Focal Points Blog

Money Wars: Beating up on Beijing? (Part 1)

Chinese renminbiAre the U.S. and China on a collision course? Consider the following:

During the 2010 mid-term elections, some 30 candidates for the House and Senate are blasting China for everything from undermining America’s financial structure to fueling the U.S. unemployment crisis.

The Obama Administration is accusing China of manipulating its currency to sabotage the U.S. exports trade, and the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods unless Beijing allows the renminbi, China’s currency, to appreciate.

A recent Financial Times article on the failure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to resolve the currency issue says, “The hostility between Washington and Beijing has escalated into something resembling trench warfare.” Last year a CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans thought China was an economic threat, and 51 percent of those polled thought Beijing represented a military threat as well.

If one adds to the above the growing tensions with China in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, some kind of dust-up seems almost inevitable, though any “collision” would be a diplomatic one. But a major diplomatic fallout between the world’s two largest economies has global implications.

What is going on here? Is China indeed manipulating its currency to beggar the U.S.? Does it bear some responsibility for the high jobless rate and the inability of the American economy to recover from the deep recession?

The answer is both yes and no, and thereby hangs a tale.

The U.S. charges that China is deliberately undervaluing its currency, the renminbi, which makes Chinese export goods cheaper than its competitors and thus undermines other countries’ exports.

China is indeed manipulating its currency, although it is hardly alone. In one way or another, Brazil, Japan, Switzerland, Thailand, South Korea and others have recently acted to keep their currencies competitive. Nor is currency manipulation something new. During the 1980s the Reagan Administration and Japan jimmied their currencies to deal with a huge trade gap. Indeed, the current free market orthodoxy regarding currency is a recent phenomenon in world finances, a reflection of the “Washington Consensus” model that has dominated institutions like the IMF and the World Bank for the last two decades.

How one sees the current dispute depends on where one sits. With U.S. unemployment above 10 percent, Americans are focused on policies that will bring that rate down. But from China’s point of view, any major upward evaluation of the renminbi would simply transfer U.S. jobless rates to China.

Since it would also reduce the value of the dollar, it would lower the value of the massive debt the U.S. owes China. “And that, to the Chinese, would feel suspiciously like a default,” says Stephen King, chief economist for HSBC.

In short, a lose-lose deal for Beijing.

From the Chinese side of the equation, the U.S. is essentially trying to unload the consequences of the economic meltdown that Wall Street caused them. And they dispute the fact that the huge trade surplus are all that relevant to the current crisis.

According to Avinash D. Persuad, chair of Intelligence Capital Limited, even if China’s $175 billion trade were to somehow vanish, it would only have a 0.25 percent impact on global GDP. “The Chinese economy is one quarter of the U.S. economy, and at the peak of the U.S. trade deficit, China’s surplus was less than a third of it. David may have toppled Goliath, but he couldn’t carry him,” says Persuad.

Exports have certainly been important to China, but they have only accounted for 10 to 15 percent of growth over the past decade. The main engine for Chinese growth has been investment. According to the World Bank Growth Commission, of the 13 countries that have enjoyed 7 percent growth rates over the past 10 years, all had high investment rates. These countries suppressed consumption by keeping wages low, allowing them to amass enormous pools of capital to pour into upgrading infrastructure or subsidizing industry.

The Chinese economy is booming—it never fell below 8 percent growth during the recession—but it has some vulnerabilities. The Chinese recognize that they need to shift their economy, away from an over-reliance on exports to one based more on internal consumption. To this end, private wages and consumption have been growing at a respectable 8 to 10 percent yearly. The thinking is that as consumption goes up, China will absorb more of its own products, and thus the trade deficit will go down.

China’s new five-year plan is trying to do exactly this. Shifting some of the economy away from the wealthy coastal areas toward the more depressed inland part of the country will help alleviate some of the wealth gap between city and country, and encourage urbanization in the interior. All of these moves will increase consumption.

If China were to suddenly raise the value of its currency, however, it would tank a number of export industries and flood China with unemployment. Since the jobless have no money, consumer spending would fall, setting off yet another round of layoffs and plant closings. This is, of course, exactly what Americans are discovering.

Beijing has begun raising the value of renminbi—it has risen 2.5 percent since June—but the slow pace has not satisfied Washington. The Americans are making other demands as well. For instance, the U.S. would like China to lower its interest rates, which the Americans argue would encourage consumption.

But as Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Guanghua School in Beijing University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, points out, “This would be terrible for China. Lower interests rates and more credit will fuel a real estate boom and boost both capital-intensive manufacturing and infrastructure overcapacity—all without rebalancing consumption.”

