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GOVERNMENT AS IT REALLY WORKS: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Military, Politics, Social commentary on April 22, 2014 at 12:40 am

In 1972, 41 years before Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was spying on the Internet, David Halberstam issued a warning about government secrecy.

As a young reporter for the New York Times covering the early years of the Vietnam war, Halberstam had repeatedly confronted government duplicity and obstruction.

David Halberstam (on left)

Halberstam arrived in South Vietnam in 1962.  Almost at once he realized that the war was not going well for the United States Army and its supposed South Vietnamese allies.

The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was ill-trained and staffed with incompetent officers who sought to avoid military action.

Reports to military superiors were filled with career-boosting lies about “progress” being made against Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers.

“Screw up and move up” was the way Americans described the ARVN promotion system.

Halberstam soon learned that the phrase applied just as much to the American Army as well–for reasons of the same incompetence and duplicity.

Returning from Vietnam and resigning from the Times, Halberstam set to work on his landmark history of how the United States had become entangled in a militarily and economically unimportant country.

He would call it The Best and the Brightest, and the title would become a sarcastic reference to those men in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations whose arrogance and deceit plunged the United States into disaster.

Halberstam outlined how the culture of secrecy and unchecked power led American policymakers to play God with the lives of other nations.

Out of this grew a willingness to use covert operations.  And this meant keeping these secret from Americans generally and Congress in particular.

This ignorance allowed citizens to believe that America was a different country.  One that didn’t engage in the same brutalities and corruptions of other nations.

Thus, President Lyndon B. Johnson claimed to be the peace candidate during the 1964 election.  Meanwhile, he was secretly sending U.S. Navy ships to attack coastal cities in North Vietnam.

When North Vietnam responded militarily, Johnson feigned outrage and vowed that the United States would vigorously resist “Communist aggression.”

The history of covert operations has had its own in- and -out-of seasons:

  • During the Eisenhower Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the governments of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).
  • During the Kennedy Administration, the CIA repeatedly tried to assassinate Cuba’s “Maximum Leader,” Fidel Castro.
  • During the Nixon Adminisdtration, the CIA plotted with right-wing army leaders to successfully overthrow Salvador Allende, the Leftist, legally-elected President of Chile (1973).
  • In 1975, the CIA’s history of assassination attempts became public through an expose by New York Times Investigative Reporter Seymour Hersh.
  • Following nationwide outrage, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning the agency from assassinating foreign leaders.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney decided to “take off the gloves.”

The CIA drew up an ever-expanding list of targets and used killer drones and Special Operations troops (such as SEALs and Green Berets) to hunt them down.

Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

And when these weren’t enough, the CIA called on expensive mercenaries (such as Blackwater), untrustworthy foreign Intelligence services, proxy armies and mercurial dictators.

In his 2013 book, The Way of the Knife, New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti traces the origins of this high-tech, “surgical” approach to warfare.

Within the course of a decade, the CIA has moved largely from being an intelligence-gathering agency to being a “find-and-kill” one.

And this newfound lethality came at a price: The CIA would no longer be able to provide the crucial Intelligence Presidents need to make wise decisions in a dangerous world.

While the CIA sought to become a more discreet version of the Pentagon, the Pentagon began setting up its own Intelligence network in out-of-the-way Third World outposts.

And, ready to service America’s military and Intelligence agencies at a mercenary’s prices, are a host of private security and Intelligence companies.

Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel, warns of the potential for trouble: “There is an inevitable tension as to where the contractor’s loyalties lie.  Do they lie with the flag?  Or do they lie with the bottom line?”

Mazzetti warns of the dark side of these new developments. On one hand, this high-tech approach to war has been embraced by Washington as a low-risk, low-cost alternative to huge troop commitments and quagmire occupations.

On the other hand, it’s created new enemies, fomented resentments among allies and fueled regional instability.  It has also created new weapons unbound by the normal rules of accountability in wartime.

Finally, it’s raised new and troubling ethical questions, such as:

  • What is the moral difference between blowing apart a man at a remote distance with a drone-fired missile and shooting him in the back of the head at close range?
  • Why is the first considered a legitimate act of war–and the second considered an illegal assassination?

In time, there will be answers to many of the uncertainties this new era of push-button and hired-soldier warfare  has unleashed.  And at least some of those answers may come at a high price.

GOVERNMENT AS IT REALLY WORKS: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement, Military, Politics, Social commentary on April 21, 2014 at 1:03 am

Millions of Americans are outraged to find that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been running a program to spy on the Internet.

National Security Agency

Created in 1952, the NSA is the largest signals-intercepting and code-cracking agency in the world, using specially designed high-speed computers to analyze literally mountains of data.

Headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, the NSA dwarfs the better-known Central Intelligence Agency in both its budget (which is classified) and number of employees (40,000).

NSA’s program–entitled PRISM–collects a wide range of data from nine Internet service providers, although the details vary by provider.

