Laura Gottesdiener: Adrift in oil country

Think of it as a Walrusgram written on the sand of a northwest Alaskan beach and sent to the planet.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic marine mammal aerial survey noticed them first, those 35,000 walruses that had come ashore in unheard of numbers because their usual sea ice has simply melted away.  The photos are dramatic.  You couldn’t ask for a clearer message from a species that normally doesn’t write out its thoughts on the subject of our changing, warming planet.

For those who prefer their science not from the walrus’s mouth (so to speak), there has been equally relevant news on the same subject lately from another species.  Think of them as scientists clambering ashore from a wounded world.  Only weeks ago, it was reported that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere had reached record levels in 2013 and, perhaps even more unsettlingly, that oceans and terrestrial plant life, both major “carbon sinks,” were absorbing less CO2 than in the past.  Now, we have news that the oceans have actually been warming significantly faster than anyone previously imagined.  The latest figures indicate that “the upper 2,300 feet of the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans may have warmed twice as quickly after 1970 than had previously been thought… [and that] the upper levels of the planet’s oceans — those of the northern and southern hemispheres combined — had been warming during several decades prior to 2005 at rates that were 24 to 58 percent faster than had previously been realized.”

None of this is good news, of course, not if you have any sort of investment in future generations living on a planet anywhere near as hospitable as the one we’ve been on for so long.  But talk about dissociation.  While those walruses were climbing out of the water and the scientists were reporting their latest grim numbers, in the American heartland thousands of workers shaken loose from other worlds have been heading for boom times in North Dakota and elsewhere in our fracklands.  There, the exploitation of previously unrecoverable oil shale and natural gas deposits via hydro-fracking has pundits bragging about this country as “Saudi America” and the president aggressively planning to make “the oil weapon” a central feature in American foreign policy.

Between the two worlds, the one producing ever more fossil fuels amid a let-the-good-times-roll spirit of triumphalism and the one slowly melting down under the impact of what those fossil fuels release into the atmosphere, there sometimes seems no connection at all.  Clear as the link may be, each of these worlds often might as well be located on a different planet.

TomDispatch’s Laura Gottesdiener had the rare urge to land on that other planet, the one most of us never experience that produces fossil fuels with such exuberance, and see just what we’re all missing.  Here’s her vivid report from the front lines of American fossil-fuel extraction. Tom Engelhardt

A trip to Kuwait (on the prairie)
Life inside the boom
By Laura Gottesdiener

At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint. Then again, I didn’t really expect most of the things I encountered reporting on the oil boom in western North Dakota this past summer.

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Michael Klare: Washington wields the oil weapon

You remember. It was the oiliest of administrations. The president was a (failed) West Texas oilman. The vice-president had been the CEO of the giant oil field services company, Halliburton, and before taking office, when speaking at the Petroleum Institute and elsewhere, was known to say things like, “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, long on the board of Chevron, had a double-hulled oil tanker named for her. They were a crew with the global flow of oil and how to control it on the brain.  Just in case you forgot, and I know you haven’t, the new vice president had barely taken office and set up an “energy task force” to develop future policy that he himself would chair when a parade of top oil executives began arriving at the White House to meet secretly with it.

And then, after 9/11, came the assault on the oil heartlands of the planet. I’m sure you remember how, amid the chaos of a burning Baghdad, American troops were ordered to guard only the buildings of Iraq’s Oil and Interior Ministries, and… well, I don’t really have to review all of that for you, do I? Then, of course, Americans put into office the guy who swore he was going to end oil wars and attend to our global warming future instead — a fellow named Barack Obama who, everyone knew, would step into office without an oil slick in his head.

That was then and this is now. The Barack Obama of 2014 is essentially running a drill-baby-drill White House in a country where oil consumption is actually rising. His administration has been opening up ever more coastal areas to exploration and drilling from the East to the Arctic waters of Alaska, while encouraging the creation of a “Saudi America” in the American frack lands.  The result: a torrent of crude oil and natural gas and something else as well, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch’s indispensable energy expert, points out today. Buoyed by the country’s new energy wealth, our president has been putting oil to work abroad. He has been using energy as the spear of his already highly militarized foreign policy.  The result has been a sophisticated weaponization of oil that puts the energy mavens of the Bush administration to shame.  But let Klare tell you the whole grim tale. Tom Engelhardt

Obama’s new oil wars
Washington takes on ISIS, Iran, and Russia
By Michael T. Klare

It was heinous. It was underhanded.  It was beyond the bounds of international morality. It was an attack on the American way of life.  It was what you might expect from unscrupulous Arabs.  It was “the oil weapon” — and back in 1973, it was directed at the United States. Skip ahead four decades and it’s smart, it’s effective, and it’s the American way.  The Obama administration has appropriated it as a major tool of foreign policy, a new way to go to war with nations it considers hostile without relying on planes, missiles, and troops.  It is, of course, that very same oil weapon.

Until recently, the use of the term “the oil weapon” has largely been identified with the efforts of Arab producers to dissuade the United States from supporting Israel by cutting off the flow of petroleum. The most memorable example of its use was the embargo imposed by Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on oil exports to the United States during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, causing scarcity in the U.S., long lines at American filling stations, and a global economic recession.

After suffering enormously from that embargo, Washington took a number of steps to disarm the oil weapon and prevent its reuse. These included an increased emphasis on domestic oil production and the establishment of a mutual aid arrangement overseen by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that obliged participating nations to share their oil with any member state subjected to an embargo.

So consider it a surprising reversal that, having tested out the oil weapon against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with devastating effect back in the 1990s, Washington is now the key country brandishing that same weapon, using trade sanctions and other means to curb the exports of energy-producing states it categorizes as hostile.  The Obama administration has taken this aggressive path even at the risk of curtailing global energy supplies.

