Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jeffrey Sachs on Foreign Policy

Jeffrey Sachs, renowned economist, has done something unimaginable. He has written a book on US foreign policy that is knowledgeable as well as candid and honest. For an academic of his stature to produce such an open and factual critique of US policy is indeed a courageous undertaking.
For those of us with a keen interest in foreign affairs Professor Sachs new book, Toward a New Foreign Policy / Beyond American Exceptionalism, is a most welcome gem. He acknowledges what a small minority of concerned citizens and a growing chorus of foreign people and pundits have known for quite some time. US foreign policy is aggressive, militaristic and very frequently crosses the line to crimes of war.
He makes a crucial argument to distinguish between wars of necessity and wars of choice. Most of the conflicts the US has been engaged in since WWII have been wars of choice. They were not essential to national security. Rather they were choices made with the intent to influence the global geopolitical status quo. The US tends to choose conflict over diplomacy and negotiation. He demonstrates such analyses through the Vietnam conflict and through recent conflicts in the Middle East.
Such views are rarely, if ever, heard through the media. And equally these views are rarely expressed by prominent professors, with the exception of Chomsky of course. So, Professor Sachs has indeed shown commendable courage. One can only hope that his message will be widely read and appreciated. Hopefully he will not be shunned and relegated to ‘romantic’ status to become a marginal voice like the rest of us discontents.
My recommendation is simple. Please read this book. Think through what Sachs is saying. Don’t reject his analysis because it is contrary to usual story lines. Everything he says is well documented and factual. There is nothing exceptional about the US as a nation. It has conducted policy from the very beginning as an aggressor, from the genocide of Indian tribes to Manifest Destiny, to today’s imperial quest.
I have only minor criticisms of the book. The first is what I have already expressed, that readers will reject an unfamiliar opinion as wrong and unpatriotic. My second issue is that, while Sachs presents the historical facts over the decades and does not shy from taking sequential Presidents to task, he is overly kind to JFK. In this favoritism he is, I think, mistaken. Finally, as an economist Sachs reflects upon the link between economic and foreign policies. To be sure US economic policy is equally flawed. However, I fear that Sachs’ views on economic policy are too evidently liberal. So, here again I fear his message on foreign policy may be dismissed by virtue of his partisan sounding views on the economy.
In summary this book is a must read and Sachs’ analysis on foreign policy is a must consider and reflect.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

John McCain and History

Senator John McCain is dead. Many are praising him today and saluting him anew as a war hero. While I disagree with such sentiments, as a humanist I will not respond with hateful slurs against him personally. Hopefully, again as a humanist, I may manage to reflect upon his legacy with compassion and a measure of forgiveness. But I feel compelled to respond to the widespread praise afforded him during the course of his career and again now following his death.

Tributes to Senator McCain were first awarded due to his imprisonment in (North) Vietnam after his plane was shot down during Operation Rolling Thunder. McCain was then an Air Force pilot. He had flown multiple missions and had bombed targets within the North. None of those praising his heroism during captivity reflect honestly upon his bombing missions prior to being shot down. Yet thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians were killed by such bombing. The history of the Vietnam conflict is now well understood. We should all condemn the US role in the war and the extensive bombing campaign.

The Vietnam war, which the US conducted reputedly in defense of democracy, was an injustice from the outset. France had held Indochina as a colony prior to WWII. The French abandoned the colony at the outbreak of war. Ho Chi Minh led a national resistance movement during the war against Japanese occupation. (Yes, he was connected with the international communist movement, but he also received support from the US during the war years.) Following the war the French felt entitled to return to Indochina and resume their colonial rule. They were indeed supported in their effort by the US, despite the prevailing trend toward national liberation. The result was the French-Vietnamese war which ended in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war ended with a treaty signed in Geneva whereby the French troops would depart. The country was to be temporarily divided for a period of two years following which national elections would be held to unify the country. Those elections were never held. By all accounts the political party headed by Ho would have won in a landslide. However, the elections were cancelled by a corrupt South Vietnam regime with the support of the US. Later the US became increasingly involved through escalations by Kennedy and Johnson against the democratic will of the people of a Vietnam. 

McCain and other airmen and soldiers accepted their roles. Some will say they were simply following orders. Others will say that at the time the full knowledge of events had yet to become commonly known. But what about the Geneva Conventions? The whole point is that soldiers and citizens have a responsibility to defy orders, when necessary. The bombing of North Vietnam was an historical injustice if not an outright crime. Again, even though some will insist that the historical judgment was not yet available, the enormous damage and loss of innocent lives due to the bombing should have been perfectly clear to the pilots involved. Pity that Yossarian was absent from the missions. Perhaps he might have convinced the squadrons to drop their bombs in the Gulf of Tonkin rather than on a poor farming village to reduce the natural foliage as well as the village to ashes. John McCain chose to accept his mission. He repeatedly bombed civilian targets before his plane was shot down.