Here are the nine ISPs:

  • AOL
  • Microsoft
  • Google
  • Yahoo
  • Skype
  • Facebook
  • PalTalk
  • Apple
  • YouTube

And here is what we know (so far) they provide to the ever-probing eyes of America’s Intelligence community:

  • Email
  • Videos
  • Stored data
  • Photos
  • File transfers
  • Video conferencing
  • Notification of target activity (logins)
  • Online social networking details
  • VolP (Voice Over Internet Porocol)
  • Special requests

“Trailblazer,” NSA’s data-mining computer system

The program has been run by the NSA since 2007.  But its existence became front-page news only in early June, 2013, when a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked its capabilities to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

While millions of Americans were surprised at this massive electronic vacuuming of data, at least one man could not have been.

This was Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter who, in 1971, broke the story of the Pentagon Papers.  A secret Pentagon study, it documented how the United States became entangled in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

Its existence had been leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, a former defense analyst for the RAND corporation.

Among the Pentagon Papers’ embarrassing revelations:

  • Four Presidents–Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson–had misled the public about their intentions.
  • At least two Presidents–Kennedy and Johnson–committed increasing numbers of ground forces to Vietnam out of fear.  Not fear for the South Vietnamese but fear that they (JFK and LBJ) would be charged with being “soft on Communism” and thereby not re-elected.
  • Kennedy knew the South Vietnamese government to be thoroughly corrupt and inept, and plotted to overthrow its president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to “save” the war effort.
  • During the Presidential campaign of 1964, Johnson decided to expand the war but posed as a peacemaker.  He claimed that his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, wanted to bomb North Vietnam and send thousands of American soldieers into an unnecessary war.

A memo from the Defense Department under the Johnson Administration summed up the duplicity behind the war.  It listed the real reasons for American involvement: “To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.”

  • 70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.
  • 20% – To keep South Vietnam and the adjacent territory from Chinese hands.
  • 10% – To permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
  • ALSO – To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
  • NOT – To ‘help a friend’.

The study implicated only the administrations of Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

But then-President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, saw the release of the papers as a dangerous breach of national security.

After the New York Times began publishing the study, Nixon ordered the Justice Department to intervene.

For the first time in United States history, a federal judge legally forbade a newspaper to publish a story.

The Times frantically appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, the Washington Post (having gotten a second set of the documents from Ellsburg) rushed its own version of the story into print.

On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled, 6–3, that the government had failed to meet the burden of proof required for prior restraint of press freedom.

For Sheehan, reading the Papers was an eye-opener, a descent into a world he had never imagined possible.

As David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest, his best-selling 1972 account of how arrogance and deceit led the United States into disaster in Vietnam:

Sheehan came away with the overwhelming impression: that the government of the United States was not what he had thought it was.

Sheehan felt that he had discovered an inner U.S. government, highly centralized, and far more powerful than anything else.  And its enemy wass not simply the Communists but everything else–its own press, judiciary, Congress, foreign and friendly governments.

It had survived and perpetuated itself, often by using the issue of anti-Communism as a weapon against the other branches of government and the press.  And it served its own ends, rather than the good of the Republic.

This inner government used secrecy to protect itself–not from foreign governments but to keep its own citizens ignorant of its crimes and incompetence.

Each succeeding President was careful to not expose the faults of his predecessor.

Essentially the same people were running the government, wrote Halberstam, and so each new administration   faced virtually the same enemies.

WHAT THE MAJOR HAS TO TELL US

In History, Social commentary, Military, Entertainment on April 11, 2014 at 12:10 am

Major Dundee is a 1965 Sam Peckinpah Western focusing on a Union cavalry officer (Charlton Heston) who leads a motley troop of soldiers into Mexico to rescue three children kidnapped by Apaches.

Along the way they liberate Mexican villagers and clash with French lancers trying to establish the Austrian Archduke Maximillian 1 as emperor of Mexico.

The Wild Bunch is universally recognized as Peckinpah’s greatest achievement.  It has certainly had a far greater impact on audiences and critics than Major Dundee.  According to Heston, this was really the movie Peckinpah wanted to make while making Dundee, but he couldn’t quite get his hands around it.

As a result, Dundee’s virtues have been tragically overlooked.  It has a larger cast of major characters than Bunch, and these are men you can truly like and identify with:

  • The charm of Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harrs), a Confederate lieutenant forced into Union service;
  • The steady courage of Sergeant Gomez;
  • The quiet dignity of Aesop (Brock Peters), a black soldier;
  • The quest for maturity in a young, untried bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson, Jr.);
  • The on-the-job training experience of Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton); and
  • The stoic endurance of Indian scout Sam Potts (James Coburn).

These men are charged with a dangerous and dirty mission, and do it as well as they can, but you wouldn’t fear inviting them to meet your family.

