Category Archives: imperialism

Horowitz versus Chomsky on the best way to get rid of a dictator

To harp on a theme, I hate those abuses of language which are just cute enough to be dangerous. The latest to come across my digital desk is from an old article in the Jewish World Review, authored by the slimy ex-socialist David Horowitz of FrontpageMag.

Horowitz chronicles an argument between himself and still-socialist sociology prof. Maurice Zeitlin. He sees a contradiction in Zeitlin’s being opposed to both Saddam Hussein and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and others.

This phrase stuck in my gullet:

This cri de couer begs the most important question: What does it mean [for Zeitlin] to oppose Saddam Hussein’s “execrable regime” and at the same time to oppose the effort to change it?

Reread those last five words. I know Horowitz used to have better politics, but this comment is just fucking stupid. Yes, Zeitlin opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was certainly an effort to change the regime. But was it “the effort”? If Horowitz declines my advice that he take a pottery class, can I conclude that he opposes “the effort to improve himself,” rather than just this particular effort? Horowitz’s use of the definite article snakily suggests that Zeitlin rejects not just the invasion, but the very effort—that is, the idea of an effort being exerted at all—to change the regime.

Horowitz’s implication is doubtful in the highest. Zeitlin would not have opposed every imaginable effort to overthrow Saddam. Suppose Saddam had agreed to step down voluntarily. Let us further assume this was done according to some benign process which did not create a chaotic vacuum of power or other seriously bad outcomes. (Maybe S.H. converted to liberal democracy and had himself jailed—or something.) Surely, Zeitlin would not have excoriated Saddam for failing to remain in power. (Below, we will consider another scenario which he would have supported.)

Further, at any given time before 2003, there were other, actual “efforts” afoot to change the regime. (Indeed, the US intervened to crush a few of them.) Would Horowitz consider any of these, in their time, the effort to change the regime, requiring our support on pain of being numbered among Hussein’s apologists?

Add to this plurality of actual efforts any number of potential ones that might have been dreamed up: Suppose that in February of 2003, a crazy billionaire had dropped babies armed with pink umbrellas into Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard and topple the regime. Babies can’t fight with umbrellas, you say?—The billionaire has cast a spell which he feels strongly will allow them to. Surely this is an effort—somebody’s effort—to change the regime. Would it become the effort, then, demanding our allegiance?

In sum: Surely opposing some bad thing does commit to just any old “effort to change” it; just any solution someone can pull out of his ass doesn’t become a referendum on how authentically we oppose the thing needing changing.

The question is, rather: Is it a good effort, a sensible effort; one that can be reasonably assumed to (a) work, and (b) do so in a non-counterproductive way (that is, in a net sense of not creating so many bad, unintended outcomes that the overall outcome, even with the met goal, becomes bad). It should also (c) be better than other possible schemes to accomplish the same outcome.

The 2003 effort to remove Saddam has (a) “worked” in the meagre sense that it did remove him. But is has been (b)  counterproductive in the more important sense of exacerbating all of those factors that supposedly made removing him a good idea. I don’t want to take this space to make that point fully. Just to note:

*Instead of ending one WMD regime, the war has set two others (Iran and North Korea) in motion.

* The war created a jihadist enclave in the one place in the region where that threat had been completely pacified. As I have noted elsewhere, this was not the result of drawing in terrorists from other locations but of making new ones. Terrorist attacks against Westerners have spiked since the invasion. The balance of “our own” reports (Pentagon, State Dept., FBI, CIA, etc.) blame the War on Terror for this.

*The occupiers have killed and jailed far more innocents than Saddam. The Iraqi government remains a police state, complete with nightly curfews in the capital, bans on public assumbly, and the like. It has the worst human rights record in the region and is dollar for dollar its most corrupt.

*The war completed the process, begun with the sanctions, of bombing into the 3rd World what used to be the most technologically, economically and socially advanced nation in the Middle East. It is difficult to think of a welfare index which is not much, much, worse than before the war.

*Skilled human capital needed for reconstruction has fled en masse to the West with the middle class diaspora. The US has wrenched control of domestic oil away from Iraqis themselves toward “production sharing agreements” which get the oil flowing at the cost of redirecting its proceeds away from national development.

