Wednesday, March 30, 2011


To fight or not to fight in Libya or anywhere else?

That is, or ought to be, the eternal question. Whether the cost in human lives and national treasure is worth the outcome. And whether the outcome is clearly and transparently defined or is oblique and misdefined. For Americans, after all, it has never been simply a question of whether we support or oppose the clear goals of war, but also whether we have been lied to and mislead. There is a dissonance within ourselves and our country that sometimes cannot be resolved.

In my lifetime, that has been the case in Iran in 1950, in Guatemala in 1954, in Vietnam in 1956 and beyond, in Cambodia, in Chile, in Panama, in Granada, in Nicaragua, and so on and so forth. The same questions do not arise in every instance.

Most often, I am persuaded that American goals are not on the side of justice. When the U.S. intervened in Kosovo in the early '90s, many on the Left supported that intervention. The Serbian Slobadan Milosevic seemed bent on the destruction of Albanian Kosovars. But I didn't support that intervention, despite the fact that Milosevic was almost certainly a war criminal. Earlier the U.S. had left Rwandans to their fate. And been indifferent to the plight of civilians in the Horn of Africa suffering from war, expulsion and famine. How could the same country that did not trouble itself over Rwandans, Congolese, Somalians and Ethiopians be judged guileless and innocent of ulterior motives when it rode to the rescue of Albanians?

But we are another decade along now, and are led by a president whom I genuinely believe wishes to solve conflicts and ameliorate suffering, perhaps even in the case of Palestinians. And I am persuaded that many lives have been saved in Libya by the recent U.S.-led intervention. Still, I remain troubled by the notion that the among the few certainties here is that weapons manufacturers will get reorders and that even humanitarian interventions serve the interests of some who don't give a hoot about Libyans or about Palestinians or about the millions of recent dead for whom humanitarian intervention never came. But how could abstention be the answer?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Libyan War is...

A. a bad idea.
B. a necessary evil. Innocent people are dying. U.S. intervention will keep Gaddafi from murdering his people.
C. not the outcome of constitutional deliberation and process.
D. a sign of Obama's weak leadership
E. a good idea.
F. What kind of phony discussion is this? The war in Libya is another undeclared war based on a (probably incorrect calculation of) national interests that will cost the United States much more than it delivers and will fall far short of any reasonable humanitarian goal.

There is a G, of course, namely that the whole idea of intervention in Libya is confusing and difficult to assess. The probabilities seem fairly high that, if Americans were to respond to a poll asking such a question and offering A through G as possible responses, a plurality would likely admit confusion and choose G. A good number might also support the idea that some sort of humanitarian intervention is necessary. A relative few would be likely to choose A, a bad idea.

On Tuesday, March 22, the Washington Post op-ed page featured five pieces offering some sort of counsel in regard to the choice. The five opinion writers, Anne Applebaum, George Will, Michael Gerson, Richard Cohen and Eugene Robinson, arguably came down on the side of B, C (with a leaning toward A), D & B, D & B, and F (or at least, A), respectively.

Only Applebaum, in "Aim low on Libya," expresses strong support for intervention and excuses the week-long delay in getting there, arguing that quicker or more enthusiastic intervention would have resulted in a widespread perception of American war-mongering. It made sense in this case, she says, to wait for the British and the French to take the lead.

Will doesn't believe that Obama's reasons for intervening were constitutional, persuasive or grounded in a reasonable grasp of history. He calls Obama's observation that Gaddafi has lost all credibility with the Libyan people "meretricious boilerplate [apparently] designed to anesthetize thought." Will helpfully brings history into the discussion, citing the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War as experiences that could teach valuable lessons. His use of history would be even more effective here had he previously bothered to vigorously play the unconstitutional card in regard to the two wars against Iraq launched by the Bushes, father and son.

Michael Gerson, a speech writer for Bush II before he got his job as a Post columnist, endorses the attacks on Libya upfront in "Obama's late arrival," but then spends an additional 800 or so words complaining that Senators Kerry, McClain and Lieberman were quicker to arrive at the public conclusion that intervention was necessary. This appears to be so, but significance ought to be a criterion for the Post's op-ed pages.

Bombing Gadaffi might get us to the end of the "old order in the Middle East" and lead to the "stability and prosperity [that] are powerful antitodes to the violent urges of nihlism and extremism," as Gerson writes. Then, again, maybe bombing, which the United States has engaged in from time to time these last many years, provides some sort of evidence that stability and prosperity are not always antidotes to violent urges.

