Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2009

McCain backs Obama

Filed under: Iraq — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

McCain backs Obama’s Iraq troop withdrawal plan

WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidency to Barack Obama last fall, is supporting Obama’s new plan to pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2010.

McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Friday he thinks the plan is “significantly different” from the one Obama pushed during his campaign.

During the campaign, Obama had advocated a complete withdrawal within 16 months of taking office.

McCain said that members of Congress were told in a White House meeting Thursday that the majority of troops in Iraq now would be kept there through the end of the year to protect against violence during Baghdad elections next December. Then, even as troops begin to leave, some 50,000 forces would be kept behind to advise the Iraqi troops.

July 8, 2008

Full Battle Rattle

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

It’s too bad that Jean Baudrillard died since he would have had a field day with “Full Battle Rattle”, a documentary about a billion-dollar simulation of Iraqi villages constructed by the U.S. military to train its occupying forces at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert. The movie premieres at Film Forum in New York tomorrow and can best be described as unintentional satire.

In 1991 Baudrillard described the first Gulf War as existing more as media images (simulacra) than as actual combat. Simulacra would just about sum up the subject of Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s movie whose poster advertises it as “Fake Town, Real War”.

Gerber and Moss made the wise decision not to editorialize but to allow the events to unfold in classic cinéma vérité fashion. After convincing the military that they were serious film-makers and not bomb-throwing anarchists, the two directors were allowed to film inside Medina Wasl, one of the fake villages constructed by the army. Along with the other villages, it has a staff of Iraqi émigrés who seem motivated by a mixture of pro-American zeal and a desire for a quick buck. In other words, they are like their opportunist countrymen who have no problems working for the occupying forces. Other than the fact that they speak Arabic and once lived in Iraq, they are much more like average Americans. For example, the “Deputy Mayor” of Medina Wasl has a regular job as a liquor store clerk and two young women dressed in caftans and head covering would appear more comfortable in designer jeans.

The performances do not stop there. Jihadist raids on Medina Wasl are carried out by American soldiers in costume. When instructed by an officer in charge of the simulation to shout out something in Arabic during an attack, the grunt demurs—he doesn’t know a single word in Arabic. The officer tells him to fake it, to just say something (that sounded to my ears) like “Blubba, hushamusha, bubul, mgugul.” A New York Times article written by the hawkish Dexter Filkins and John F. Burns on Fort Irwin on May 1, 2006 notes: “The insurgents even get acting lessons, coached by Carl Weathers, best known for his portrayal of the boxer Apollo Creed in the ‘Rocky’ films.” It shows.

Since this action and many others are intended to be reviewed by the troops in training, there is always a camera crew taping them. Standing above them all and orchestrating the mayhem is a commanding officer who fancies himself a latter-day Stephen Spielberg. When one grunt, who is playing an Iraqi shot by a jihadi, puts out his hands to soften a fall to the ground after the fake bullet is fired into his skull, the director bawls him out. Since his fall was not “realistic”, he orders a second take.

Throughout the film, the military brass keeps explaining why the simulation is necessary. It was 2006 when attacks on the American military were at an all-time high. In order to decrease the number of attacks, the GI’s were supposed to go through training to make them less hateful to the local population. In an odd way the officers sound a bit like what you hear from “diversity training” managers at big corporations–as if the problems of Iraq can be reduced to communication techniques.

As such, the military simulations can be grouped with other “soft cop” follies churned up by an intractable imperialist war, including the placement of anthropologists in the field whose training will allow them supposedly to open up lines of communication between the army and the restless natives. Ultimately, the solution that seems to be working–at least for the time being–is to simply pay off the Sunni insurgents to the tune of $800,000 a day not to attack US forces.

Filkins and Gordon also note:

At a recent classroom seminar on counterinsurgency at Fort Leavenworth, about 25 Army majors discussed the conduct of the French in the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962. The French, who were trying to hold their colony, lost to the Algerian resistance, even after some French officers endorsed the use of torture to extract intelligence from the insurgents.

In a vigorous classroom debate, the Army majors discussed how and why the French lost. Iraq came up often; four of the majors had already served there and a half-dozen others were scheduled to be deployed there at the end of the academic year. One of the lessons, for instance, is that torture does not work, because of the resentment it generates among the civilian population. The widespread abuse of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, some of it apparently with official approval, did not come up in class. ”Is it applicable to Iraq?” Maj. Sean Smith, a member of the class, said afterward. ”That’s why we do that in every class.”

As long as the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military continues to back torture and as long as a supine Democratic “opposition” continues to allow him to get his way, I doubt that the training at Fort Irwin will have any impact. And as I watch Barack Obama’s latest gyrations, I am afraid that a new president will make no difference either.

Official Website

June 5, 2008

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 3:19 pm

Iraq’s only heavy metal band in performance

If there is anything good to come out of the war in Iraq, it is film documentary. Over the past four years or so, there has been a steady stream of excellent movies. The latest of these is “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” that showed briefly in theaters to universal acclaim. With a modest budget, the documentary allows the principals to speak for themselves. Acrassicauda, the Latin nomenclature for the black scorpion that is found in the Iraqi desert, is the name of Iraq’s only heavy metal band. Their struggle for survival, both physically and culturally, is a reminder of the sustaining power of rock-and-roll.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is related thematically to the excellent “Operation Filmmaker” that opened in New York theaters yesterday. Muthana Mohmed, the young aspiring Iraqi film-maker in this movie, simply wants to make art but events conspire against him. After a bomb blast has destroyed the only film school in Baghdad, he is forced to rely on the dubious charity of Hollywood actor Liev Schreiber for a job as a gopher. And not long after the war begins, the rehearsal studio of Acrassicauda is destroyed by an American missile. Unlike Mohmed, the band has no deep-pocketed benefactors and they are forced into desperate measures to continue with their art.

The members of the band were discovered by Vice Magazine, a more interesting version of Rolling Stone, in 2004 just as Muthana Mohmed was first noticed by MTV. Since Vice has a film company, it was a natural project for Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi—two of its executive producer/directors. They made a series of trips to Baghdad, conducted at extraordinary risk, in order to interview members of the band, particularly the leader Firas who expresses his dream at the film’s end after he has become an exile in Syria: “I hope I can live somewhere else, not in Iraq, so I can get long hair, long beard, Zakk Wylde-style, You know what I’m saying.” (Zakk Wylde was a guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne.)

Firas, a bass player, is a compelling figure. Although he describes himself and the band as non-political, nearly every word he has to say about Iraq would seem to accurately describe its descent into hell. After things took a turn for the worse in 2005, it became impossible for him to meet another band member even though they only lived 15 minutes from each other.

The final 30 minutes or so of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” takes place in Damascus, where all of the band members have sought refuge. As such, it is one of the few documentaries that have described the terrible costs of the war on over 2 million Iraqis who have been forced from their country. Firas says that life in Syria is less than zero compared to the zero that was Iraq. At least in Iraq they knew the terrain, even if it might cost their lives. In Syria, they were safe but deprived from their livelihood as musicians. Apparently, despite the difficulties facing a heavy metal band there both under Saddam and afterwards, there was a fan base. One of the high points of the documentary is a performance by Acrassicauda at a hotel within the Green Zone before an audience of adoring fans, including some sprawled on the floor in an Iraqi version of a mosh pit.

The official DVD release date for “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is June 10. Look for it in your better video stores or Netflix. It can also be ordered from the film’s website.

April 26, 2008

Operation Filmmaker

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Muthana Mohmed (r) was “rescued” by Liev Schreiber (l)
in the same way that Iraq was rescued by George W. Bush

“Operation Filmmaker” is at once a searing indictment of colonialism in Iraq and the phony do-goodism of Hollywood, all revolving around the interaction between Muthana Mohmed, a twenty-five-year-old Baghdad film student, and his various “rescuers” in the film industry. At the conclusion of Nina Davenport’s excellent documentary, you don’t know who is more disgusting–the military men who have ruined Iraq or the film executives who have turned Muhtana into a psychologically and economically dependent tragicomic figure.

