Drone Strikes and the Definition of War

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict.

Marines are trained to fire in unison at the enemy. It erases individual culpability by establishing a psychological barrier between the shooter and the target. Sharing the responsibility for a “kill” assuages personal guilt and allows soldiers to better compartmentalize traumatic events, or so the theory goes.

 This type of rationalization is made even more powerful (or palatable) by the remoteness that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” provide. For most of the past decade UAVs have hammered away at al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. And though there was little, if any, talk of controversial drone strikes during the presidential election, the use of UAVs has reached a tipping point in global politics.

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict. The struggle to define this type of faceless modern warfare suggests that we are moving away from a discussion of immorality and toward amorality; exactly the point our democratic ideals of “purposeful” and defensive war devolves into outright nihilism.

The anonymity and precision of drone strikes uses our military resources efficiently while wreaking havoc on our enemies abroad. They also enable the United States to carry out an offensive in a country like Pakistan when we are technically not at war with its government. In fact, we are operating with its tacit approval. For now. But if every strike was carried out directly by human hands, there would be little doubt we are indeed at war as it is conventionally defined. Now, in its second term, the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to declassify the drone program that everyone already knows about because it would put us firmly at odds with international law.

Unmanned drones were conceived and perfected by the George W. Bush administration but they were used far more sparingly compared to the Obama administration. Terrorism, or the threat of it, continues to be the raison d’etat that justifies our aggression and the use of drones. In this, the administrations are aligned. A terrorist killed with little collateral damage and zero American bloodshed is enticing but illusory because the technology is portable and easily replicable. It will undoubtedly be developed and deployed by other nations free to define targets by their own standards.

The tacit approval of drones by the Pakistani government does not erase the fact that we are threatening our national security in the long run; we are establishing an international precedent that we will someday be forced to confront.

To begin, many of the militants we target abroad have sought refuge in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. And our drones have followed. Yet if the government of Yemen, were it capable and so inclined, bombed a US-based manufacturing plant that produced parts for UAVs, they would technically be justified in doing so by our own standards. If China decided to send drones into Tibet, or if Russia targeted Georgia, the same logic would hold true.


The New York Times reporter Scott Shane revealed in an article Sunday concerns within the Obama administration over what they call an “amorphous” policy; this worry increased prior to the election for fear of leaving an open-ended policy to an incoming Romney administration. According to Shane, victory has allowed the White House to take its foot off of the accelerator for the moment, but it remains an important part of the president’s agenda.

But this kind of sudden realization that current policy might become permanent and out-of-control has become a troubling hallmark of the Obama presidency. Clear evidence of this is found in Obama’s refusal to fight the “indefinite detention” provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Critics fear that the language of this provision was so murky that it theoretically gives the government license to detain American citizens without due process. Instead of eliminating this verbiage and the conflict that surrounds it, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill that directly addresses the detention provision and essentially says that while he is aware of the fear it engenders, he would never use it to detain a US citizen. The very existence of the signing statement, however, is an admission that it is indeed open to interpretation; future presidents are not bound to Obama’s statement, but the law itself.

Understanding the psychology of the Obama administration or establishing a clear policy regarding drone strikes ultimately does nothing to more clearly delineate the nature of modern, human-less aggression. Carl von Clausewitz, who contributed as much to the understanding of our relationship with war as any writer on the subject, suggests in his defining work, On War, published in 1832, that: “The act of War can only be of two kinds; either the conquest of some small or moderate portion of the enemy’s country, or the defence (sic) of our own until better times.”

This was a practical analysis befitting the times that endured to the end of the last millennium. It defined conflict between nations but not necessarily between enemies as they are presently constituted. Post-9/11 warfare has pitted America, which relies on borders and nationalism, against roving mercenaries whose only allegiance is to a higher authority we cannot overcome. Clausewitz allows for wiggle room in his conventional theory, however.

“The third case, which is probably the most common, is when neither party has anything definite to look for from the future when therefore it furnishes no motive for decision. In this case the offensive War is plainly imperative upon him who is politically the aggressor.”

President Obama appears to be hedging his bet by placing a chip on each of the cases above. Furthermore, his reliance upon UAVs is loosely justified by its purported success thus far. But it also presents a persistent and impossible conundrum that assails our conventional understanding of war.

Somehow in this mess, this fog of invisible war, we must extricate ourselves from establishing precedent before it hardens into accepted global policy. If not, this dangerous game of cat and mouse will haunt us as it disperses our enemies while strengthening their resolve. Only by bolstering ties and intelligence in this region through financial support and diplomatic incentives will we assemble a righteous strategy for the future. Moreover, a retreat from this policy preserves our right to punish our enemies authoritatively with the support of our allies, while regaining the moral high ground. 

To walk softly and carry a big stick implies restraint, and restraint implies strength and confidence. These are characteristics closer to what the president exudes, which begs the question as to why he has tethered himself to policies that are so cowardly.

Where Was I?

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook.

My goodness, the presidential election is almost upon us and my notepad has gathered a thin layer of dust over the past few months. Now that my self-induced writing coma is over, it’s high time to get on with the business at hand: participating in the armchair media punditry battle where I make believe the things I say will have an actual impact on who will be elected President of the United States.

As my home state of New York is all but a foregone conclusion—a place where candidates troll for funds but take electoral votes for granted—I can only hope my words fly across the social networking transom and into the eyes and ears of undecided swing state Rumpelstiltskins. Therefore, if you have a cousin in Ohio or an aunt in Florida, by all means, please feel free to share.

