America’s ghost story

The unfolding political contest in the United States is a window into America’s soul. The nation is arguing with itself. The candidates embody separate impulses. As voters choose sides, a red state-blue state polarity again takes shape. Within the Democratic Party, the dispute is narrower, but still sharp. Yet in truth, each citizen carries within herself or himself the structure of the conflict: hard versus soft, experience versus change, programmed versus spontaneous, self-interest versus empathy, hope in an open future versus lessons from the past. Politics, by isolating these positions and attributing them to one candidate over against another, parodies the interior struggle of every American.

In this era, humans have been cut loose from ancient moorings of meaning and purpose. The context within which this condition is most manifest in the United States is the debate – or, more precisely, the lack thereof – over what is called “national security.” The phrase is potent because it promises something that is impossible, since the human condition is by definition insecure. When candidates vie with one another over who is most qualified to be “commander in chief,” and when they unanimously promise to strengthen military readiness, they together reinforce the dominant American myth – that an extravagant social investment of treasure and talent in armed power of the group offers members of the group escape from the existential dread that comes with life on a dangerous planet. That such investment only makes the planet more dangerous matters little, since the feeling of security, rather than actual security, is the goal of the entire project.

The most wanted list

On February 13, Imad Moughniyeh, a senior commander of Hizbollah, was assassinated in Damascus. “The world is a better place without this man in it,” State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said: “one way or the other he was brought to justice.” Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell added that Moughniyeh has been “responsible for more deaths of Americans and Israelis than any other terrorist with the exception of Osama bin Laden.”

Joy was unconstrained in Israel too, as “one of the U.S. and Israel’s most wanted men” was brought to justice, the London Financial Times reported. Under the heading, “A militant wanted the world over,” an accompanying story reported that he was “superseded on the most-wanted list by Osama bin Laden” after 9/11 and so ranked only second among “the most wanted militants in the world.”

The terminology is accurate enough, according to the rules of Anglo-American discourse, which defines “the world” as the political class in Washington and London (and whoever happens to agree with them on specific matters). It is common, for example, to read that “the world” fully supported George Bush when he ordered the bombing of Afghanistan. That may be true of “the world,” but hardly of the world, as revealed in an international Gallup Poll after the bombing was announced. Global support was slight. In Latin America, which has some experience with U.S. behavior, support ranged from 2% in Mexico to 16% in Panama, and that support was conditional upon the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the FBI reported), and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by “the world.”

Inside a failed Palestinian police state

The death of Hamas preacher Majed al-Barghouti in a prison cell last week — apparently after being tortured — momentarily shattered the surface calm of news reports from Ramallah. But neither the subsequent rioting nor the fact that the dead man came from one of the most prominent Palestinian families disrupted the ‘democracy versus terror’ agenda that has distorted most news reporting out of the West Bank since last June (when Hamas took control of Gaza).

Martin Luther King once described rioting as ‘the voice of the unheard,’ but despite al-Barghouti’s death, most Ramallans currently seem too depressed to riot. The only events to have lifted spirits in the city lately have been a freak snow storm, and a similarly rare suicide bombing in Dimona — the latter prompting local shopkeepers to cut prices for the morning and, in one case, to waive payment altogether.

More typical events in the last week have included a mysterious explosion, continued Israeli army raids, and a major downtown gunfight between PA ’security’ forces in balaclavas and youths from the city’s Amari refugee camp. The violence, unheard outside Ramallah, is at once cause, effect and byproduct of a pervasive gloom that has settled over ‘Fatahland’ like smog.

Panetta’s lament: they had no plan

The argument that the constant carping about Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been a function of an Obama-friendly, process-obsessed media is well and good. But how, then, to explain the deeply held dissatisfaction of an old Clinton loyalist like Leon Panetta?

In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Panetta compared Mrs. Clinton’s top strategist Mark Penn to Karl Rove, suggested that the Clinton campaign had totally underestimated Barack Obama’s appeal, and complained about the overall lack of planning that he said had characterized the former First Lady’s bid to return to the White House.

It’s OK to vote for Obama because he’s black

I admit it: I’m voting for Barack Obama because he’s black. Yes, I’m voting for him because he’s qualified, intelligent, charismatic and competent — and because unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. But if he weren’t black, and Hillary had opposed the war, I’d probably vote for her because of her greater experience. In any case, it’s a moot point, because if Obama weren’t black, he would not be the Democratic front-runner.

I believe that most of Obama’s supporters are voting for him for the same reason. Like me, they’re drawn to his idealism, his youthful energy, his progressive politics. But it’s his blackness that seals the deal.

And that’s OK. In fact, it’s wonderful.

A war we must end

Despite the Democratic presidential candidates’ expressed commitment to ending the war in Iraq, there is unease among the party’s base. Some ardent activists have suggested that upon election, a new Democratic president will come under inordinate pressure to sustain the U.S. military commitment to Iraq, albeit with some modifications. This concern demonstrates both the difficulty of ending a controversial war and the necessity of doing so.

Even a cursory examination of American history reveals the complexity of concluding a war that has taken on such a stark partisan tint. The shadow of Vietnam looms, as it has become standard Republican narrative that back then it was the Democrats in Congress who stabbed America in the back by cutting off funding for a winning cause. The fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter. The Republican machine will press this same theme should it lose the White House in November. A Democratic administration would be accused of surrendering to evildoers, as once more the dovish successors of George McGovern are wrongly said to have pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Such self-serving claims do not diminish the need and justification for ending one of America’s longest and most misguided wars. Republicans will claim that after four years of disastrous mistakes, the Bush administration finally got it right with its troop “surge.” Yet even despite the loss of nearly 1,000 American lives and the expenditure of $150 billion, the surge has failed in its stated purpose: providing the Iraqi government with the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four. Moreover, as part of the surge, the administration has further undermined Iraq’s government by providing arms and money to Sunni insurgent groups even though they have not pledged loyalty to Baghdad.