Shortly after the war in Iraq began, MTV interviewed Muthana in Baghdad about how an errant American bomb had just leveled the only film school in the country, thus destroying his dream of being a director. After listening to the interview, American actor and director Liev Schreiber decided to “rescue” him from Iraq and make him an intern on the latest film he was directing in Prague: “Everything Is Illuminated”. Muthana came to Prague with dreams of learning the craft of filmmaking, but his job was to be a “gopher”, bringing coffee to the cast, cleaning Schreiber’s shoes and preparing vegan snacks for one of the producers. Preparing the snacks is a real production, involving the exact combination of nuts and dried fruits. Muthana is told that if the combination was not correct, there would be hell to pay.

As a typical Hollywood Jewish liberal, Schreiber is almost as insufferable as Stephen Spielberg. When he finally sits down with Muthana–a Shi’ite–he is disconcerted to discover that George W. Bush is his hero for having liberated his people. As Schreiber and producer Peter Saraf–another Jewish liberal–continue to hear Muthana praise Bush, the relationship cools visibly even though they pledge in good liberal fashion not to hold that against him.

Saraf, the producer of a film on Nelson Mandela and the execrable “Little Miss Sunshine”, is particularly annoying. As Muthana’s internship is coming to an end, he lectures him about the need to “set something up”. The fact that he hasn’t made contacts in the U.S. or Great Britain tells Saraf that he doesn’t have much of a future in the film industry where hustle is all-important. Although Muthana always wears a smile on his face during these encounters, you can almost read his thoughts: “I would like to kill this mother-fucker”.

Despite being a Shi’ite, Muthana is not the least bit religious. He likes to drink and screw around with the women on the set. The film also interviews his friends back in Baghdad who are just as secular-minded as him. The steady deterioration there has led one of them to conclude that all religions are “fucked”.

Just as Muthana’s visa is about to expire, he keeps getting extensions. Word from Iraq is that things are just too dangerous for him to come home. Even with the visa, he is still not sure he can make it in the West since film jobs are relatively hard to come by, even with his high visibility as an Iraqi struggling to make it. After his gig with Schreiber is up, he gets another low-level job on the movie “Doom”, a zombie b-movie starring the ex-wrestler Dwaye “The Rock” Johnson. Muthana confides to Nina Davenport that the script is horrible and is further distressed by the site of actors made up to look like their flesh has been eaten. It reminds him too much of the footage he watches each night on Al Jazeera.

Just one step ahead of the immigration cops and the bill collectors, he relies on friends and associates for legal help and for hand-outs. His relationship with Nina Davenport becomes particularly strained since he sees her as exploiting him for the purpose of her documentary. He demands cash payments from her and when she refuses, he keeps her latest tape hostage.

As the film concludes, Davenport is heard saying: “I always hoped that there would be a good ending with my collaboration with Muthana, but more and more I was looking for an exit strategy.”

“Operation Filmmaker” will have its American theatrical premiere on June 4th at the IFC Center in New York City. It will also open on June 10th at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island, on June 13th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and on June 20th at the Brattle Theatre in Boston, with other national dates to follow throughout the summer and into the fall.

Very highly recommended.

Official film website

April 15, 2008

Battle for Haditha

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Since so much water has passed under the bridge, I asked for a review copy of Nick Broomfield’s “The Battle for Haditha” (scheduled to open at the Film Forum in N.Y. on May 7; it can be downloaded from BitTorrent as well apparently) without realizing that the title was ironic. I entirely forgot that there was no “battle” there, as there had been in neighboring Fallujah, but only a massacre of civilians that was called Iraq’s My Lai.

On the morning of November 19, 2005, an IED attack on a Marine convoy in Haditha left 2 soldiers wounded and a third sliced in half. Immediately afterwards, the marines stopped a taxi cab in the vicinity and shot the driver and 4 young unarmed passengers to death. One of the marines urinated on the head of one of his victims. Soon afterwards, the marines, who had been joined by reinforcements, went into three neighboring houses and shot another 19 civilians to death. A long article in the 2006 issue of Vanity Fair by William Langewiesche, which seems to have had a strong influence on Broomfield’s film, states:

Many had been sleeping, and were woken by the land-mine blast. Some were shot down in their pajamas. The oldest man was 76. He was blind and decrepit, and sat in a wheelchair. His elderly wife was killed, too. The dead children ranged in age from 15 to 3.

At the time the massacre was just one more in a series of outrages that helped to consolidate opposition to the war. Representative John Murtha, a Marine veteran himself, gave a news conference in which he said, “Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” Frank D. Wuterich, the Marine staff sergeant in charge of the killings, sued Murtha for defamation.

Wuterich and four other marines were charged with murder after a report in Time Magazine put enough heat on the military to force it to take action. Even the top killer at the White House was forced to say: ”I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment.”

Broomfield is not the first director to make a docudrama based on the Haditha massacre. Last year, Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” generated a lot of controversy through its all-out assault on the Marines, who are depicted as total sociopaths. I confess to having been able to sit through only 15 minutes of the movie since it was so amateurish and stupid. Not surprisingly, De Palma was lionized at Cannes, where his “political statement” captured the feelings of many film industry celebrities.

Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” takes an entirely different tack on the events. Unlike De Palma, the movie-according to the press notes-makes the case that “The Marines too are victims, attacked, wounded, and forced to respond in the way they have been trained. But when events occur at great speed and under extreme stress, can Marines in the line of fire be accused of murder.”

In order to humanize the American soldiers, Broomfield takes several liberties in his fictional recreation of the events that are not borne out by the facts. To begin with, he introduces a couple of characters responsible for the placement of the bomb who are the mirror images of the Marines. If they hadn’t placed the bomb in the road nearby the houses where the innocent victims lived, none of the killings would have taken place.

The motif of innocent civilians being caught between the pincers of an occupying army and a bloodthirsty insurgency is very old. During the Vietnam War, liberal journalists and politicians always saw the peasant as a victim of two armed forces while only wanting to live in peace. Graham Greene encapsulated this way of thinking when he had the jaded British journalist hero of “The Quiet American” say: “In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on the long poles of wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on their buffaloes.”

An even more egregious error is Broomfield’s decision to have one of the marines leading a young girl, a sole survivor, out of the charnel house by her hand, an utterly bogus “redemptive” note that smacks of the kind of Hollywood liberalism that made Paul Haggis’s “Crash” so insufferable.

If I had the time and the money, I’d try to write a documentary on Iraq–one that is so desperately needed. Nearly every movie that has come out, either fictional or documentary, has been thin on historical context. Basically, there is no equivalent to Peter Davis’s masterpiece on the Vietnam War, the 1974 “Hearts and Minds” documentary that can now be seen on Youtube.

I would start with the country’s origins, which involved the heavy hand of British colonialism. What an amazing rogue’s gallery, from the well-known buccaneer T.E. Lawrence to the much less well-known Gertrude Bell who drew the map from the Ottoman carcass that would include modern-day Iraq. Bell was an “Orientalist” who spoke Arabic and was trained as an archaeologist at Oxford. You can read her journals (and letters) at Newcastle University, including this excerpt from 9/29/1919. You will note that British imperialism had a handle on “divide and conquer” that has been handed down to their American successors. My guess is that the Americans will eventually be forced to leave just as they were-and the sooner the better.