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook. (Although if a particular quote inspires you, I insist that the accompanying image be one of a tearful clown.) The ideas herein and heretofore will not fit on a bumper sticker or even a tweet. But hopefully, at the end of the series, I will have provided enough factual information to assist one in making an informed decision. As I have a good idea of where it is all going, I can tell you that I have already made up my mind.

(Spoiler alert) I am voting for Barack Obama. Again. The answer as to why a privileged white guy from the suburbs who once ran for a local office as a Republican would cast not one, but now two votes for this man shall hopefully become obvious by the end of this series. For those impatient souls who are inclined to write these missives off in advance, having already read the last line of the story, I bid you farewell. For those willing to join me in this informational pilgrimage, this first column will serve as base camp—the place from which we begin our summit quest.

Base camp is where climbers find oxygen and sustenance. In our virtual journey the air we breathe will be logic and our nourishment will be the facts we consume. Even Sir Edmund Hillary would find the air quite thin in a place as bizarre as Washington, D.C., where nothing is as it seems and politicians suck the oxygen out of any room. It’s what makes our baseline discussion here so important.

Here are the key facts for us to consider as we begin our ascent:

• The net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans as measured by Forbes magazine exceeds that of more than 150 million Americans. (That’s half of all of us.) Net worth is measured by assets such as one’s home, retirement investments and cash in the bank compared to related debts such as your mortgage, student loans and car payments. This figure has been vetted numerous times and it is agreed that this statistic is not only accurate but, in all likeliness, slightly conservative.

• When Barack Obama was the president-elect, the economy was shedding jobs at a rate of 100,000 per week. When he was sworn in as POTUS in January of 2009 that number had ballooned to 200,000 per week.

•  Seventy percent of the federal budget is mandated by law. Of the remaining 30 percent, or $1.1 trillion, half is allocated toward military spending. To put things further into perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency is less than 1 percent of the discretionary budget, making it a fraction of 1 percent of the total. So let’s notspend much time talking about how the EPA is strangling our competitiveness.


•  During his tenure as president, George W. Bush gave back more refunds to the top 1 percent of taxpayers than the bottom 80 percent combined. In addition to these tax cuts, he depleted the surplus by waging full-scale traditional war against two nations that had NOTHING to do with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

•  The financial system is in complete and utter disarray due to the irresponsible deregulatory frenzy that occurred over the past three decades. Regulations and capitalism are not mutually exclusive; in fact, a well-regulated economic system with proper regulatory checks and balances ensures financial freedom. This is not a counter-intuitive proposition. Only Wall Street tycoons, lobbyists and conservative think tanks want you to believe this.

There you go. These are the baseline facts by which we shall guide our discussion going forward. And I mean discussion. It’s no fun writing in a vacuum. So let’s talk.

The reason these points are few and focused is that the president has very little to do with things outside of the economy and military strategy. True, the POTUS sets the tone and establishes priorities outside the scope of defense spending and taxes, but these are the areas over which he has the greatest direct influence. The wild card regarding social issues is the potential death or resignation of a Supreme Court Justice as the implications of a presidential nomination have far-reaching and enduring consequences. But choosing a president based upon whom he might select for the highest court in the land is tricky and implies that one’s ideology is so fixed on a particular issue or issues that policy discussions are distracting sideshows to a larger social agenda. 

Oh, I almost forgot my most important disclaimer. It is my firm belief that our nation is sick and our notion of democracy—having to choose from a field of two—is a caricature of its intended self. An illusion. But there are nevertheless important and immediate consequences inherent in the choice before us, no matter how much of a mockery and diversion it represents from whence we came. With that, let our quest for the summit begin.

Next week: John Maynard Keynes. To spend, or not to spend. See you on the mountain.

Ayatollyah So!

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus

“For lust of knowing what should not be known, We take the Golden Road to Samarkind.” 

                –James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan

There was a mysterious blast at a manufacturing facility outside Teheran last November.  This past week the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs told the annual Herzliya security conference that the Iranians were setting up to produce a missile with a 10,000 kilometer range that could hit the United States. U.S. analysts were quick to point out that known Iranian missiles have but a maximum range of 1,200 miles—enough to reach Israel….  Go to the video tape to watch a “concerned” President Bush in the fall of ’02: “Iraq has a growing fleet (of UAVs) that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas…for missions targeting the United States.”  

Not for the last time will we be misled by rhetorical mushroom clouds into the fog of war with its Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In the lifted lyrics of John “Beach Boy” McCain, do we “Bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran”?

In The Partition of Palestine, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy’s grandson) asked, “Will the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine jeopardize the position of the United States in the Middle East?”  He thought it would in 1948; moreover, it would “ease the path of Soviet infiltration.”  A comparable rationale was offered when, as Our CIA Man in Teheran, Kermit spearheaded TPAJAX, which ousted the country’s elected prime minister after he proposed nationalizing its oil, a sovereign assertion that would’ve placed Iran, in our estimation, “behind the Iron Curtain.” 

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Bollywood handsome head of Egypt, made a parallel move three years later in 1956, by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Wielding Israel Defense Forces as the tip of their spear, England and France sought to regain the Canal and oust Nasser. While the U.S. applied economic pressure on the Brits and French behind the scenes, it was newly installed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who got Third World cred for threatening to use nuclear weapons in support of Egypt.  Nuclear brinkmanship didn’t work so well when Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S. over Cuba in ’62…and blinked.

