Friday, April 24, 2009

Two Points About the Torture Debate

Two quick points about the political football game Washington is having this week over the "torture memos."

1) The "debate" about the torture memos and what to do about them is, most unfortunately, a distraction that helps the Republicans, on my view. It allows them to kick up a bunch of gorilla dust (for example, I'm doubting the Cheney people sent someone over to inform Nancy Pelosi that they had waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, but you would think that they had from watching cable). Just put it all out there (without cherry-picking either) and walk away, and it will take care of itself.

2) One thing that does make me mad, though, is the way the military just sort of tossed those loser guards from Abu Ghraib and not a single officer even so much as fell on his sword for a sweet pension deal, while we now know (and had every reason to think at the time) that the policy of rough interrogation was coming down from the very top. The attitude of the brass seems to be, "Well those kids weren't our professional torturers, so it's not the same thing." Seems a bit low for all the officers to run off and let those hillbilly kids go down.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Media Cheerleading For the Destruction of Somalia

I posted the YouTube interview (actually Davey D interviewed him) with the Somali-born rapper K'naan below and on Facebook last Tuesday. I was disturbed by the sceptical response it elicited from my mostly educated, mostly liberal readers and Facebook friends, so I did a little more research into K'naan's claims, that I will report below (well, report on the reporting: I'm just a guy in his pajamas). Since then, the media has been devoting a great deal of attention to the tearful homecoming of the American hostages as well, of course, to the heroic conduct of the Navy SEALs who killed three Somali pirates (all aged between 17 and 19), presenting the story in the crowd-pleasing form of the heroic rescue after the terrible ordeal, without so much as a mention of the background of problems for Somalis that puts the piracy in context.

So I was interested this morning when I saw that the NYT had an editorial on the problem, and I turned to it immediately. The NYT is my basic newspaper, and I'm not the sort of cranky, correcter-than-thou lefty, like Noam Chomsky, say, or the late Harold Pinter, who indulge themselves in a blanket rejection of the motives or integrity of the NYT, not that I'm naive (Chomsky has done good work in the past on media coverage of Cambodia, Indonesia and other places). But this morning my old friend the NYT, I'm sorry to say, pushed me too far, and here I am, spending some time this beautiful Saturday morning giving you some background on the situation in Somalia.

Somalia, a failed state ruled mostly by local warlords for years, has the longest coastline of any African country. With no national government with any effective international influence, it has been the site of illegal dumping of waste, mostly from European nations, for many years, including nuclear waste. International organized criminal networks, long involved in the lucrative business of dumping toxic waste illegally, have colluded with private companies in this practice. There is some persuasive documentation that as a result of this abuse of the lawless situation along the Somali coast, local people have suffered various illnesses including birth defects that are associated with pathogens in the environment.

In addition to the illegal dumping, Somali waters are exploited without any compensation to Somalia by international fishing fleets that have not only taken fish that a country with a functioning international presence would be able to harvest with its own native fishing fleets, but have actually fished these waters out of large numbers of commercially desirable fish species through the use of banned equipment such as fine-mesh drag nets.

Another shocker is that the Islamic Courts Union government that was ousted with US support in 2006 had actually successfully curbed the pirates, who quickly got back into business (along with the international mafiosi no doubt) after those evil religious people were thrown out.

All of this needs attention from the media that it is not getting. One of my friends on Facebook, sceptical of K'naan's claims, actually made the argument that if these "pirates" were organized Somali nationalists trying to defend Somalia and to make a point, we would have heard about it in the media, wouldn't we? And that's the point I want to make today: not only are we not being given this essential background to the pirate situation in media coverage, but the media is actively cheerleading us on to forget about the human dimension of the pirates altogether. We hear about the terrible "ordeal" of the "hostages," as if they have been through hell; not one American as been so much as injured by these people. It is also not lost on the Somalis or on many other people that the US media got on this bandwagon only after Americans were seized. These seizures have been happening for years to crewmen from the Philippines, Egypt and other countries without any accompanying orgy of jingoism in the American media. It's really insidious and they're going to make a Chomsky out of me if we don't start getting some background.