During his career in Congress McCain continued to support military adventurism. It seems he never had regrets or second thoughts. He was unquestionably one of the key supporters, if not one of the architects, of the ‘modern’ war strategy where the US uses air power and bombing to achieve political goals. This strategy is the logical consequence of the bombing campaign conducted in Vietnam from 1965 through the end of the war. The strategy is now enhanced by the myth of precision bombing with limited ‘collateral damage.’ Yet it remains an immoral practice, if not a war crime. Representatives in Congress, like John McCain, never raise objection. They all seem to unquestioningly support the corporate goals of an unchecked military industrial establishment clothed in the continuing slogan that we are supporting democracy internationally. And the Press and Media fail to exercise their true mandate; to investigate and report the facts. Rather they have chosen to embed themselves with the military. Those embedded media outlets now praise Senator McCain as a war hero. The facts tell different story.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Military Expenditure: The Hard Numbers

CNN recently published an article on its website in relation to Trump’s aggressive stance against NATO allies who have failed to meet the agreed spending target of 2% of GDP. The article includes two charts. The first chart shows spending among the NATO members as a percentage of GDP. This chart is directly related to the text of the article. It also addresses the issue that Trump (as prior Presidents had) raised at the NATO summit. The second chart shows total military expenditure for the top ten countries in the world. This second chart is highly illuminating and yet the article fails to address it at all. Hence there is an unwritten article that begs to be composed and published.
The US spending on military readiness dwarfs that of all nations worldwide. As many have stated before (yet surprisingly few have heard), the US spends roughly twice the amount of all the countries in the world combined. How can such levels of defense spending be justified? Why does Congress continue to approve huge budgets for military spending, while bemoaning the general trend in deficit spending? What is the rationale? Before entertaining these questions, however, let’s briefly analyze two other details which raise bright red flags. Let’s reflect on the comparative levels of defense spending by Russia and China.
Throughout the Cold War, US politicians vilified the Soviet Union and justified ever increasing defense spending as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, military spending in Russia has declined quite dramatically. Today, Russia spends far less than many other nations—less, in fact, than Saudi Arabia, according to CNN’s chart. Yet military leaders and the press continue to paint Russia as a major threat to the free world. Of course, Russia does still maintain a large nuclear arsenal. But given the condition of its economy and its oil dependence, Russia will evidently pose an ever decreasing threat.
China, on the other hand, has been dramatically increasing its defense spending. It is the only nation that even remotely looks as though it could conceivably challenge the US in the future. Prior to the NATO summit President Trump chastised Germany for its purchase of natural gas from Russia. He claimed Germany was thus enhancing Russian coffers, while Germany itself spent too little on its own defense. Is there an analogy here to the US trade deficit with China? The trade deficit enriches China, which appears to be the sole nation that might challenge the US. Both the President and the press talk about the trade deficit with China, but only in economic terms. They rarely, if ever, link the trade deficit to military concerns. In reality, as the chart clearly shows, neither China (at less than half of US defense spending) nor Russia in any way challenge US military expenditure. The reality is that at past and current levels of military spending the US has no serious challenge. And yet the US continues to spend at ever increasing levels. Where is the peace dividend? Why shouldn’t it be possible for the US to reduce spending? Why are politicians and the Press leading public opinion in the direction of new Cold War confrontations? What is the justification for spending policies?
The standard justifications for military spending are heard again and again. The US needs to ensure a heightened military readiness in order to maintain the status quo in world affairs, to protect its global interests, to defend democracy and open economies against the challenges to the global order and the international community. To that end there are endless warnings of threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others. Yet the reality as anyone can see from the spending chart is that these threats are fallacious. The threat is hugely overblown.
A second line of justification following the 9/11 tragedy is the threat of terrorism. This subject is very complex and emotionally charged. But one point is clear. Terrorists don’t have a standing army that can threaten the US or its allies. The attacks on 9/11, in Paris and London, however appalling, cannot successfully undermine Western civilization. Furthermore, the style of military expenditure that the US continues to pursue is of little help in combating the spread of terrorism. The most serious potential threat from terrorism would be the capture of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials by terrorist groups or sympathizers. This scenario is frequently noted by supporters of military and intelligence readiness. It is a major argument in favor of a hard line stance against Iran and North Korea. But, action against those two nations selectively is wholly insufficient to counter a potential terrorist threat. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and it has a long border with a failed state (Afghanistan) as well as its own domestic terror groups. The US and NATO have a large cache of nuclear weapons in Turkey. And Turkey, given the direction of its domestic politics, could be at risk in the future. Hence, the effort to limit and secure nuclear weaponry from terrorist groups is in no way, shape or form comprehensive. Rather efforts are selective and taken solely against so called rogue nations.
Apparently neither of the typical justifications for military expenditure holds water. (Or should I say board water?) Clearly we need to look deeper, more analytically, to discover the true reasons behind the incomparable levels of US military expenditure? Two come directly to mind. First, by continuing such levels of expenditure, the US is investing in the defense of its position as global hegemon. US citizens generally find this accusation baseless. They prefer to believe that the US is a beneficent power in world affairs. But numbers don’t lie. A well-meaning, beneficent power would not need such grossly incomparable levels of military expenditure. Dramatic reduction in spending (cashing a peace dividend) coupled with negotiations, diplomacy and soft power would certainly prove more effective. The second reason is that irrational levels of expenditure are supported by the military industrial establishment. I find it odd that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and a man with a military background, warned against such a danger and yet few heeded his warning. But why does the US electorate fail to focus on the problem? The enormous power of large corporations is evident. The widespread activity of lobbyists is well known. What are lobbyists anyway, if not an institution of legalized corruption? Again, numbers don’t lie. In fact there can be no reasonable justification for the levels of military expenditure that the US sustains. I posit that even global domination could be supported at lower levels of expenditure. But, of course, lower expenditure levels would mean lower corporate profits for the defense industry.
Link to my recent article published at Foreign Policy Journal. There is no justification for the exorbitant defense (offensive) spending by the US government.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Introductory Remarks to ‘The Story of Our People’