Two more clashes with Egypt brought Israel and their most potent Middle East adversary to the Camp David peace accords in ’79. It would usher in more than three decades of peaceful coexistence with Egypt even as the Shah was falling to the cursed Ayatollahs. Twenty-six years of fealty and cut-rate oil out of the Shah’s regime was a darned good return on the paltry five-figure amount Kermit Roosevelt claimed in expenses. For all the scorn heaped on Jimmy Carter, Camp David remains the most sustained contribution to Israel’s security.  

Israeli intelligence didn’t anticipate the Arab Spring spreading to Egypt and, once it did, Prime Minister Netanyahu beseeched the U.S. to stand by Mubarek. Subsequent election of the Muslim Brotherhood on Israel’s passive southern front combines with the five-year old Hamas electoral victory on their western flank to make Likudniks very nervous. Netanyahu’s neo-con alter-ego, Newt Gingrinch, has weighed in: “I think we may, in fact, be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”  

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus. And where better to draw a bead on than that spinning Axle of Evil—Iran? Ever ready to play Mad Mullah to Zealous Zionists, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei has trash-talked, yet again, about removing the “cancer” that is Israel. “So far,” Khamenei boasted to the “Islamic Awakening and Youth Conference” in Teheran last week, “the Iranian nation has kicked them in the mouth at every stage.”

One bold “Awakening” attendee held up a pesky sign—“Syria?”to remind everyone that growing numbers of Syrians will never awaken again, thanks to the brutal crackdown of Iran’s close ally, Bashar “The Butcher” al-Assad. The fall of Assad would blow a huge strategic hole in Iran’s hegemony. Add to that equation the Persian Spring, which was quickly quelled by Khamenei/Ahmadinejad in a forceful flash-freeze. Deep-seeded discomfort with the Arab Spring is one response Israelis and Iranians share in common.  

Given the rough neighborhood Israelis live in, how far off is Armageddon if the mullahs get the bomb? The specter of nuclear Iran was raised in 1992 by Israel’s then Prime Minister Peres as well as current P.M., Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu who predicted back then that Iran was three to five years away from getting the bomb.  Before the Shah was toppled in 1979, one intelligence report had him setting up “a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.” A looming Iranian bomb has been sighted more frequently than the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  

Recently retired Mossad director Meir Dagan, reflecting substantive differences in the Israeli intelligence and defense community, said that an attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea…. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” With last year’s exodus of Dagan along with the chief of general staff and the Shin Bet director, “there is no one to stop Bibi and (Defense Minister) Barak.” Lest one dismiss the long-serving Dagan as a weak sister, heed the words of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”

As oil hovers around the $100/bbl mark, traders have currently dismissed the saber rattling as so much bluster. But with 40 percent of world oil transported through Iran’s Strait of Hormuz, conflict would drive the current price up anywhere from 25-75 percent sending a gallon soaring close to $6. Add these sobering facts: Iran has 25 percent more people than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and land mass nearly four times that of its neighbor, Iraq.  

In the guestimate of the current Israeli chief of staff, the Iranians possess enough fissionable material to package four nukes at some point. The Israeli nuclear arsenal is approximately two orders of magnitude greater, an order of magnitude lower than the usual Israeli eye-for-an-eyelash ratio. The South Koreans have reconciled themselves to a nuclear North whose Martian leadership makes the mullahs look like hippies. Moreover, since Nagasaki, no nuclear nation, no matter how extreme, has been reckless enough to use a bomb. That restraint won’t prevail forever.

Can the Likudniks constrain themselves, resigned to sanctions of the economic and targeted variety?  Mysterious explosions, the Stuxnet virus and elimination of a half-dozen nuclear scientists have markedly crimped Iran’s weaponization. Soon the capacity of the Iranian central bank will be SWIFT-moated, severing their capacity for secure electronic financial exchange. “Iran’s economy has always been sick, but now it seems worse than ever,” said a Teheran bank employee about the prospects of more sanctions. Nonetheless, pre-emptive strikes like the ones Israel executed against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 remain mighty tempting.

As we mull all this over, return to my formative yesteryears, when mullahs were mere whirling dervishes, and consider the following Sufi tale, the Persian variation of Aesop’s Fables:

Two clever young men sought to puncture the reputed wisdom of the Mullah Nasruddin.

“You will hide a chicken behind your back,” one clever fellow instructed his clever friend, “and we will ask the Mullah whether the chicken is alive or dead.   If he says ‘alive’, you will break its neck. If he says dead, we will produce the living chicken.”

They came upon Mullah Nasruddin and put him to the test.

Nasruddin scratched his head, offered an indulgent smile and responded, “It’s in your hands! It’s in your hands!”

 

Main Photo: Richard Williams illustration from the Mullah Nasruddin series
Photo: M-Star oil tanker damaged in an explosion in the Strait of Hormuz 7-28-10

Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.

 

Main Photo: Associated Press

Indefinite Detention: NDAA for Fiscal Year 2012

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism

Originally published in the Dec. 22nd edition of the Long Island Press

Every policy in Washington is developed over time and influenced by myriad factors. Even singular foreign policy events such as the Monroe Doctrine or declarations of war are the culmination of assiduous planning and debate that take into account a progression of economic, national security and human factors. Because every policy is based upon building blocks of understanding relative to the time and circumstances in which they were developed, there is always a reason why even the most divisive or treacherous idea gains support, for better or for worse.

Such is the case with section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 (NDAA), a provision commonly referred to as the “indefinite detention” clause. The NDAA itself has already passed both houses of Congress and currently awaits President Obama’s signature. The detention provision has garnered a great deal of attention from the blogosphere and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it marks a decidedly dangerous shift in procedure and rights with respect to detainees in the War on Terror. The section, authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), gives the military the ability to indefinitely detain anyone it deems to be connected to the War on Terror, thus superseding the authority of civilian courts.