Egypt should be an object lesson to us of how not to do things. I said I thought India was a still more striking one (e.g. Mr Sifton’s remark that the real difficulty under the new scheme will be how to deal with a British officer who rightly comes up against a native minister; if he is to be broken, as would seem inevitable, he should at least be allowed to retire on his full pension – this is a fine example of the extreme difficulty of relinquishing hold once we have taken hold too tight.) Gen. Clayton agreed but said that the fact that Egypt is all of one piece increases the formidableness of the problem. If India were not so much divided, Hindus against Islam, native princes against Nationalists, it would be a much graver matter, indeed if India had the homogeneous population of Egypt, we could not hold on at all.

Youtube trailer for movie

October 18, 2007

Meeting Resistance

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

Opening at theaters around the country starting tomorrow (screening information is here), “Meeting Resistance” is a film that gives a voice to the shadowy Iraqi resistance that has fought the world’s most powerful imperialist country in history to a standstill. With an economy of means, this documentary accomplishes what all great art strives for, namely the humanization of its principals. With so much hatred directed against Sunni insurgents, who lack the socialist credentials of past insurgencies that attracted the solidarity of the Western left, “Meeting Resistance” takes a giant step forward in making the “enemy’s” case. After watching this powerful film, one will have to agree with George Galloway’s assessment in a speech given at the al-Assad Library in Damascus on July 30, 2005:

These poor Iraqis — ragged people, with their sandals, with their Kalashnikovs, with the lightest and most basic of weapons– are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars, with 145 military operations every day, which has made the country ungovernable by the people who occupy it. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know their names, we never saw their faces, they don’t put up photographs of their martyrs, we don’t know the names of their leaders. They are the base of this society. They are the young men and young women who decided, whatever their feelings about the former regime — some are with, some are against. But they decided, when the foreign invaders came, to defend their country, to defend their honor, to defend their families, their religion, their way of life from a military superpower, which landed amongst them.

Co-directed by Steve Connors and Molly Bingham, “Meeting Resistance” allows a group of insurgents in the Al Adhamiya district in Baghdad to explain why they decided to fight the occupation, how they are organized, and–perhaps of the greatest interest–what kind of backgrounds they have. Among the most interesting revelations is that only a small percentage can be described as Baathist “dead-enders”, the description that was offered by the Bush gang early on and that was accepted by some sectors of the left. A political science professor in Baghdad, the only interviewee who is not actually part of the resistance, estimates that less than 10 percent are Baath Party activists.

If they do have connections, they tend to be like “The Warrior” (his facial features are obscured, as is the case with all other fighters) who was a special forces officer in the Iraqi Army and part of a thousand man suicide squad sent to Kerbala and Najaf in the first Gulf War in 1991 to put down the Shia rebellion. When he returned alive, he was charged with dereliction of duty and sentenced to death. (Saddam was obviously influenced by Stalin’s defense at Stalingrad, but a corrupt Baathist “socialism” was hardly a sufficient motivation to fight until death.) His sentence was reduced to life imprisonment and commuted after 3 ½ years in prison where he suffered torture, including broken legs. After the US invaded Iraq, he joined the resistance immediately. Even though he hated the top brass of the Iraqi government and military, he hated occupation more.

In another interview, we learn that one young man who had almost no interest in politics launched what was in effect a one-man resistance after he was humiliated by American soldiers. While he was sitting in a coffee shop with three other friends late one night, two Humvees pulled up. Soldiers poured into the shop and lined them up against the wall where they were cursed and slapped. The young man was so aggravated that he spent his own money on an RPG the next day and destroyed the Humvees. Not satisfied, he bought a rocket launcher next and attacked a tank all on his own. As the interviewer put it, you cannot suppress the Iraqi’s sense of “gallantry.” One of the enormous pleasures “Meeting Resistance” offers is the discourse of the Iraqi people, who are a race of Dylan Thomases based on the evidence of the film.

Addressing the topic of Sunni-Shia conflict, the film makes it pretty clear that the resistance, at least the contingent based in Al Adhamiya, is totally opposed to attacking Shia pilgrimages and mosques. They surmise that the occupation forces, or even the Israeli Mossad, organize these attacks in order to divide the Iraqi people. They also explain that many Sunnis and Shias in Iraq are married, so that it is impossible to view the conflict as purely tribal. That being said, they are not happy with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s refusal to issue a fatwa against the occupation. If he did, the occupation in their opinion would end in a week.

One of the fighters, whose face is covered by a kefiya, has come to Iraq from Syria out of a sense of duty to Allah and a feeling of Arab nationalism, two themes that unite the resistance above all else. He is a deeply religious young man who explains that if Iraq is defeated, then Syria will be next. This belief appears vindicated by the recent Israeli attack on an alleged nuclear weapons facility in Syria, a preparation perhaps for an attack on Iran. One might hope that the Iranian government would eventually develop a sense of solidarity with all under attack from American imperialism. Indeed, they might follow the example of this Syrian fighter, who is Shia himself.

Molly Bingham, Steve Connors

Directors Steve Connors and Molly Bingham deserve enormous credit for having the courage and the dedication to conduct these interviews. Both had worked as free-lance photographers in Iraq from March to June 2003. After the occupation began, they were struck by the rising level of resistance despite Bush’s claim of “mission accomplished.” They became convinced that there was a “fundamental story to the war that was not being significantly covered,” according to an interview contained in the press notes, and began work on the film in August of 2003.

The project obviously contained great personal risk, as they explain the interview:

To the dismay of our families, the short answer is that we didn’t really have any guarantee of safety while we worked on this story. Like all other journalists working in Baghdad at the time we were the possible victims of random violence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an ambush occurs, an IED or a car bomb are detonated, being killed by coalition forces either during combat or like many civilian Iraqis, during the response to an attack, or being kidnapped. But we were also exposed to the specific dangers of this story; that the fighters we were interviewing would turn on us, or that one of the many intelligence services, militaries or militias in the country would find out what we were doing and decide to rough us up or kill us to find out what we knew. We are very lucky that none of the possible things that could have gone wrong did. Not all journalists who have been working in the country have been lucky.

Steve Connors hails from Great Britain and served in the British army in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, a stint that obviously prepared him for the film project. “Meeting Resistance” is his directorial debut.

Molly Bingham was born in Kentucky and graduated from Harvard in 1990. In March 2003, while working as a freelancer in Iraq, she was detained by the Iraqi security forces and spent eight days in Abu Ghraib. Her father is Barry Bingham Jr., the former publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Bingham family, a dynasty really, includes many notable characters, including Barry’s sister and Molly’s aunt, Sallie Bingham who had become a radical feminist in the 1970s. There was a monumental feud in the paper in 1989, when Sallie battled Barry over what she regarded as sexism at the paper. The paper was sold when the differences reached the breaking point. Like her aunt Sallie, Molly Bingham clearly has the courage of her convictions and we are all the better for that as demonstrated by the remarkable “Meeting Resistance.”

Official Film Website

October 10, 2007

Kanan Makiya

Filed under: cruise missile left,Iraq,war — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

Except for rascals like Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Kamm, most of the pro-war “left” has reversed itself (George Packer, Johann Hari)–without of course abrogating the right of the US to act as world’s cop when the cause is supposedly just (Afghanistan, Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.) There is also a group that still supports the invasion but keeps a low profile. You will not find them on talk show circuits repeating George W. Bush’s talking points slathered over with references to Camus, Orwell and Koestler. Mostly they have retreated from the public scene and shake their heads at the catastrophe that resulted from “poor planning” and other blunders.

The New York Times Magazine gave a platform to one of them last Sunday: Iraqi intellectual and former Trotskyist Kanan Makiya, who is the author of a number of books with scholarly pretensions that provided fuel for the invasion in 2002 and 2003. In one of Judith Miller’s pro-war propaganda pieces written on January 12, 2003, she described Makiya’s touching faith in George Bush’s promises:

None of the Iraqi participants were willing to discuss precisely what Mr. Bush said. But Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading Iraqi intellectual, said he was “deeply reassured” by what he called “the president’s intense commitment to a genuinely democratic post-Saddam Iraq” and by Mr. Bush’s determination to press forward not only with “removing Saddam from office, but reconstructing Iraq after a military conflict.”