,Major Dundee

Major Dundee (Charlton Heston)

That was definitely not the case with The Wild Bunch, four hardened killers prepared to rip off anyone, anytime, and leave a trail of bodies in their wake.  The only place where you would have felt safe seeing them, in real-life, was behind prison bars.

The Wild Bunch

Dundee is an odyssey movie, in the same vein as Saving Private Ryan.  Both films start with a battle, followed by the disappearance of characters who need to be searched for and brought back to safety.

Just as Dundee assembles a small force to go into Mexico, so, too, does Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) do the same, with his hunting ground being France.

Dundee’s men retrieve the kidnapped children and survive a near-fatal battle with Indians.  Miller’s men twice clash with the Germans before finding their quarry, James Ryan.

Before Dundee can return to the United States, he must face and defeat a corps of French soldiers.  Before Miller can haul Ryan back to safety, he must repulse a German assault.

Both groups of soldiers–Dundee’s and Miller’s–are transformed by their experiences in ways neither group could possibly articulate.  (Miller, being a highly literate schoolteacher, would surely do a better job of this than the tight-jawed Dundee.)

Dundee’s soldiers return to a United States that’s just ended its Civil War with a Union victory–and the death of slavery.  Miller’s soldiers return to a nation that is now a global superpower.

Of course, Ryan was fortunate in having Steven Spielberg as its director.  With his clout, there was no question that Ryan would emerge as the film he wanted.

Peckinpah lacked such clout.  And he fought with everyone, including the producer, Jerry Bressler, who ultimately held the power to destroy his film.  This guaranteed that his movie would emerge far differently than he had envisioned.

In 2005, an extended version of Dundee was released, featuring 12 minutes of restored footage.  (Much of the original footage was lost after severe cuts to the movie.)

In this, we fully see how unsympathetic a character the martinet Dundee really is.  Owing to Heston’s record of playing heroes, it’s easy to overlook Dundee’s arrogance and lethal fanaticism and automatically view him as a hero.  If he is indeed that, he is a hero with serious flaws.

And his self-imposed mission poses questions for us today:

  • Where is the line between professional duty and personal fanaticism?
  • How do we balance the success of a mission against its potential costs–especially if they prove appalling?
  • At what point–if any–does personal conscience override professional obligations?

Whether intentionally or not, in Major Dundee, Peckinpah laid out a microcosm of the American history that would immediately follow the Civil War.

Former Confederates and Unionists would forego their regional animosities and fight against a recognized mutual enemy—the Indians.  This would prove a dirty and drawn-out war, shorn of the glory and (later) treasured memories of the Civil War.

Just as Dundee’s final battle with French lancers ended with an American victory won at great cost, so, too, would America’s forays into the Spanish-American War and World Wars 1 and 11 prove the same.

Ben Tyreen’s commentary on the barbarism of French troops (“Never underestimate the value of a European education”) would be echoed by twentieth-century Americans uncovering the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald.

America would learn to project its formidable military power at great cost.  Toward the end of the movie, Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the ex-patriot Austrian widow, would ask Dundee: “But who do you answer to?

It is a question that still vividly expresses the view of the international community as this superpower colossus hurtles from one conflict to the next.

PRIDE GOETH BEFORE A FALL

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics on April 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
–Proverbs 16:18

People often talk about the role sex plays in motivating behavior.  But the power of ego to determine history is often more profound.

Consider the role that ego played in igniting the American Civil War (1861 – 1865).

According to The Destructive War, by Charles Royster, it wasn’t the cause of “states’ rights” that led 13 Southern states to withdraw from the Union in 1960-61.

It was their demand for “respect,” which, in reality, translates into “e-g-o.”

“The respect Southerners demanded did not consist simply of the states’ sovereignty or of the equal rights of Northern and Southern citizens, including slaveholders’ right to take their chattels into Northern territory.

“It entailed, too, respect for their assertion of the moral superiority of slaveholding society over free society,” writes Royster.

It was not enough for Southerners to claim equal standing with Northerners; Northerners must acknowledge it.

But this was something that the North was less and less willing to do.  Finally, its citizens dared to elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Lincoln and his new Republican party damned slavery–and slaveholders–as morally evil, obsolete and ultimately doomed.

And they were determined to prevent slavery from spreading any further throughout the country.

Southerners found all of this intolerable.

The British author, Anthony Trollope, explained to his readers:

“It is no light thing to be told daily, by our fellow citizens…that you are guilty of the one damning sin that cannot be forgiven.

“All this [Southerners] could partly moderate, partly rebuke and partly bear as long as political power remained in their hands.

“But they have gradually felt that this was going, and were prepared to cut the rope and run as soon as it was gone.”

Only 10% of Southerners owned slaves.  The other 90% of the population “had no dog in this fight,” as Southerners liked to say.

Yet they so admired and aspired to be like their “gentleman betters” that they threw in their lot with them.

There were some Southerners who could see what was coming–and vainly warned their fellow citizens.