The NDAA itself is a fairly routine bill that organizes funding for the military. It does not appropriate funding, which is important to understand. The original language in the 1031 amendment was troublesome enough to prompt a strong rebuke from several members of Congress and the President who threatened to veto the bill if it included this measure as written.

The revised measure attempts to codify the language with respect to detainees and assuage the fears of those who viewed this as undermining our Constitutional rights and a threat to the democratic process. The reason is that the original language was vague enough that the possibility of detaining U.S. citizens and legal aliens indefinitely without due process was left open to interpretation.

The language was “clarified” by referring specifically instead to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and exactly who has the ability to authorize detention should a person be suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization. In an attempt to calm the waters surrounding this amendment Sen. McCain—ironically the most notable former detainee in the U.S.—issued a statement saying, “the language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their Constitutional rights.” The ACLU begs to differ.

On its website the ACLU specifically tackles the revised provision with the following: “Don’t be confused by anyone claiming that the indefinite detention legislation does not apply to American citizens. It does. There is an exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032 of the bill), but no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial (section 1031 of the bill). So, the result is that, under the bill, the military has the power to indefinitely imprison American citizens, but it does not have to use its power unless ordered to do so.” They go on to quote Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said section 1031 “does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”

Inside the Beltway there has been great consternation over this provision. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put forward an amendment to water down the McCain/Levin provision (S.Amdt. 1107: To revise the provisions relating to detainee… to S. 1867) but it was voted down 61 to 37 in the Senate (the two senators from Alaska did not vote). Even FBI Director Robert Mueller has expressed concern that this language will inevitably lead to confusion in the field as to who has superseding authority during a terror investigation. The thought of the military being able to access and interrupt a civilian terror investigation and round up suspects unilaterally is a threat to every level of U.S. law enforcement. The fact that it potentially extends to American citizens, despite Sen. McCain’s claims to the contrary, speaks to the ambiguity of even the final language.

At first it seemed as though President Obama balked at this provision out of his understanding of the impact on American civil liberties and Constitutional rights; that the POTUS was back on message from his campaign and defending personal freedom. As it turns out, this couldn’t be further from reality. Incredibly, the White House reversed its stance and withdrew its opposition to the bill after the language was changed to include a stipulation that granted exclusive authority to arbitrate the detention provision away from the Secretary of Defense and directly to the president. In effect, Obama simply consolidated detainee power and privilege into the office of the president.

It’s important also to remember that this bill is not an appropriations bill. Unlike other spending bills that have been in the news this year that require passage to prevent certain government agencies from running out of funds, the NDAA does not fund the Pentagon, it organizes its expenditures and establishes certain rules and provisions. Therefore, nothing would theoretically be interrupted if this bill doesn’t pass. In other words, the POTUS has little to lose in fighting this provision. Instead, he caved. Again.

The question is: Why should this concern Americans? Remember that policy doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Sections 1031 and 1032 don’t stand on their own. When taken in conjunction with the Patriot Act and the government’s decision in 2009 to extend three controversial provisions that include granting the government the ability to collect information and conduct wire tapping and surveillance in secret without obtaining warrants, the detainee provision gets a little alarming. Add to this the extension of the “lone wolf” provision of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to track anyone around the world regardless of their affiliation, and things become even more ominous.

Again, each of these provisions has theoretical and practical merit, particularly when considered within the post 9-11 context in which they were established. Taken together, however, and the dangerous crack in the defense of our civil liberties begins to grow.

Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Massachusetts. Mehanna, it would seem, despises America. He even went so far as to seek Jihadist training abroad though he was rebuffed. Today he is being prosecuted, not just for attempting to join a jihadist organization, but also for promoting jihadist material online. A recent Mother Jones article links the Mehanna case to the killing of “Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Imam whose ability to give sermons in colloquial English made him the symbol of a new era of homegrown extremism.” Most of us harbor little sympathy for either of these men, but the government’s response and action toward both in conjunction with the steady erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention clause of the NDAA speak to the steady rise in domestic militarization.

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism. This is not hyperbole but rather a strict interpretation of fascism as an ideology that revokes individual rights under the cloak of nationalism and consolidates domestic tribunal authority under the military controlled by a singular authority.

There are two reasons most Americans care little about the debate surrounding the detention provision. One is that most people are law-abiding Americans to whom criticizing America and promoting terrorist speech is anathema. That’s a good thing. The other is that most people probably haven’t even heard of it because the debate, while raging behind closed doors in Congress and inside the blogosphere, is largely absent in the traditional media. The only plausible explanations for this omission are either that corporate media outlets don’t think it’s important or they are afraid of the potential consequences to their coverage.

Let’s assume that the issue of whether the military should be allowed to supersede an FBI investigation of U.S. citizens and indefinitely detain suspects without evidence or the requirement to divulge any of its actions is important to all of us and examine the latter. What could traditional news outlets be concerned about? Take everything covered to this point and consider the following scenario:

A credible journalist reporting on the Mehanna case would need to cite the remarks Mehanna posted on the Internet that prompted authorities to investigate him and consider him an imminent threat. This same journalist would now be technically guilty of exactly the same crime as Mehanna if he is convicted on this count and U.S. law establishes the precedent that reporting jihadist sentiments is an act of terrorism. This would be treasonous behavior calling into question the strength and breadth of the First Amendment. Theoretically the government can not only begin surveillance and wire-tapping on the journalist, the military can decide to intervene and indefinitely detain this person without due process.