* * *

My main point is: (c) Was there another, a better option for removing Saddam? Will there be with the next guy? As Noam Chomsky has many times noted: Thug leaders who enjoy the support of the US are typically overthrown from within—at far less human cost than an outside force would inflict. Examples include Ceaucescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, and Mobutu. In the case of Saddam, the US withdrew economic and diplomatic support on the eve of Gulf War and pinched Iraq with the severest sanctions regime in history. This course of action hurt precisely everyone in Iraq except the regime. It forced the population to cling to Saddam for survival, weakening the possibility for opposition currents to thrive. There is no reason to doubt the typical pattern would have held had the US taken a more “hands off” course.


Obama fulfills his first campaign promise—invading Pakistan

On his third day in office, Obama ordered cross-border attacks on Pakistani tribal areas using missile-firing drones. 22 people were killed, including four children. The attacks violate international law and various treaties to which the US is a party (so they’re unconstitutional also). This makes Obama a war criminal.

(It also makes him a poor strategist. Pakistan notes that the attacks have only further endeared the local tribes to al-Quaeda. This is plausible. This kind of effect on local populations by “our” violence is, to my knowledge, predicted or confirmed by every Pentagon study to date on the War on Terror.)

The victims may or may not have had something to do with fighting in Afghanistan. Of course, these “terroristey” types are precisely the sort we lock up in Guantanamo, and the the quality of “evidence” on which the attacks were ordered is precisely the sort we use to put them there. This should prove the token nature of Obama’s effort to shut down Guantanamo: We can kill them but not lock them up? (And really, “shut down” just means relocating the residents to another prison and diverting new suspects to one of the several interrogation camps we aren’t shutting down).

Despite Obama’s inaugural promise to stop executive secrecy, the new White House refused to comment on the attacks.

On the spurious idea of a nation’s “right to exist”

A bit about this whole “right to exist” that preoccupies Israeli political discourse:

Assuming any sense can be given to the concept of a “right” at all—it probably can’t; it certainly hasn’t—the origins of virtually any nation-state are so noxious, and so certain to have violated many hundreds of thousands of “rights” in the process of their establishment—that no state has the “right to exist.”

Of course, Israel and its defenders assume that to deny a “right to exist” is to endorse the dissolution of that the thing being denied. But this doesn’t follow. “Right” or not, the state of Israel does exist—and so do all the other states without the “rights” to do so. The question is not whether these entities have a right to exist, but whether it would be moral to dissolve them. Removing Israel as a national entity would be so reprehensible, cause so much pain and chaos—violate so many “rights,” if you like—that any such program would be immoral. The Israeli state—any state—should be suffered to exist not because it has the “right,” but because bringing about the alternative to its existence would be wrong.

For this reason, demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s “right to exist” before any negotiations or concessions can proceed is unreasonable—because the concept is unreasonable. But even if it were reasonable—that is, even if Israel actually had a “right to exist”—it wouldn’t mean that a demand that others recognize that fact is reasonable. I mean, if Israel has a right to exist, it has many other things as well—say, lush hillsides. Should we demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s lush hillsides before anything can happen? Again, since a right to live in security, or defend itself, does not depend on any “right to exist,” we should no more care how a political party in a neighboring region feels about Israel’s “right to exist” than we should care how it likes its eggs in the morning.

Noam Chomsky’s analysis seems to me correct: An abstract “right to exist” is unique to the Israel-Palestine conflict; it isn’t talked about anywhere else in political science. It emerged in the 1970’s when the Arab states accepted Israel’s “right to live in peace with secure and recognized boundaries.” This, of course, is something all states are minimally granted—it’s more or less a part of the very definition of statehood.

When certain Israeli political elements sought to obstruct meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, they elevated the standard from the usual “right to live in peace (etc.)” to this goofy “right to exist.” They knew that Palestinian negotiators would feel a “right to exist” would validate of the origins of Israel—the dispossession of Palestinian lands out of which Israel was carved. They knew this was too much for the Palestinians to swallow, and would buy Israel time to create new “facts on the ground”—namely, the settlements, which make negotiations, and concessions of land by Israel, even harder.