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Todd Gitlin: As the globe warms, so does the climate movement

Don’t call it a “march.” It was a “stand” — and a first stand at that, not a last one.  The People’s Climate March, billed as the largest climate demonstration in history, more than exceeded expectations and was an experience that has yet to desert me.  Its moment couldn’t have been grimmer in global warming terms.  That week, record-breaking concentrations of greenhouse gases were reported in the atmosphere, with the added grim news that the oceans and the forests, the planet’s major “carbon sinks,” were starting to absorb less CO2. Under the circumstances, I had the urge to do my bit to make the march huge and so organized a group of 16 friends and family members, ranging in age from 2 to 72. Marchers were to gather on New York’s Central Park West between 86th Street and Columbus Circle at 59th, where the event was to kick off at exactly 11:30 a.m.  At 11, when our crew arrived at 72nd Street, designated as a meeting place for children, families, and oldsters like me, the main route along Central Park West was already jam-packed and feeder streets like ours were filling fast.

On our small, ever-tighter stretch of cement was a typically heterogeneous crew sporting small dogs, a large penguin doll, a gazillion handmade signs, and a strutting, dancing drum-and-cymbal band. Amid cheers, music, and conversation, time passed and passed and passed. Though those younger than me were getting texts indicating that the march had set off in a timely manner, we didn’t move.  Not an inch.  And then it began to dawn on me. This demonstration was going to be so big, with so many people feeding into it, that “marching” for many of us would be an alien activity. As TomDispatch regular Todd Gitlin makes thrillingly clear today, we were quite literally in the midst of a genuine movement being born.  In fact, our crew, only 13 blocks north of the starting spot, didn’t even inch forward for more than an hour and a half after the official launch.

That’s what it turns out to mean to have 400,000 people crammed into a New York mile and cordoned off by the police (who control the streets, effectively imprisoning crowds).  By the time I reached the official beginning of the march at 59th Street, three and a half hours after we arrived, my legs were goners.  So, for another half an hour, I stopped with a friend, Peter Dimock, and watched the march pass in all its strange splendor and remarkable youthfulness, a kaleidoscope of floats and signs and costumes and performances spilling by, and still I couldn’t see the end of it. It’s the only demonstration I’ve ever attended where, officially speaking, I never began — and that represents a triumph of organizing and evidence of a growing concern for the state and fate of our planet.

Peter spent much of the march scribbling down what was on the panoply of signs around us, almost all made by individuals to express some urge about our degrading world, so many that his list of hundreds could make a dispatch in itself.  And yet he caught only a small fraction of the march’s signs.  Here are just a few of those to give you a taste of what may, as Gitlin suggests, have been a defining moment of hope in an otherwise grim era:

“Being Cool Has Never Been So Hot,” “Another Grandmother for Climate Justice,” “Our Planet is Not Something You Can Negotiate,” “I’m Sure the Dinosaurs Thought They Had Time, Too,” “Frack Off: Indigenous Women Leaders Leading Media Campaign to Defend Our Planet,” “Tax CO2,” “The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowing in the Wind” (with an image of a wind turbine), “Even Princeton” (sign held by one of a group of Princeton engineering and technology students marching together), “Don’t Panic, Learn to Swim,” “Evolve or Dissolve,” “Infinite Economic Growth (crossed out), Finite Planet,” “‘Natural Gas’ Is Not the Answer,” “There is No Planet B,” “I’m Marching for the Only Habitable Place in the Universe,” “Wall Street, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” “Save the Snowmen,” “We Did Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors. We Borrowed It From Our Grandchildren.” Tom Engelhardt

A change in the climate
The climate movement steps up
By Todd Gitlin

Less than two weeks have passed and yet it isn’t too early to say it: the People’s Climate March changed the social map — many maps, in fact, since hundreds of smaller marches took place in 162 countries. That march in New York City, spectacular as it may have been with its 400,000 participants, joyous as it was, moving as it was (slow-moving, actually, since it filled more than a mile’s worth of wide avenues and countless side streets), was no simple spectacle for a day. It represented the upwelling of something that matters so much more: a genuine global climate movement.

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Tom Engelhardt: Entering the intelligence labyrinth

Failure is success: How American intelligence works in the twenty-first century
By Tom Engelhardt

What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters.  You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities.  Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it.  Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.

You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet.  You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order.  You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts.  You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies).  Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt.  Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.

You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn’t make it into our world.  You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can’t say that their mouths have been shut).  You undoubtedly spy on Congress.  You hack into congressional computer systems.  And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you’re doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population).  You do everything to wreck their lives and — should one escape your grasp — you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.

As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex.

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William deBuys: Love affair in the back country

Without visiting it, the eighteenth-century French natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, propounded the theory that the New World was an inferior creation, its species but degenerate versions of European ones. “There is no North American animal comparable to the elephant: no giraffes, lions, or hippopotami,” he wrote. “All animals are smaller… Everything shrinks under a ‘niggardly sky and unprolific land.’” Thomas Jefferson, then-ambassador to Paris, was so incensed that he dispatched a revolutionary war hero and 20 soldiers to New Hampshire to bag a large moose and had it shipped to Buffon. So when Charles Wilson Peale uncovered the giant bones of an antediluvian creature he called a “mammoth” (a mastodon, as it turned out), it was a patriotic moment. No traces of such a giant animal had previously been found on Earth.  Americans clearly had bigger and better to offer than anything a European naturalist could point to. And for all anyone knew, somewhere out in the territories, in that great wilderness still to be explored, such beasts perhaps still roamed.

In the same spirit, while America had no great buildings or cathedrals, the country had something so much more magnificent than the most awesome of Europe’s places of worship. It had nature’s architecture, its “cathedrals,” in a wilderness unmatched in its wonders.

That was one remarkable American tradition. I represented another. Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1962, I decided to light out for the wilderness. Keep in mind that I was a kid for whom the wilderness was New York City’s Central Park and the wilds were the suburbs.  So it was an adventurous, if not daft, thing to do. My best friend and I took our bikes, boarded a train, and headed for Bear Mountain a couple of hours away. So many years later, I have no clue how the idea lodged in our heads or why, for the first serious biking trip of our lives, we chose a place quite openly labeled a “mountain.” Did we have no concept of “uphill,” having grown up in a remarkably flat coastal city? All I remember is that it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wrung out at the side of the road, wondering how we would ever get anywhere near our prospective campground. As so often happens, however, we were saved by the kindness of strangers. Someone took pity on us, stopped his truck or van, tossed our bikes into the back, and drove us to our destination.