“Mr. Bush was clearly aware that Iraq was not Afghanistan, and that it has the human and financial resources needed to support democracy,” Mr. Makiya said.

Miller lost her job but Makiya’s career–at least in the US–did not suffer any consequences for such boneheaded statements. He is a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. My advice to people trying to decide where to send their children to college is to take this place off their list.

Not only has Makiya’s political fortunes taken a turn for the worse, so has his health:

Makiya’s life is no longer what it was. In 2003, on returning to Iraq, he reunited with his sweetheart from high-school days, married and took her back to Cambridge. He also found out he has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the same disease that killed Edward Said, the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor and Makiya’s intellectual nemesis.

While it would be impossible to prove this, one wonders if living in such a heavily polluted environment such as Iraq might have led to Mr. Makiya’s cancer. In Houston, Texas, there are 56 percent more incidents of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia for families living in close proximity to the petroleum refineries. Since George W. Bush and his cronies are responsible for the woeful state of both Texas and Iraq today, there is some irony in Makiya being so afflicted.

Said never rested a moment in the final years of his life when he was battling leukemia. He did everything in his power to expose the lies that people like Makiya were churning out on behalf of the Bush White House. In a article that appeared in the November 28, 2002 Al-Ahram titled “Misinformation about Iraq“, Said directed his fire against Makiya:

The most complete version of his plans for Iraq after an American invasion that derive from his current employment as a resident employee of the US Department of State, appears in the November 2002 issue of Prospect, a good liberal British monthly to which I subscribe. Makiya begins his “proposal” by enumerating the extraordinary assumptions behind his arguments, two of which almost by definition are unimaginable. The first is that “the unseating” of Saddam should not occur after a bombing campaign. Makiya must have been living on Mars to imagine that, in the event of a war, a massive bombing attack would not occur even though every single plan circulated for regime change in Iraq has stated explicitly that Iraq would be bombed mercilessly. The second assumption is equally imaginative, since Makiya seems to believe against all evidence that the US is committed to democracy and nation-building in Iraq. Why he thinks that Iraq is like Germany and Japan after World War II (both of which were rebuilt because of the Cold War) is beyond me; besides, he doesn’t once mention the fact that the US is determined to bring down the Iraqi regime because of the country’s oil reserves and because Iraq is an enemy of Israel. So, he starts out by making preposterous assumptions that simply fly in the face of all the evidence.

The New York Times Magazine article was written by Dexter Filkins who might be described as Judith Miller lite. Along with the equally detestable Michael R. Gordon, they have been writing article after article trying to prove that Iran is behind all the troubles in Iraq. Filkins also served as a conduit for Pentagon propaganda in earlier articles blaming al-Qaeda for the insurgency in Iraq. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported that the military had made a “selective leak” about al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi to Dexter Filkins. The article, making much of a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004. In other words, just the kind of reporter to rely on for an accounting of Makiya’s sins.

Filkins and Makiya alike can hardly avoid talking about the catastrophe that George W. Bush has wrought.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, Makiya, more than any single figure, made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do — to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.

If it sounded idealistic, Makiya went even further, arguing that an American invasion of Iraq could clear the ground for Western-style democracy. Years of war and murder had left Iraqis so thoroughly degraded, Makiya argued, that, once freed, they would throw off the tired orthodoxies of Arab politics and, in their despair, look to the West. “The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein presents the U.S. with a historic opportunity,” Makiya told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in October 2002, “that is as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.” Two months before the war started, in a meeting in the Oval Office, Makiya told President Bush that Iraqis would greet invading American soldiers with “sweets and flowers.”

Now, of course, those dreams are gone, carried away on a tide of blood. The catastrophe in Iraq has thoroughly undermined the idea of democratic change in the Middle East. It has undercut the notion, sustained by the successful interventions in the Balkans, that American military power can achieve humanitarian ends. And it has made Makiya and the others who justified the invasion look reckless and naïve.

Filkins alludes to Makiya’s early Trotskyist connections:

Makiya, who is 58, made the toppling of Saddam Hussein his life’s work, the focus of an idealistic vision that guided him through a life of exile. In the musty yearbooks of Baghdad College, the Jesuit high school where Makiya studied, the photo shows his eyes afire: dark, focused and looking upward. As a student at M.I.T., he strummed Woody Guthrie folk tunes on an old guitar. Makiya threw himself into the Palestinian cause, signed on as a Marxist and then beat a long path back to a philosophy of democracy and human rights.

There are more details about Makiya’s youthful indiscretions in Democratiya, an online magazine that describes itself as pushing for the “renewal of the politics of democratic radicalism.” If your idea of “democratic radicalism” is finding excuses for military interventions in the 3rd World, you are welcome to it. Makiya was interviewed by fellow scoundrel Alan Johnson, who at one time served on the editorial board of New Politics, a “third camp” magazine, before jumping with both feet into the New Labour pro-war camp. Johnson was recently heard from touting the reputation of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, better known as the Senator from Boeing. In answer to Johnson’s question about his background, Makiya includes this information:

I became very active in the anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. The great influence on me was Emmanuel Farjoun, a member of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, Matzpen. He was also a student at MIT, much older than I. He had enjoyed a socialist training from day dot having grown up in a left socialist kibbutz. It was a revelation for me to meet an Israeli who was critical of his own society. He explained a) basic socialist principles which, of course, were completely new to me, and b) the nature of Israeli society, which was also a revelation for me. We became very, very close friends, almost brothers, for the next twenty-five years. (We fell out over the Iraq war but that’s another story. That’s sad, very sad.)

I started to soak up books and I became active in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the American section of the (Trotskyist) 4th International. I moved to Britain in 1974 and I became active in the International Marxist Group (IMG). I recall there was a Lebanese Trotskyist organisation, remnants of an Iraqi Trotskyist organisation, and some Egyptian and Tunisian Trotskyists. I spent a lot of time in those countries meeting those people, going backwards and forwards to Lebanon. I was a full time political activist.

I have no memory of Makiya but this explanation for his departure from the movement rings a bell:

The Iran-Iraq war broke out. Our former comrades were being imprisoned or killed in Iran. We both left organised Trotskyist politics around that time on the issue of the Iraq-Iran war. The left was saying it was a war with a good side and a bad side. We were saying a plague on both your houses because this is an ugly, nasty war that is not going to lead to progress for anyone, so victory for either side would be a step backward.

Alan Johnson asks him, “Did you find any support for that view among your comrades?”

Kanan Makiya replies:

There were individuals. Bob Langston, I remember, from the Socialist Workers’ Party. Jon Rothschild and others were very sympathetic. But their sympathy was not shared by the leadership. Afsaneh and I resigned over it. We wrote a huge document that explained the whole thing, in the usual fashion.

If I were more of an archivist than I am, I’d try to track down the document. Frankly, I can’t remember the debate or much of the SWP’s politics on Iran. This much I can remember. The Militant newspaper did tend to play up the “radical” side of the Iranian revolution and splashed news about it across the front page, including a big headline about why the students in Iran were justified when they seized the US embassy. One of our comrades, a rather outspoken and narcissistic individual, insisted on selling this newspaper rather aggressively to coal miners after being on the job less than a month. She was forced to leave the job after a rightwing miner hurled a cinder block at her from above.