By analogy: Let’s say you have built a house on my land without my consent. I’ve fought you for years about it but now I realize what’s done is done. You have a house and it isn’t going away. I agree to let you “live in peace and security,” which is little more than to recognize you as, indeed, my neighbor. But as soon as I endorse your “right to” live there, I suggest that it was OK for you to have stolen the land in the first place. This is another matter entirely.

The greatest American president

blog-greatest-american-president1“He did the least possible harm.”  -Alexander Cockburn

What’s going on with Israel and the Gaza Strip?

The current hostilities: The bigger picture

The current fighting in Gaza can only be understood in context of the broader Israel-Palestine conflict; and that conflict is only understood in light of a few basic facts:

First, Israel’s long-term goal—laid out in its founding documents and affirmed by every Prime Minister since—is to annex the Occupied Territories. This is why Israel still refuses to declare its own borders after fifty years.

Second, being the world’s only apartheid state—with one set of laws governing (and favoring) Jews and another for Arabs—the key challenge to this plan is maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. A nation “by Jews, for Jews”—to paraphrase the founding Declaration—should probably mostly be Jews. Anything less than that in the Territories makes annexation a problem.

Since the late 1960’s, one strategy for “Jewish-ifying” (read: ethnically cleansing) the Territories has been to build Jewish-only settlements there, to compress the Palestinians further and further toward the east and gobble up the western land as it is vacated. Another strategy, used in tandem with the first, has been to create enough violence, misery and mayhem in the lives of Palestinians to make them simply leave (or perish in sufficient numbers).

A change of strategy in Gaza

However, Gaza, being the most Arab-dense, radicalized, and “ungovernable” of the Territories, has proved unready for settlement. Sharon’s “disengagement” of 2005—dismantling the settlements and removing IDF ground troops from Gaza—was not about abandoning the annexation goal (much less about “peace”) but about tweaking the strategy and timetable for achieving it. Israel simply traded a settlement strategy in Gaza for one of (increased) conventional violence.

“Disengagement” accomplished two things: First, it freed Israel to expand the settlements elsewhere. In Sharon’s words, “[t]here is no chance of establishing a Jewish majority” in Gaza, so “we are turning our resources to the most important areas, which we need to safeguard for our existence: the Galilee, the Negev, Greater Jerusalem, the [remaining] settlement blocs, and security areas.”

Second, clearing the Jewish settlers from Gaza, along with the soldiers that protected them, opened the way for a massive escalation in violence and state terror against the remaining Palestinians (in essence, “warming up” the region for settlement down the road).

At the time of disengagement, Israel publicly reserved the right to invade Gaza whenever it wanted. Not three weeks afterward, Israeli planes knocked out Gaza’s infrastructure, hitting power grids, roads, and bridges. Near-daily air strikes have continued ever since. These always kill civilians, as do Israel’s artillery shell attacks into Gaza, which were escalated also. In the April following evacuation, Israel lobbed more than 3,000 shells into Palestinian villages in Gaza.

And Israel added a perverse new weapon to the arsenal: the sonic boom. Low-flying jets break the sound barrier, producing a massive shockwave across the region, disrupting sleep, bloodying ears and noses, inducing miscarriage and heart attacks, and causing general fear and disorientation. This could never have been attempted when the settlements were in place.


From Dec. 28, 2008, when Israeli air strikes killed 200 Palestinians in a single day. (Hamas rocket fire has killed 28 Israelis since 2001.)

Direct violence is not the only issue. Israel retains total control of Gaza’s borders, coastline, and air space. It takes a tax bite from every product that enters. It forbids Palestine to negotiate its own trade and foreign policy. Israel uses border closings as a weapon, halting food and medical imports and blocking people from accessing work or medical care. After the Palestinians voted for the “wrong” party in January, 2006, Israel cut off water to Gaza—water-starved as it already was—and kidnapped a third of the new Palestinian legislature. Israel continues to kidnap civilians from Gaza, holding them in Israeli prisons without ever charging them with a crime. (About a thousand Palestinians remain in this predicament.)


This, keep in mind—all of the above—is why Hamas is led to fire those rockets into Israel.

Four points follow from this analysis:

(1) The rocket fire is not an intransigent part of daily life in Israel. The current hostilities are not “complicated” or “delicate.” Hamas’s violence is not “senseless” or primarily ethnically or religiously motivated. You can call Hamas assholes, you can critique their strategies, but their demands are legitimate, and any reasonable person would share them in the same situation.