From China’s point of view the problem is not its currency, but the lack of controls over American finance that can lead to tsunamis of money flooding into underdeveloped countries. In 1997, waves of international investment money poured into Thailand, tanking the currency and spreading a recession, the so-called “Asian Flu,” throughout the region. The Thais took action Oct. 12 to block a similar “hot wave” of money pouring into the country by imposing a 15 percent withholding tax on capital gains and interest payments on government and state-owned company bonds. Besides Thailand and South Korea, other countries in Asia, including Singapore and Taiwan, have also intervened to keep their financial ships on an even keel.

Europeans are blowing hot and cold on currency intervention. Last year and this past winter and spring, the EU had good reasons for remaining quiet about the subject of undervalued currencies. The Euro lost 17 percent of its value vis-à-vis the dollar over the Greek financial crisis, which had the effect of powering up European exports, in particular, by Germany.

Germany—the world’s second biggest exporter after China—is as much concerned about the dollar as the renminbi. “We expect the U.S. to continue its policy of printing money,” Aton Borner, president of the German exporters’ association, BGA, told the Financial Times. “This will trigger a currency devaluation spiral that will hit Europe the most.” The dollar has dropped 20 percent against the Euro since June, and German exports have fallen for two months in a row.

The Europeans are certainly concerned about the currency crisis, although they are a good deal more sotto voice than the Americans. “It’s not helpful to use bellicose statements when it comes to currency or to trade,” says French finance minister Christine Lagarde.

Governments that don’t take care of their own during an economic crisis will eventually pay a price at the polls. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim is certainly concerned about defending Brazil’s currency, but he is careful about applying pressure as a way of finding solutions. “We have good coordination with China, and we’ve been talking to them,” he said, adding, “We can’t forget that China is our main customer.”

China charges that the U.S. is scapegoating it for problems that the U.S. created for itself, and there is certainly a strong odor of China bashing these days, even from intelligent and thoughtful people like Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist.

Krugman says that while he wants to avoid “hard ball policies,” he says “China is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already severe. It is time to take a stand.” Krugman suggests the U.S. should put a 10 percent surcharge on imports from China, a move more likely to ignite a global trade war than bring China to heel.

Last weekend’s meeting of the G20, representing the world’s leading economies, firmly rejected an American proposal aimed at the Chinese (and also the Germans) and opted for a less confrontational approach. The meeting in Seoul, South Korea essentially asked everyone to play nice. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. The subject is sure to come up again in November when G20’s heads of states get together.

The solution is not a quick re-evaluation of the currency, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Pettis, but “statesman-like behavior, in which the major economies agree to resolve their trade balances over several years.”

“Statesman-like behavior” is not exactly what is coming out of Washington these days.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Shattered Its Only Plausible Pretext for Iraq War

As we all recall, in attempt to justify the Iraq War, the Bush administration claimed that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it harbored al Qaeda. While those didn’t pass the smell test, there was truth to their illegitimate reasons for the invasion: staking a claim to Iraqi oil, establishing a security base in the Middle East other than fickle Saudi Arabia, and just putting the fear of God (or Allah) into the Middle East.

One other justification, deposing a serial human rights violator, suckered in many, even some liberals. Deep down, they must have known that the Bush administration would never launch a war out of ethical considerations. What country does really? They seemed to embrace the result, though, even if it wasn’t done for the right motivation.

But the recent WikiLeaks document dump shows the extent to which Bush & Co. failed at even halting human rights violations. As part of its incomparable coverage, the Guardian reports that the documents record (emphasis added) . . .

. . . the case of a man who was arrested by [Iraqi] police on suspicion of preparing a suicide bomb. In the station, an officer shot him in the leg and then, the log continues, this detainee “suffered abuse which amounted to cracked ribs, multiple lacerations and welts and bruises from being whipped with a large rod and hose across his back”. This was all recorded. [The outcome?] “No further investigation.” . . .

This is the impact of Frago 242 . . . a “fragmentary order” which summarises a complex requirement [ordering] coalition troops not to investigate . . . the abuse of detainees, unless it directly involves members of the coalition.

It gets worse, as another Guardian report explains:

[A] series of log entries in 2004 and 2005 describe repeated raids by US infantry, who then handed their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for “further questioning”. [The] feared 2nd battalion of the interior ministry’s special commandos [, the] Wolf Brigade was created and supported by the US in an attempt to re-employ elements of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, this time to terrorise insurgents.