Think it can’t happen? Well, technically it can because this entire scenario would be legal in the eyes of the government under the strictest interpretation of the new law. Of course it can happen. This is McCarthyism minus the hearings and histrionics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was during the McCarthy years that indefinite detention was first contemplated and even briefly enacted, though it was never officially implemented or acted upon. For as long as that journalist/blogger/activist/whomever can be considered a “Lone Wolf” or perhaps linked to affiliates of al-Qaeda—an organization that is by nature indefinable—his or her constitutional rights as a citizen can be suspended. The War on Terror as conceived by George W. Bush and codified domestically under the Patriot Act, is an active and permanent war in the spirit and definition of the Cold War. If the Bush Doctrine allowed the U.S. to wage war on nations without provocation, then the McCain/Levin provision brings the doctrine home.

The moment Obama affixes his signature to the bill will mark a seminal shift in our democracy. It will also mark the tragic moment that the Obama presidency becomes indistinguishable from the Bush Administration.

 

Main photo: AP – A June file photo of the sun rising over Camp Delta detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba.

Below right: AP file photo of Robert Mueller. Below Left: AP file photo of Tarek Mehanna

Our Prime Yearning Years

The only true and good thing about Ayn Rand and objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is that they’re both dead. Rand may have been a wonderful writer but objectivism is the Scientology of economic theory.

Part II of The Season of Our Disconnect (PART I)

Alan Greenspan
"Deregulation is fundamen... what's that dear? Oh yes, I would like some more pudding."

The haul from Hempstead Harbor was so big the first week it had reopened after being closed for more than 40 years of remediation that the axle on my friend Jimmy’s truck was bending slightly at the end of each day. He said the mood of the other diggers on the water was ebullient. Their boats were tightly locked together, with guys shouting to one another in celebration; it was a strange scene for men who typically toil in solitude to put food on their table by harvesting the ocean floor for food to put on our tables.

I caught up with Jimmy at the end of the first week, and he said, although he was physically exhausted, he wouldn’t trade the week for anything. According to him, the only disappointment was the complaints registered by local residents on the hill overlooking the water who were unhappy to discover their formerly too-toxic-to-fish harbor suddenly filled with small commercial vessels.

It seems the boats’ presence was less of an environmental and commercial triumph and more of a case of urban blight. Jimmy shrugged it off but his words stuck with me. He characterized the irate citizens’ reaction as both funny and sad, saying, “It’s amazing how people with millions of dollars are complaining about watching me scrape hundreds of dollars from the ocean floor.” Though nothing came of their complaints, it is another example highlighting our Season of Disconnect when class warfare seems to be erupting in every corner of our nation.

While politicians argue about the debt ceiling and preserving tax cuts, the big, slogging, hairy middle-class squeeze continues. Across the country people are either accepting the “new normal” or, worse, turning their pitchforks and torches on one another instead of storming the castle. Somehow we’ve lost sight of what brought us here and who is to blame for all of this—and there are some very real people and institutions to condemn.

Those who dare to protect “entitlements” are vilified by the free market despots in this nation who have taken hold of the seminal piece of misinformation that has infiltrated every meaningful discussion regarding the economy: that government is somehow corrupting the markets by attempting to inject any level of consumer protection into the financial system. Rays of common sense such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ impassioned plea to restore sanity to the markets and protect America’s working class shone brightly for a moment only to be snuffed by the likes of Michele Bachmann and her quixotic presidential campaign kickoff.

This is a woman who mistakenly believed discussions about pegging global markets to Chinese currency instead of the dollar meant that the Treasury was actually contemplating using Yuan as America’s official money. Beyond the usual mash-up of libertarian, conservative, objectivism ideals that comprise the Tea Party, Bachmann (of course) believes that climate change is a hoax, that anyone who supports healthcare is unpatriotic, and that the best way to protect Americans and the U.S. economy is to dismantle the agencies designed to protect Americans and the U.S. economy.

It’s this last point that is so troubling because it’s what people like Bachmann are gaining traction with. Even the former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the most famous and powerful disciple of free market guru Ayn Rand, testified before Congress that his extreme laissez faire policy and “markets-will-cure-all” attitude were devastatingly wrong because they fail to recognize the most natural  fundamental force that comprises the capitalist economy: Greed. Don’t get me wrong. Greed is indeed an important component of capitalism as it is simply another name for competition. But it cannot go unchecked, as it will feed on itself and everything around it when unfettered by logical behavioral constraints.

To put it bluntly, Alan Greenspan was wrong and admitted as much. So were Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt and Treasury Secretary and White House economic advisor Larry Summers. So too were the men they served who facilitated their beliefs. Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and now, Barack Obama, all of whom surrounded themselves with these free market hucksters and relied on the dearth of financial wherewithal in Congress while counting on the masses’ inability to understand the destructive potential of unregulated markets.

 

The only thing that is honest and true about Ayn Rand and her theory of objectivism is that they’re both dead. Ayn Rand was a wonderful writer. But in terms of her being considered a prophet of sorts, Rand’s theory of objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is the Scientology of economic theory. And yet, one of history’s silliest figures is now gathering momentum with copies of Atlas Shrugged flying off Amazon’s virtual shelves and middle America wondering aloud, “Who is John Galt?!”