I have much better memories of Jon Rothschild and Bob Langston. I first met Jon in 1969 when he came to New York from about a year in Paris working with the JCR, the youth group of the French section. Jon had adopted the style (black leather jacket and Gaulois cigarettes) and politics of the Europeans, both of which I found resistible. Langston was quite a bit older and really very intelligent. He was one of the party’s experts on economics and heir to an oil fortune. Every Militant article he ever wrote was stamped by his fecund and original mind, a trait that the party would assiduously avoid as the “turn” deepened in the 1970s.

In trying to explain to Johnson why he broke with the left, Makiya betrays a certain unfamiliarity with Trotsky’s core ideas:

I feel the left that I came from has almost become nationalist. This language of relativism has translated itself into, ‘Well, even if the regime of Saddam Hussein is so nasty, why should we go and liberate it?’ Now that is something you would have got from an American isolationist, back in the old days. You would never have got it from somebody on the left. The positive element which I carried from the Trotskyist movement, from the writings of Trotsky himself, was an internationalist spirit. It was more alive in me, I think, than in many of those who claimed Trotsky’s mantle, but did not practice that internationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. The left has turned against its own internationalist traditions and thrown away its own universal values. The older left was able to cross boundaries and think across boundaries. That was its strength and its weakness.

If Makiya thought that Trotsky was an “internationalist” in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, or Paul Wolfowitz for that matter, nothing can be further from the truth. The idea that an imperialist power can impose its will on a colonial country in the interests of social justice and democracy is utter nonsense. In the beginning of the war in Iraq, there was much talk about how the neoconservatives were latter-day Trotskyists, in the style alluded to by Makiya above–including an article by Jeet Heer that appeared in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper. I answered this absurd claim as soon as I heard it:

Jeet Heer: As evidence of the continuing intellectual influence of Trotsky, consider the curious fact that some of the books about the Middle East crisis that are causing the greatest stir were written by thinkers deeply shaped by the tradition of the Fourth International.

In seeking advice about Iraqi society, members of the Bush administration (notably Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President) frequently consulted Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American intellectual whose book The Republic of Fear is considered to be the definitive analysis of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.

As the journalist Christopher Hitchens notes, Makiya is “known to veterans of the Trotskyist movement as a one-time leading Arab member of the Fourth International.” When speaking about Trotskyism, Hitchens has a voice of authority. Like Makiya, Hitchens is a former Trotskyist who is influential in Washington circles as an advocate for a militantly interventionist policy in the Middle East. Despite his leftism, Hitchens has been invited into the White House as an ad hoc consultant.

My reply: If Makiya’s “Republic of Fear” has anything to do with Trotskyism, except the fact that the author spent some time in the movement as a youth, then one presumes that Saul Bellow’s racist screed “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” must also be linked with Leon Trotsky as well, since Bellow also spent a brief time in the Trotskyist movement. For that matter, one might link orthodox Judaism with Trotskyism since Isaac Deutscher and I were both bar mitzvahed and ate kosher through adolescence.

Other than the fact that Kanan Makiya spent five minutes or so in the Fourth International, there is absolutely nothing to link him to the intellectual and political traditions represented by Leon Trotsky. Consider the interview he gave to an Argentine journalist on September 23, 1938 in which he defended a “fascist” Brazil against a “democratic” Great Britain:

In order to understand correctly the nature of the coming events we must first of all reject … the false … theory that the coming war will be a war between fascism and “democracy.” … I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of that conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains in Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship.

Or the letter wrote to an English comrade on April 22, 1936 which not only defended feudal Ethiopia against capitalist Italy, but was full of praise for the Negus, ie. Haile Selassie, who made Saddam Hussein look like Martin Luther King Jr. by comparison, and contained the remarkable formulation that “A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history”.

Indeed, the Trotsky of history has much more in common with the reviled Ramsey Clark and WWP than he does with the Cruise Missile “leftists” Heer falsely linked him with.


September 19, 2007

Greenspan, oil and Marxism

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Last Monday night Hardball, an MSNBC news show hosted by Chris Matthews, discussed the significance of Alan Greenspan’s comment in his recently published memoir:

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.

This seemingly frank admission that the invasion of Iraq had more to do with profits than defeating terrorism led inside the beltway pundits to link Greenspan with protesters who chant “No blood for oil.” Greenspan himself has been forced to backpedal, although his explanation is not reassuring to those who want to frame the invasion of Iraq in human rights terms. In a September 15th interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Greenspan tried to get George W. Bush off the hook. He explained, “”I was not saying that that’s the administration’s motive. I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?’ I would say it was essential.”

Apparently, according to Greenspan, there was a tacit understanding by all parties that the war was about oil, but reluctance to speak openly about it:

He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, “I have never heard them basically say, ‘We’ve got to protect the oil supplies of the world,’ but that would have been my motive.” Greenspan said that he made his economic argument to White House officials and that one lower-level official, whom he declined to identify, told him, “Well, unfortunately, we can’t talk about oil.”

Chris Matthews introduced his report on Greenspan’s comments as follows:

Ever since that first war to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, the people who hated the war said it was all about oil. We Americans have an unquenchable thirst for oil. The promoters of both Iraq wars like to say we’re bigger than that, that we fought the war for idealistic reasons, the spread of democracy, our opposition to tyranny, our love of peace and goodness.

Well, this weekend, word leaked from the recent chairman of America’s central bank, Alan Greenspan, that the war was indeed about oil. Indeed, it was largely about oil, he writes. In that quote, by the way, he also says, and everybody knows it.

Chris Matthews: studied “Sam Beer” in college

Matthews proceeded to discuss the oil and war connection with two guests, Jim Cramer, the frenetic investment guru, and Ed Schultz, a liberal talk radio personality. He directed his first question to Schultz:

You know, Ed, the old—not to disparage it, but the old left, you would do Marxist analysis of just about everything in history—Sam Beer, I think, believed this, the historian—that just about everything can be interpreted as economics—self-interest, if you will. Do you believe that this war, well, all wars are about economics. What do you think?

My guess is that the mysterious “Sam Beer” must be Charles Beard, who was not really a Marxist at all. His approach can best be described as economic determinism. Indeed, his seminal work is titled “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” While there is a superficial resemblance between economic determinism and Marxism, the latter discipline puts much more emphasis on the tendency of class society to incorporate contradictory tendencies. For example, in the 18th Brumaire Marx pointed out that the rights of the capitalist ruling class in France had to be abrogated in the long-term interests of the capitalist system. There are times when Marxism collapses into something not much different from economic determinism, namely “Vulgar Marxism,” which reminds me of Bob Fitch’s observation that vulgar Marxism can explain about 90 per cent of the social world, but that social science is only interested in the remaining 10 per cent.

Jim Cramer’s cultural literacy appears to be on the same level as Matthews’s, since he “took that Sam Beer course” himself, adding “That was during the period when I was studying Marxism as an actual undergraduate.” According to the wiki on Jim Cramer, he was a staunch leftist as a Harvard undergraduate, naming his plan to revitalize the Crimson after Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” Somehow I can’t imagine anybody who refers to “Sam Beer” knowing the first thing about Lenin. Since Cramer went to Harvard, this speaks to the inflated reputation of the Ivy League almost as much as Petraeus’s Princeton PhD. My suggestion to parents is to save your money and send your kids to Albany State instead.

Jim Cramer: a “Leninist” at Harvard?

Whatever Cramer knows about Marxism or not, he doesn’t “buy it for this particular case.” He takes the Bush White House at its word. When they “talked about the mushroom cloud,” they were wrong, but he doesn’t believe that they made it up.

If there is one thing you can say about Chris Matthews, it is that he is not afraid to ask tough questions, at least when public opinion favors it. He asks Cramer, “Are we fighting for the American oil companies, for Mobil and Exxon? And they’re making these enormous profits because of access to oil over there…”

Our erstwhile Leninist replies, “I can’t—I can’t believe that!”

Of course, Matthews was not always the fearless crusader for truth and justice. We learn from FAIR that he had the following to say before things started turning sour in Iraq.

