Sunday, December 21, 2008

International criminals

There is pressure building on the incoming Obama Justice Department to somehow adjudicate the war crimes committed by the George W. Bush administration, starting at the top. The political problem is that these crimes also implicate leading Democrats, thereby rendering true justice nearly impossible.

This is another compelling piece of evidence for the fact that we are living under a post-constitutional government, no longer responsible to the rule of law. If we don’t hold our leaders to the same standard of justice as the rest of America’s citizens, or any other of the world’s criminals, I don’t see how anyone could argue that this is a functioning democracy. Equality under the law is democracy’s cornerstone.

But in our post-constitutional, post-Bush v. Gore age, we already know that the judiciary is just as politicized as the other two branches of government. And under a political system dominated by the military-industrial complex, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as a war crime. Americans were torturing people in Vietnam and Korea. The officer in charge at the My Lai massacre, where hundreds of women and children died, served three years of house arrest.

The defense industry protects its own, and always has.

It’s hard to see how a president could get a fair verdict in this country, in any case. As David Sirota notes, “presidentialism,” which confers on that office an elevated, almost sacred character, is a basic element in America’s civil religion. We’re all brainwashed with the idea that the president is somebody who needs rows of heavily-armed storm troopers lining Pennsylvania Avenue to protect him—rather than somebody like Thomas Jefferson, who walked alone back to his roominghouse to have lunch with the other boarders, after his inauguration. We’ve given the president the “emperor” status suitable to an empire. Where would you find a jury of his “peers,” outside of the establishment accessories to the crimes, like the Democrats?

To spare ourselves the national agony of suffering through either the exoneration or trial of the Bush war criminals, the United States should join the International Criminal Court and turn them over to that body. The justice would be at the very least poetic, given Bush’s unrelenting opposition to the ICC. But putting Bush and company before an international tribunal would also help repair exactly the damage that was done to America’s international reputation with the barbarous scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Handing the criminals over to the ICC would mean, in a way that no other action would, that this nation hereby agrees to abide by the international rule of law. It would allow America to once again take a place among civilized nations.

It can also be a rallying point for those who think that we cannot have a full restoration of the rule of law in this nation without some accounting for those who led America down a very dark path. If it is politically impossible to put war criminals on trial in this country (except for low-level “bad apples” who made the mistake of filming themselves in the unfortunate act of following orders), then the only resolution is to turn them over to the international community, for the sake of justice. That’s the direction a President Obama needs to be led.

America needs to rejoin the international community by recognizing the global jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. That act alone has the potential to mark the beginning of the end of “American exceptionalism.”

It could also mean the beginning of justice for American war criminals.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Free Muntadar al-Zeidi!

At a personal level, the past week has been an eventful one, both positive and negative.

On the positive side, I finished (mostly) the remodeling project that occupied so much of my time last week; our now-traditional gathering with friends to trim our Christmas tree was a pleasant success; and my band, the Time Travelers, had a great time performing at a Christmas party in Maryland.

The negative side included a ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court in favor of the state legislature, which, barring a reconsideration by the court, will end our five-year effort to change the government here in Hampshire County (I’ll be writing more about this later this week); the sad and unexpected news that another one of the original plaintiffs in our suit passed away recently; and the call last night from my mother informing me that my brother-in-law, who’s been seriously ill for some time, had finally succumbed to his illness.

It’s the personal side that puts the rest of the world, with its daily sturm und drang, into perspective, and reminds you of what is truly important in the world. But especially for those of us with a political bent, sometimes the world can provide the kind of escape from personal tragedy that we need.

For example, this morning I read the news about the shoe-throwing incident in Baghdad, where an Iraqi journalist delivered what in the Arab world is the ultimate insult of tossing his shoes at George W. Bush. I could only be grateful to Muntadar al-Zeidi for expressing so graphically and bravely what most of the world feels about the greatest living war criminal, and for a few moments anyway, lifting me out of my personal grief.