Forget John Galt. We need to start asking the question, “Who are we?” America is stuck in the largest identity crisis we have faced since the Civil War. The unmitigated and unwarranted assault on the middle class, the working poor and, yes, the poverty-stricken in this nation, must end. We begin by restoring authority to the regulatory agencies in our nation instead of simply requiring more bureaucratic paperwork for businesses already playing by the rules. Business owners know the difference between prudent regulation and the appearance of it.

On a level playing field it’s possible to get ahead while looking down on everyone else. It might even change the perspective of a person jaded enough to be offended by the view of men scraping shellfish from the ocean, no matter how far up the hill they live.

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.

Chuck Schumer Is Responsible For The Price Of Gas

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral.

Bubble, Bubble, Oil and Trouble

We assemble around the pumps staring at gas prices like hominids around the monolith, shrieking and beating our chests. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s primates in 2001 were willing to touch the slab and receive the divine, other-worldly intelligence it offered, we simply tighten the cap and blithely go about our day, all the while filling the wallets of oil companies and banks that conspire to pick every last nickel, dime and piece of lint from our pockets.

The ongoing drama in the Beltway, quibbling over mere billions of a multi-trillion dollar problem, is the ultimate subterfuge blinding us from the true budgetary crisis in our nation and the world. The $39 billion compromise achieved on Capitol Hill last week is a billion shy of ExxonMobil’s profit for 2008, the last time oil prices crippled the nation and filled the corporation’s coffers. This was the largest profit ever posted by an American public company. Once again analysts are predicting record profits when the publicly traded oil companies release their first quarter earnings in the coming weeks.

I’m officially calling bullshit; calling it on the whole stinking lot of them. While oil companies reap historic profits and politicians try to out-Ayn Rand one another, espousing free market ideals they completely misinterpret, Wall Street and Big Oil are about to deliver the coup de grace on the American people and the world at large.

The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), in partnership with NASDAQ, recently upped the ante to purchase the historic New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Eurodex). Naturally, your next questions should be: “What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps?”  “Why is this important?” “Why should I care?” and “What can I do about it?”

Glad you asked.

What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps? Everything. Here’s the short version of exactly why gas is so high right now. All you have to do is memorize the following paragraph to be able to shut anyone up at a party who claims that Middle East uprisings are responsible for driving up oil prices.

Nearly 20 years ago Wendy Gramm and her senator husband Phil Gramm created the Enron loophole when Mrs. Gramm chaired the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under President George H.W. Bush that cleared the way for trading energy futures on the commodities exchanges. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2001, the two largest investment banks in the nation, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, teamed up with British Petroleum (BP) to start their own exchange called the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) to handle commodities transactions. In January of 2006, George W. Bush made it possible for anyone investing in commodities to hide their identity, turning the ICE into a powerhouse exchange overnight. When the Glass Steagall Act was repealed, deregulating the banking industry, banks and investment banks merged; further, because of the commodities deregulation under Clinton, then Bush, banks are now able to set the price of commodities by having their analysts forecast pricing and purchase large quantities of commodities through the banking end on exchanges they own and control.

There you have it. I mention all of the presidents involved in this fiasco to illustrate that this is not a partisan issue. Both parties have blood on their hands. They have created a trading exchange that, despite being only 10 years old, is so big and powerful it can partner on an $11 billion bid to acquire the New York Stock Exchange.

Why is this important? The obvious, most immediate reason is the pain at the pump that you’re experiencing personally and the pain that threatens the global economic recovery. But there’s a larger problem. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been vociferously warning anyone who will listen that there is a direct correlation between sharply rising crude oil prices and starvation.

There are three reasons for this: 1) The surge in oil prices has increased demand for bio-fuel substitutes, so instead of feeding people we feed our vehicles. 2) Higher oil prices means higher production costs. At the farm level the hard production costs of fertilizer and irrigation rise in lockstep with crude oil prices. 3) Lastly, the cost of transporting goods from farm to table increases directly and dramatically.

So, the answer to the first question is: This is important because high oil prices kill people.

Why should I care? Another wonderful question. Well, apart from the obvious fact that we are all part of the human race and should care about things like forced hunger and starvation, there is a distinctly American reason to care about this issue: Fairness.

Politicians, lobbyists, policy makers, and pundits are all mixing metaphors and messing with the essential American principles of fairness. Tea Partiers, conservative radio hosts, radical free-market freshmen Republicans in Congress and kooky presidential candidates are carrying weathered copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible, and screaming from the mountaintops, “Set my market free!” (The Bible-toting Objectivist is my new favorite American oxymoron.)

Talking about “free-markets” is fun, but there are seriously flawed fundamentals at work here. As we have learned from every bubble burst in the era of deregulation, the markets do not self-police nor are they inherently moral. Markets, like people, must be guided by regulations and boundaries; investors must have the freedom to maneuver within these parameters, and suffer punishments for exceeding them. Free market radicals should understand better than anyone that a market without regulations is like the Bible without Commandments.

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral. It’s exactly immoral and completely un-American.

 What can I do about it? Plenty.But we have to work together. It starts with understanding the fundamentals behind oil pricing and then figuring out who’s lying. First and foremost, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are both lying unabashedly through their teeth by blaming political unrest and upheaval for potentially hindering supply and causing speculative panic in the market. They’re ignoring that the United States and OPEC oil reserves are at an all-time high, that actual demand is still sluggish, and that we continue to build more energy-efficient vehicles and access natural gas and renewable resources. 