How did this help the cause of the United States? Returning to the first Guardian report (emphasis added) . . .

Frago 242 appears to have been issued as part of the wider political effort to pass the management of security from the coalition to Iraqi hands. In effect, it means that the regime has been forced to change its political constitution but allowed to retain its use of torture.

In other words, the United States may have deposed the human rights violator but kept the violations. After all, they were only a couple of degrees more barbaric than what the U.S. military and contractors were doing in bases Iraq and at Guantanamo.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Soldiers Left Wondering “What’s the Moral Code This Week?”

The newly released documents from WikiLeaks reveal massive falsehoods, cover-up and abuse in Iraq. The President, Vice-President, and Commanding Generals — including the iconic General Petraeus — have knowingly conveyed false and deceptive information to the American people and the Congress of the United States regarding the invasion and the aftermath of Iraq.

The American people know about the falsehoods that were established as reasons for the invasion of Iraq. We now know that falsehoods have continued throughout the war, especially regarding the treatment of prisoners and overall conditions in Iraq. For example, the Bush administration consistently informed us that the military does not keep track of the number of Iraqi deaths, both civilian and military. The WikiLeaks release proved this to be false. Moreover, the number of deaths was intentionally underestimated. President Bush repeatedly denied knowing the number of deaths — yet the numbers were there. Now the Pentagon does not dispute that the total number of deaths between 2004-2009 (from the WikiLeaks revelation) is 109,000 with 65,000 of those being civilians.

The arbitrary killing of nearly a thousand Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, our handing over of Iraqi prisoners to Iraqi security forces and silence while knowing prisoners are tortured and raped is now a part of the historical record. American administrations’ acquiescence to our contractors’ free rein in killing Iraqis is disturbing. The cover-up of civilian deaths, the shooting of children and the claims of ignorance about the abuse at Abu Ghraib simply debase what we tout as our American values.

What is the consequence of four-star generals telling the American people falsehoods with a straight face? How does that reverberate throughout the ranks of the military, and throughout American society as a whole? Imagine a 20-year-old soldier forced to lie about his military actions, contrary to his upbringing. The values our soldiers grew up with in their homes, houses of worship and schools — honesty, integrity, honor, duty — all have been debased. The policies of our politics have forced our military personnel, down to the soldiers’ level, to practice and perpetuate falsehoods, or at the very least, come close to that in order to remain in the military. The very definition of war crimes has been altered.

When American soldiers are faced daily with such stark moral dilemmas, it is no surprise that over a half million returnee soldiers from the current wars demonstrate mental health issues. We have over 300,000 returnee soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Moreover, a very large number of our veterans have a very difficult time adjusting to regular civilian life. War has always been hell. But our soldiers suffering the additional burden of a rewritten moral code that demeans the values they thought they were protecting face an even greater burden. Yet no one at the Pentagon wants to talk about the contribution of this moral stress on our soldiers. Military leaders will not address these moral values issues for their soldiers, since in so doing, the entire system that has been built on these tall tales is dismantled.

It is inevitable that we will now find ourselves lost in the details of the vast sea of documents that have been exposed through WikiLeaks. But we should step back from the details and ask ourselves some bigger questions presented by the documentation. For example, what does the rest of the world see as emblematic of American actions abroad? Does this reputation serve us well as we engage other nations in the quest for basic human rights and democracy? Does it show us to be a trustworthy partner in economic negotiations?

This is a defining moment for our identification as Americans. Do we fully understand the implications of our acceptance of the status quo, never questioning the veracity of reports that now have been proven false? Or are we going to investigate our crimes to embark on a path that restores American honor and leadership in the world?

WikiLeaks: “You cannot surrender to an aircraft” (at least not Crazyhorse 18)

Apache helicopterPutting aside the myriad reports of everything from abuse to murder by Iraqi police and soldiers recorded in the latest WikiLeaks document dump for a moment, let’s turn to, as the Guardian refers to it, “the readiness of US forces to unleash lethal force.”

“In one chilling incident [the documents] detail how an Apache helicopter gunship gunned down two men in February 2007. The suspected insurgents had been trying to surrender but a lawyer back at base told the pilots: ‘You cannot surrender to an aircraft.’”

Kind of reminds you of the opening to the song the The Soft Parade by the Doors: “You cannot petition the lord with the prayer.” But, if the United States can wage a War on Terror (a tactic, as has often been pointed out, not an entity), why can’t insurgents surrender to an inanimate object?