We were finally in the cathedral of the woods. That night, we pitched our little tent, made a fire, managed to be scared by a bobcat whose glowing eyes we caught in the beam of our flashlight, and finally retired to sleep on ground crisscrossed by roots, only to be attacked by some giant, truly fearsome bug. (Think Mothra!) Yes, it’s true: in that cathedral I was praying for deliverance as the sun came up.

And don’t even get me started on the beach in California, years later, where I woke up sopping wet from the ocean dew, or the thousands of hopping bugs that advanced on my sleeping bag on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, or that night in a ditch at the side of some road in a scruffy backland when no one would pick up two young hitchhikers. As you’ll see today, TomDispatch regular William deBuys is quite a different kind of American. In fact, at this very moment, he’s on a raft joyously heading down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

And here’s the thing: as someone who wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping one more night in the wild, I genuinely celebrate deBuys and his ilk, who have had such a hand in ensuring that the great natural cathedrals of our American world will be there (we hope) for generations yet to come. His celebration of American nature, based on his own youthful experience lighting out for the territories, ranks among the special pleasures of what I’ve published at TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt

The Wilderness Act turns 50
Celebrating the great laws of 1964
By William deBuys

Let us now praise famous laws and the year that begat them: 1964.

The first thing to know about 1964 was that, although it occurred in the 1960s, it wasn’t part of “the Sixties.” The bellbottoms, flower power, LSD, and craziness came later, beginning about 1967 and extending into the early 1970s. Trust me: I was there, and I don’t remember much; so by the dictum variously attributed to Grace Slick, Dennis Hopper, and others (that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t part of them), I must really have been there.

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Nick Turse: American ‘success’ and the rise of West African piracy

As American hysteria over events in the Middle East rises, news about whatever grim video the Islamic State (IS) has just released jostles for attention with U.S. bombing runs in Iraq, prospective ones in Syria, and endless confusing statements out of Washington about what the next seat-of-the-pants version of its strategy might be.  These days, such things are endlessly on the American radar screen.  On the other hand, the U.S. military has been moving into Africa big time for years and just about nobody seems to notice.  The Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) now annually engages in one kind of activity or another with 49 of that continent’s 54 countries.  Yet Americans know next to nothing about Washington’s “pivot” to a continent significant parts of which seem to be in a slow-motion process of destabilization that may be linked, at least in part, to U.S. military moves there.

Nearly everywhere in Africa, the U.S. military is in action.  However, except in rare cases, like the recent announcement of an “Ebola surge” in Liberia, you would never know it.  At the moment, for instance, according to the Associated Press, AFRICOM is “preparing to launch a ‘major’ border security program to help Nigeria and its neighbors combat the increasing number and scope of attacks by Islamic extremists.”  We’re talking, of course, about the other “caliphate,” the one in northern Nigeria announced by Boko Haram, an outfit that makes the militants of IS look moderate.  But that’s news you’re unlikely to read in this country, not at least until, at some future moment, things start to go really, really wrong. Similarly, U.S. drone bases are slowly spreading in Africa, but you’d have to have an eagle eye to notice it.  Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the “Pentagon is preparing to open a drone base in one of the remotest places on Earth.”  Tucked away, far from prying eyes, in the middle of the Sahara desert, the U.S. will now be cleared to fly drones out of “the mud-walled desert city of Agadez.”

It was typically incisive coverage of the shadowy doings of AFRICOM by Craig Whitlock, the one mainstream reporter who seems to keep an eye on American military moves there.  Other media outlets from Reuters to Air Force Times followed up with versions of the same story, but it all passed like a blip in the night.  If it caught your attention, I’d be surprised.

Still, if you’re a TomDispatch reader, Washington’s pivot to Africa and the expansion of U.S. air operations there won’t surprise you greatly.  After all, back in April, this site’s managing editor, Nick Turse, who’s had his eye on U.S. military operations in Africa for years, reported that, during a meeting for defense contractors, AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about a future U.S. facility in Niger.  That country, Cook said, “is in a nice strategic location that allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly, so we are working very hard with the Nigeriens to come up with, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a base, but a place we can operate out of on a frequent basis.”  Cook offered no information on the possible location of the facility, but Turse reported that contracting documents he had examined indicated that “the U.S. Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger’s Mano Dayak International Airport.”  And just where is Mano Dayak International Airport located? You guessed it: Agadez, Niger.

By the way, it’s not just boots on the continent and drones over it these days.  For the U.S. military, it’s also ships off the coast. But let Nick Turse tell you the rest. Tom Engelhardt 

Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea
In the face of rising maritime insecurity, AFRICOM claims success and Obama embraces a strongman
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

“The Gulf of Guinea is the most insecure waterway, globally,” says Loic Moudouma.  And he should know.  Trained at the U.S. Naval War College, the lead maritime security expert of the Economic Community of Central African States, and a Gabonese Navy commander, his focus has been piracy and maritime crime in the region for the better part of a decade.  

Moudouma is hardly alone in his assessment. 

From 2012 to 2013, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence found a 25% jump in incidents, including vessels being fired upon, boarded, and hijacked, in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast maritime zone that curves along the west coast of Africa from Gabon to Liberia.  Kidnappings are up, too.  Earlier this year, Stephen Starr, writing for the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, asserted that, in 2014, the number of attacks would rise again. 

Today, what most Americans know about piracy likely centers on an attraction at Walt Disney World and the Johnny Depp movies it inspired.  If the Gulf of Guinea rings any bells at all, it’s probably because of the Ebola outbreak in, and upcoming U.S. military “surge” into, Liberia, the nation on the northern edge of that body of water.  But for those in the know, the Gulf itself is an intractable hotspot on a vast continent filled with them and yet another area where U.S. military efforts have fallen short.

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Peter Van Buren: Back to the future in Iraq

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it, he went after the war of that moment and the money that the U.S. was pouring into it as symptoms of a societal disaster.  President Lyndon Johnson’s poverty program was being “broken and eviscerated,” King said from the pulpit of that church, “as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war… We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.  I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”  Twice more in that ringing speech he spoke of “the madness of Vietnam” and called for it to cease.