One of these was Sam Houston, the man who had won Texas independence at the 1836 battle of San Jacinto and later served as that state’s governor.

Sam Houston

On April 19, 1860, addressing a crowd in Galveston, he said:

“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you.

“But I doubt it.

“I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states’ rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates.

“But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Four years later, on April 9, 1865, Houston’s warning became history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

Huge sections of the South had been laid waste by Union troops and more than 258,000 Southerners had been killed.

The South had paid an expensive price for its fixation on ego.

Even more proved at risk a century later, when President John F. Kennedy faced off with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In April, Kennedy had been humiliated at the Bay of Pigs when a CIA-sponsored invasion failed to overthrow the Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

So he was already on the defensive when he and Khrushchev met in Vienna.

Khrushchev pressed his advantage, threatening Kennedy with nuclear war unless the Americans abandoned their protection of West Berlin.

That August, faced with the embarrassment of East Berliners fleeing by the thousands into West Germany, the Soviet leader backed off from his threat.

In its place, he erected the infamous Berlin Wall, sealing off East and West Berlin.

Kennedy’s reaction: “That son of a bitch won’t pay any attention to words. He has to see you move.”

Then, most ominously: “If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.”

In short: Kennedy was prepared to incinerate the planet if he felt his almighty ego was about to get smacked.

Nuclear missile in silo

What has proved true for states and nations proves equally true for those leading every other type of institution.

Although most people like to believe they are guided by rationality and morality, all-too-often, what truly decides the course of events is their ego.

For pre-Civil War Southerners, it meant demanding that “Yankees” show respect for slave-owning society.  Otherwise, they would leave the Union.

For Kennedy, it meant playing a game of “chicken,” backed up with nuclear missiles, to show Khrushchev who Numero Uno really was.

It is well to keep these lessons from history in mind when making our own major decisions.

GOOD NEWS IN THE TERROR WARS

In History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 26, 2014 at 12:25 am

On February 15, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released some encouraging newws for those fighting Islamic terrorism.

More than 140,000 people have been killed in Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war.

Conflict began on March 15, 2011.  The trigger: Protests demanding political reforms and the ouster of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

According to the Observatory, which is based in Britain:

  • The death toll is now at 140,041.
  • More than 30,000 rebels have been killed and over 50,000 from pro-Assad forces.
  • The true toll on both sides was likely much higher–by perhaps more than 60,000.

And the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdelrahman, had a solution to offer to this constantly escalating violence:

“It is shameful that the international community has done nothing to show that it will defend human rights.  They are just looking on at this tragedy. The Syrian people dying are just statistics to them.”

If those dying in Syria are “just statistics,” then they are statistics of terrorists and potential terrorists who will never pose a threat to the United States.

Think of it:

  • In three years, 140,041 actual or potential enemies of Western Civilization have chosen to kill each other off.
  • Additional thousands are certain to follow their example.
  • And the United States cannot be held in any way responsible for it.

Here are seven excellent reasons why America should not send soldiers to bomb and/or invade Syria.

1. Intervening in Syria could produce unintended consequences for American forces–and make the United States a target for more Islamic terrorism.

American bombs or missiles could land on one or more sites containing stockpiles of chemical weapons.  Imagine the international outrage that will result if the release of those weapons kills hundreds or thousands of Syrians.

Within the Islamic world, the United States will be seen as waging a war against Islam, and not simply another Islamic dictator.

Almost certainly, an American military strike on Syria would lead its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to attack Israel–perhaps even with chemical weapons.

Assad could do this simply because he hates Jews–or to lure Israel into attacking Syria.

If that happened, the Islamic world–which lusts to destroy Israel more than anything else–would rally to Syria against the United States, Israel’s chief ally.

2.  Since 1979, Syria has been listed by the U.S. State Department as a sponsor of terrorism.

Among the terrorist groups it supports are Hizbollah and Hamas. For years, Syria provided a safe-house in Damascus to Ilich Ramírez Sánchez–the notorious terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal.

There are no “good Syrians” for the United States to support–only murderers who have long served a tyrant and other murderers who now wish to become the next tyrant.

3.  The United States doesn’t know what it wants to do in Syria, other than “send a message.”

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, wrote: “War is the continuation of state policy by other means.”  But President Barack Obama hasn’t stated what he intends gain by attacking Syria.

Obama has said he’s “not after regime-change.”  If true, that would leave Assad in power–and free to go on killing those who resist his rule.

4. The Assad regime is backed by–among others–the Iranian-supported terrorist group, Hezbollah (Party of God).  Its enemies include another terrorist group–Al Qaeda.

Hezbollah is comprised of Shiite Muslims, who form a minority of Islamics.  A sworn enemy of Israel, it has  kidnapped scores of Americans suicidal enough to visit Lebanon and truck-bombed the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 299 Americans.

Flag of Hezbollah

Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is made up of Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of that religion.  It considers Shiite Muslims to be “takfirs”–heretics–and thus worthy of extermination.

