"In our own image" — the state of American democracy

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[Editor’s note: For any of you in the New York City area who might be interested, I’m scheduled to give a reading from my novel The Last Days of Publishing and a brief, informal talk as well on the future of the book at Labyrinth Books, a fine independent bookstore located at 536 West 112th (between Broadway and Amsterdam) on Wednesday October 22 at 7pm. It will be covered by C-Span. Come if you’re in the mood or in the neighborhood. Tom]

Quote of the day:There were informal indications [at the UN] that wavering African and Latin American countries were now on board, after being lobbied by Washington over the weekend, according to diplomats. Washington’s latest revisions [in the newest Iraq resolution] were greeted with little enthusiasm Tuesday morning by Mr. Annan, who said he felt the new version did not ‘represent a major shift in the thinking of the coalition,’ and warned that ‘as long as there’s an occupation, the resistance will grow.’” (Felicity Barringer, U.S. Seems Assured of U.N.’s Approval on Plans for Iraq, the New York Times)

I like the politeness of that “lobbied.” It makes the matter sound so utterly civilized — just the give and take of various competing interest groups making their voices heard in a pluralistic world. If, however, you want to get a sense of how that “lobbying” process really works when you’re being elbowed by the world’s sole hyperpower, check out Eric Margolis’s latest column on the Turkish decision to send troops to Iraq, included below. Of course, if those Turkish troops ever do arrive, over the objections of every Iraqi in sight, we’ll undoubtedly have but another example of that old warning: be careful what you wish for. I might just add that, as George Monbiot indicates in a piece quoted below, lobbying in Washington and Washington’s lobbying of countries like Turkey are coming to look similar indeed

Chaos across the “arc of instability”:

In my last dispatch, Nuclear Israel, I commented on a Los Angeles Times piece by Douglas Frantz in which two “senior administration officials” claimed that Israel’s submarines and the missiles on them had been retrofitted to carry nuclear weapons. Since then, conflicting reports have appeared claiming that this would be impossibility. Peter Enav of the Associated Press in Experts Dismiss Israel Nuclear Report wrote:

“Israeli and foreign defense experts Sunday dismissed a report that Israel had modified submarine-based missiles to carry nuclear warheads, saying such an alteration was technically impossible. The Los Angeles Times reported in Sunday editions that Israel had modified some of its nuclear warheads to fit U.S.-made Harpoon cruise missiles and upgraded the missiles so they could hit targets on land in addition to maritime ones

“Israel made the modifications in response to Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, the Times reported. Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh called the assertion that Israel had made the Harpoon nuclear impossible.

“Israel made the modifications in response to Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, the Times reported. Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh called the assertion that Israel had made the Harpoon nuclear impossible.

“‘Anyone with even the slightest understanding of missiles knows that the Harpoon can never be used to carry nuclear warheads,’ Sneh told Army Radio.”

The LA Times, on the other hand, issued a supportive editorial, Israel Ups Ante with Subs, on the subject (“Israel of course has a right to defend itself, but its saber rattling undercuts U.S. and European efforts to wean Iran of its nuclear ambitions”), calling for more attention to be paid to Israel’s nuclear forces — and Frantz himself is a reliable reporter. I have no way of sorting this out myself and so simply await further developments, if any.

With or without nuclear subs, Israel’s powerful nuclear arsenal is indeed due for some public attention. If, in fact, those “senior officials” leaked misinformation on Israel’s nuclear capabilities on purpose — or were themselves gulled by Israeli insiders — the story would be no less fascinating or in need of interpretation.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that some in the administration are more than ready to drive the invasion machine — Israel’s, if not ours — directly through Damascus. Only yesterday, Richard Perle, the dark prince of neocons, close to all sorts of Pentagon and White House types, reportedly praised the Israeli strike on Syria at a conference in Jerusalem and evidently hinted at action of our own (Pentagon official: US may take action against Syria):

“Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said Tuesday that the recent Israeli attack on an alleged training camp for Palestinian militants in Syria was long overdue and that he would not rule out U.S. military action against the Arab state

“‘President Bush transformed the American approach to terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, when he said he will not distinguish between terrorists and the states who harbor themI was happy to see that Israel has now taken a similar step in responding to acts of terror that originate in Lebanese territory by going to the rulers of Lebanon in Damascus’

“Perle said he hoped the air strike reflected a new Israeli policy similar to the Bush doctrine. ‘We have problems with the Syrians who continue to support terrorism. We have to find a way to get them to stop,’ Perle later told The Associated Press. Asked whether this would include possible U.S. military action against Syria, he said: ‘Everything’s possible.'”