Don’t think of that as just a preacher’s metaphor.  There was a genuine madness on the loose — and not just in the “free-fire zones” of Vietnam but in policy circles here in the United States, in the frustration of top military and civilian officials who felt gripped by an eerie helplessness as they widened a terrible war on the ground and in the air.  They were, it seemed, incapable of imagining any other path than escalation in the face of disaster and possible defeat.  Even in the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when there was a brief attempt to paint that lost war in a more heroic hue (“a noble cause,” the president called it), that sense of madness, or at least of resulting mental illness, lingered.  It remained embedded in a phrase then regularly applied to Americans who were less than willing to once again head aggressively into the world.  They were suffering from, it was said, “Vietnam syndrome.”

Today, almost 25 years into what someday might simply be called America’s Iraq War (whose third iteration we’ve recently entered), you can feel that a similar “madness” has Washington by the throat.  Just as King noted of the Vietnam era, since 9/11 American domestic programs and agencies have been starved while money poured into the coffers of the Pentagon and an increasingly bloated national security state.  The results have been obvious.  In the face of the spreading Ebola virus in West Africa, for instance, the president can no longer turn to civilian agencies or organizations for help, but has to call on the U.S. military in an “Ebola surge” — even our language has been militarized — although its forces are not known for their skills, successes, or spendthrift ways when it comes to civilian “humanitarian” or nation-building operations.

We’ve already entered the period when strategy, such as it is, falls away, and our leaders feel strangely helpless before the drip, drip, drip of failure and the unbearable urge for further escalation.  At this point, in fact, the hysteria in Washington over the Islamic State seems a pitch or two higher than anything experienced in the Vietnam years.  A fiercely sectarian force in the Middle East has captured the moment and riveted attention, even though its limits in a region full of potential enemies seem obvious and its “existential threat” to the U.S. consists of the possibility that some stray American jihadi might indeed try to harm a few of us.  Call it emotional escalation in a Washington that seems remarkably unhinged.

It took Osama bin Laden $400,000 to $500,000, 19 hijackers, and much planning to produce the fallen towers of 9/11 and the ensuing hysteria in this country that launched the disastrous, never-ending Global War on Terror.  It took the leaders of the Islamic State maybe a few hundred bucks and two grim videos, featuring three men on a featureless plain in Syria, to create utter, blind hysteria here.  Think of this as confirmation of Karl Marx’s famous comment that the first time is tragedy, but the second is farce.

One clear sign of the farcical nature of our moment is the inability to use almost any common word or phrase in an uncontested way if you put “Iraq” or “Islamic State” or “Syria” in the same sentence.  Remember when the worst Washington could come up with in contested words was the meaning of “is” in Bill Clinton’s infamous statement about his relationship with a White House intern?  Linguistically speaking, those were the glory days, the utopian days of official Washington.

Just consider three commonplace terms of the moment: “war,” “boots on the ground,” and “combat.”  A single question links them all: Are we or aren’t we?  And to that, in each case, Washington has no acceptable answer.  On war, the secretary of state said no, we weren’t; the White House and Pentagon press offices announced that yes, we were; and the president fudged.  He called it “targeted action” and spoke of America’s “unique capability to mobilize against an organization like ISIL,” but God save us, what it wasn’t and wouldn’t be was a “ground war.”

Only with Congress did a certain clarity prevail.  Nothing it did really mattered.  Whatever Congress decided or refused to decide when it came to going to war would be fine and dandy, because the White House was going to do “it” anyway.  “It,” of course, was the Clintonesque “is” of present-day Middle Eastern policy.  Who knew what it was, but here was what it wasn’t and would never be: “boots on the ground.”  Admittedly, the president has already dispatched 1,600 booted troops to Iraq’s ground (with more to come), but they evidently didn’t qualify as boots on the ground because, whatever they were doing, they would not be going into “combat” (which is evidently the only place where military boots officially hit the ground).  The president has been utterly clear on this.  There would be no American “combat mission” in Iraq.  Unfortunately, “combat” turns out to be another of those dicey terms, since those non-boots had barely landed in Iraq when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey started to raise the possibility that some of them, armed, might one day be forward deployed with Iraqi troops as advisers and spotters for U.S. air power in future battles for Iraq’s northern cities.  This, the White House now seems intent on defining as not being a “combat mission.”

And we’re only weeks into an ongoing operation that could last years.  Imagine the pretzeling of the language by then.  Perhaps it might be easiest if everyone — Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and Washington’s pundits — simply agreed that the United States is at “war-ish” in Iraq, with boots on the ground-ish in potentially combat-ish situations.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren spent his own time in Iraq and wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about it.  Now, he considers the mind-boggling strangeness of Washington doing it all over again, this time as the grimmest of farces. Tom Engelhardt

Apocalypse Now, Iraq edition
Fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over
By Peter Van Buren

I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”

I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it.  After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?

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Taylor and Appel: The subprime education scandal

We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.

Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority.  So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment.  Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education with a debt sentence
For-profit colleges as American dream crushers and factories of debt
By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

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Rebecca Solnit: What to do when you’re running out of time

Just when no one needed more lousy news, the U.N.’s weather outfit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. It offered a shocking climate-change update: the concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) rose at a “record-shattering pace” from 2012 to 2013, including the largest increase in CO2 in 30 years — and there was a nasty twist to this news that made it even grimmer. While such increases reflected the fact that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at staggering rates, something else seems to be happening as well.  Both the oceans and terrestrial plant life act as carbon sinks; that is, they absorb significant amounts of the carbon dioxide we release and store it away.  Unfortunately, both may be reaching limits of some sort and seem to be absorbing less. This is genuinely bad news if you’re thinking about the future warming of the planet. (As it happens, in the same period, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, parts of the American public stopped absorbing information in no less striking fashion: the number of those who believe that global warming isn’t happening rose 7% to 23%.)