Richard Cohen, who plays an establishment liberal to Gerson's establishment conservative in the pages of the Post, doesn't like the way Obama governs, either, but makes the case with a little bit more humor than Gerson. In "Uncle Miltie's plan," Cohen does make the helpful point that "the search for a Unified Theory of What Is Happening [in the Middle East] is futile" and details why. All the same, Cohen's chief criticism of Obama appears to be that the president lacks a unified theory. The administration, Cohen concludes, "could have made an argument for staying out [of Libya] or a more forceful argument for going in. Instead it made both. "Milton Berle now plays the White House," he writes. And, no doubt, also haunts Cohen's ambivalent dreams.

Way below the bottom of the fold comes Eugene Robinson's "The dictators we need." Perhaps placement on the page reflects the Post's assessment of the merits of Robinson's argument, but it does have the virtue of clarity. After noting that Gadaffi is a genuine villain, threatening to "turn all of Libya into a charnel house," a blunt description of the allied intevention "clearly intended to cripple the government and boost the revolt's chances of success," Robinson offers a real-politik survey of U.S. relations with other autocrats in the Middle East. He concludes with the observation that the world would be better off without Gaddafi, "but war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standards we set for defiant ones. If not, please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We'll know this isn't about justice, it's about power."

Perhaps Robinson's observation explains why, amidst all the opinions, pro, con and in between, we aren't hearing from Republican budget hawks about the cost of war. We never do.

But surely, in a country where state governments are moving to outlaw collective bargaining rights for public employees, and public school teachers are being pink-slipped for budgetary reasons, some strong right-wing voice could be heard shouting above the din that we are already spent more than one trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (see and can ill-afford another engagement that will raise the cost by billions of dollars (Tomahawk missles cost $570,000 each, the F-15 that crashed a couple of days ago cost $30 million, the first day of combat in Libya coast an estimated $100 million). Alas, no such voice is to be heard.

Is it reasonable, to follow Robinson, to observe that most weapons manufacturers are Republicans, frequently generous campaign contributors, and huge fans of reorders for expensive weapons and expended munitions? I mean, in what other business does a reorder for a single item gross upwards of one-half million dollars?

On his Nation blog, in "Ten calls from Congress for a debate about war," John Nichols appears clear (oxymoron?) on one point: If it is to happen, Congress should authorize military action in Libya. The point is legalistic, perhaps necessary, historically venerated, and insufficient.

If Libya is a humanitarian tragedy about to happen, then any war effort mounted in response ought to be congressionally authorized. But if action is necessary, congressional authorization is not enough. And if Congress does not authorize, and tragedy occurs, what would be America's share of the blame? Further, by how much would a Congressional vote to authorize be delayed as a consequence of behind-the-scenes jockeying to put off such a vote? So, no, Nichol's apparent position lacks gravity and, hopefully, does the Nation an injustice.

But the Nation did editorialize on March 18 in response to the prospect of U.S. intervention. The editors have much to say and make many useful points about the sorry history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East (Libya's in North Africa, but who's counting?) and in Arab countries. I think the piece is a must-read, but I really can't tell if they mean to endorse no-fly zones or other intervention.

Here's the thing, G (the whole Libya-thing is confusing and difficult to assess) is the most understandable answer, but I keep thinking that if I were to remain mindful of the lies and misrepresentations that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that preceded the first Gulf War, that justified the embargo of Iraq (which may have caused the deaths of 1,000,000 Iraqis, including 500,000 children), that accompany U.S. aid to Israel and support the continuing oppression, dislocation and disenfranchisement of Palestinians, that excuse or obscure the human rights violations of a dozen key American allies, that hide the profits of war to a select few and shed theatrical tears for the losses of many, if I keep all those things in mind, then the only honest and reasonable answer for me to make is F (What kind of phony discussion is this? The war in Libya is another undeclared war based on a probably incorrect calculation of national interests that will cost the United States much more than it delivers and will fall far short of any reasonable humanitarian goal.)

Regardless, having gone to war (again), let us conclude with a prayer, Mark Twain's War Prayer, which includes this (among its many lines):
"help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;
help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;
help us to drown the thunder of the guns
with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;"

and so on.

Monday, March 21, 2011

There But For Fortune

Phil Ochs story shines with the promise of the '60s and teaches lessons about the failures of the time

Marrianne and I went to see There But For Fortune this past weekend. I did not fall asleep during the documentary, which I expected to do, because I ended up feeling almost inside the movie and was carried along by the events that were so pivotal in Ochs' short and dramatic life. One thing seems clear, Ochs is among the best songwriters ever at writing melodic and lyrically powerful songs about political realities.