Many opportunities to strike “back” are likely to present themselves. One already has today. Three American security guards from DynCorp, the rent-a-cop corporation, in a diplomatic caravan of American officials traveling into the Gaza strip were murdered today by a roadside bomb — a tactic all too familiar now from Iraq. (What if the “fanatics” are moving not just into but out of Iraq?) In any case, Perle was quite accurate when he pointed out that “Syria is militarily very weak.” Assumedly, the problem isn’t wiping out the present regime and its military in a brief one-sided war, but — as with Iraq — what would come next. It’s a little hard to imagine an American occupation of Syria right now, and a good deal less easy to imagine an Israeli one. So after “victory,” yet more chaos?

The issue of what happens after “victory” is taken up in this month’s Le Monde Diplomatique by Alain Gresh in a piece aptly titled, “Waves of chaos,” which I include below. Speaking of ideologues like Perle in or close to the Bush administration, who, long before September 11th, were determined to take Iraq in an iron American grip and through it remake the Middle East “in our image,” he writes,

“These US ideologues live in a dream world. Reality has no hold on them, and they are prepared to lie to back up their fantasies. But two years after the events of 11 September 2001 it is obvious to anybody examining the facts that the US may have had military victories at the start, but is now getting bogged down politically in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration may have won battles against terrorism, but it has not won the war From Afghanistan to Iraq a wave of chaos is running across that better world announced by Donald Rumsfeld. The US is fast getting bogged down in these countries, and seems incapable of imposing a just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Gresh’s piece – in part a rundown of the developing disaster in half-abandoned Afghanistan – has, along with familiar elements, all sorts of curious twists and turns for those of us used to taking in our news and interpretations only through American eyes. You might also take a look at a piece by Syed Saleem Shahzad, US explores its Afghanistan exit options in the Asia Times on-line. It fits well with Gresh:

“With Afghanistan daily slipping into more anarchy and chaos, United States authorities, aware that they are unlikely to ever bring stability to the country by military means, continue to explore political avenues that ultimately could pave the way for them to withdraw from the country.

“First there were the talks at the Pakistan Air Force base in Quetta with ‘moderate’ elements of the Taliban (which immediately failed due to the US insistence on the sidelining of Taliban leader Mullah Omar). Then came moves to pry some of the more powerful mujahideen commanders from the anti-US resistance movement”

Shahzad suggests that American officials are now turning to the Pakistani government, which, after all, was instrumental in creating and supporting the Taliban and elements of which have clearly protected the Taliban in exile, while simultaneously going after al Qaeda operatives. Shahzad ends thusly:

“Now, al-Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan has effectively been broken, and it poses no threat to the US in that country. Thus, a growing argument runs, since there is no threat, should the US really care who rules the wasteland that is Afghanistan, be it the Taliban or the Northern Alliance or a combination thereof? Better that the US pull out its troops and leave the Afghanis to themselves.

“Taking this reasoning a few steps further, one can only speculate how long it will be before the US begins dialogue with Mullah Omar.”

This might be a flight of fantasy today, but tomorrow?

“In our own image” – the state of American democracy:

Given that the Bush administration’s “dream” of bringing democracy to Iraq, and through it to the whole of the Middle East, has been repeated so often, I thought it might be worth considering for a moment, through a series of recent pieces, what exactly democracy looks like here. What “image” of ourselves could we conceivably be bringing to the Iraqis?

After all, if we need a model for how the Bush administration and its allies in Congress bring democracy to other lands, we need look no further than the great state of Texas, whose legislature Tom DeLay and his buddies in and out of Texas have dealt with as if it were the Governing Council in Baghdad.