So consider this a propitious moment for a major climate-change demonstration, possibly the largest in history, in New York City this Sunday. As the WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pointed out, there is still time to make a difference. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools,” he said, “for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, points out, the pressure of mass movements can sometimes turn history upside down. Of course, the only way to find out if climate change is a candidate for this treatment is to get out in the streets. So, for those of you anywhere near New York, see you this Sunday! Tom Engelhardt

The wheel turns, the boat rocks, the sea rises
Change in a time of climate change
By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

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Tom Engelhardt: The great concentration or the great fragmentation?

Power drain: Mysteries of the twenty-first century in a helter-skelter world
By Tom Engelhardt

It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder. 

For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).

Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it. 

This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter.  And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet.  It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”   

Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet

As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone.  Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted. 

Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached — and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.

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Bautista, Crisp-Sauray, and McKibben: A future to march for

[Next Sunday’s event in New York City is already being pre-billed as “the largest climate change demonstration in history.” (It doesn’t actually have that much competition.) My hope is that anyone who can get here will help make it impressively so, if for no other reason -- and there are plenty -- than because it feels good once in a while to know that you’re not alone. You’ll find all the information you need about the timing and logistics of the march by clicking here. So, if you can, turn out and join the 1,100 groups that have already endorsed the march and the 20 marching bands slated to be on hand. See you there! Tom Engelhardt]

It was June 12, 1982. My daughter was still in her stroller, my son as yet unborn, when my wife and I, six friends, and another child in a stroller joined an estimated million people in New York City at the largest antinuclear protest in history. All of the adults in our party had grown up in a world unsettled in a unique way: Armageddon had, for the first time, potentially become a secular event. End times were no longer God’s choice for us, but ours for ourselves. It seemed no mistake that, three decades into the Cold War, the nuclear readiness of the two superpowers was referred to as “mutual assured destruction,” about as graphic a phrase as you could find for the end of civilization; and, of course, it had its own acronym which, to us at least, seemed less like an abbreviation than sardonic commentary: MAD.

In 1979, a near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania helped launch a new iteration of the antinuclear movement. Initially, it was focused on “peaceful” nuclear power, and then, amid a renewed superpower arms race, on the potential destruction of the planet in a MAD conflagration; in the atmosphere of that moment, that is, we found ourselves living with a renewed sense that the world might not be ours or anyone else’s for long.

The first nuclear weapon had been detonated at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, just four days before I turned one, which meant world-ending fears and dreams would be woven into my life. So, with a child of my own, it felt right to be in that giant crowd of protestors, marching near a contingent of hibakusha, or survivors, from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts that had, thanks to America’s “victory weapon,” ushered in the nuclear age.

In 1991, only nine years later, the Soviet Union, that other superpower, would disappear. If you had told me then, with the Berlin Wall down and not an enemy in sight, that almost a quarter of a century later — with two of our 1982 marchers dead — most of the rest of us would be planning to meet and march again, lest our children’s children have no world worth living in, I would have been surprised indeed. And I would have been no less surprised to learn that the U.S. and Russia still preserve, update, and upgrade monstrous nuclear arsenals that contain enough weapons to destroy a number of Earth-sized planets, or that those weapons continue to proliferate globally, or that, as we now know (given the “nuclear winter” phenomenon), even a “modest” regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could result in an event of unimaginable horror for humanity. Told all this, I would undoubtedly have wondered where the then-much-talked-about post-Cold War “peace dividend” had gone.

Had you also told me that, on September 21, 2014, I would be planning to be out with my wife, my old friends, my son, my daughter, my son-in-law, and my grandson marching in New York City, but this time against a second human-produced potential apocalypse, and that it was already happening in something like slow motion, I would have been stunned.

And yet so it is, and there I will be at the People’s Climate March, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else that day. At some future moment, wouldn’t it be sad to say that humanity’s greatest achievement was to exploit to the fullest two energy sources — the atom and fossil fuels — capable of destroying the basis for our lives on this planet, and potentially much other life as well? What a strange possible epitaph for humanity: what we burned burned us.

At 70, this world won’t be mine for that much longer, so it’s not a matter of my life or my planet, but I only have to look at my grandson to know what’s at stake, to know that this is not the world he or his peers deserve. To make global warming his inheritance could represent the greatest crime in history, which means that those who run the giant energy companies (and the oil states that go with them) and who know better will be the ultimate criminals.

No single march, of course, will alter the tide — or perhaps I mean the greenhouse gases — of history, but you have to begin somewhere (and then not stop). And to do so, you have to believe that the human ability to destroy isn’t the best we have to offer and to remind yourself of our ability to protest, to hope, to dream, to act, and to say no to the criminals of history and yes to the children to come. Tom Engelhardt

Why we march
Stepping forth for a planet in peril
By Eddie Bautista, La Tonya Crisp-Sauray, and Bill McKibben

On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march — environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups — which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.

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Steve Fraser: The return of the titans

Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth — not when we’re on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech.  In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen.  If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we’ve been witnessing the return of “family capitalism on steroids,” nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abetted by that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I’m not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We’re still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in “battleground states” at a dizzying pace.  To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of “dark money” outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road.  We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire’s playground; and count on it, you’re going to hear the words “record,” “billionaire,” and “ads” a lot more until November.

“Outside groups” have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don’t have to let anyone know who their contributors are.  At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year’s midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that’s only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America’s new crop of billionaires to “play god” at our expense and with our lives — to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire — on the page, if not in life. From this country’s earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom Engelhardt

Playing God
The rebirth of family capitalism or how the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and other billionaires are undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time.

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Noam Chomsky: The fate of the Gaza ceasefire

Is there nowhere on the face of the Earth where opinion polls aren’t taken? In the wake of the 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza, parts of that tiny strip of land now look, according to photographs, like a moonscape of destruction. At least 10,000 homes were obliterated and thousands more damaged; at least 175 major factories were pummeled into the dust. Its only power plant was destroyed, damaging electricity, water, and sewage systems. Large apartment houses, as well as the ministry of education, schools, and other sites, were hit and sometimes reduced to so much rubble. It was all part of a massive Israeli assault on Hamas, several of whose senior leaders were assassinated, but also on the Palestinian population, involving what looked like collective punishment for its support of that organization or simply living in proximity to it. And indeed, with almost no hope of rebuilding much of their world any time soon, you might think that Palestinians would hold the Hamas leadership at least somewhat responsible for the destruction that has rained down, as assumedly the Israelis wanted them to. But a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), begun in the last day before the ceasefire took hold, and carried out, in part, amid the rubble that is now Gaza, suggests otherwise.