Al Qaeda has attacked the mosques and gatherings of liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other non-Sunnis.   Examples of sthese ectarian attacks include the Sadr City bombings, the 2004 Ashoura massacre and the April, 2007 Baghdad bombings.

Flag of Al Qaeda

When your enemies are intent on killing each other, it’s best to stand aside and let them do it.

5.  China and Russia are fully supporting the Assad dictatorship–and the brutalities it commits against its own citizens. This reflects badly on them–not the United States.

6.  The United States could find itself in a shooting war with Russia and/or China.

The Russians have sent two warships to Syria, in direct response to President Obama’s threat to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons against unsurgents.

What happens if American and Russian warships start trading salvos?  Or if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders an attack on Israel, in return for America’s attack on Russia’s ally, Syria?

It was exactly that scenario–Great Powers going to war over conflicts between their small-state allies–that triggered World War l.

7.  While Islamic nations like Syria and Egypt wage war within their own borders, they will lack the resources to launch attacks against the United States.

When Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, then-Senator Harry Truman said: “I hope the Russians kill lots of Nazis and vice versa.”

That should be America’s view whenever its sworn enemies start killing themselves off.   Americans should welcome such self-slaughters, not become entrapped in them.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE: OURS AND THEIRS

In History, Military, Politics on March 25, 2014 at 1:04 am

It didn’t take much for American Right-wingers to start salivating–and celebrating.

All it took was for Russia to move troops into its neighboring territories of Ukraine and Crimea.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the American Right has felt dejected.  Accusing Democrats of being “terrorist-lovers” just hasn’t been as profitable as accusing them of being “Communists.”

The torch had barely gone out at the much-ballyhooed Sochi Olympics when Russian President Vladimir Putin began menacing the Ukraine.

Even while the Olympics played out on television, Ukrainians had rioted in Kiev and evicted their corrupt, luxury-loving president, Victor Yanukovych.

And this, of course, didn’t sit well with his “sponsor”–Putin.

Yanukovych had rejected a pending European Union association agreement.  He had chosen instead to pursue a Russian loan bailout and closer ties with Russia.

And that had sat well with Putin.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin had yearned for a reestablishment of the same.  He had called that breakup “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

So it was almost a certainty that, when his chosen puppet, Yanukovych, was sent packing, Putin would find some way to retaliate.

And since late February, he has done so, gradually moving Russian troops into Ukraine and its autonomous republic, Crimea.

By late March, it was clear that Russia had sufficient forces in both Ukraine and Crimea to wreak any amount of destruction Putin may wish to inflict.

And where there is activity by Russians, there are American Rightists eager–in Shakespeare’s words–to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

Or at least to use such events to their own political advantage.

Right-wingers such as Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachussetts who lost the 2012 Presidential election by a wide margin to Barack Obama.

“There’s no question but that the president’s naiveté with regards to Russia,” said Romney on March 23.

“And unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine, as well as the things that you’re seeing in Syria.”

All of which overlooks a number of brutal political truths.

First, all great powers have spheres of interest–and jealously guard them.

For the United States, it’s Latin and Central America, as established by the Monroe Doctrine.

And just what is the Monroe Doctrine?

It’s a statement made by President James Monroe in his 1823 annual message to Congress, which warned European powers not to interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.

It has no other legitimacy than the willingness of the United States to use armed force to back it up.  When the United States no longer has the will or resources to enforce the Doctrine, it will cease to have meaning.

For the Soviet Union, its spheres of influence include the Ukraine.  Long known as “the breadbasket of Russia,”  in 2011, it was the world’s third-largest grain exporter.

Russia will no more give up access to that breadbasket than the United States would part with the rich farming states of the Midwest.

Second, spheres of influence often prove disastrous to those smaller countries affected.

Throughout Latin and Central America, the United States remains highly unpopular for its brutal use of “gunboat diplomacy” during the 20th century.

Among those countries invaded or controlled by America: Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Columbia, Panama, the Dominican Republic.

The resulting anger has led many Latin and Central Americans to support Communist Cuba, even though its political oppression and economic failure are universally apparent.

Similarly, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) forced many nations–such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslavakia–to submit to the will of Moscow.

The alternative?  The threat of Soviet invasion–as occurred in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslavakia in 1968.

Third, even “great powers” are not all-powerful.

In 1949, after a long civil war, the forces of Mao Tse-tung defeated the Nationalist armies of Chaing Kai-Shek, who withdrew to Taiwan.

China had never been a territory of the United States.  Nor could the United States have prevented Mao from defeating the corrupt, ineptly-led Nationalist forces.

Even so, Republican Senators and Representatives such as Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy eagerly blamed President Harry S. Truman and the Democrats for “losing China.”

The fear of being accused of “losing” another country led Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon to tragically commit the United States to “roll back” Communism in Cuba and Vietnam.