As if that lawyer’s counsel wasn’t cracked enough, check this out (emphasis added):

The Apache, callsign Crazyhorse 18, was the same unit and helicopter based at Camp Taji outside Baghdad that later that year, in July, mistakenly killed two Reuters employees and wounded two children in the streets of Baghdad.

You remember — issuing a video incident titled “Collateral Murder” put WikiLeaks over the top as a world-class whistleblower.

Wait, I’ve got an idea. With the horror film series Saw winding down, why not send this Apache unit to Afghanistan with a film crew and turn Crazyhorse 18: Death From Above into a bona fide franchise with a third installment?

WikiLeaks: Putting Attacks on Assange in Perspective

The New York Times chose the day that, along with the Guardian, it published its reports about WikiLeaks’ latest document dump to run an unflattering article about the organization’s founder Julian Assange by John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya. In fact, one part of the angle of the story did prove troubling.

From the point of view of the United States, back in August, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates wrote Committee of Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin that a review of the first Wikileaks dump had “not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure.” However, Burns and Somaiya now report:

A Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan . . . said in a telephone interview that the Taliban. . . . had a “wanted” list of 1,800 Afghans and was comparing that with names WikiLeaks provided. “After the process is completed, our Taliban court will decide about such people,” he said.

The authors devote the bulk of the article, however, to an attack on Assange’s character, noting that “some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur.” An example . . .

When Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old political activist in Iceland, questioned Mr. Assange’s judgment over a number of issues in an online exchange last month, Mr. Assange was uncompromising. “I don’t like your tone,” he said, according to a transcript. “If it continues, you’re out.”

In another instance, Assange describes his colleagues “as ‘a confederacy of fools,’ and asked his interlocutor, ‘Am I dealing with a complete retard?’”

Exactly how does Assange’s behavior differ from what one might expect of the leader of an organization engaged in an enterprise as explosive as Wikileaks is while he himself attempts to come to grips with the knowledge that he’s unwelcome in any country on which he alights?

Mr. Assange’s detractors also accuse him of pursuing a vendetta against the United States. In London, Mr. Assange said America was an increasingly militarized society and a threat to democracy. Moreover, he said, “we have been attacked by the United States, so we are forced into a position where we must defend ourselves.”

Poor United States — who will defend it against big, bad Julian Assange? Of course, it’s actually Assange who needs someone to stand beside him. None other than Daniel Ellsberg, Burns and Somaiya report, “flew overnight from California to attend [the announcement] and compared the Obama administration’s threat to prosecute Mr. Assange to his own treatment under President Richard M. Nixon.”

Compared to the momentous work that Assange has spearheaded, his foibles are trifling. If its intention in publishing this article was to preclude the appearance of a loss of objectivity in its presentation of the WikiLeaks documents, the Times miscalculated and instead appear pretty.

WikiLeaks: Pouring Fuel on the Iran Fire?

At Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman write: “No one would accuse WikiLeaks of being pro-war. . . . Not when its founder, Julian Assange, said that its trove of reports from the Afghan conflict suggested . . . American ‘war crimes.’” They continue.

So it’s more than a little ironic that, with its newest document dump from the Iraq campaign, WikiLeaks may have just bolstered one of the Bush administration’s most controversial claims about the Iraq war: that Iran supplied many of the Iraq insurgency’s deadliest weapons and worked hand-in-glove with some of its most lethal militias.

For example . . .

. . . its elite Quds Force trained Iraqi Shiite insurgents and imported deadly weapons like the shape-charged Explosively Formed Projectile bombs [and] “neuroparalytic” chemical weapons . . . into Iraq [as well as a] surface-to-air missile, .50 caliber rifles, rockets and much more. [Also] Iranian agents plotted to kidnap U.S. troops from out of their Humvees.

In other words, aren’t Assange and WikiLeaks just adding ammunition to those calling for an attack on Iran to halt its nuclear program? In fact, though, withholding documents unflattering to Iran for fear of fomenting yet more war would only undermine the credibility of their work. Future efforts on their part to draw the brakes on unwarranted American interventions abroad would thus be compromised.