Let me conclude this post by joining with his independent news organization and all those others throughout the world calling for the immediate release of this courageous hero. He's an inspiration.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


For those of you who have been wondering where I've been the past few days, I'm in the middle of a remodeling project that, predictably enough, has turned out to be more complicated and time-consuming than I expected, and has to be done before guests arrive on Sunday.

So I'll be back on Monday the 15th, opinionated as ever. Seeya then.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cold war

It was 14 degrees when I walked the dogs this morning. The temperatures have been below average for most of the past month. Inevitably, this has local skeptics pooh-poohing the idea that global warming is happening, which only reinforces the notion of referring to the changes in Earth’s climate as “climate change.” At this point, anyone who predicts how this will play out, no matter how credentialed he or she may be, is just guessing.

Similarly, in a world where an infinite number of variables come into play, there’s really no predicting how a given state action will determine the future, either. The most devastating example of unintended consequences in recent history is the US action in Afghanistan in the ‘80s, where the CIA essentially created the network of Islamic holy warriors who eventually morphed into Al Qaeda.

There’s an excellent summary of the history of US intervention in Afghanistan at the website Information Clearinghouse, written by one of the leading scholars of American imperialism, Michael Parenti ( I was going to excerpt some of it today, but it’s worth reading the whole thing to get Parenti’s view of just how tragic a story it is, and to understand why it represents the truly evil impulses at the heart of American foreign policy.

A cold war, indeed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Torturous ambiguity

You have to give credit to the power elite. They will do everything in their power to protect their prerogatives, to make sure their operatives don’t wander too far from the reservation—which is to say, too far to the “left.”

Corporate media have, since the presidential election, been full of congratulations about the “centrist” inclinations Barack Obama has demonstrated with his cabinet choices and other decisions, including his hints that he would forego his campaign rhetoric about repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy and enacting windfall profits taxes on the oil companies—more post-election “pragmatism.” Mainstream pundits are also happy that Obama is “standing up to his base” on the progressive left. See Clarence Page’s latest column at the Chicago Tribune for yet another giddy example of that trend.

I have a couple of things to say about that. First, I don’t think that “the left” was ever truly his base, although most of us, including me, were happy to see him elected over John McCain. (He was my fourth choice among the Democratic candidates, after Kucinich, Edwards and Richardson. I never trusted, and still don’t, his Wall Street connections.) Secondly, I wonder how large his personal base (the 10 million email addresses the media gushes about) actually is. I’m still getting emails from the campaign, which started after I visited the campaign website one time. I never signed up for anything. How many other non-Obamabots like me are on that email list?

At any rate, to return to my point: if Obama is indeed the sly progressive fox in the military-industrial henhouse that we’re hoping he turns out to be, in spite of the early indications, his strategy is being vindicated by the media reaction to his overt moves. A good example of why this is the case is the “controversy” being stirred up (on NPR this morning) about his intelligence adviser John Brennan, a former CIA official who asked not to be considered for the position of Director of Central Intelligence in a letter last week, because questions were being raised on “the left” about his association with the torture practices of the Bush administration.

The NPR report said that he was asked to write the letter by the Obama team (which an unidentified spokesman denied). The “controversy” has been created by “responsible” voices in the national security establishment who are objecting to Obama’s “capitulation” to the left.

Torture may turn out to be the issue where the dividing line is clearly drawn between progressives (and, to be fair, their allies on this issue among principled members of the establishment) and the Obama administration. It’s difficult to tell in this interregnum limbo between the election and the inauguration when, as disenchantment grows among progressives, more mainstream liberals and Democrats are asking us to hold our fire. They’re right that he isn’t president yet.

But it’s discomforting, at the very least, that Obama is holding his cards so close to the vest on an issue that is as clearly defined as torture. The public reaction from the Obama team to their meeting yesterday with former military officers who want a change in the torture policy was disturbingly noncommittal. It’s hard to see how he can hope to restore America’s standing in the world, or even make any progress toward reducing terrorism, if he is going to be ambiguous about clear violations of international law.