It finds that Palestinian opinion couldn’t be clearer.  Support hasn’t been this high for Hamas since 2006, when it won a fair and square democratic election. If a presidential vote were held today, the pollsters of PSR discovered, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas hands down. Here are just a few of the findings: “79% [of Palestinians] believe that Hamas has won the Gaza War; 3% believe Israel came out the winner; and 17% believe the two sides were losers… If new presidential elections are held today and only two [candidates] were nominated, Haniyeh, for the first time since we have started asking about his popularity about eight years ago, would receive a majority of 61% and Abbas would receive 32%. [The] vote for Haniyeh stands at 53% in the Gaza Strip and 66% in the West Bank. Abbas receives 43% in the Gaza Strip and 25% in the West Bank… A majority of 53% believe that armed confrontation is the most effective means to establish a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. Only 22% believe negotiation is the best means to establish a Palestinian state and 20% believe that popular non-violent resistance is the most effective route to statehood.”

As historically has often been the case, massive bombings and other assaults do not destroy the support of populations for movements or governments, but tend to solidify it. In other words, Israeli policy is reducing civilized life for Palestinians in a major way and yet increasing the urge both to fight on and the desire for revenge. It’s an ugly pattern and, as TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky (whose latest book, Masters of Mankind, is due out this week) indicates today, it’s been going on in this same fashion for a remarkably long time, as Israel continues to gobble up Palestinian lands on the West Bank, while working to hem Palestinians in yet further in the Gaza Strip. Tom Engelhardt

Ceasefires in which violations never cease
What’s next for Israel, Hamas, and Gaza?
By Noam Chomsky

On August 26th, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) both accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza that left 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast landscapes of destruction behind. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the Israeli siege that has strangled Gaza for many years.

This is, however, just the most recent of a series of ceasefire agreements reached after each of Israel’s periodic escalations of its unremitting assault on Gaza. Throughout this period, the terms of these agreements remain essentially the same.  The regular pattern is for Israel, then, to disregard whatever agreement is in place, while Hamas observes it — as Israel has officially recognized — until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer brutality. These escalations, which amount to shooting fish in a pond, are called “mowing the lawn” in Israeli parlance. The most recent was more accurately described as “removing the topsoil” by a senior U.S. military officer, appalled by the practices of the self-described “most moral army in the world.”

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Nick Turse: American monuments to failure in Africa?

In light of recent history, perhaps it’s time to update that classic U.S. Army recruitment campaign slogan from “be all that you can be” to “build all that you can build.”  Consider it an irony that, in an era when Congress struggles to raise enough money to give America’s potholed, overcrowded highways a helping hand, building new roads in Afghanistan proved no problem at all (even when they led nowhere).  In fact, the U.S. military spent billions of taxpayer dollars in both Afghanistan and Iraq on nation-building infrastructural efforts of all sorts, and the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG) repeatedly reported on the failures, disasters, and boondoggles that resulted.  In 2012, for instance, the IG found that of the $10.6 billion in Afghan funding it examined, $7 billion was “potentially wasted.”  And this has never ended.  In 2014, the IG typically reported that “some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics, and even fire stations built by the Army [in Afghanistan] are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.”

As of this year, more U.S. and NATO money had been “squandered” on the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan than was spent on the full post-World War-II Marshall Plan to put a devastated Europe back on its feet.  And how has all that spending turned out?  One thing is certain: those torrents of money helped create a devastating economy of corruption.  As for reconstruction, the Inspector General found mainly “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”  

As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, author of the award-winning book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, reminds us today, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. military has pursued in these years, most of this spending came under the heading of “winning hearts and minds” in the countries the U.S. invaded.  Any American batallion-level commander in an Afghan village could essentially reach into his pocket and pull out the funds to build a schoolhouse.  And yet, in the United States, much of our educational infrastructure, built after World War II for the Baby Boomer generation, is in need of reconstruction funds that are no longer in any pockets.  The same holds true for American airports (none having been built in almost 20 years), bridges (almost half of them needing “major structural investments” in the next 15 years and 11% now considered “structurally deficient”), highways, dams, levees, sewage and water systems, and the like.  In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimated that, to keep the U.S. a fully functioning first-world country, some $3.6 trillion dollars would have to be invested in infrastructural work by 2020. 

Fat chance.  Though no one ever comments on it, the constant spending of money to win hearts and minds in distant lands should be considered passing strange when hearts and minds are at stake in Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Oregon.  Stranger yet, the group designated to do that hearts-and-minds construction is also dedicated to destroying infrastructure in times of conflict.  It shouldn’t be surprising that nation-building, school by school, road by road, might not be its strong point.

Worse yet, as Nick Turse reports, continuing his remarkable ongoing investigation into the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, even after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems that there are hearts and minds still to win out there and all of Africa to build in. Tom Engelhardt

How not to win hearts and minds in Africa
Hushed Pentagon investigation slaps U.S. Africa Command’s humanitarian activities
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Movie night in Mouloud, Djibouti.  Skype lessons in Ethiopia.  Veterinary training assistance in Garissa, Kenya.  And in this country on the east coast of Africa, work on both primary and secondary schools and a cistern to provide clean water.  These are all-American good works, but who is doing them — and why?  

As I sit in a room filled with scores of high-ranking military officers resplendent in their dress uniforms — Kenyans in their khakis, Burundians and Ugandans clad in olive, Tanzanians in deep forest green sporting like-colored berets and red epaulets with crossed rifles on their shoulders — chances are that the U.S. military is carrying out some mission somewhere on this vast continent.  It might be a kidnapping raid or a training exercise.  It could be an airstrike or the construction of a drone base.  Or, as I wait for the next speaker to approach the lectern at the “Land Forces East Africa” conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it could be a humanitarian operation run not by civilians in the aid business, but by military troops with ulterior motives — part of a near-continent-wide campaign utilizing the core tenets of counterinsurgency strategy.