(2) Since Israel continues to control all aspects of life in Gaza, it makes no sense to quibble over “who fired the first shot” in the current wave of hostilities. If I have broken into your house, locked you in the basement, and camped out in your living room, it matters little who casts the first blow when we get into a fight.

(3) Even if you don’t want to call the situation in Gaza an “occupation,” nobody, including Israel, denies that there is an occupation of the West Bank. And, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, since the West Bank and Gaza are a single unit, if resistance is legitimate in the West Bank, it is legitimate in Gaza. Again, if I limit my “occupation” of your house to the living room, it still makes sense to throw things at me from the den. The house is “a unit” and if one room is occupied, the house is occupied.

(4) Finally: If you don’t like the Palestinians using violence to resist, ask yourself what else they are supposed to use. They have no other leverage. They have nothing to concede to Israel except cessation of violence. Everything else they either cannot do without, or Israel has already taken from them.

Demanding Palestine cease its violence before any peace negotiations can proceed is one-sided. The occupation is violence—Israeli violence; if both sides renounced their own violence, the Territories would be vacated and there would be nothing to negotiate over. So the ball is firmly in Israel’s court, as it has always, basically, been. (There wouldn’t even be a court if not for Israel’s behavior.)

Four additional considerations on Obama and Race

In the last post, I argued that, despite Obama’s technical blackness, his administration is unlikely to do anything to remedy black inequality and hardship.

To this we can add the following considerations:

(1) Obama is too nationalist to admit racism in his nation

Obama’s racial blindspot meshes nicely with his silly uber-nationalism. As he said during the Rev. Wright flap: “I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies.” In this way Obama whitewashes the Iraq war, and every other nasty foreign policy of ours, as a well-intentioned overstep in our noble zeal to create a pleasant world. The idea that the American nation-state, or its dynamic capitalism, or a simple majority of its ordinary citizens, could be fundamentally, flat-out wrong about anything is unthinkable to him. Of course, this includes the idea that America still harbors serious barriers to black success.

We should trust this approach as much as we would trust a doctor who refuses to believe that any of his patients could ever have a disease.

(2) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for progressives and black people [1]

Ironically, Obama’s “blackness” could prove to be a net liability from a progressive, anti-racist perspective. Indeed, it already has, in two ways.

First, as a constituency, African-Americans are substantially to the left of the general population and have driven a ton of progressive legislation in the past. Fairly or not, black politicians with a similarly high profile (Jackson, Sharpton) have reputations among whites for “rabble rousing.” In general, whites (unfairly) view blacks as disposed to be unconventional and disruptive.

For such reasons, Obama’s race has allowed him to appear more progressive than he actually is, in Paul Street’s words, to “put misleading rebel’s clothing around his ‘deeply conservative’ commitment to dominant domestic…power structures.” This false progressive appearance leads real progressives to overlook or rationalize Obama’s genuinely conservative aspects.

(This “free ride” only enhances another: Contemporary Democrats already “get a pass” for being not-Republicans. Not wanting to make “their guy” look bad (or admit that he is), progressives will tolerate policies they would never let a Republican get away with. In this way, Clinton made cuts to welfare that Republicans could only dream of, and dropped more bombs on Kosovo than in all of WWII without a tenth of the domestic anti-war sentiment Bush’s Iraq garnered.)

Second, having a black president allows white Americans, in Obama’s words, to “purchase racial redemption on the cheap”—to imagine we can “finally put all this pesky business about race behind us once and for all.” Whites can now tell themselves they couldn’t be racist since they are willing to vote for a black man.

And the very fact of Obama’s election appears to discredit any race-based grievance. It seems to say: If a black man can become president, how could racism still pose significant obstacles to black achievement? If Obama “made it,” then, with hard work and determination, so can the others.

This argument has been endorsed by conservatives like George Will as well as Obama supporters. Obama has done much to suggest it himself. However, as argued in the previous post, there are significant barriers to black success, which won’t go away if we ignore them. The idea that we’ve “arrived” on racial issues fosters a false sense of security in our progress and distracts from the need to do further work. We can’t dismantle racist structures if we can’t admit we have any.