Progressives, meanwhile, must guard against the temptation to jump to the defense of Iran. Attempting to undermine the credibility of WikiLeaks is as much of a losing proposition as defending Iran’s dubious contention that it has no aspirations to nuclear weapons. Instead of defending Iran, we need to stay focused on the role that the United States played in eliciting such responses as aiding and abetting Iraqi insurgents and developing the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Of Horns and Beaks and the Afghanistan War

NATO Afghanistan“Troops were poised to retake the most nefarious area of all, the horn of Panjwai, an area 19 miles long and 6 miles wide where the Taliban had built up a redoubt of command posts, courts and mined areas over the last four years. Afghan and American troops mounted an airborne assault into the region last weekend.”
New York Times, 10.21.10

Dial the calendar back to April 1970, and shift the scene from southern Afghanistan to South Vietnam. Then the all-important piece of turf was the “Parrot’s Beak,” a slice of Cambodia jutting into Vietnam’s Kien Tuong Province, just 40 west of Saigon. The “Beak” was the supposed dwelling place of the elusive COSVN, the headquarters of the North Vietnamese army. Take the “Beak,” said the U.S. military, and we will break the back of the insurgency.

So, following the screening of the Movie “Patton,” President Richard Nixon sent tens of thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese Army troops (ARVN) troops into Cambodia on April 30 to turn the tide of the war against the insurgents.

But COSVN wasn’t there, nor were any North Vietnamese troops. It seems that two weeks before the attack, COSVN sent out a memo detailing the U.S. operation and pulled everyone out. What the Parrot’s Beak operation did accomplish was to further weaken the Lon Nol dictatorship in Cambodia and pave the way for a Khmer Rouge victory. It also killed a lot of Cambodian peasants, who, of course, went into the U.S. “body count” of dead insurgents for the month.

Those North Vietnamese troops did not vanish, however, they just followed Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s dictum of “Disperse where the enemy is strong, concentrate where the enemy is weak.” They went somewhere else. Five years later the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese took Saigon.

Jump ahead 35 years to the current U.S. and NATO offensive going in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan.

“We now have the initiative. We have created momentum,” says British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan and in charge of the Kandahar operation. The police chief of the local district, Hajii Niaz Muhammad added, “We broke their [the Taliban's] neck.”

But the fighting has been low key, and few weapons have been seized. A Taliban fighter told the Times, “We are not there anymore.”

Where did they go?

PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s influence in northern Afghanistan has expanded in recent months from a few hotspots to much of the region, as insurgents respond to the U.S.-led coalition’s surge in the south by seizing new ground in areas once considered secure.
Wall Street Journal, 10/18/10

In recent weeks the Taliban have been launching attacks in Badakshan, Balkh, and Samangan, formally among the most peaceful in the country. “Day by day, the Taliban are advancing into new districts,” Baghlan provincial council chief Mohammad Rasoul told the Journal. Attacks have more than doubled and the Taliban recently assassinated the governor of Kunduz Province.

Disillusionment with the government has helped fuel the insurgency.

“People don’t love the Taliban—but if they compare them to the government, they see the Taliban as the lesser evil,” Baghlan Governor Munshi Abdul Majid told the Journal.

While Gen. Carter is calling Kandahar the key to defeating the insurgency, his counterpart in Northern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, commander of NATO’s 11,000 troops in the north, sees it differently: “The northern part could become the game-changer for all of Afghanistan,” he says, because much of the fuel for the U.S. and NATO passes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as does Kabul’s electricity.

U.S. Col. Bill Burlson, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, sums up the dilemma of the Afghan War: “In order to deny the terrain to the enemy, you’d have to have people all over Afghanistan in combat outposts. But since that would take hundreds of thousands of troops, ‘You’ve got to pick and choose where you hold.’”

And when you “pick” one place, the Taliban will “choose” another.

There is always a Parrot’s Beak, a Fish Hook—yet another “strategic” battle in the Vietnam War—a horn of Panjwai, a hill, or a valley that is the “key” to winning a war against an insurgency. But there are millions of hills and valleys and horns and beaks, and they are as meaningless in Afghanistan as they were in Vietnam and Cambodia.

All this talk about the “horn of Panjwai” would be laughable were it not for the fact that this nonsense translates into a lot of pain, death and destruction. It also tends to harden positions on both sides, making peace that more elusive.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.

Will Rockets or Schools Tell the Tale of Afghanistan?

Afghan schoolTwo pieces in Wednesday’s New York Times allege progress on two key fronts in the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan. Reporter Carlotta Gall offers a comparatively jubilant piece valorizing a supposed “rout” of Taliban forces in the vital province of Kandahar. Comparing the success favorably to the ill fated and highly publicized Marja incursion of last year, Gall credits much of the advance to the skillful employment of the new High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, a precision rocket-delivery system that has enabled coalition forces to attack Taliban supply routes, command centers, and weapons facilities. Taken aback by the intensity of the strikes as well as the perceived unfriendliness of some local residents, many Taliban soldiers have buried their weapons and fled for the time being to Pakistan.