And hurrah for K'naan, I've watched the interview twice now and he's getting lots of stuff right, he's really smart. I found out about this when a friend e-mailed me the interview after he found it on Rock Rap Confidential.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Dam Starts Breaking

I was surprised to read in the NYT this morning that the Cuban American National Foundation, which has for many years been the main lobbying vehicle for the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, is now calling for expanded official relations, loosening of travel and remittance restrictions, and increasing business relations. This is particularly striking since the CANF, under the leadership of Jorge Mas Canosa (who died in 1997), was the Cuban equivalent of AIPAC: a lobby capable of single-handedly keeping US policy on a hard-line track. There is no other comparable group in the Cuban exile community. The CANF has not today gone so far as to call for an end to the economic blockade and rescinding of the Helms-Burton Act, but they did in their new proposal acknowledge that the old (ancient: since the early 60s) policy has failed. They can have no illusions that this proposal is a significant step toward full normalization of relations with Cuba.

There is a confluence of circumstances just now that together comprise a real opportunity to get to a Cuba policy that is not insane ("not insane" is a sort of step-one goal for US foreign policy at this point). The Cuban community in the US has changed considerably both through latter-day immigration and the coming of age of the grandchildren of the original exiles: neither group shares the emotional attitude of the 60s generation. US politicians of both parties needed Florida to win the presidency and it was true until recently that the Cuban vote could swing that (one of Bill Clinton's lowest moments was when he signed Helms-Burton). Meanwhile Yankee gradually started to pay attention to the US's own interests: both the US Chamber of Commerce and, believe it or not, the Pentagon have endorsed an end to the blockade for some years now. To top it all off, Bush-Cheney managed to turn Guantanamo Bay into a symbol for one of the darkest episodes in all of US history, tarnishing America's image in the world for years to come. I haven't expected Obama to spend political capital on the Cuban issue, he's got too much on his plate, but there does come a point where it's politically so easy that there's no reason not to make the change.

One last thing, the bad news, I guess, for my liberal-left readers and friends: I've been to Cuba, spent weeks living with faculty (and Party members) from the University of Havana, traveled out to small towns in the interior (where I was the guest of the local military commander, among others), wandered in Havana far from the tourist spots, and my opinion is that the centralized economy of Cuba doesn't work. Cuba is very poor, the quality of life is low, and these conditions cannot all be explained away by blaming the bloqueo. I am not a friend of the Castro government. I would like to see multiparty democracy and markets in Cuba. And you know what would be the most effective way of bringing an end to 50 years of a well-intentioned, patriotic, non-kleptocratic, but utterly failed dictatorship? Full normalization. The Party wouldn't last twelve months.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"...the rest of the world must change as well"

"The United States must change," President Obama told the Europeans, "but the rest of the world must change as well." I thought of that today reading about the latest North Korean missile launch. Readers of this blog know that I strongly support a standing down of the US as global cop, with the concomitant reduction of the size of the US military and its budget, and a general unwinding of the post-WWII "leading role" of the US. But the international community will actually have to do most, not just some, of the work required for this to occur.

For the moment I think we can forget the Europeans so far as helpfulness is concerned. The only thing more precious to the Europeans than their typically chauvinistic and masturbatory anti-Americanism is the fact that the US absolutely handles all military security for the European continent, from the tiniest "mouse that roared" disputes to the largest conflagrations. The Europeans are of no use and will not be of any until they can, at a minimum, handle military security on their own continent; at the moment there is no doubt that they cannot. They have let this go on because the United States indirectly subsidizes European social "safety net" policies by continuing to pay for European military security, and they've kind of got us: what alternative do we have? Let Europe burn? They are rather effectively holding us hostage.

Asia is a different story. The question for today is, what to do about the failed and dangerous state of North Korea? Two stories illustrate the situation pretty thoroughly: First, GOP candidate-in-waiting Newt Gingrich telling Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday that he would have "disabled" the missile (Newt being Newt, his favored weapon was ray guns. No, it's true. Check for yourself), and second, the continuing reluctance of China, at this point North Korea's de facto patron and protector, to take any strong action because of the problem of paying for huge influxes of economic migrants if the North Korean regime were toppled, a burden they would share with the South Koreans in any event.

There's one more country with a border with North Korea, and that's Russia. Another big story this week was about Russia and China working on the idea of a global currency to replace the US dollar, part of a larger strategic aim to work together to establish real hegemony in Asia (that is, to push the Americans out of Asia).

Say, Russia? Um, China? Here's one American who would like absolutely nothing better than for the US to be out of security commitments in Asia altogether. Heave ho! But, uh, guys? That means you're going to have to deal with it.