Yesterday, the Washington Post had a sweltering editorial on the subject of American democracy, whose very title — The Soviet Republic of Texas — made a comparison I don’t think I ever expected to see in this country. As most of you know, the Republicans in Texas with the backing (and personal jawboning) of Tom DeLay forced through a ludicrously unbalanced redistricting plan, at a moment when redistricting is never done, which will significantly increase Republican representation in the House of Representatives. The Post editorial began:

“You might think America’s rigged system of congressional elections couldn’t get much worse. Self-serving redistricting schemes nationwide already have left an overwhelming number of seats in the House of Representatives so uncompetitive that election results are practically as preordained as in the old Soviet Union. In the last election, for example, 98 percent of incumbents were reelected, and the average winning candidate got more than 70 percent of the vote. More candidates ran without any major-party opposition than won by a margin of less than 20 percent. Yet even given this record, the just-completed Texas congressional redistricting plan represents a new low.

“The plan grabbed headlines as a consequence of the flight by Democrats — twice — from the state to prevent its adoption We don’t know whether the plan violates the Voting Rights Act or will survive legal challenge. What is clear, however, is that it will aggravate the triumph of extremes in Washington while further sovietizing America’s already-fixed electoral game.”

If that’s the overall situation of American democracy, what of its latest pop success — in California? I include below a piece by one of the most powerful voices now writing in the mainstream, James Carroll of the Boston Globe, on what the Schwarzeneggerianfication of California means. Carroll says, in part: “The Republican Party meanwhile, embracing Schwarzenegger as a tribune of its future, has advanced its ever more ferocious purpose of turning America into the largest gated community on the planet.”

In the meantime, the very process of voting in post-chad America seems to be up for grabs. The issue of computerized, touchscreen voting — in case anybody hasn’t noticed — has been moving around the internet at an inverse speed to its movement into the mainstream press; or put more simply, on the internet, people have been up in arms about the new voting machines, evidently wide open to mistake, misprogramming, fraud, and manipulation, especially given the fact that the machines are sold through intensive lobbying and the three biggest touchscreen companies are major donors to the Republican Party to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Readers have sent me many emails on and suggested readings about this subject. Finally — and here’s a surprise — a major newspaper piece has appeared at the edge of the mainstream, summing up in superb fashion what’s now known about this potential scandal of democracy, or what’s left of democracy anyway. Unfortunately, the paper in question — here’s a shock — happens to be located in England.
Andrew Gumbel of the Independent has written a sweeping account of computerized voting in All the President’s votes, a long report which must be read in full. There’s no way to summarize it here, but he does say in small part:

“Last November, [Georgia] became the first [state] in the country to conduct an election entirely with touchscreen voting machines, after lavishing $54m (£33m) on a new system that promised to deliver the securest, most up-to-date, most voter-friendly election in the history of the republic. The machines, however, turned out to be anything but reliable. With academic studies showing the Georgia touchscreens to be poorly programmed, full of security holes and prone to tampering, and with thousands of similar machines from different companies being introduced at high speed across the country, computer voting may, in fact, be US democracy’s own 21st-century nightmare

“The possibility of flaws in the electoral process is not something that gets discussed much in the United States. The attitude seems to be: we are the greatest democracy in the world, so the system must be fair. That has certainly been the prevailing view in Georgia, where even leading Democrats – their prestige on the line for introducing touchscreen voting in the first place – have fought tooth-and-nail to defend the integrity of the system.”

And then, of course, there’s the Pentagon. Its effect on American democracy is another subject Americans, strangely enough, don’t much like to consider and find it exceedingly odd when foreigners do. This week, George Monbiot of the Guardian wrote his column, States of War, on the subject. He says in part:

“Appeasing the armed forces has become, for President Bush, a political necessity. He cannot win the next election without them. Unless he can destroy the resistance in Iraq, the resistance will destroy his political career. But crushing it requires the continuous presence of a vast professional army and tens of thousands of reservists.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the troops do not want to be there, and that at least some of their generals regard the invasion as poorly planned if he is to continue to deflect the anger of the troops, the president must give them everything they might want, whether or not they have asked for it. This is one of the reasons for a military budget that is now entirely detached from any possible strategic reality [T]he armed forces, whether they want it or not, are being dragged into the heart of political life. A mature democracy is in danger of turning itself into a military state.”