His songs were important to me at the time, and though I never heard him in live performance, his songs reliably expressed my own feelings about the Vietnam War, about the overthrow of a democratically elected Socialist government in Chile, about Civil Rights, about the lives of working people, and about the nearly anonymous lives of the victims of capitalism and institutional power. Sometimes, such as at the Democratic convention in 1968, Ochs and I were in the same places, on the same streets, sharing community and shouting to be heard. At one point in the documentary, Ochs' daughter, Meegan, applauds the documentary effort, noting that her father would be thrilled to be remembered, but saddened that so many of the important struggles of the '60s were yet to be won.

Ochs struggled with manic-depression, which was likely partially inherited from his father, who was himself hobbled and institutionalized by the condition. Ochs' mania may very well have been one of the most important factors in his consistent ability to mobilize for protest and organizing. His mental illness may also have been inseparable from his creative power. By 1976, when Ochs killed himself, his depression and self-medicating alcoholism were likely the most important factors. Both his strengths and weaknesses may have been to a substantial degree the gifts of his manic-depression. But another factor in his suicide, a factor which must have undermined his previously impressive resilience, his ability to engage the fight for peace and justice, was a feeling that the promise of the '60s was dissipated, that the movement had lost too many struggles, had been defeated, compromised or had turned to violence.

Ochs was only a few years older than me, and he's been gone for almost 35 years. But watching There But For Fortune I felt both the joy of comradeship, bafflement at the ebbs and flows of creativity, and the sorrow of loss. Ultimately, I can't say whether Ochs' early death makes his life more quintessentially a '60s life, or less so. But he was vulnerable in a way that most of us are not because of the severity of his mental illness.

This morning before she left for work, Marrianne told me about a colleague of hers at the Department of Health and Human Services who as a boy was a refugee. At one point in his childhood, he walked hundreds of miles across an African desert to escape war and starvation. The story got me to thinking about the size of the struggle for peace and justice that we face now and how a person tempered by a childhood journey across deserts might tackle the challenge. This issue very much matters to me because I can't easily answer strategic questions about how to rebuild the peace and justice movement and restore faith in this country about the good that government can do. It is clearly a struggle for a longer haul than ever reckoned by Phil Ochs or by me. So I guess I'd have to start with the acknowledgement that if one is planning a long walk across a vast desert, one should begin in the knowledge that water and food might be frequently unavailable, but there is a promised land, of sorts, on the other side. And, of course, when food and water are available, it will seem like a banquet.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Is To Be Done?

A blogger without a clue

Things are bad, very bad ...

1. Natural disaster in Japan could begin a series of cascading events that includes additional earthquakes on other (potentially more dangerous) faultlines near Japan, failure of Japanese infrastructure (e.g. explosions at nuclear reactors and dramatically diminished electrical supply), and severe damage to the Japanese economy with downstream damage to the already weakened global economy while

2. Gaddafi reasserts control in Libya, Libyans suffer mortal punishment and repression, and anxiety over the global oil supply causes another spike in oil prices delivering another blow to the national economies of oil importers while

3. Billionaire capitalists in the United States finance a reactionary populist attack on government and

4. Republicans in Congress block spending for economic recovery, deconstruct healthcare reform, defund social programs, whittle away at Social Security, investigate Muslim Americans, deny responsibility for climate change while

5. Republican governors Scott Walker and John Kasich win a perhaps temporary but decimating victory over unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, and

6. State legislatures with conservative majorities begin a systematic attack on women's reproductive rights, minority set-asides and Latinos born in the United States and

7. Democratic state legislators in Maryland, politically intimidated by socially conservative, church-going African Americans from Prince Georges County, defeat a bill to legalize same-sex marriage while

8. District of Columbia Mayor Vince Gray, elected as a reformer to a term that began in January, finds himself hobbled by nepotism, cronyism and corruption scandals, severely wounding optimism for a DC city government run by grownups while

9. "No HIV testing" signs pop up on storefront clinics in the District and homeless people burst into tears of gratitude for eye contact and

10. I couldn't sleep last night for thinking about the engorged deer tick I found on my back.

So, assuming other issues not mentioned in the foregoing list, like war and peace and military spending are included and leaving aside the deer tick, what is to be done? I suggest three possibilities: one, throw a massive end of the world party and/or legalize marijuana; two, choose denial, in general, or join the Tea Party and pretend none of this is actually happening; or, three, join a diverse, multi-racial multi-cultural organization in your community and live, work and organize like our lives together depend on doing so. Any preferences?