Shrunken sovereign: consumerism, globalization, and American emptiness

Two narratives bound our era and, by degrees but unmistakably, our predicament: the story of consumerism and the story of globalization. In recent years, the two have combined to produce a single and singularly corrosive narrative. Consumerism has meant the transformation of citizens into shoppers, eroding America’s sovereignty from within; globalization has meant the transformation of nation-states into secondary players on the world stage, eroding America’s sovereignty from without. In collaboration, the trends are dealing a ruinous blow to democracy—to our capacity for common judgment, citizenship, and liberty itself.

The common thread that winds through these two stories is the erosion of national autonomy—and, with it, the state’s monopoly over violence, the power to enact binding laws, and other essential aspects of sovereignty. Sovereignty, in turn, is an obvious precondition for democracy (which you cannot have without a state). When the sovereign state erodes, democracy erodes. It is that simple—and, beset from within and without, it is happening even today.

Twenty years later: tipping points near on global warming

Today I testified to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my June 23, 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

Three strikes and we’re out

A scientific and political consensus now exists on the threat posed to our civilization by climate change. The problem is generating the political will to take the steps necessary to radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

The present oil shock provides the answer to that problem – if our leaders have the courage to use it.

The price of oil is now at a level where it is having a seriously adverse effect on the world economy. Moreover, to fears of Middle Eastern stability are now added concerns over Russia using oil and gas supplies for geopolitical leverage.

As a result we have the best chance in a generation for Western leaders to go to their electorates and seek support for a new approach involving a willingness to make real short-term sacrifices.

A multibillionaire’s relentless quest for global influence

L ast October, Sheldon Adelson, the gaming multibillionaire, accompanied a group of Republican donors to the White House to meet with George W. Bush. They wanted to talk to the President about Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was organizing a major conference in the United States, in an effort to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and her initiative had provoked consternation among many rightward-leaning American Jews and their Christian evangelical allies. Most had seen Bush as a reliable friend of Israel, and one who had not pressured Israel to pursue the peace process. Adelson, who is seventy-four, owns two of Las Vegas’s giant casino resorts, the Venetian and the Palazzo, and is the third-richest person in the United States, according to Forbes. He is fiercely opposed to a two-state solution; and he had contributed so generously to Bush’s reëlection campaign that he qualified as a Bush Pioneer. A short, rotund man, with sparse reddish hair and a pale countenance that colors when he is angered, Adelson protested to Bush that Rice was thinking of her legacy, not the President’s, and that she would ruin him if she continued to pursue this disastrous course. Then, as Adelson later told an acquaintance, Bush put one arm around his shoulder and another around that of his wife, Miriam, who was born in Israel, and said to her, “You tell your Prime Minister that I need to know what’s right for your people—because at the end of the day it’s going to be my policy, not Condi’s. But I can’t be more Catholic than the Pope.” (The White House denies this account.)

The evolution of John McCain

Senator, what do you see as the gravest long-term threat to the U.S. economy?” That was the first question we put to John McCain when he sat down for an interview with Fortune on a sunny afternoon in June. The moment felt charged. Hillary Clinton had finally conceded to Barack Obama, and now the contest for the highest office in the land was down to two sparkling finalists – “the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time,” The Economist observed from overseas. Both were long shots when all this began. Each prevailed despite deep differences with key blocs in their party bases. Both promised change.

Already they were going at each other hard, mostly over the economy, and there was no shortage of bad news to fight about: turmoil in the markets, oil pushing toward $140 a barrel, gas at more than $4 a gallon, GM shutting down truck plants all over North America, unemployment arching higher than expected. All that was context for the question we posed. But we were asking McCain to rise above the news and look ahead to the day seven months from now when, he hopes, he’ll be sitting in the Oval Office. We wanted to know what single economic threat he perceives above all others.

McCain at first says nothing. He sits in the corner of a sofa, one black, tasseled loafer propped against a coffee table. We’re in the presidential suite on the 41st floor of the New York Hilton. McCain has come here – between a major speech on the economy in Washington, D.C., this morning and a fundraiser tonight at the 21 Club – to talk to us and to let us take his picture. He is wearing a dark suit, as he almost always does, with a blue shirt and a wine-colored tie. He’s looking not at us but into the void. His eyes are narrowed. Nine seconds of silence, ten seconds, 11. Finally he says, “Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we’re in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America could have devastating consequences.”

Not America’s dependence on foreign oil? Not climate change? Not the crushing cost of health care? Eventually McCain gets around to mentioning all three of those. But he starts by deftly turning the economy into a national security issue – and why not? On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event,” says Black. “But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us.” As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” says Black.

The new pariahs?

No country is wholly free of anti-immigrant prejudice, whether it is the United States, where illegal immigration was a hot-button issue in the Republican primaries, or post-apartheid South Africa, where economic migrants were recently burned to death. But in many Western European countries today, something new and insidious seems to be happening. The familiar old arguments against immigrants — that they are criminals, that their culture makes them a bad fit, that they take jobs from natives — are mutating into an anti-Islamic bias that is becoming institutionalized in the continent’s otherwise ordinary politics.