Now Republicans–who claim the United States can’t afford to provide healthcare for its poorest citizens–want to turn the national budget over to the Pentagon.

They want the United States to “intervene” in Syria–even though this civil war pits Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, two of America’s greatest enemies, against each other.

They want the United States to “intervene” in Ukraine–even though this would mean going to war with the only nuclear power capable of turning America into an atomic graveyard.

Before plunging into conflicts that don’t concern us and where there is absolutely nothing to “win,” Americans would do well to remember the above-stated lessons of history.  And to learn from them.

THE DOOM OF MEN

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 21, 2014 at 12:35 am

In  ”Excalibur,” director John Boorman’s brilliant 1981 telling of the King Arthur legends, Merlin warns Arthur’s knights–and us: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Not so Steven Pressfield, who repeatedly holds up the past as a mirror to our present.  Case in point: His 2006 novel, The Afghan Campaign.

By 2006, Americans had been fighting in Afghanistan for five years.  And today, almost ten years into the same war, there remains no clear end in sight–to our victory or withdrawal.

Pressfield’s novel, although set 2,000 years into the past, has much to teach us about what are soldiers are facing today in that same alien, unforgiving land.

Matthias, a young Greek seeking glory and opportunity, joins the army of Alexander the Great.  But the Persian Empire has fallen, and the days of conventional, set-piece battles–where you can easily tell friend from foe–are over.

Alexander next plans to conquer India, but first he must pacify its gateway–Afghanistan. Here that the Macedonians meet a new–and deadly–kind of enemy.

“Here the foe does not meet us in pitched battle,” warns Alexander. “Even when we defeat him, he will no accept our dominion.

“He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capacity for suffering.”

Matthias learns this early.  In his first raid on an Afghan village, he’s ordered to execute a helpless prisoner.  When he hesitates, he’s brutalized until he strikes out with his sword–and botches the job.

But, soon, exposed to an unending series of atrocities–committed by himself and his comrades,  as  well as the enemy–he finds himself transformed.

And he hates it.  He agonizes over the gap between the ideals he embraced when he became a soldier–and the brutalities that have drained him of everything but a grim determination to survive at any cost.

Pressfield, a former Marine himself, repeatedly contrasts how civilians see war as a kind of “glorious” child’s-play with how soldiers actually experience it.

He creates an extraordinary exchange between Costas, an ancient-world version of a CNN war correspondent, and Lucas, a soldier whose morality is outraged at how Costas and his ilk routinely prettify  the indescribable.

And we know the truth of this exchange immediately. For we know there are doubtless brutalities inflicted by our troops on the enemy–and atrocities inflicted by the enemy upon them–that never make the headlines, let alone the TV cameras.

We also know that, decades  from now, thousands of our former soldiers will carry horrific memories to their graves.

These memories will remain sealed from public view, allowing their fellow but unblooded Americans to sleep peacefully, unaware of  the terrible price that others have paid on their behalf.

Like the Macedonians (who call themselves  ”Macks”), our own soldiers find themselves serving in an all-but-forgotten land among a populace whose values could not be more alien from our own if they came from Mars.

Instincitvely, they turn to one another–not only for physical security but to preserve their last vestiges of humanity. As the war-weary veteran, Lucas, advises:

“Never tell anyone except your mates. Only you don’t need to tell them. They know. They know you.  Better than a man knows his wife, better than he knows himself.

“They’re bound to you and you to them, like wolves  in  a  pack. It’s  not you and them. You are them. The unit is indivisible. One dies, we all die.”

Put conversely: One lives, we all live.

Pressfield has reached into the past to reveal fundamental truths about the present that most of us could probably not accept if contained in a modern-day memoir.

These truths take on an immediate poignancy owing to our own current war in Afghanistan.  But they will remain just as relevant decades from now, when our now-young soldiers are old and retired.

This book has been described as a sequel to Pressfield’s The Virtues of War: A  Novel  of Alexander the Great, which appeared in 2004. But it isn’t.

Virtues showcased the brilliant and luminous (if increasingly dark and explosive) personality of Alexander the Great, whose Bush-like, good-vs.-evil rhetoric inspired men to hurl themselves into countless battles on his behalf.

But Afghan thrusts us directly into the flesh-and-blood realities created by that rhetoric: The horrors of men traumatized by an often unseen but always menacing enemy, and the horrors they must inflict in return if they are to survive in a hostile and alien world.

“DR. STRANGELOVE” LIVES: PART THREE (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 19, 2014 at 12:21 am

He’s the man who sends a nuclear bomber wing off to attack the Soviet Union–thus triggering all-out thermonuclear war between the U.S.S.R and America.

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

While others feel he has clearly gone insane, Ripper is certain he’s done the right thing–and for the right reason: To stop “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot” of all: Fluoridation.

And Ripper has assigned himself the task of saving “our precious bodily fluids”–although the result can only be universal destruction.