While NATO commanders express a great deal of encouragement at the development, there remains ample space for skepticism. No amount of expensive innovation in armaments can provide for a sustainable counterinsurgency operation – witness Iraq, where insurgents hobbled the massive Pentagon apparatus with the development of the IED, which is said to cost no more than a pizza. Clearing a field of weeds is of little efficacy without the sowing of a strain of seeds suitable to local conditions. While the Afghan National Army remains a relatively popular national institution, its shortcomings are well documented. However thoroughly the area is cleared of Taliban soldiers, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than the Taliban returning, as they have promised to do, or else a local warlord filling the void, the latter of which would hardly be alien to the greater thrust of American strategy in the country. While some warlords have pressed down on the Taliban, it was the very proliferation of such disreputable figures that created a climate favorable to the Taliban in the first place.

Thus even at its most successful, a military-led counterinsurgency campaign remains inherently unsustainable. This is particularly well illustrated by a PBS Frontline piece from last year called “Obama’s War,” which documented the incursion into Marja. The piece features footage of American soldiers speaking with local residents as Taliban soldiers fire shots off in the distance. The bullets are not meant to strike anybody but rather to disrupt the conversation and remind the villagers of an undeniable political fact: the Taliban will remain long after NATO has declared victory and gotten out, and they are keeping track of who speaks to whom. With such an unmistakable cue within one’s own earshot, where would you hedge your bets?

Nicholas Kristof, in yet another piece on mountain climber turned master school builder Greg Mortenson, offers a tale of progress of a different sort. Kirstof reminds us that Mortenson has been able to bypass the security blankets of bullets and bombs to build schools even in Taliban-held territory. Staffing his development crews entirely with locals and consulting with village elders, Mortenson has provided for an education program that locals are willing defend against the Taliban, even while the organization eschews the protection of NATO soldiers.

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

In volatile Kunar Province, which borders Pakistan, the Taliban recently ordered a halt to a school being built by Mr. Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute. But the villagers rushed to the school’s defense. The Taliban, which have been mounting a campaign for hearts and minds, dropped the issue, according to Wakil Karimi, who leads Mr. Mortenson’s team in Afghanistan.

In another part of Kunar Province, the Central Asia Institute is running a girls’ primary school and middle school in the hear

t of a Taliban-controlled area. Some of the girls are 17 or 18, which is particularly problematic for fundamentalists (who don’t always mind girls getting an education as long as they drop out by puberty). Yet this school is expanding, and now has 320 girls, Mr. Karimi said.

While the construction of schools is not a silver bullet for the Afghanistan werewolf, surprisingly simple elements of Mortenson’s approach offer a refreshing contrast to military-led efforts. Aligning educational priorities with those of local leaders, he has created space for local Taliban leaders to do the same by demonstrating the value of such projects to locals and reconfiguring the Taliban’s incentive structure. The success of this approach is born out in the experience of other Track II organizations as well:

Government schools regularly get burned down, but villagers tell me that that’s because they’re seen as alien institutions built by outside construction crews. In contrast, CARE runs 300 schools in Afghanistan and not one has been burned down, the aid organization says. The Afghan Institute of Learning, run by a redoubtable Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi, has supported more than 300 schools and none have been burned, the institute says. Another great aid organization, BRAC, runs schools, clinics and microfinance programs — and operates in every single province in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, which is based in New York and helps Afghan villagers improve agricultural yields in the most unstable parts of the country. Some Taliban commanders have even sent word inviting the group into their areas.

One hopes that it is not passé to invoke the celebrity at the center of Three Cups of Tea. But given that we seem to have defined our Afghan strategy along a willful conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and given further that the Taliban are unlikely to disappear in the near term (even if they must camp out in Pakistan for a time), it seems eminently pragmatic to align our stars with those who can improve the condition of Afghanistan and nourish its hearts and minds even while keeping neighborly company with the Taliban. To invoke the lexicon of civil society, acts of solidarity will carry themselves much further than acts of imposition.

However precise, no expensive rocket system will accomplish that.

Would Dramatic Disarmament Impress Iran or Not?

When it chose to post We Can’t Stop Iran From Going Nuclear, So Stop Pretending That We Can, the New Republic no doubt thought it was a quintessentially moderate piece on U.S.-Iran relations. The author, Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review who sometimes writes about foreign affairs, writes:

Just about every major publication in America and England (and no doubt Israel as well) has contributed to the debate. All possible viewpoints and positions have been expressed. . . . Yet [as] someone who has reached the conclusion that military action against Iran would be a bad idea . . . I worry that the way the argument has been framed makes military action all but inevitable.