Now they’re playing a game of chicken and managing our expectations, sending mixed signals about “demand destruction” and how high energy prices might have a deleterious effect on the global economic recovery even though their own analysts set the price of oil futures contracts and their own bankers buy them up. What they’re doing is establishing a new low, an artificial floor. It’s genius. Get us used to the idea of $5 per gallon pricing so that $4 doesn’t seem so bad. This is a test and we’re eating up their lies.

There are four primary solutions to the global oil problem. They’re a heavy lift and you should know what they are, but don’t be overly concerned with these details; your part comes later. Briefly, the solutions are as follows: (1) Reinstate Glass-Steagall, (2) Incentivize oil companies to invest in renewable energy by levying enormous fees on non-compliant companies, (3) Strip the ICE of its foreign-based exchange status to restore transparency to the commodities and derivative market and (4) Kill all speculative conflicts of interest by crafting legislation that prohibits investment banks from owning a controlling interest in any oil-related corporation.

202-224-6542. Give him a jingle.

Sounds like a crazy, impossible pipe dream. Not to worry. Thankfully there is one man with the power to get all of this done. Who is that powerful you ask? New York’s own Sen. Charles Schumer.

Schumer sits on the Rules, Economic, Judiciary, Finance and Banking committees. When it comes to anything related to finance, Charles Schumer is the single most important man in America. Now for your part: Because his office doesn’t accept emails, please call his office at 202-224-6542 and tell whoever answers the phone that you would like Sen. Schumer to please lower the price of gas at the pump. Don’t take no for an answer.

Then we go viral. It’s on. Tweet and post a link to this article with the message: “Only Chuck Schumer can lower the price of gas. If he doesn’t, I guess he’s responsible.”

Good luck and Godspeed. Remember, there are tens of millions of starving people counting on you to tweet our demands.


Charles knows enough to cancel the subsidies (starting around 1:30).

Click on the following links to read other oil-related entries

LIBYA. MORE BLOOD FOR OIL. “Crude Behavior” March 23, 2011 – JedMorey.com

BEHIND THE BUSINESS OF EXCHANGES. $4 Per Gallon: Beating the Oil Drum. March 9, 2011 – JedMorey.com

HAPPY NEW YEAR AMERICA. OIL’S HEADING TO $4. “Why Is Oil So High?” Crude: Part II – Long Island Press

OP-ED: INITIAL REACTION TO BP OIL SPILL. “Our Addiction To Oil” June 24, 2010. – JedMorey.com

CRUDE: HOW WALL STREET SCREWED AMERICA IN THE SUMMER OF 2008 – Long Island Press

Democracy Ablaze in Cairo

America loves a good dictator; at least when it comes to the strategic installation of one. The problem with dictators is the inevitable egos they develop when left unchecked for too long. It never fails. You help them overthrow the current regime and teach them how to put down insurrections, muzzle the media and detain dissidents until, eventually, they start believing their own propaganda and forget who put them there.

Dictators are the teenagers of world leaders.

Extracting a dictator we have supported or even installed can be such a hassle. But we generally have a very good reason to do so: oil. This is why what is happening in Cairo right now is so perplexing to the U.S. government. Because we don’t covet their oil fields, we have no direct role in what is transpiring there and therefore no underlying reason to choose sides. If we don’t support a democratic uprising, our hypocrisy as the purveyor of global democracy is revealed. Yet, taking the side of the protestors makes Uncle Sam look like a fair-weather friend to Hosni Mubarak, whom we have supported for decades.

As dictators go, Mubarak has always operated on the margins. Since he came to power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s greatest achievement has been maintaining his control. And he has done so through brutal authoritarian rule. Egypt has been a place where people can speak their minds but not raise their arms. This false sense of freedom has kept serious, regime-threatening uprisings at abeyance and given the impression to the world that Egyptians are, for the most part, politically apathetic. Until now.

Strategically, Egypt has been of little economic import to the United States in terms of natural resources. And because Egyptians lack the incredible oil wealth of some of their neighbors, they have a slightly more egalitarian distribution of wealth. This is not to say Egypt has a healthy economy. It certainly doesn’t. But it also lacks a wealthy ruling class of oil barons masquerading as governing leaders. Mubarak has never had the resources to hold power, fund extremists and militarize in the way Iraq, Iran and Libya have done so effectively to the detriment of our interests, and so he’s made Egypt and us strange and convenient bedfellows.

In return for our financial support, Egypt has been an important partner in the balance of power in the Arab world. We have given healthy financial support to Egypt throughout Mubarak’s regime to essentially maintain the political status quo; the geographic importance of Egypt—its proximity to Israel and the strategic significance of the Suez Canal—isn’t lost on anyone.

That this is a true democratic uprising, inspired in large part by the recent revolution in Tunisia, places the Unites States in the odd position of spectator. But our egocentricity coaxes us to project our role in the unfolding drama.

Unfortunately, we may have outwitted ourselves by waging two oil wars in the region while tolerating authoritarian rule among our so-called allies. The conundrum in the U.S. is how the conservative hawks, who long argued that our military actions in the Middle East were essential to spreading democracy, handle this situation.

During his presidency, George W. Bush was emboldened enough by his perceived military success abroad that he even pressed Mubarak to accept the coming wave of democracy our wars were ushering into the Middle East. In many ways Bush was prescient and his vision of spreading democracy through might—the ends justify the means—has taken hold in Tunisia and Egypt. No one really saw this coming or believed it possible. No one that is, except for George W. Bush. Our actions in the region have awakened many people in the Middle East who are staking their lives on self-determination and democracy. What we missed is that the leaders of the change view themselves as true radicals and revolutionaries in the spirit of those who founded our own nation and fought tyranny from abroad; but their end-game is very different.