Who’s got the power?

President George W. Bush could be forgiven for underestimating China: He had spent some months there in the mid-1970s, when his father was U.S. Ambassador to Beijing. His firsthand experience of a largely pre-industrial colossus could hardly have prepared him for dealing with the China of today — a China to which the U.S. owes some $1.5 trillion and counting, and to which America’s beleaguered banks turn for the multibillion dollar loans required to keep them afloat.

By the time Bush took office, of course America was well aware of China’s growing economic significance — its ability to produce quality goods at lower prices for U.S. corporations had already largely gutted the U.S. manufacturing sector, and American politicians routinely complained about Chinese currency policy and the ballooning the U.S. trade deficit. (Less is said, of course, about the Chinese credit that allows Americans to consume way beyond their means — by one estimate, Beijing has loaned an equivalent of $4,000 to every person in the U.S. over the past decade alone.)

Honey, I shrank the superpower

In a snide reference to Bill Clinton’s 1992 promise to “build a bridge into the 21st century,” Barack Obama recently quipped that what Hillary Clinton really offers is a bridge back into the 20th century. Yet, a bridge back into the last century may be what all the major candidates are offering when they promise to restore the American leadership and primacy. The Republicans promise to restore American power by staying the course in Iraq, threatening Iran, and staring down “radical Islamic terrorism,” which John McCain calls “the transcendent issue of the 21st century.” The Democrats envisage turning the clock back eight years, restoring post-Cold War American primacy simply by adopting a more sober and consensus-based style. The problem, of course, is that while Bush’s reckless forays into the Middle East have accelerated the decline of America’s strategic influence, there’s little reason to believe that this decline can be reversed either by more of the same, or by a less abrasive tenant in the Oval Office.

Rising inflation creates unease in Middle East

Even as it enriches Arab rulers, the recent oil-price boom is helping to fuel an extraordinary rise in the cost of food and other basic goods that is squeezing this region’s middle class and setting off strikes, demonstrations and occasional riots from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

Here in Jordan, the cost of maintaining fuel subsidies amid the surge in prices forced the government to remove almost all the subsidies this month, sending the price of some fuels up 76 percent overnight. In a devastating domino effect, the cost of basic foods like eggs, potatoes and cucumbers doubled or more.

In Saudi Arabia, where inflation had been virtually zero for a decade, it recently reached an official level of 6.5 percent, though unofficial estimates put it much higher. Public protests and boycotts have followed, and 19 prominent clerics posted an unusual statement on the Internet in December warning of a crisis that would cause “theft, cheating, armed robbery and resentment between rich and poor.”

The inflation has many causes, from rising global demand for commodities to the monetary constraints of currencies pegged to the weakening American dollar. But one cause is the skyrocketing price of oil itself, which has quadrupled since 2002. It is helping push many ordinary people toward poverty even as it stimulates a new surge of economic growth in the gulf.

Gates’ good advice for Turkey ought to be applied across the Middle East

US Defense Secretary Bob Gates had something very sensible to say on Sunday, warning his NATO ally Turkey that military action alone is not a solution to the problem of Kurdistan Workers Party rebels based in neighboring Iraq. He stressed that “dialogue” was an under-used tool in the conflict, and specified that this should be an ongoing process rather than an ad-hoc one employed exclusively during crises. “These economic and political measures are really important because after a certain point people become inured to military attacks,” Gates said. “If you don’t blend them with these kinds of non-military initiatives then at a certain point the military efforts become less and less effective.” As for the current Turkish campaign in Iraq, he said, “the shorter the better.”

It is precisely this kind of blunt advice that America’s allies in the volatile Middle East need to receive from the lone remaining superpower, a reminder that many issues simply cannot be made to go away by killing people. Unfortunately, however, the US government has been inured against this kind of logic for years, at least insofar as it regards Israel. That country’s multi-faceted conflict with the Arab and Islamic worlds has long been the prime mover of regional instability, and its habit of resorting to violence only makes the issues at stake more and more complicated. Worse yet, it rarely receives the kind of counsel that Turkey did from Gates.

In Israel, some see no option but war

Aharon Peretz has spent most of his 51 years in this cactus-fringed, working-class town, and he would like to stay.

But his wife and six children feel differently: Daily retreats to the basement during rocket strikes from the nearby Gaza Strip have frayed their nerves, and an attack that cost an uncle both his legs has convinced them it’s time to go.

Peace will return for his family, Peretz has decided, only if Israel chooses to go to war with his neighbors.

Qatar willing to broker cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas

Qatar is willing to broker a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamed bin Jassem al-Thani, told MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) in Doha on Sunday.

Beilin, a former deputy foreign minister, met the Qatari at a conference for retired foreign ministers. Al-Thani also acts as his country’s foreign minister.

“You are making a big mistake if you think you can reach an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas without including Hamas in the talks,” said the Qatari premier, according to a report of the conversation received by Haaretz. Hamas, continued al-Thani, “must be taken into account,” because even if talks do progress with Abbas, “he will not be able to sign an agreement without Hamas’s consent.”

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1 thought on “NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 26

  1. Monte Asbury

    “the dominant American myth – that an extravagant social investment of treasure and talent in armed power of the group offers members of the group escape from the existential dread that comes with life on a dangerous planet. That such investment only makes the planet more dangerous matters little, since the feeling of security, rather than actual security, is the goal of the entire project.”

    Wish I’d written that! Brilliant!

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