“We’re all neo-cons now.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)

“Why don’t the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“What’s he going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it’s over? I mean, don’t these things sort of lose their–Isn’t there a fresh date on some of these debate points?” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, speaking about Howard Dean–4/9/03)

This illustrates a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the dovishness of people like Chris Matthews or most Democrats is a function of the war going badly. If the US had been able to stabilize a puppet regime along the lines of post-Noriega Panama, you’d never had heard a peep out of them.

Turning to the question of whether the war was about oil or not, there is not much of a consensus among Marxists over this. One of the more interesting challenges to the “no blood for oil” line of reasoning came from a group of academics (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts) in the Bay Area of California organized into a study group called Retort. On April 5, 2005, the London Review of Books published an article by them titled “Blood for Oil?

However, their arguments seem directed more at the peak oil crowd than at what classic Leninist theory would posit:

Our view is that scarcity and price – the twin sisters of Malthusian pessimism – don’t provide a basis on which the Iraq war can or should be understood. The history of oil in the 20th century is not a history of shortfall and inflation, but of the constant menace – for the industry and the oil states – of excess capacity and falling prices, of surplus and glut.

And add:

It is true that there has been an avalanche of ‘end of oil’ prophecies, connecting to a longer history of apocalyptic thinking about modernity’s wholesale dependence on a finite resource. That oil is running out is incontestable; the question is when. The Malthusians feed on the opinion of certain hard-rock geologists, Colin Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes chief among them, who believe that we have already reached maximum global production.

This seems to amount to something of a straw man. It is not as if a bunch of politicians were sitting around listening to a Powerpoint presentation by Dick Cheney that showed the Hubbert Curve kicking in by 2010 or something. According to this scenario, George W. Bush would jump out of his chair like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland and cry out, “Let’s do something before time runs out!” That would certainly be economic determinism or vulgar Marxism.

A counter-explanation from the Retort group is one that while sounding reasonable seems overly complicated:

Rather, what the Iraq adventure represents is less a war for oil than a radical, punitive restructuring of the conditions necessary for expanded profitability – it paves the way, in short, for new rounds of American-led dispossession and capital accumulation. This was a neo-liberal putsch, made in the name of globalisation and free-market democracy. It was intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism. Oil was especially visible at this moment of extra-economic imposition because, as it turned out, oil revenues were key to the planning and financing of the military exercise itself, and to the reconstruction of the Iraqi ‘emerging market’.

I would maintain that the 2003 invasion of Iraq is simply the latest battle in a century long war to dominate the Middle East, which is an area distinguished by the presence of one of the world’s most precious commodities. Iraq itself has been one of the most bitterly contested countries, with invasions and coups taking place like clockwork. In addition, the Zionist project attracted imperialist support since Israel was perceived as a gendarme for Western oil companies. Even where oil is not present, such as in Egypt, there has been continuous violence unleashed against workers and peasants in order to make sure that a nationalist government hostile to Western oil companies could not survive.

This is not to say that oil is the exclusive cause of war in the region. The Middle East is also a geopolitically sensitive area in close proximity to the Soviet Union, when it existed.

But in the final analysis, it is extremely difficult to prove causation in the social sciences. Until one has access to the secret files of the permanent government that rules American society, we cannot really say what motivates the ruling class to go to war. One thing is for sure, however. It has never been about promoting democracy.

September 18, 2007

Petraeus’s PhD

Filed under: Iraq — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Although I have never made much money working for Columbia University, I do enjoy the perks–especially access to a world-class library and to online research databases like Proquest. When General David Petraeus was in Washington the other week to defend the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, much was made of his impressive credentials, including a PhD from Princeton in 1987 on the topic of “The American Military and The Lessons Of Vietnam: A Study Of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” I was inspired to download this 339 page (double-spaced) treatise from Proquest and read it on the spot.

The first thing that struck me was how the dissertation is a fence-straddling operation. If you want to understand why Petraeus refused to say that the US was safer because of the war in Iraq, the PhD is a good place to start. It is filled with qualifications and refuses to step outside the “value-free” environment of the academy. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing academic prose, but when it hinges on matters of war and peace it is a dereliction of civic duty.

It should be mentioned that Petraeus has surrounded himself with other PhD/Generals. On February 5th of this year, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.

Now I don’t want to rain on General Petraeus’s parade, but I doubt whether the IQ of the men he has chosen is up to the task. His chief economic adviser is Colonel Michael J. Meese, who like his boss has a PhD from Princeton. Meese is the son of Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese. A rather shallow gene pool, methinks.

His chief adviser on counterinsurgency is an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic. Kilcullen was the subject of a fawning profile by George Packer that appeared in the New Yorker on December 18, 2006. Despite all the gushing over Kilcullen as the second coming of Lawrence of Arabia, you can get an idea of what kind of counterinsurgency he will be organizing in Iraq:

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

In other words, that’s the end of Mr. Nice Guy in Iraq.

Petraeus’s main goal in the dissertation is to prove that the military brass has been much less bellicose than civilian political leaders since the end of the Vietnam War. This involves creating a kind of straw-man: “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform — wild-eyed leaders eager to employ military force.” Opposed to this stick figure, there are the “cautious professionals” that Samuel Huntington described in “The Soldier and the State,” who are seen as holding a “relatively pacifist attitude.” In this work, Huntington argues that “The military man rarely favors war.” Of course, Huntington hardly seems like a reliable authority on who has pacifist attitudes or not. Only 6 years after Petraeus completed his dissertation, Huntington would formulate his “clash of civilizations” thesis that would be a pillar of the neoconservative casus belli for removing Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not there were “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform” prior to the war in Vietnam, the outcome of the war favored a more cautious approach, even if the term “pacifist” seems inappropriate. Indeed, Petraeus states that senior military officials felt the “United States should not engage in war unless it has a clear idea why it is fighting and is prepared to see the war through to a successful conclusion.” Petraeus cites a 1984 NY Times article by Richard Halloran titled “For Military Leaders, the Shadow of Vietnam” to back this up. The article contains the words of an imaginary colonel, who is obviously a stand-in for the “pacifists” Samuel Huntington referred to:

As those officers talk about the past and especially about the near future, many slip into an imaginary pose in which they seem to address the President or the Secretary of Defense. An Army colonel summed up three main points many officers make, saying:

– ”Mr. President, don’t send us to war unless you have clear-cut political goals and attainable military objectives.

– ”Sir, don’t send us unless you give us sufficient forces and enough freedom of action to use them properly.

– ”And, Mr. President, you’d better have a lot of public support.”

Considering the situation in Iraq, one might wonder why General Petraeus would be associated with a venture that clashes with all of the above stipulations. Indeed, his entire PhD thesis would seem to articulate the outlook of those Generals who were hailed in the September 8, 2006 Nation Magazine article titled “Revolt of the Generals.”

In late September [General John] Batiste, along with two other retired senior officers, spoke out about these failures at a Washington Democratic policy hearing, with Batiste saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was “not a competent wartime leader” who made “dismal strategic decisions” that “resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies and the good people of Iraq.” Rumsfeld, he said, “dismissed honest dissent” and “did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war.”

One must assume that if Rumsfeld were “a competent wartime leader” and that the war in Iraq had been going swimmingly well, neither Batiste nor scores of opportunist Democratic Party politicians would have said a word.

Against the fiasco in Vietnam, Petraeus concludes that for a chastened military “the American interventions in the Dominican Republic and Grenada in 1983 have come to be viewed as model cases of the use of force.” In other words, it is best to pick on smaller and weaker targets.