So far, it sounds like the article the New Republic had hoped for. After quoting writers and statesmen, Gewen writes, “Taken together, all these statements add up to a consensus that if sanctions don’t work, the U.S. or Israel will move to the next step and bomb Iran.”

Nothing if not well-meaning, Gewen comes at the issue from another angle.

The key assumption here seems to be that we have it within our power to stop Iran in its tracks by military means. But do we? Read the fine print of the debate and it becomes clear that very few commentators believe we do. Instead, what’s being argued is the much more modest proposition that we can delay Iran from going nuclear. . . . The advantages of denying Iran the bomb are self-evident, but how much will be gained from delay, and how much lost? . . . The question answers itself: Delay doesn’t get the job done, and probably leaves us worse off.

Of course, “delaying Iran” means military strikes, some of ‘the possible negative consequences of [which] have already been catalogued.” Gewen concludes that “the debate we’re having is all wrong. We shouldn’t be discussing whether or not to bomb but what to do once Iran succeeds in going nuclear.”

While many of us, from Gewen to the further left, wants to believe that Iran can’t yet be prevented from developing nuclear means via a policy heavier on carrots than sticks, Gewen makes some sense. But, despite his good intentions, he goes awry when he considers how to handle an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability.

Should Israel be offered security guarantees from the U.S., and perhaps even suggested for NATO membership? [Yikes! Sorry, that jumped out. -- RW] Should other countries in the region be brought under the American nuclear umbrella?

In other words, as with almost all mainstream opinion pieces about U.S.-Iran relations, there’s no mention of the United States pursuing a policy of nuclear reciprocity — that is, disarmament. Of course, since the Obama administration is attempting to secure the Senate votes to ratify new START, that may be assumed. But to think it hasn’t escaped Iran how compromised this treaty is, nor how the administration is selling the disarmament farm by promising $16 billion to the nuclear weapons industry, is to sell it short.

Conservatives, as well as many “realists,” maintain that substantive disarmament measures on the part of the United States doesn’t provide it with any “credibility” to nations aspiring to acquire nuclear weapons. But the insistence of the Non-Aligned (to any major power bloc) Movement on interpreting Article IV of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to the letter suggests otherwise. One man’s vague — “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to . . . nuclear disarmament” — is another man’s “You promised.”

As Jonathan Schell says, the most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

Attempting to de-link nonproliferation from disarmament is a fool’s game. Failure to feature substantive disarmament prominently in the Iran nuclear debate virtually guarantees that Gewen’s wondering aloud about security guarantees and nuclear umbrella is the best-case scenario.

Spitting in the Face of U.S. Troops

Snyder v. PhelpsCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Last week, the Supreme Court took up a case regarding a right-wing fundamentalist pastor, Fred Phelps, whose anti-gay congregation has taken to protesting at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Fag Troops” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Phelps doesn’t seem to care whether or not the dead soldiers in question were actually gay. He believes that the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is the result of America’s immorality and its tolerance for abortion and homosexuality—the latter supposedly expressed in the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The father of one Marine killed in Iraq sued after his son’s funeral was protested, beginning a long legal battle. The Supreme Court ultimately heard arguments about whether his family’s right to grieve in peace should be taken into consideration in constraining the free speech of Phelps’s followers.

I’ll put aside the legal issues involved in this case going to the Supreme Court. (That the current court is taking on any free speech case probably bodes ill for civil liberties.) Instead, I want to consider for a moment the concept of demonstrating at military funerals—or targeting returning troops in general with protests.

The idea that the people rallying outside military funerals are “Fags Die, God Laughs” adherents of the religious Right, rather than godless leftists, will be a shock for many Americans, especially conservatives. It contradicts a deep-rooted myth.

A persistent narrative about the Vietnam War is that anti-war protesters of the 1960s and 70s vilified the troops, spitting in their faces upon their return to the United States. This storyline was perhaps most memorably presented by veteran John Rambo in the now-classic film First Blood. When he breaks down at the end of the movie, Rambo explains resentfully:

I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of crap! Who are they to protest me?! Who are they?! Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!

I like Rambo as a series of action movies, and I’ve written about the franchise’s conflicted politics. But this point is definitely one that Rambo’s writers get wrong. Historian Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, has done a very convincing job of debunking the story of spat-upon soldiers. As Jack Shafer summarized in an article for Slate, Lembcke

investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed—the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody’s uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.

