for example. Our tax dollars aren’t really going where we want them to go (e.g. a majority of people support a public health care option). It’s not happening. There is (and has been) a huge gap between public opinion and elite opinion. Public opinion is ignored, as Obama proves to us. So I’m not surprised at all that tax day is so dreaded in America. In a functioning democracy, everybody would say “great, today is the day I get to contribute to the common decision that I was able to participate in.” It just doesn’t happen.

The dangers of jingoism Sunday, Oct 4 2009 

There is, by now, an all too familiar refrain that goes something like, “Our military is under-appreciated” or “they don’t get the respect they deserve.” Janet, at the SCSU Scholars blog, argues that we take for granted the work the military does, that rights and freedoms are earned by military fighting, and that criticizing their actions “will lead to losses very few of us can imagine.” In an earlier post, she claims “we take our 100% voluntary military for granted,” calling it “the most humane military that has ever existed.”

(In all transparency, I took similar positions during my first year at SCSU. You can read a letter I wrote to the school newspaper in response to Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war speech on campus. “That’s just typical American rhetoric from those who take their freedom and liberty for granted,” I wrote. Needless to say, I no longer hold these views.)

Of course, such sentiments are supported by calls for us to “Support our troops,” a completely vacuous slogan. It’s an empty and meaningless piece of propaganda, but that’s for good reason. It’s a phrase jingoists can rally around, that no sensible American could possibly be against (because it lacks meaning). If you dissent, you’re un-American, immoral filth, and so on. You feel guilty. You know — Americanism and nationalism. You can’t be against that, right? So that’s the first goal. But even more importantly, it diverts our attention away from asking important questions. Questions like, “Should we support this foreign policy?” “Is this war in Afghanistan right?” “Is what we’re doing moral?” You’re not supposed to ask those questions. You’re supposed to ask, “Do you support our troops?” That’s what propaganda is there for. As Noam Chomsky explains, “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” It’s there to control public thought. So, of course, you “support our troops” and display yellow ribbons; you’re patriotic.

The military is to be left unquestioned, lest we face “unimaginable losses.” We’re supposed to forget (or not be told about) the terrible atrocities committed by our military in the name of righteousness, liberty, fairness, democracy, or all the other similar platitudes. We’re not supposed to mention the wars of conquests and terror carried out by this utterly humane military might. Anything we do overseas is right by definition because we’re doing it. We are, after all, exceptional.

That’s extreme jingoism. And it’s dangerous.

On the Iraq War Monday, Sep 28 2009 

It seems I haven’t written thing about the Iraq War on this blog. I always thought I had, since it seems like an obvious topic. (I have, however, discussed the use of torture by President Bush as a result of this war.) I even have a post on the Afghanistan War. (Many consider the case for the Afghanistan War much stronger than the Iraq War. Indeed it is, but only marginally; both wars are fundamentally wrong.)

I could approach the Iraq War in the same way I approached the Afghanistan War. Namely, if something is wrong for others, then it is equally wrong for us. That is the idea of moral universalism, which every respectable moral theory has at its core. See my post on the Afghanistan War for more on moral universalism and its application to U.S. foreign policy. The justification for the Iraq War fails in the same regard. I can speak more on this if anyone is interested.

There is clearly a lot to say about the Iraq War and a lot can be said about why it was wrong. I cannot possibly cover all of these but I will try to cover some of what I feel are important points.

Let’s look at some of those justifications, a lot of which were provided in in a discussion at the SCSU Scholars blog (updated link) regarding President Obama’s foreign policy. The first justification is that most of Congress and some of the international “coalition” (mainly the West) supported President Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq. But this is trivial to the question of whether it is right or wrong. If 51% of Congress supported the genocide of a population, would that make it justifiable? Certainly not. The rightness of response is not dictated by Congress (or a coalition, for that matter). Conservative critics often lambast Congress and the President for the laws they pass, but when it comes to war they automatically get it right? No, because, again, rightness is independent of Congressional mandates.