Fortunately, Ripper is only a fictitious character–played by Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 dark comedy, “Dr. Strangelove.”

But America has had its share of irrational behavior among its Presidents.

RICHARD NIXON: In 1970, while deciding whether to widen the Vietnam war by invading Cambodia, he repeatedly watched the movie “Patton.”

Richard Nixon

In 1974, as journalistic and Justice Department investigations of Watergate increasingly threatened his Presidency, his behavior grew increasingly erratic.

He drank heavily, took pills by the handful, and, on at least one occasion, was seen talking to pictures of Presidents that adorned the walls of the White House.

In the final weeks of his administration, as impeachment for Watergate abuses seemed inevitable, Nixon inspired fears of a military coup in his Secretary of Defense.

James Schlesinger warned all military commands to ignore any direct orders from the White House–or any other source–without the counter-signature of the SecDef himself.

* * * * *

GEORGE W. BUSH:  In June, 2001, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia.  Bush judged others–even world leaders–through the lens of his own fundamentalist Christian theology.

And Putin was quick to take advantage of it.

Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

BUSH:  Let me say something about what caught my attention, Mr. President, was that your mother gave you a cross which you had blessed in Israel, the Holy Land.

PUTIN:  It’s true.

BUSH:  That amazes me, that here you were a Communist, KGB operative, and yet you were willing to wear a cross.  That speaks volumes to me, Mr. President.  May I call you Vladimir?

Falling back on his KGB training, Putin seized on this apparent point of commonality to build a bond.  He told Bush that his dacha had once burned to the ground, and the only item that had been saved was that cross.

BUSH:  Well, that’s the story of the cross as far as I’m concerned.  Things are meant to be.

Afterward, Bush and Putin gave an outdoor news conference.

“Is this a man that Americans can trust?” Associated Press correspondent Ron Fournier asked Bush.

“Yes,” said Bush. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue.

“I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.  I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”

In early 2003, Bush telephoned French President Jaques Chirac, hoping to enlist his support–and troops–for his long-planned invasion of Iraq.

Failing to convince Chirac that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was politically advantageous, Bush took a different tack.

BUSH: Jaques, you and I share a common faith.  You’re Roman Catholic, I’m Methodist, but we’re both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible.  We share one common Lord.

Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.  Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.

This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.

When the call ended, Chirac asked his advisors: “Gog and Magog–do any of you know what he’s talking about?”

When no one did, Chirac ordered: Find out.

The answer came from Thomas Roemer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne.

Romer explained that the Old Testament book of Ezekiel contains two chapters (38 and 39) in which God rages against Gog and Magog, sinister and mysterious forces menacing Israel.

Jehovah vows to slaughter them ruthlessly. In the New Testament book of Revelation (20:8) Gog and Magog are depicted as gathering nations for battle: “And fire came down from God out of Heaven, and devoured them.”

Chirac decided to oppose joining the upcoming invasion of Iraq.  France, he said, would not fight a war based on an American Presient’s interpretation of the Bible.

The incident is chronicled in 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald.

Click here: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars: Kurt Eichenwald

Bush’s war cost the lives of 4,486 Americans–and an estimated 655,000 Iraqis.

Bush, however, was not the first President to invoke Gog and Magog.

Ronald Reagan predicted that this Biblical confrontation would pit the United States against the Soviet Union–which had abandoned God at the time of the Russian Revolution.

Evangelical Christians twice elected Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the Presidency.

In light of this, voters should think carefully before choosing candidates who accept superstitious beliefs over rational inquiry.

“DR. STRANGELOVE” LIVES: PART TWO (OF THREE)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 18, 2014 at 12:15 am

In December, 1916, a group of outraged aristocrats, led by Prince Felix Yusspov, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, decided to take action.

They would murder Grigori Rasputin and–they believed–save the Czar from his corrupting influence.

On the night of December 29, 1916, Yusspov lured Rasputin to his estate on the pretext of meeting his lovely wife, Irina.

While Rasputin waited eagerly to meet the princess, Yusspov plied him with cakes and glasses of wine–all poisoned with potassium cyanide.  When these had no effect, Yusspov drew a revolver and shot him in the back.

Shortly afterward, Rasputin, with superhuman strength, tried to escape from the palace.  The rest of the assassins shot him several more times, wrapped his body in chains, and dumped it into an icy river.

The conspirators were hailed as heroes by the outraged aristocracy.  They believed that Rasputin’s death would ensure the salvation of the monarchy.

But it didn’t.  The notoriety of Rasputin’s life had by now fully attached itself to Nicholas and Alexandra.

In February, 1917, food riots broke out in St. Petersburg, and the Czar was forced to abdicate.   On July 17, 1916, he and his family–including Alexandra, their four daughters and Alexei–were executed by the Bolsheviks.

Click here: Nicholas and Alexandra: Robert K. Massie: 9780345438317: Amazon.com: Books

But Nicholas II was not the only world leader who placed his faith in the supernatural.