Part 2 of Petraeus’s dissertation consists of a number of case studies based on US military intervention since the end of the Vietnam War, all of which are intended to prove his case that the military is not very bellicose. Since many of them involve “low intensity warfare,” I am reminded of what many activists said in the late 1980s when Petraeus was ensconced in the Princeton library. For the victims of low intensity warfare, there is nothing “low” about it at all. Surveying the loss of life and property in Nicaragua with my own eyes, I find Petraeus’s characterization of the period to be cold-blooded in the extreme.

In his treatment of the invasion of Grenada, Petraeus finds that the Reagan White House was “gung ho” about going in, but the military “had some reservations.” This mostly involved finding out more about the Cuban willingness to fight. In any event, according to Petraeus, “the military did not emerge in any of the reports on the Grenada discussions as the aggressive party, nor as a particularly influential participant in the decision to intervene.”

Central America is the same story. According to Petraeus:

Many of the senior military have feared a Central America Vietnam, and by making their views known in advance they have sought to shape and preempt certain policies. Most important, the military have advised publicly against the commitment of U.S. combat units in the region except under certain conditions — conditions developed with an eye to avoiding another Vietnam.

Showing a certain susceptibility to objective reality, Petraeus adds that the military is quite sensitive to the legacy of “Yankee Imperialism” (his quotes, not mine) and cites widespread recognition that “military means are not the solution to many of the region’s problems.” But the real fear is less about committing war crimes: “But always lurking in the senior leadership’s subconscious has been the fear of American troops bogged down in another unpopular, nasty little war that gradually consumes the institution they have worked for the past decade to revive.” Well, Petraeus hit the nail on the head but his timing is a bit off. It is the roads of Iraq rather than the jungles of Central America that are consuming the military and it is he, the author of a dissertation that calls attention to military worries over exactly this prospect, who is consigned to the top of the shit heap.

Petraeus’s history of the Central American intervention is rather skewed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are supposedly opposed to the use of U.S. combat troops in Central America. But the initial foray into Central America is no different than the early days of Vietnam. The U.S. provided money and training for the South Vietnamese until the situation on the ground began to deteriorate. Then it became time to escalate. In Central America, low-intensity warfare proved sufficient to keep the revolutionary forces on the defensive and eventually to defeat them. There would be no point in committing U.S. ground troops if they are not necessary. True to his imperialist myopia, Petraeus cites General Vessey–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1980’s–as being opposed to an “American military solution in Central America.” So what does that make the US-financed Salvadoran army and the Nicaraguan contras? Folk dance troupes?

Sometimes Petraeus simply uses his citations meretriciously in order to support his hypothesis. For example, he cites a June 21, 1983 N.Y. Times article by Drew Middleton to the effect that the military opposed intervention but left out the qualification that the article began with:

With unusual unanimity, senior generals of the United States Army say they oppose any American military intervention in Central America without the clear, unequivocal support of Congress and the people.

In other words, if Congress and “the people” (whipped into war hysteria by the mainstream media) backed the adventure, the military would be as gung-ho as it was in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. Fundamentally, the “pacifism” of the military is rooted in a fear of being a pawn in a game. There is absolutely no indication in Petraeus’s dissertation that the military has any political principles when it comes to being used as hired killers. For that you have to go to another military figure, who knew what he was talking about:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.

These words come from retired Marine General Smedley Butler’s “War is a Racket,” a 1935 memoir that would be of much more use than Petraeus’s dissertation in understanding how the military operates. Butler, the most decorated soldier in Marine history, approached the problem of military intervention from the standpoint of ethics rather than efficacy. It didn’t take a trauma like Vietnam to persuade him that war was wrong. He understood the word wrong in an entirely different sense than Petraeus. For Petraeus, the word wrong means something like: “It is wrong to go swimming after a large meal.” For Butler, it meant: “It is wrong to kill peasants and steal their land.”

Part 3 of Petraeus’s dissertation sums things up. It mostly consists of endless repetitions of his basic argument, namely that the military would never allow itself to end up in the kind of mess that General Petraeus is presiding over in Iraq today. It does confirm, however, one point that he makes. The civilian policy-makers are probably more bellicose than the military on a consistent basis. If one spent 5 minutes listening to the politicians who ended up on Sunday morning talk shows throughout 2003, you will know that is true. If the military chiefs urged caution in this period, it was only from the standpoint of having sufficient power to subdue the Iraqis. General Shinseki emerged as one of the more forceful critics of the invasion on this basis. Clashing with Rumsfeld repeatedly until he was relieved of his duties, Shinseki warned:

We need to have enough forces on the ground to deter and hold crises where they are. You can’t fall into the trap of organizing for specific missions and then being unable to perform other missions when the conditions change very quickly — and in places like Kosovo, they can change in 20 minutes. You may find yourself having to go very quickly, intellectually and physically, from what was a peacekeeping mission to fighting a war — and preparing the troops for this [shift]. And with the missions multiplying, you cannot go on fighting a 12-division war with only 10 divisions available.

This is the logic of Samuel Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” and Petraeus’s PhD. You need to have the forces to get the job done, support from the Congress and a brainwashed population. Lacking these essentials, you are going to end up with another Vietnam. As they say, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.

If David Petraeus represents the best military thinking and leadership that the U.S. can come up with at this point, its prospects don’t look very good based on his rather superficial doctoral dissertation. The whole thing amounts to an endorsement of war-making on the cheap. Despite the concluding paragraphs, which emphasize the need to use force sufficient to the task when necessary, there is little grasp of the enormity of the problem facing what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Petraeus’s formulas are geared to small-scale operations like in Grenada or El Salvador. When it comes to serious counter-revolutionary military operations against sizable entities such as Iraq or Iran, you need to ratchet up the military component.

However, the Vietnam syndrome still controls what is possible. With the U.S. military strained to the breaking point in Iraq, the logic of reintroducing the draft becomes more compelling. But to do that would risk unleashing a massive protest movement that might spill beyond the campuses. With economic conditions deteriorating from year to year, with class divisions deepening, the call to send young men off to die in Iraq against their will might ignite a general conflagration. The ruling class is faced with a dilemma. It lacks the forces to win the war in Iraq and cannot afford to surrender. To solve this dilemma will require more intellectual firepower than is at the disposal of our PhD General Petraeus.

August 25, 2007

George W. Bush’s history lesson to the VFW

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

I was curious to examine the speech George W. Bush gave to the Veterans of Foreign War convention last week since it compared Iraq with Vietnam. Three years ago I gave an interview to BBC in Ireland on exactly the same question. While there are obvious differences between the NLF and the decentralized and often nihilistic Iraqi insurgency, I hoped that the occupation of Iraq would end the same way, with Americans dangling from helicopter rails as they beat a hasty retreat from the Green Zone.

I.F. Stone

The speech itself is remarkable for literary references that seem utterly remote from George W. Bush’s experience, including one made to the radical journalist I.F. Stone who published a newsweekly throughout the 50s and 60s that I subscribed to. Bush took exception to Stone’s “Hidden History of the Korean War.”

After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South — and found himself attacked from all sides. From the left, I.F. Stone wrote a book suggesting that the South Koreans were the real aggressors and that we had entered the war on a false pretext.

Bush also singled out Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a novel that was set in Vietnam in the 1950s and that in its own way was critical of American colonialism. This is another book that I have read and which led me to the conclusions at odds with Bush, who referred to it in the following terms:

After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people…The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.

My first reaction to these references was to assume that Bush was simply reading a speech written by one of his aides, since his thinking seems to be influenced exclusively by the Washington Times and other neocon outlets. I can’t imagine George W. Bush ever opening up I.F. Stone’s history of the Korean War but can picture a Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz or Paul Berman writing such a speech. These ideological converts to American imperialism would have first-hand experience with I.F. Stone or Graham Greene, who were required reading for radical intellectuals in the 1960s.