To illustrate just how important this issue is to any expectation that America will be able to redeem itself in the eyes of the world, or why a clean break from the Bush policy is so critical, consider this confession from a special operations intelligence officer, quoted by law professor Scott Horton in Harper’s, from a (surprisingly enough) Washington Post op-ed:

"I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me–unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans."

If Obama indeed asked Brennan to withdraw his name from consideration as DCI, that has to be taken as a good sign. If corporate media, already setting the stage for exoneration of Bush and Cheney for their many crimes, don’t like it, so much the better

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cassandra complex

One of the most common complaints among progressives is that we seem to never get credit for having been right about important issues. This complaint has had a breath of new life in the wake of Barack Obama’s appointments of Iraq War hawks to his national security team. People like columnist Glenn Greenwald are asking, where are the cabinet positions for those who opposed the invasion of Iraq in the first place?

I’ve had the personal experience of this phenomenon myself, as I’ve written earlier. Before the war started, I was writing about the lack of evidence for Iraqi WMDs, and how intelligence was being manipulated. With few exceptions, this was not a story getting much play in the corporate media, which had been beating the war drums from the beginning. I watched in horror as the inevitable unfolded. The only surprise for me, when it turned out there were no WMDs, was that none had been planted after the fact.

The phenomenon of having your predictions disregarded has sometimes been referred to as the “Cassandra complex.” The name is derived from a character in the Iliad. Cassandra was the sister of the Trojan hero, Hector, and was so beautiful that she attracted the favor of the god, Apollo, who granted her the gift of prophecy. When Cassandra demurred from his attentions, Apollo turned the gift into a curse. Cassandra was still able to see the future, but no one would believe her warnings, and she could do nothing to change the unfolding of events. A curse, indeed.

What prompts today’s post is a rare example of progressives getting credit for being right. I’m reading the new book by Andrew Bacevich, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Bacevich is a retired Army colonel, and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He’s also a longtime opponent of the Iraq War who’s had the tragic experience of losing his own son as a casualty in that conflict, and a clear-eyed realist about American imperialism.

Last night I read this passage:

“Many Americans remember the 1960s as the Freedom Decade—and with good cause. Although the modern civil rights movement predates that decade, it was then that the campaign for racial equality achieved its greatest breakthroughs, beginning in 1963 with the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Women and gays followed suit. The founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 signaled the reinvigoration of the fight for women’s rights. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising in New York City launched the gay rights movement.

“Political credit for this achievement lies squarely with the Left…Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped—in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among pinks, lefties, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow travelers. When it came to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil.”

It would be nice to think that some of Obama’s new national security team would be taking Bacevich’s views about the rot at the heart of American foreign policy into account. Too bad he’s a fellow Cassandra.

Monday, December 1, 2008

High old times

As a contribution to our discussion here about drugs and spirituality, I submit for your consideration this excerpt from a recent article in the Toronto Sun:

“Researchers say they have located the world's oldest stash of marijuana, in a tomb in a remote part of China.The cache of cannabis is about 2,700 years old and was clearly "cultivated for psychoactive purposes," rather than as fibre for clothing or as food, says a research paper in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

The 789 grams of dried cannabis was buried alongside a light-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian man, likely a shaman of the Gushi culture, near Turpan in northwestern China.

The extremely dry conditions and alkaline soil acted as preservatives, allowing a team of scientists to carefully analyze the stash, which still looked green though it had lost its distinctive odour.

"To our knowledge, these investigations provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent," says the newly published paper, whose lead author was American neurologist Dr. Ethan B. Russo.

Remnants of cannabis have been found in ancient Egypt and other sites, and the substance has been referred to by authors such as the Greek historian Herodotus. But the tomb stash is the oldest so far that could be thoroughly tested for its properties.”

I wonder what they mean by "thoroughly tested."