While Lembcke doesn’t prove that nobody ever expectorated on a serviceman—you can’t prove a negative, after all—he reduces the claim to an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling to telling….

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Lastly, there are the parts of the spitting story up that don’t add up. Why does it always end with the protester spitting and the serviceman walking off in shame? Most servicemen would have given the spitters a mouthful of bloody Chiclets instead of turning the other cheek like Christ. At the very least, wouldn’t the altercations have resulted in assault and battery charges and produced a paper trail retrievable across the decades?

Despite its implausibility, the “spitting image” lives on. So persistent is the concept of progressive demonstrators confronting soldiers that if you mention to someone the picture of a “protest at a military funeral” I have no doubt that most would assume that anti-war activists are the ones doing the picketing. The idea that opponents of a given U.S. war must personally despise the troops is a notion central to demonstrating the rank unpatriotic disloyalty of the Left.

I think a version of this idea came into play in the recent Supreme Court arguments. During the session, Justices Roberts and Kagan pursued a line of questioning about whether the content of the protesters’ signs mattered in determining the scope of First Amendment rights:

Chief Justice Roberts asked, “What if the sign simply said, ‘Get out of Iraq?’” [plaintiff Albert Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summers] answered that there would be no problem with that. Justice Sotomayor pressed him on whether it makes a difference if the person to whom the speech is directed is a public or private person. Mr. Summers said yes, and that you have to look at the context, that this was a private funeral, which was disrupted, and there were personal attacks on a private person.

“But suppose,” said Justice Kagan, “it was a standard anti-war demonstration, and the funeral was not disrupted, the protesters were just taking advantage of a private funeral?”

Later, Kagan asked if a wounded soldier could sue someone who demonstrates “outside the person’s home, the person’s workplace, outside the person’s church… saying these kinds of things: ‘You are a war criminal,’ whatever these signs say or worse?”

I understand that Kagan was positing hypothetical scenarios. But her reference to “these signs”—as if placards charging individual troops with war crimes are commonplace at a “standard anti-war demonstration”—reveals that a powerful imaginary is at work.

These days, this idea of anti-war protesters targeting individual troops for abuse, far less gathering at their funerals, is almost as mythical as the “spitting image.”

Can you find anti-war protest signs calling George W. Bush a war criminal? Sure. Cheney? Blair? Kissinger? Yes, yes, yes. But after attending plenty of anti-Iraq War rallies, I can’t recall a single person wielding the “baby-killer” or “war criminal” charge in the way that is typically assumed—to indict your average enlisted soldier. I think that anyone trying to document this type of incident would have a hard time. The closest they could come would be protest signs publicizing the notorious and grotesque Abu Ghraib photos. Of course, interpreting outrage among domestic anti-war activists over those atrocities as unpatriotic hatred for all people in military uniform would require several faulty leaps in logic.

Likewise, I think the closest thing you could find to anti-Iraq War leftists protesting at military funerals would be progressives denouncing the government ban on news coverage of returning war dead. But that stance was hardly anti-troop. The longstanding White House policy represented a propagandistic move to sustain support for military efforts by preventing flag-draped caskets from making it into the press, thereby keeping us ignorant of the true human cost of war.

In truth, those investigating anti-war protests are likely to spot signs saying, “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home,” and to see veterans themselves present as honored participants in marches—members of organizations such as Veterans for Peace. Retired military officials who have spoken out against the folly of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars have been crucial to resistance efforts, and anti-war movements have long emphasized the importance of including returning soldiers in demonstrations.

The recent documentary Sir, No Sir! documented the prevalence of anti-war activism within the ranks of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, as well as among veterans. Part of Lembcke’s argument about the powerful negative impact of stories like Rambo’s is that “the myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans…displaced from public memory the reality that thousands of GIs and veterans were integral to the anti-war movement, a fact that startles many Sir! No Sir! viewers when they see it so graphically revived on the screen.”

Outreach to returning veterans and to military families remained vital after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That is one reason that Cindy Sheehan exploded in the media as a leading protest figure in 2005.

Despite this, the anti-war Left has for decades been made to answer for a storyline that has little basis in reality. While someone in progressive circles expressing personal hatred for enlisted members of the military would be quickly and widely repudiated, homophobia remains rampant on the Right. The notion that “God Hates Fags”—or at least the unholy “homosexual lifestyle”—holds currency well beyond its extreme fringes. Last week’s Supreme Court case should make us ask: when will the homophobes and religious fundamentalists have to answer for the likes of Pastor Phelps?

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

Page 163 of 183« First...102030...161162163164165...170180...Last »