The Story of Our People is a poetic drama. It presents a contemporary picture of the universe, one in which Nature is not cruel or threatening, but simply indifferent to human society. Of course life arose within this natural environment. And humans evolved as a species within a crucible of living organisms here on earth. But a detached observation of the human condition may need to accept that we are mere chance happenings within the expanse of the universe, brief chances in Nature’s expanse..

Furthermore, The Story portrays the depth of tragic moments within human history. The human story is replete with wars and civil strife and the sufferings of people within this continuing march of tragedy. Religions have been founded offering explanations and consolation. Political theories and ideologies have been proposed as remedies to the ongoing human struggle. But these attempts have too often ended in new and renewed suffering. The only rational guide toward a humane society is to encourage people to embrace social responsibility. These are the themes that The Story embraces in this short drama.

The format of the work is that of a cross genre dramatic story. The body of the work is a group of tenuously linked poems. The initial poems describe three characters, the protagonists in the drama, and their personal development. These three characters then join in the demonstrations of their time. And the demonstration turns into an uprising complete with barricades and further civil confrontation. Later two of the characters escape and retire to safety where they enjoy a period of reflection and companionship.

The poems are organized into four scenes. These scenes are introduced by narratives within a parallel drama where a grandmother relates The Story to a group of children whom she is leading to safety, once again from civil strife. Hence, the cross genre structure of the drama creates an impression of a myth or historical archetype. But the images within the poems themselves present this human storyline as a stark reality without the slightest benefit of fairy tale escape. “No myths swaddle our births…” My hope is that the form of The Story may render palatable some of the disagreeable ideas and images that emerge from the drama.

The inception of the drama was in fact a single poem, the final poem. I attempted in that poem, titled as The Slaying of a Poet, to capture the scene of Lorca’s murder during the Spanish Civil War. (Hence the dedication.) After composing that poem I began to look backward and to develop the broader story culminating in that final scene. The result is this poetic drama, which hopefully captures the philosophical and political themes I described in the previous paragraphs. But I should also add two further comments. First, the title may raise some confusion. The Story of Our People would seem to suggest that the drama is about a specific cultural group or nation. That is not my intention at all. The drama embraces all of humanity within our shared tragedy. Upon a closer reading however, one could argue that ‘our people’ refers to those chosen few who remain optimistic that a more humane and peaceful society is possible. The second comment I want to make is to correct a mistaken interpretation on the part of some of my readers to date. There are several references to Marxist texts, which the reader of this edition will find in the footnotes and commentary. In fact what I have done is to paraphrase those references and that is the operative word. There is no intent to glorify socialist revolution. But, all of these civil uprisings are undeniably part of our history. They have contributed to the story of human tragedy, yet have also quite frequently raised reasonable demands. And in the grandmother’s words “…kept hope alive.” So, no I am not a communist offering a new volume of literary subversion. Nor am I a fellow traveller. A more apt description of my lot would be that of a lonely traveller.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Snapchat Blues

The Juggernaut 
Churns the waves under its bow
Into the rusted lard in its wake
Rips apart foreign land
Without raison d'etre or regret.

The electorate 
Girded with its love for Jesus
Oblivious to refugees
Trudging through burgeoning wars
Cheers the Embassy in Jerusalem.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians. Always sharp, sarcastic commentary on society. This clip from an interview shows how very insightful he was indeed.