Examples abound. The Swiss People’s Party sponsors ads in which three white sheep push one black sheep off the Swiss flag — and wins 29 percent of the vote. In Belgium, the Vlaams Belang deploys a clever variation, publicly praising Jews and seeking their support against Muslims, whom it tellingly describes as “the main enemy of the moment.” Meanwhile, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture.”

Even Britain, which has afforded Muslims a more welcoming environment, has had some worrying moments. A few years back, a Labor M.P. called for an end to “the tradition of first-cousin marriages” among Pakistanis and other South Asians in Britain. The basis for her suggestion was the claim that Pakistanis in Britain were more likely than the general population to suffer from recessive autosomal genetic disorders. Of course, so are Ashkenazi Jews, but you can hardly imagine an M.P. proposing to limit Jews’ marriage choices for this reason, especially given the historic Nazi allegation of Jewish genetic inferiority.

USAF report: “Most” nuclear weapon sites in Europe do not meet US security requirements

An internal U.S. Air Force investigation has determined that “most sites” currently used for deploying nuclear weapons in Europe do not meet Department of Defense security requirements.

A summary of the investigation report was released by the Pentagon in February 2008 but omitted the details. Now a partially declassified version of the full report, recently obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, reveals a much bigger nuclear security problem in Europe than previously known.

As a result of these security problems, according to other sources, the U.S. plans to withdraw its nuclear custodial unit from at least one base and consolidate the remaining nuclear mission in Europe at fewer bases…

Specific examples of security issues discovered include conscripts with as little as nine months active duty experience being used protect nuclear weapons against theft.

German parties press U.S. to withdraw nuclear arms

Germany’s Social Democrats, who share power in the governing authority, and opposition parties are calling on the United States to remove all nuclear weapons stored in military bases here after a report found that safety standards at most sites for nuclear weapons in Europe fall well short of Pentagon requirements.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, is scathing about the security arrangements for nuclear weapons facilities in most European countries. It has touched a raw nerve in Germany, where the pacifist tradition is strong among leftist parties. They are hunting for an issue that could dent the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, before federal elections next year.

Niels Annen, foreign affairs expert for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, said Monday that nuclear disarmament would receive a big boost if Germany got rid of the weapons.

Violence threatens Gaza truce

Three rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have hit southern Israel, hours after Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in the West Bank.

Tuesday’s incidents cast doubt over the future of a fragile truce that has been in force in Gaza between Israel and armed Palestinian groups during the last five days.

Al-Quds, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement, took responsibility for the rocket attacks which caused some damage but no casualties in the Israeli town of Sderot.

Quiet is muck

Ggreat disaster has suddenly come upon Israel: The cease-fire has gone into effect. Cease-fire, cease-Qassams, cease-assassiations, at least for now. This good, hopeful news was received in Israel dourly, gloomily, even with hostility. As usual, politicians, the military brass and pundits went hand in hand to market the cease-fire as a negative, threatening and disastrous development.

Even from the people who forged the agreement – the prime minister and defense minister – you heard not a word about hope; just covering their backsides in case of failure. No one spoke of the opportunity, everyone spoke of the risk, which is fundamentally unfounded. Hamas will arm? Why of all times during the cease-fire? Will only Hamas arm? We won’t? Perhaps it will arm, and perhaps it will realize that it should not use armed force because of calm’s benefits.

It is hard to believe: The outbreak of war is received here with a great deal more sympathy and understanding, not to say enthusiasm, than a cease-fire. When the warmongers get started, our unified tom-toms drum out only encouraging messages; when the all-clear is sounded, when people in Sderot can sleep soundly, even if only for a short time, we are all worried. That says something about society’s sick face: Quiet is muck, war is the most important thing.

Occupations abroad always lead to the erosion of liberties at home

Before his show trial in Hungary in 1948, Robert Vogeler spent three months in a cell sleeping on a board that hovered just above two inches of water. Day and night a bright light bathed his cell, and even then someone would bang on the wall next door just to make sure he couldn’t get any sleep. “It is just a question of time before you confess,” he said afterwards. “With some it takes a little longer than others, but nobody can resist that treatment indefinitely.”

And so Vogeler, who was arrested for spying, buckled under the pressure and played his role in the gruesome farce of Stalin’s postwar purges in eastern Europe. “To judge from the way our scripts were written,” wrote Vogeler shortly after his forced confession, “it was more important to establish our allegorical identities than to establish our ‘guilt’. Each of us in his testimony was obliged to ‘unmask’ himself for the benefit of the [Soviet-led] press and radio.”

A similar script, it has long been clear, has been written at Guantánamo Bay, although this time the lines were for the prosecution rather than the defence. The point of these detentions has never been to see justice done, but rather to provide a teachable moment about the lengths and depths the American state would go to pursue its perceived interests in the war on terror. It was to find a place in which America could operate above and beyond not only international law but its own – a display of unfettered power not merely indifferent to, but openly contemptuous of, global and local norms.