Second, it should also be considered that the American public and the rest of the world was blatantly lied to by Bush and his administration. “Lie” implies the knowledge of truth and stating a deliberate falsehood contrary to that truth, and indeed this is what occurred in order to sell the war in Iraq. That’s virtually without doubt. The Downing Street memo, “the smoking gun,” clearly demonstrated that Bush wanted to dispose of Saddam Hussein on the grounds of WMDs and terrorist links but had to knowingly lie to the American public to do so (it should be clear to everyone that both of these are patent falsehoods). Add to that the Manning Memo, the 2004 document leaks in the UK, the Bush-Aznar memo, the Niger uranium forgeries, or Ron Suskind’s pile of evidence that Bush and his administration orchestrated the war in Iraq long before 2003 and had fabricated evidence or misled the public to do so. What you have is a clear case that the justification, the primary rationale given by Bush’s administration, was contrived and deliberately used to mislead the American public and the rest of the world to get them on board the hawkish agenda. So even when a majority of people agree with you, that’s a void point when those people have been duped.

Another point used to justify the war is that the fact that Bush and no one from his administration has been indicted or tried for any of their actions shows that their actions were right. This is another nonsense argument. Even if we look at the more generous example of O.J. Simpson, who was in fact tried, we do not say his murdering of his wife is justified (and it’s clear he did). (Also, morality is not dictated by law. I can do something morally wrong even if it’s not against the law.) But the fact that Bush has not been tried says nothing about the rightness of response (again). In fact, what it does show is how hypocritical we are. This goes back to the idea of moral universalism. If war of aggression is the “supreme crime” for one, then it also is for Bush. That Bush has not been tried says a lot about who we are as a people, but little about the justification for war in Iraq.

Perhaps the strongest justification the hawks have in defense of the Iraq War is that it resulted in the disposal of Saddam Hussein, who we all agree was a dictator who committed terrible atrocities. (It should, however, be noted that he did so with full support from the U.S.) This is the argument that Bush and his administration switched to when it became glaringly obvious to the world that the primary justifications given for the war were completely invalid. This is the utilitarianism argument, which says the Iraq War was right because it saved more lives than it ended, got rid of a dictator, etc. I personally believe utilitarianism is a shoddy moral theory for reasons I’ve laid out in other posts on this blog, but it should be mentioned that even some utilitarians would disagree with this assessment. They may argue that overall utility has decreased because of the war (or at least was not maximized), and I feel they would be correct in saying so. Rule utilitarians might also claim that invasions and occupations such as these, as a general rule, do not maximize utility, and I feel they would also be correct in saying so.

But does the ousting of Saddam really make this war justifiable and does it make legal? The answer is no. The UN is actually very specific in their charter: “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42″ where “measures not involving the use of armed force” are preferred. The exception is Article 51, which allows for self-defense until the Security Council can respond. So that’s what the international community agrees with. It’s clear the U.S. war in Iraq fails to meet this requirement. In 2004, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General at that time, declared, “From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, [the war] was illegal.” Not only is this war blatantly illegal, it is considered the supreme war crime because it encompasses all the evil that follows from it: “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under Bush (and about as conservative as you can get), even admits the war is illegal, but he says it was justified. The argument now is that the war is illegal but justified. Indeed, it’s possible for morally right actions to exist even if they are contrary to written law. But was the war justified? If it is not even justified from the utilitarian perspective, then it’s certainly going to be hard to justify! (By the way, if it was right to invade and occupy Iraq, it could certainly be said it is equally right for a country to invade and occupy the U.S.) Deontologically, people often use “just war theory” to determine whether a war is just or not (both the criteria to enter into war and how the war is conducted once it is entered into). I think just war theory is a bit dubious, but even this theory makes it clear that the Iraq War is not just. Just war theory states that nations have the right to defend against aggression, but in this case that would apply to Iraq, not the U.S. The war in Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with self-defense (Iraq could not even defend itself).

The question to answer now is, “Where do we go from here?” I think it’s fairly clear. The U.S. has the obligation to withdraw from the nation and pay massive reparations to the Iraqi people. That’s what it ought to do. Second, we also have the obligation to hold the guilty responsible for their crimes. Will that ever happen? I seriously doubt it because we fail to rise to even a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for others is wrong for us too.