Graham Greene

This is not the first time that George W. Bush has demonstrated familiarity with literature generally unavailable at airport newsstands. During his summer vacation in 2006, he supposedly read Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.” Who knows why. Maybe he was getting vicarious pleasure from the opening scene, which involves a French settler in Algeria shooting a native after waking up on the wrong side of bed. Later on, Bush read Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace,” a history of the war in Algeria that I read as background for an MRZine article on the movie “The Battle of Algiers”. Bush must have read it to get tips on how to defeat the insurgency in Iraq, just the way that the Pentagon scheduled screenings of “The Battle of Algiers.”

After Horne learned that Bush found his book “most useful,” he told Salon.com that he was “stunned.” Originally a supporter of the war, Horne–like most of sentient humanity–began to retreat from that position. He was especially averse to the use of torture, since one of the lessons of the Algerian war is that it is counter-productive. This, indeed, is the universal criterion adopted by both liberal and conservative critics of the war in Iraq. If it is not working, then there must be a change. Implicitly, if the war were going well–as it had in the invasion of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s–there would be no objection.

Whether or not Bush has read I.F. Stone or anybody else for that matter, his speech is a significant challenge both to radicals who share Stone’s perspective as well as his mainstream critics who have given up on the war in Iraq because it is not producing results. Drawing upon the examples of imperialist wars going back to WWII, Bush puts forward the most extreme case for staying in Iraq until victory is achieved. Unlike the Congressional “opposition,” he sees no need for collective decision-making. It is his way or the highway.

When the NY Times reported that various scholars took exception to the lessons that Bush drew from history, they only quoted those who remained safely within the mainstream. For example, Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that unlike in Iraq the allies had destroyed the Japanese and German governments and deployed an occupation force three times as large as that in Iraq. He said, “That’s the kind of troop level you need to control the situation. The occupation of Germany and Japan lasted for years — and not a single American solider was killed by insurgents.” So, I guess the lesson Simon draws is that you need a much bigger imperialist invasion. Too bad the NY Times doesn’t have Howard Zinn’s number in their rolodex.

Turning now to Bush’s speech itself, one is struck by its determination to steamroll over any objections to the war. Although critics have often likened Bush to Richard Nixon, there was never anything in Nixon’s rhetoric like this. He tried assiduously to represent himself as trying to “wind down” the war in Vietnam, while Bush’s rhetoric is much more like Reagan’s triumphalism during the Central American wars of the 1980s. This obviously reflects Bush’s wholesale flight from reality that is also seen on display in the very fine German film “Downfall,” which dramatizes Hitler desperate attempts to rally his followers in his bunker.

Bush tells the audience:

We fight for the possibility that decent men and women across the broader Middle East can realize their destiny — and raise up societies based on freedom and justice and personal dignity. And as long as I’m Commander-in-Chief we will fight to win. I’m confident that we will prevail. I’m confident we’ll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known — the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

It is too bad that the Democrats lack such a fighting spirit. If they were half as determined to end the war as Bush is to prosecute it, it would have ended long ago. The explanation for this, of course, is that they are only verbally opposed to the war. Even now, all the leading DP candidates for president state that American troops must remain in the Middle East to stave off chaos.

Bush begins his history lesson with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which supposedly came out of the blue like 9/11. In Bush’s words, both al Qaeda and Imperial Japan supposedly despise freedom, and harbor resentment “at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people.” If Bush took the trouble to attack I.F. Stone’s revisionist account of the Korean War, one wonders why Bush or his ghost-writer were reluctant to take up similar challenges to the official version of December 7, 1941. Charles Beard, an early revisionist on WWII, refers to remarks made to the War Cabinet by Henry Stimson in November, 1941 in his “President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941.”

One problem troubled us very much. If you know that your enemy is going to strike you, it is not usually wise to wait until he gets the jump on you by taking the initiative. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors…We discussed the possibility of a statement summarizing all the steps of aggression that the Japanese had already taken, the encirclement of our interests in the Philippines which was resulting and the threat to our vital supplies of rubber from Malay. I reminded the president that on Aug. 19 [1941] he had warned the Japanese Ambassador that if the steps which the Japanese were then taking continued across the border into Thailand, he would regard it as a matter affecting our safety, and suggested that he might point our that the moves the Japanese were now apparently on the point of making would be in fact a violation of a warning that had already been given.

It is safe to say that if war with Japan was really about rubber and oil, then the war in Iraq was about controlling strategic assets as well. The only “freedom” at stake in the Pacific and the Middle East was the freedom to make a profit.

When Bush takes up the Korean War, it is clearly with an eye to undermining his opponents in the Republican Party like Chuck Hagel and John Warner, whose engagement with reality is far too extreme for the White House to accept. Despite the swipe at I.F. Stone, most of his polemics are directed against his own party members:

From the right, Republicans vacillated. Initially, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate endorsed Harry Truman’s action, saying, “I welcome the indication of a more definite policy” — he went on to say, “I strongly hope that having adopted it, the President may maintain it intact,” then later said “it was a mistake originally to go into Korea because it meant a land war.”

Throughout the war, the Republicans really never had a clear position. They never could decide whether they wanted the United States to withdraw from the war in Korea, or expand the war to the Chinese mainland. Others complained that our troops weren’t getting the support from the government. One Republican senator said, the effort was just “bluff and bluster.” He rejected calls to come together in a time of war, on the grounds that “we will not allow the cloak of national unity to be wrapped around horrible blunders.”

Apparently, Bush identifies strongly with Harry Truman. Not long after finishing Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, Bush followed up with David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, who presided over another bloody colonial intervention. In 1952, during the depths of the Korean War, Truman’s approval ratings dropped to 22 percent, about 10 points lower than Bush’s. Maybe the only lesson that can be drawn from Truman and the Korean War is that Democratic presidents, including a New Dealer like Truman, are just as capable of inflicting atrocities on a population fighting against colonialism as their Republic rivals.

Truman was replaced by Eisenhower, a Republican, who ended the war after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Even I.F. Stone, risking “total excommunication” on the left from the ADA to the Trotskyists, wrote a column in June 13, 1953 urging a slogan “Back Ike for Peace” in more or less the same spirit that Tariq Ali urged a vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate against Tony Blair. Although I am generally hostile to backing bourgeois candidates, I hold fire when it comes to an I.F. Stone or a Tariq Ali. Taking note of Democratic politicians determined to run from the right against the Republican left, just as JFK ran against Nixon in 1960, Stone wrote contemptuously in January 17, 1955:

The Democrats will make capital in the West on power; keep mum on civil rights for Negroes; do nothing for labor; jump on Reds as hard as Republicans to prove their purity; exploit the discontent over the security program and at the same time kick up a fuss about cuts in the defense budget to show that the Republicans are the ones who are really “soft” about communism. The country, generally as contented as the Borden cow, will take all this without a moo as long as business holds up. There may be a change in the spring, however, when the auto industry finds it just cannot sell all those new cars it is making.

After dealing maladroitly with Japan and Korea, Bush turns his attention to the Vietnam war that most commentators equate to the current war in Iraq. Besides attacking Graham Greene, Bush takes a swipe at Senator Fulbright, an early and persistent opponent of the war in Vietnam, who is not mentioned by name, but whose words are quoted thusly:

What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they’ve never seen and may never heard of?

It should be mentioned that this view, while hardly amounting to vigorous anti-imperialism, is virtually the same as Graham Greene, who uses the character Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist, as a mouthpiece for his own sentiments. In a confrontation with the CIA agent Alden Pyle, Fowler describes a Vietnamese people who believe in nothing but the following: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They don’t want our white skins telling them what they want.” While this is a step up from George W. Bush’s worldview, it hardly does justice to the liberation struggle in Vietnam that had been going on for more than a century. If history teaches us anything, it is that the people of Vietnam and Iraq will not allow colonists to rule over them.


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