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Michael Klare: Oil rush in America

Whatever you may imagine, “peak oil” has not been discredited as a concept, a statement no less true for “peak fossil fuels.”  Think of them instead as postponed.  We are, after all, on a finite planet that, by definition, holds a finite amount of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Sooner or later, as such deposits get used up (no matter the new techniques that might be invented to extract more of the ever tougher stuff from the earth), we will reach a “peak” of production from which it will be all downhill.

That’s a simple fact to which, as it happens, there’s a catch.  Here, according to the New York Times, is the key finding from the latest leaked 127-page draft report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which manages to use the word “risk” 351 times, “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” 61 times, and “irreversible” 48 times: “The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these [fossil] fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.”

In other words, while “peak oil” may be a perfectly on-target concept, “peak existence” turns out to precede it by decades and from that far more consequential “peak” we are, unlike “peak oil,” already on the downhill slide.  The scientists who produced the IPCC’s draft report expect the average global temperature to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and at least 6.7 degrees by its end, which will leave humanity on a staggeringly less habitable planet.

The damage, including the melting of the Greenland ice shield, which alone could raise global sea levels by an average of 23 feet, will be irreversible (at least on a historical — that is, human — timescale).  Faced with this relatively straightforward reality, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reports today, oil companies are using remarkable ingenuity and spending billions of dollars to reach ever deeper, ever more difficult to extract, and ever more environmentally treacherous deposits of fossil fuels.  No less strikingly, the Obama administration has been working energetically to pave the way for them to do so — to, that is, make real headway in removing those deposits four times larger than will be even faintly comfortable for our future.  Not only is it doing so in a thoroughly drill-baby-drill spirit of cooperation with the globe’s largest and most avaricious energy outfits, but it’s bragging about it, too. 

In my childhood, I remember ads that fascinated me.  I’m not sure what they were selling or promoting, but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds.  They were always tagged with some question like: What’s wrong with this picture?  Today, as in those ads, Klare offers us a picture filled with the energy exploitation and global-warming equivalent of those five-legged cows in the clouds and asks the same question. Tom Engelhardt

Oil is back!
A global warming president presides over a drill-baby-drill America
By Michael T. Klare

Considering all the talk about global warming, peak oil, carbon divestment, and renewable energy, you’d think that oil consumption in the United States would be on a downward path.  By now, we should certainly be witnessing real progress toward a post-petroleum economy.  As it happens, the opposite is occurring.  U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone — and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.

In other words, oil is back.  Big time.  Signs of its resurgence abound.  Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it.  The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV.  As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.

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Anya Schiffrin: Who knew we were living in the golden age of investigative journalism?

Almost a decade ago, I spent more than a year freelancing for a major metropolitan newspaper — one of the biggest in the country. I would, on an intermittent basis, work out of a newsroom that appeared to be in a state of constant churn. Whoever wasn’t being downsized seemed to be jumping ship or madly searching for a life raft. It looked as if bean counters were beating reporters and editors into submission or sending them out of the business and into journalism schools where they would train a new generation of young reporters. For just what wasn’t clear. Jobs that would no longer exist? 

Before the special series I was working on was complete, my co-writer — the paper’s Washington investigative editor — had left for the friendlier confines of academia and the editor who greenlit the series had resigned in the face of management’s demands for steep cuts to newsroom staff. It seemed as if the only remaining person associated with the series was a gifted photographer (who left for greener pastures within a year).

I thought I was witnessing the end of an era, the death of an institution. 

At the same time, I was also working for a small but growing online publication that managed to produce three original articles each week — a mix of commentary, news analysis, and original investigative reporting.  More than a decade into that gig, the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com is still going strong, still publishing three original articles per week, and syndicating that content out to dozens and dozens of online publications, reaching hundreds of thousands of potential readers.

Over that time, online outlets have come and gone, venerable newspapers have closed up shop, predictions of doom — of the death of print publications, the demise of investigative reporting (maybe even of journalism itself) — have been aired repeatedly. And it’s true that in this new era it hasn’t been easy to make a living as a journalist or keep a media outlet afloat.  Yet, as a reader, I notice something else: I can’t even hope to read every eye-catching article that flashes by on my Twitter feed or piles up in my inbox from one listserve or another. I end up with 25 open windows in my taskbar — top-quality journalism from legacy media outlets and new digital magazines that I hope I might be able to skim later that day or the next or sometime before my laptop slows to a crawl under the weight of so much groundbreaking reporting.

It turned out that, 10 years ago, I actually was witnessing the end of an era while living through the formative stages of another.  It’s been a moment in which stories published on a relatively tiny website like TomDispatch circle the globe in a flash and a writer like me, who never went to journalism school, can see his articles almost instantly translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and languages I don’t even recognize, and then reposted on websites from South America to Africa to Asia. In other words, they sometimes reach the sort of global audience that once might have been a stretch even for a reporter at a prestigious mainstream media outlet. 

Over these years, I’ve also watched others who have passed through the Nation Institute wade into a scary media market and find great success. TomDispatch’s own former intern Andy Kroll, for example, has gone on to break one important story after another at Mother Jones, a print publication that now thrives online, while former Nation Institute program associate Liliana Segura has taken a top post at First Look Media, one of the most dynamic and talked-about new media ventures in years. And they are hardly anomalies.

In her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, Anya Schiffrin, the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, chronicles the brave new world of global journalism in the age of the Internet (and how the stage was set for the new golden age of the reader we’re living in). In her inaugural article for TomDispatch, the longtime foreign correspondent reveals the investigative exposés by today’s top global muckrakers that you missed and explains why investigative journalism is on the rise, not the decline, worldwide. 