(Also: It is false to say that electing a minority to the highest office in the land means that group can’t be oppressed. Sikhs are an oppressed ethnic minority in India; the government there has killed a quarter million of them across the past twenty years. Yet the same country has elected a Sikh man Prime Minister.)

(3) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for the world

The “free ride” effect above has a foreign policy corollary. Given the demographic of our globe, the victims of U.S. aggression are almost always people of color. It is among people of color that the image of the U.S. is most severely bruised. For this reason, Obama’s race (as well as his Muslim name, and his being raised abroad) will almost certainly help him gain international support for his foreign policies.

Obama himself articulates this best. As he stated on the campaign trail:

I am the face of American foreign policy and…power…I think that if you can tell people, “We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,” then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in their lives and country. And they’d be right.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s Middle East advisor, added, “When have someone like President-elect Obama as president, it is a lot harder to demonize the United States…It increases our capacity to…leverage.”

Even the neoconservative pundit Nicolas Kristoff has welcomed the election as a chance to “rebrand” America in the eyes of the world. When the world sees we have a black man as commander in chief, they will see our military adventures could not be informed by petty racism or the like: “[W]e may find a path to restore some of America’s global influence—and thus to achieve some of our international objectives—in part because the world is concluding that America can, after all, see beyond a person’s epidermis.”

Note that the hyper-militaristic Kristoff does not anticipate Obama’s foreign policy being fundamentally different than it has been in the past, or different than he would like it to be. And he’s correct. As I will outline in a future post, Obama is firmly committed to American empire and “leadership,” and exercising force to maintain it.

Indeed, Obama’s own comments above are not about breaking with America’s hated foreign policy, but getting the world to swallow it. (This implies, of course, that the world is wrong to hate our policies in the first place. They are dupes who don’t know their own interests as well as their foreign bombers and occupiers do. This, if not itself a racist view, will do until a racist view comes along.)

(4) If Obama ever cared about racism, he will sell that out like he sold out the other stuff he (may have) cared about

Finally, Obama is—like a lot of politicians—careerist and opportunistic, though he works hard to give the appearance that he is not. For example, he lobbied vigorously to get the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and before it was officially extended to him he was tipped off that it would be; later, he lied about this, reporting he was totally surprised by the offer and ignorant of how the selection process worked.

At every “step up” in his career, Obama has abandoned constituencies and stances that helped him in the previous period. When he was state senator for a liberal district, he was safe to deliver his “anti-war” speech in 2002. As soon as he decided to run for a national seat, he struck the speech from his website, quit returning activists’ phone calls, and switched to talking about how to efficiently win in Iraq.

For the same reasons, when Obama was organizing poor blacks on the South Side of Chicago, it made sense to join a large, black liberation theology church with a heavy profile in the community. As the political stakes grew, and Rev. Wright became a liability, he was dropped—for saying the stuff he’s said (and Obama has heard him say) his whole life.

As president, Obama’s constituency is more conservative (at least, has more conservatives) than either Illinois’ 13th District, or Illinois itself, and the career stakes have only grown. All of the factors that have pushed him rightward on race (and on everything else [2]) have only intensified. This should temper any expectations that his own blackness or past associations will push him in a racially progressive direction.


[1] I mean of course that Obama’s blackness will be used in such a way that it could be a net loss for progressives and black people. (See next section also.) In and of itself, as I’ve written before, the fact that a black man is president of the United States is a beautiful statement, given our history.

[2] In the span of just a few weeks last summer, Obama publicly tacked to the right on everything from NAFTA to the death penalty to gun control to campaign finance to Iraq to government spying on cell phone conversations.

Blum on the “failure” of socialism

Speaking of William Blum:

“The boys of Capital, they…chortle in their martinis about the death of socialism. The word has been banned from polite conversation. And they hope that no one will notice that every socialist experiment of any significance in the twentieth century—without exception—has either been crushed, overthrown, or invaded, or corrupted, perverted, subverted, or destabilized, or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States. Not one socialist government or movement—from the Russian Revolution to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Communist China to the FMLN in Salvador—not one was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.

It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon this, took notice of the consequences, nodded their collective heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Man shall never fly.”

From the introduction to “Killing Hope: US Military and CIA
Interventions Since World War II” (second ed.)