Finally, let’s head Iraqwards (via the Guardian again), to catch a glimpse of what we look like in that country’s rear-view mirror. In a striking piece, Spoils of war, Brian Whitaker offers a powerful sense of the “America” that the powers-that-be in Washington and their corporate cronies are putting in place in Iraq as he reports on “Doing Business in Iraq,” a two-day London gathering for potential foreign investors sponsored by the US-Iraq business council. He begins:

“For centuries, pillage by invading armies was a normal part of warfare: a way in which to reward badly-paid or unpaid troops for risking their lives in battle. Nowadays, at least in more civilised countries, we do not let armies rampage for booty. We leave the pillaging to men in suits, and we don’t call it pillaging any more. We call it economic development.”

Whitaker goes on to describe how, in the attempt to turn Iraq into a “US-style capitalist wonderland,” the occupation administration, whatever its supposed responsibilities as representative of the occupying power, is flouting international law by putting in place regulations for foreign investors that amount to little more than looting.

“The prevailing view in Washington was set out with astonishing bluntness four years ago by John Bolton, now chief hawk at the state department, when he said: ‘It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law, even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so – because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the US.’

“The US, however, has made no bones about its intentions, regardless of what the Hague regulations say, to make as many structural changes as possible in Iraq while it has the chance. Its hope, of course, is that these will have gone too far to be undone once a proper Iraqi government takes over.”

So where does the future “democratic Iraq” end and the present “democratic America” begin? I leave you with this quote from a Stephen Pizzo piece, Ike was right, at the website on the plundering of both countries:

“Talk about sticker shock. The condition of the country was far worse than anyone dared imagine. Engineers released their findings this September and, using a grammar school grading system, they assigned grades to describe the state of disrepair they found. The country’s roads got a D+. Aviation infrastructure got a D. Schools a D minus. Wastewater treatment facilities, a D. Dams, a D. Hazardous waste storage a D+. And, even though the nation is a major oil producer, the energy sector got a D+.

“In all, the experts said it would take more than $1.6 trillion over the next five years to bring the country’s infrastructure up to modern standards.

“Oh, wait. I bet you thought I was talking about Iraq.

“No. The report I am citing was released this September by the American Society of Civil Engineers and it described the condition of America’s infrastructure”


Turks trade troops for hard U.S. cash
By Eric Margolis
Contributing Foreign Editor
The Toronto Sun
October 12, 2003

The Turks, it seems, will send troops into Iraq. When and how many is uncertain, but in a momentous decision, Turkey’s parliament voted decisively to aid the U.S. military occupation.

Washington is delighted. Having run out of troops itself, the U.S. is arm-twisting and bribing all and sundry to send soldiers to Iraq. Not surprisingly, few nations are eager to risk their men in strife-torn Iraq, but Uncle Sam has a very powerful inducement: money and trade. Turkey shows just how loudly cash talks with near-bankrupt nations.

Turkey is an important military power. Its army of 402,000 men is NATO’s second largest after the United States. Though Turkey’s armed forces suffer from outdated arms and wobbly logistics, its soldiers are renowned for courage and tenacity.

Great warriors, yes, but, as Ottoman history shows, the Empire was hopeless when it came to money.

To read more Margolis click here

“Waves of chaos”
By Alain Gresh (Translated by Ed Emery)
Le Monde Diplomatique
September 2003

The United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, claimed on 9 July 2003: “We can say with confidence that the world is a better place today because the US led a coalition of forces into action in Iraq.” Rumsfeld, one of the main architects of US foreign policy, was appearing before a Senate commission to hammer home the favourite theme of Washington’s neo-conservatives, which is: in the war against terrorism we are going from victory to victory. The Taliban regime has collapsed. Afghanistan is being rebuilt. Saddam Hussein’s regime is now just a nightmare memory. Iraq, albeit with difficulties, is now on the road to democracy. And the offensive against al-Qaida is proceeding successfully.

To read more Gresh click here

California’s ominous leadership trend
By James Carroll
The Boston Globe
October 14, 2003

With all due respect to the governor-elect of California, his election must be the occasion for a broader reflection on what Americans have come to want from leaders. That Arnold Schwarzenegger was exposed in the last days of the recall election campaign as crude, to say the least, in his attitudes toward women seemed in the end to be no surprise to California voters — and no offense either.

After all, he had built his film career on a celebration of sadism and cruelty. His off-screen character, as laid bare by the Los Angeles Times, meshes perfectly with the misogynist robots he has chosen to play in movie after movie. Having turned the dream life and video game addiction of young boys into a new genre of cinema, he has now brought it openly into politics.

To read more Carroll click here