From Asia to Central America, a new generation of Nellie Blys and Ida Tarbells, Seymour Hershes and Rachel Carsons, is breaking one big story after another with equal parts old-fashioned shoe leather and twenty-first-century knowhow. “The fact that journalists have been calling attention to some of the same problems for more than a hundred years might make one despondent, but it shouldn’t…” Schiffrin writes in her book. “That the battles are still going on should remind us that new abuses, new forms of corruption, are always emerging, providing new opportunities and new responsibilities for the media.” Luckily, there is a new generation of reporters around the world, she points out, rising to the challenge. Nick Turse

The fall and rise of investigative journalism
From Asia to Africa to Latin America, muckrakers have corrupt officials and corporate cronies on the run
By Anya Schiffrin

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking, folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffs are down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol — she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

Woodward and Bernstein may be a fading memory in this country, but journalists with names largely unknown in the U.S. like Khadija Ismayilova, Rafael Marques, and Gianina Segnina are breaking one blockbuster story after another, exposing corrupt government officials and their crony corporate pals in Azerbaijan, Angola, and Costa Rica. As I travel the world, I’m energized by the journalists I meet who are taking great risks to shine much needed light on shadowy wrongdoing.

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Aviva Chomsky: What’s at stake in the border debate

The militarization of the police has been underway since 9/11, but only in the aftermath of the six-shot killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, with photos of streets in a St. Louis suburb that looked like occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, has the fact of it, the shock of it, seemed to hit home widely.  Congressional representatives are now proposing bills to stop the Pentagon from giving the latest in war equipment to local police forces.  The president even interrupted his golfing vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to return to Washington, in part for “briefings” on the ongoing crisis in Ferguson.  So militarization is finally a major story.

And that’s no small thing.  On the other hand, the news from Ferguson can’t begin to catch the full process of militarization this society has been undergoing or the way America’s distant wars are coming home. We have, at least, a fine book by Radley Balko on how the police have been militarized.  Unfortunately, on the subject of the militarization of the country, there is none.  And yet from armed soldiers in railway stations to the mass surveillance of Americans, from the endless celebration of our “warriors” to the domestic use of drones, this country has been undergoing a significant process of militarization (and, if there were such a word, national securitization).

Perhaps nowhere has this been truer than on America’s borders and on the subject of immigration.  It’s no longer “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  The U.S. is in the process of becoming a citadel nation with up-armored, locked-down borders and a Border Patrol operating in a “Constitution-free zone” deep into the country.  The news is regularly filled with discussions of the need to “bolster border security” in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.  In the meantime, the Border Patrol is producing its own set of Ferguson-style killings as, like SWAT teams around the U.S., it adopts an ever more militarized mindset and the weaponry to go with it.  As James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, put it recently, “It has been suggested by Border Patrol leadership that they are the Marine Corps of the U.S. law enforcement community.  The Border Patrol has a self-identity of a paramilitary border security force and not that of a law enforcement organization.”

It’s in this context that the emotional flare-up over undocumented Central American children crossing the southern border by the thousands took place.  In fact, without the process of militarization, that “debate” — with its discussion of “invasions,” “surges,” “terrorists,” and “tip of the spear” solutions — makes no sense.  Its language was far more appropriate to the invasion and occupation of Iraq than the arrival in this country of desperate kids, fleeing hellish conditions, and often looking for their parents.

Aviva Chomsky is the author of a new history of just how the words “immigration” and “illegal” became wedded — it wasn’t talked about that way not so many decades ago — and how immigrants became demonized in ways that are familiar in American history.  The Los Angeles Times has hailed Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal for adding “smart, new, and provocative scholarship to the immigration debate.” As in her book, so today at TomDispatch, Chomsky puts the most recent version of the immigration “debate” into a larger context, revealing just what we prefer not to see in our increasingly up-armored nation. Tom Engelhardt

America’s continuing border crisis
The real story behind the “invasion” of the children
By Aviva Chomsky

Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news.  The media stories have been legion, the words expended many.  And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned.  It couldn’t be stranger — or sadder.

Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news.  Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high.  And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either.  In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children — and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried.  Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants.  The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues.  As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.

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Eduardo Galeano: A lost and found history of lives and dreams (some broken)

Who isn’t a fan of something — or someone? So consider this my fan’s note. To my mind, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is among the greats of our time. His writing has “it” — that indefinable quality you can’t describe but know as soon as you read it. He’s created a style that combines the best of journalism, history, and fiction and a form for his books that, as far as I know, has no name but involves short bursts of almost lyrical reportage, often about events long past. As it turns out, he also carries “it” with him. I was his English-language book editor years ago and can testify to that, even though on meeting him you might not initially think so.  He has nothing of the showboat about him. In person, he’s almost self-effacing and yet somehow he brings out in others the urge to tell stories as they’ve never told them before.

Call it charisma if you want (though I still remember a professor of mine pointing out, in reference to Chinese leader Mao Zedong, that what’s charisma to one is zilch to another).  Explain it as you will, from Memory of Fire, his three-volume history of the Americas, to his recent Children of the Days, a kind of prayer book for our time, he’s never stopped telling us our own stories in ways we haven’t heard them before.

At some point in Galeano’s life as a collector of stories, history decided to trust him and spilled its secrets to him. In 2009, he returned the favor by writing one of the great books of this century, Mirrors, a history of humanity in 366 episodes, from our first myths to late last night. Thanks to his publisher, Nation Books, and his devoted literary agent, Susan Bergholz, I’ve chosen 12 of my own favorites from that work for your summer pleasure. Think of this post as a Galeano-esque mini-history of our last century of turmoil through a kaleidoscope of “characters,” human and inanimate — and then get your hands on Mirrors and read the whole thing for yourself. Tom Engelhardt

Century of disaster
Riddles, lies, and lives — from Fidel Castro and Muhammad Ali to Albert Einstein and Barbie
By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Stalin

He learned to write in the language of Georgia, his homeland, but in the seminary the monks made him speak Russian.

Years later in Moscow, his south Caucasus accent still gave him away.

So he decided to become more Russian than the Russians. Was not Napoleon, who hailed from Corsica, more French than the French? And was not Catherine the Great, who was German, more Russian than the Russians?

The Georgian, Iosif Dzhugashvili, chose a Russian name. He called himself Stalin, which means “steel.”

The man of steel expected his son to be made of steel too: from childhood, Stalin’s son Yakov was tempered in fire and ice and shaped by hammer blows.

It did not work. He was his mother’s child. At the age of 19, Yakov wanted no more of it, could bear no more.

He pulled the trigger.

The gunshot did not kill him.

He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:

“You can’t even get that right.”

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