The double standard in foreign policy Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

In light of my recent post on the economic liberalization policies during the 1980s and onwards, I was hoping to discuss what is today being referred to “globalization.” Something else has been on the top of my mind lately, however, so that post will wait. What I wish to discuss instead is something that I have referred to numerous times on blog, which is the idea of moral universalism and specifically as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.

I promised someone a while ago I would discuss the Afghanistan War, and unfortunately I have been putting that off (along with most other issues dealing with foreign policy). The issue, in fact, is fairly complex but is one that can be simplified in terms of discussing the morality of it. The simple question we ought to ask ourselves, at all times, is whether what is right or wrong for us also right or wrong for others?

This is a very simple moral question and deals with what’s called moral universality. Namely, we should apply to ourselves the standards we place on others. I think Noam Chomsky, a leading and influential public intellectual, offers a good description of this moral principle: “… the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” He explains, “Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.” So, back to the question, do we follow this basic moral principle?

The answer to the question is a resounding no. This is plainly evident from my discussion of Israeli and U.S. war crimes in Palestine. It’s merely assumed, by virtue, that U.S. is allowed if not obligated to violate international law and human rights. I referenced something U.S. Justice Robert Jackson said during the Nuremberg Trials that also deals with the idea of moral universalism: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

But this is something that cannot even be comprehended in the United States, even among intellectuals. Saying we should apply some basic standards to ourselves (minimally, those we apply to others) would be considered absurd in some circles, if comprehended at all. For example, some people use the September 11, 2001, attacks as the justification for criminal wars and occupations of two destitute countries. Is that the correct response to terrorism? Well, let’s ask what standards we place on others. How should the myriad countries, usually poor and defenseless, across the globe react to Western state terrorism? Let’s take the extreme yet uncontroversial example of the United States’ terror campaign that President Reagan launched against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands dead and its economy in ruins even to this day. Who of those advocating the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq also advocate the bombing of Washington by Nicaragua? Who in the 1980s was saying Nicaragua should declare war against the U.S.? Would Nicaragua have the right to targeted assassinations of our terrorist leaders and those who support them? The answers lead us, invariably, to the conclusion that what’s right for us is wrong for them. We cannot even rise to a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for them is wrong for us too.

Neoconservative delusions Friday, Jul 24 2009 

I plan on making a post about the minimum wage today, but I first want to make a post about something that really enraged me today. Back on July 19, Fox News analyst Ralph Peters suggested the Taliban should murder Bowe Bergdahl, the 23-year-old American soldier who was captured by the Taliban on June 30 in Afghanistan. On July 21, Peters went on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show to explain his comments, showing no remorse for his previous statements, saying Bergdahl was a deserter (with O’Reilly adding that Bergdahl is “crazy” and “a nut”). So the argument being made is that since Peters believes Bergdahl is a deserter, the Taliban should save us “legal hassles and legal bills” by murdering him.

Right from the get-go we can see how absurd Peters’ argument is. First off, as Jim Miklaszewski points out on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, there is no evidence nor any claim by the military that Bergdahl is a deserter. In fact, the Pentagon is allegedly “outraged” over Peters’ statements. So too are 22 Congressional veterans who are demanding an apology.

But let’s even assume Peters is right in his assumption that Bergdahl is a deserter, even though there is no evidence to support such an assumption. Would we be right to advocate for his execution? Should we support his capture? Or is it in fact always wrong to call for the murder of an American soldier, or any captured soldier in a time of war for that matter? Here we have a young man with a family and girlfriend who care about him and who voluntarily joined the military to serve his country, and Peters is on Fox News calling for his murder. This is the most backward and twisted conclusion to come to. One has to be truly sadistic to see any merit in Peters’ statements. Even if Bergdahl was a deserter, the rational, legal, and moral argument to make is to say he should either be held as a prisoner of war in accordance with international law or be sent to the United States for trial. To show the kind of contempt that Peters displays toward American service members, one must abandon any sense of rightness, patriotism, or value in human dignity. He should be disgraced.

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