A democratic Egypt would allow for political representation by Islamic fundamentalists who see democracy as the vehicle toward Islamic rule of law. This concept is counter-intuitive to Americans who regard democracy as the goal the uncivilized world truly seeks—whether they realize it or not. But amidst what is viewed as a secular revolt against a harsh regime are highly-educated, devout Muslims who are strongly anti-Semitic and believe that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are largely mythical American inventions that allow the United States to wage war for the purpose of stealing Mideast oil.

Our hunger for war over the past decade is costing us in ways yet to be calculated. In one sense we’re witnessing bloody, yet beautiful democracy unfolding in a manner reminiscent of our own revolution. But we have to realize that our policies and our blood money propped up the very dictatorship the Egyptian people want to dismantle. They see democracy not as the end in itself, but the means to electing a body of officials who would have us banished from the region and our closest ally removed from the map entirely.

Former President George W. Bush has often said he will be vindicated by history. He may already be right. Democracy is infectious. But if our “end” is simply another culture’s “means”, history may indeed vindicate Bush, but only tragically so.

Mid-Term Elections

Dubya

Former President George W. Bush indicated last week that his chief regret from his tenure in office was not privatizing Social Security.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment… (Sits back in chair and taps finger pensively on chin and whistles a wee tune from the old country.)

Soooooooo, two protracted wars, economic Armageddon, Osama Bin Laden still among the living, a historic bailout (yes, the first big one was his), the greatest disparity in wealth since the run-up to the Great Depression, a blown surplus he inherited and a record deficit he left us with don’t necessarily rank among W’s regrets. This is why the good Lord invented mid-term elections, a time to evaluate the consequences of our most recent electoral decisions and issue a popular referendum to our leaders. And there’s nothing like a stinging recession to draw the ire of the masses—something that was absent during the foggy days of the Bush administration. Barack Obama will have no such luck next week.

The favored prognostications on the mid-terms have a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater feel to them. The recalcitrant Tea Party wing nuts have Democrats flip-flopping and Republicans retrenching, and the polling appears to be more out of touch with political reality than the Dow Jones Industrial Average is out of touch with the economic reality of the times we live in. So, while there is little doubt our elected officials will be wildly tossed about on election night, I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where the pieces will land. This applies equally to the national, state and local landscapes.

For my part, I will assume my normal election night posture. This is my Superbowl. No, this is my Uberbowl. After lovingly putting my children to sleep and sweetly kissing my bride, I take up residence on my couch with a laptop, a television, a home phone and a BlackBerry. Beside me rests a bowl of popcorn and a six-pack of Blue Point Toasted Lager to be consumed throughout the evening. At the other end of the myriad communication devices at my disposal are my dedicated editors and reporters who live for this night as I do, strategically positioned at disparate campaign headquarters so they can send me timely updates and anecdotes; the vast majority of the latter are typically inappropriate and not for publication but amusing nonetheless.

But election night is just the capstone to this wild and bitter campaign season that has been gaining steam since the crowning of President Obama. The weeks and months leading up to this election have seen hope replaced by fanaticism, while an estimated $3 billion has been spent assailing the public with dirty-bomb messaging. The media have spent an unprecedented amount of energy dissecting the sources of campaign financing, which has undergone a sea change due to opaque contributions from major donors. The funding is sheltered primarily by committees organized under the 501(c)(4) designation for non-profits that’s now expanded to include advocacy groups. In recent election cycles major donors and corporations have skirted the funding limitations of political action committees (PACs), which require transparency and place limits on contributions, by donating to 501(c)(4) groups who run political ads. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year to allow the continuation of this practice, which led Obama to courageously criticize the justices during his State of the Union speech just days after this decision was handed down. This action was indeed courageous because rebuking the Supreme Court in such a public fashion is almost taboo. More importantly, his comments were prescient, and we are all living with the results.

But the media’s obsession with campaign financing and public figures such as Karl Rove, who helped organize perhaps the biggest group—Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies—is noise. The Democrats and major backers like George Soros used this loophole to great advantage in the last cycle; but this go-around the Republicans perfected it. Since time immemorial money has been finding its way to politicians. Whether it’s a bag of cash exchanged in a hotel room or a shady “policy group” taking cheap shots in a TV ad over a politician’s war record, campaign cash moves quickly through the Beltway. So while the sheer volume of donations is unprecedented, I find the whole thing quite unremarkable. The only people who give massive sums of money are the people who have it and want more of it.

The argument over secret funding and the anger manufactured from special interest groups preying on people’s fears are what we call gorilla dust. Hopefully Jon Stewart’s rally in D.C. this weekend will indeed restore sanity, and voters will make calculated decisions, not emotional ones. In the waning days of the campaign, when every other television ad is political, newspaper editors make their grand declarations and campaign managers are plagued by carpal tunnel syndrome from tweeting, texting and emailing, do your best to keep your head about you.

Remember that while big things are happening at the top, much of the work is getting done in the trenches. If you’re unhappy with Obama and want to send a message by turning Congress upside down, knock yourself out. Likewise, if you’re tired of the Republicans being the “party of no,” then let Obama keep his House in order. But that lever in the voting booth or oval on the ballot has little to do with the state senator who funded improvements to your library or the town council member who heard your protests at a board meeting and put in a stop sign on your block.

While public tumult is a good thing that keeps our elected officials on their toes and prevents George W. Bush-like amnesia down the road, it can also lead to bad decisions. Or as my father says: everything in moderation… except, of course, on election night in my den.