In a first, court says military erred in a Guantanamo case

A federal appeals court for the first time has rejected the military’s designation of a Guantanamo detainee as an enemy combatant.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned as “invalid” a military tribunal’s conclusion that prisoner Huzaifa Parhat is an enemy combatant.

The court directed the Pentagon either to release or transfer Parhat or to hold a new tribunal hearing “consistent with the court’s opinion.”

US may open diplomatic outpost in Iran

The Bush administration is considering setting up a diplomatic outpost in Iran in what would mark a dramatic official U.S. return to the country nearly 30 years after the American embassy was overrun and the two nations severed relations.

Even as it threatens the Iranian regime with sanctions and possible military action over its nuclear program, the administration is floating the idea of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran similar to the one the State Department runs in Havana, diplomatic and political officials told The Associated Press on Monday.

Like the one in communist Cuba, an interest section, or de facto embassy, in the Iranian capital would give the United States a presence on the ground through which it can communicate directly with students, dissidents and others without endorsing the government, one official said.

West links drug war aid to Iranian nuclear impasse

Iranian forces have battled for years in the lonely canyons and deserts on the Afghan border against opium and heroin traffickers — winning rare praise from the United States and aid from Europe for the fight along one of the world’s busiest drug routes.

But now, international support for Iran’s drug agents could be threatened by the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear policies.

Western nations have told Iran that they could cut off any new help to Iran’s anti-drug units unless the Islamic regime halts uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be used to develop nuclear arms.

The warning was a small but potentially significant item tucked amid an array of trade and economic incentives seeking to sway Iranian leaders to strike a deal. Iran has not formally responded to the package, presented June 14 by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

A nation as yet unbuilt

Francis Fukuyama posed the basic Afghan dilemma as the supposed triumph of western invasion began to fall apart. Afghanistan has never been “modern”, he observed, chillingly. “Under the monarchy that existed until the beginning of its political troubles in the 1970s, it largely remained a tribal confederation with minimal state penetration outside Kabul”. And the subsequent years “of communist misrule and civil war eliminated everything that was left” of that feeble entity. History wasn’t dead, in short; Afghans were dead.

And now, many killing fields later, we can put that even more starkly. Afghanistan isn’t a “failed” state, because Afghanistan has never been a successful one. Afghanistan is a crossroads, a traffic island, a war zone, a drug den, an exotic doormat, and an eternal victim.

But it is not, in any coherent sense, a nation. We cannot see peace, harmony and freedom “restored” there, because such concepts have no roots in its essentially medieval past, or present. Afghanistan has always been a disaster waiting to happen, again and again.

Russia joins the war in Afghanistan

Moscow is staging an extraordinary comeback on the Afghan chessboard after a gap of two decades following the Soviet Union’s nine-year adventure that ended in the withdrawal of its last troops from Afghanistan 1989. In a curious reversal of history, this is possible only with the acquiescence of the United States. Moscow is taking advantage of the deterioration of the war in Afghanistan and the implications for regional security could be far-reaching.

A joint statement issued in Moscow over the weekend following the meeting of the United States-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism (CTWG) revealed that the two sides had reached “agreement in principle over the supply of Russian weaponry to the Afghanistan National Army” in its fight against the Taliban insurgency. The 16th session of the CTWG held in Moscow on June 19-20 was co-chaired by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.

From Afghanistan, NATO shells militants in Pakistan

NATO forces in Afghanistan shelled guerrillas in Pakistan in two separate episodes on Sunday, as escalating insurgent violence appeared to be eroding the alliance’s restraint along the border.

NATO officials said they had retaliated against rocket and artillery attacks launched by militants from sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, where they operate freely. The insurgents’ attacks, launched into Khost and Paktika Provinces, killed four Afghan civilians, at least two of them children, Afghan and NATO officials said. Casualty figures for Pakistan were not available.

The firing by NATO forces into Pakistani territory followed an American airstrike on a Pakistani border post earlier this month that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani government denounced the strike, and the American government expressed regret, but it is still not entirely clear what happened.

Pakistan calls the shots

Since signing on for the “war on terror” in 2001, Pakistan has received approximately US$10 billion in aid from the United States. It has also been pledged $600 million in economic and security assistance and $50 million in earthquake reconstruction aid on an annual basis through to 2009.

Washington is wondering just what it has received in return for all this largesse, so much so that next month US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher is scheduled to visit Pakistan to discuss Pakistan’s role in the “war on terror”, and is expected to give final notice that if Islamabad does not raise its game, the aid will dry up.

The US has been particularly concerned since the new coalition government took power after February’s elections, as it was supposed to be US-friendly. But it has refused point-blank to adhere to earlier commitments it made for joint operations with the US in Pakistan’s tribal areas against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

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