A modern-day example of this was Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

Ronald Reagan

Nancy Reagan met an astrologer named Joan Quigley on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1973.

Quigley supposedly gave Nancy–and through her, Reagan himself–astrological advice during the latter’s campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1976.

That effort failed to unseat President Gerald Ford–who was defeated that November by Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, in 1980, Reagan defeated Carter to become the 40th President of the United States.

On March 30, 1981, a mentally-disturbed loner named John W. Hinckley shot and critically wounded Reagan.  Hinckley’s motive: Fixiated on actress Jodie Foster, he believed that by shooting the President he could gain her affection.

For Nancy, the assassination attempt proved a watershed.

Shortly after the shooting, Merv Griffin told her that Quigley had told him: If Nancy had called her on that fateful day, she–Quigley–could have warned that the President’s astrological charts had foretold a bad day.

From that moment on, Nancy made sure to regularly consult Quigley on virtually everything that she and the President intended to do.

Click here: The President’s Astrologers – Joan Quigley, Nancy Reagan, Politicians and Their Families, Ronald Reagan : People.c

Many–if not most–of these calls from the White House to Quigley’s office in San Francisco were made on non-secure phone lines.

Joan Quigley

This meant that foreign powers–most notably the Soviet Union and Communist China–could have been privy to Reagan’s intentions.

Nancy passed on Quigley’s suggestions in the form of commands to Donald Regan, chief of the White House staff.

As a result, Regan kept a color-coded calendar on his desk to remember when the astrological signs were good for the President to speak, travel, or negotiate with foreign leaders.

Green ink was used to highlight “good” days, red for “bad” days, and yellow for “iffy” days.

A list provided by Quigley to Nancy made the following recommendations–which Nancy, in turn, made into commands:

Late Dec thru March    bad
Jan 16 – 23    very bad
Jan 20    nothing outside WH–possible attempt
Feb 20 – 26    be careful
March 7 – 14    bad period
March 10 – 14    no outside activity!
March 16    very bad
March 21    no
March 27    no
March 12 – 19    no trips exposure
March 19 – 25    no public exposure
April 3    careful
April 11    careful
April 17    careful
April 21 – 28    stay home

Donald Regan, no fan of Nancy’s, chafed under such restrictions: “Obviously, this list of dangerous or forbidden dates left very little lattitude for scheduling,” he later wrote.

Forced out of the White House in 1987 by Nancy, Regan struck back in a 1988 tell-all memoir: For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington.

The book revealed, for the first time, how Ronald Reagan actually made his Presidential decisions.

All–including decisions to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union–were based on a court astrologer’s horoscopes.  Rationality and the best military intelligence available played a lesser, secondary role.

In 1990, Quigley confirmed the allegations an autobiography, What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

Click here: What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan: Joan Quigley

The title came from the question that Ronald Reagan asked Nancy before making important decisions–including those that could risk the destruction of the United States.

Among the success Quigley took credit for:

  • Strategies for winning the Presidential elections of 1980 and 1984;
  • Visiting a graveyard for SS soldiers in Bitburg, Germany;
  • Pursuing “Star Wars” as a major part of his strategy against the Soviet Union;
  • The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and
  • Moving from seeing the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” to accepting Mikhail Gorbachev as a peace-seeking leader.

Thirty-three years after he became President, Ronald Reagan remains the most popular figure among Republicans.

His name is constantly invoked by Right-wing candidates, while his deliberately-crafted myth is held up as the example of Presidential greatness.

“DR. STRANGELOVE” LIVES: PART ONE (OF THREE)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on March 17, 2014 at 12:58 am

Most people–especially Americans–like to believe they choose rational men and women for their political leaders.

This is especially true when it comes to deciding who will govern the country for the next four years as President of the United States.

And those voters like to believe that, once elected, the new President will base his or her decisions on a firm foundation of rationality and careful consideration.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always true.

And in an age when a Presidential decision can, in a matter of minutes, hurl nuclear bombers and missiles to lay waste entire nations, it’s essential for Americans to realize this.

Of course, Americans have no monopoly on leaders who rule by irrationality.

The classic foreign-affairs version of this is that of Nicholas 11, Czar of All the Russias, his wife, the Czarina Alexandra, and the “mad monk” from Siberia, Grigori Rasputin.

Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905.  Founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703, it was then the capitol of Russia–and the center of Russian cultural life.

(When Russia entered World War 1 against Germany in 1914, the Imperial government renamed the city Petrograd, meaning “Peter’s City”, to remove the German words “saint” and “burg.”

(After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they renamed it Leningrad in honor of Vladimir Lenin, the first Communist dictator.  After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the city reclaimed its original name: St. Petersburg.)

Rasputin carried with him the auroa of a holy man and a healer.  A woman friend of the Empress made his fateful introduction to the royal family in late 1095. 

It was Rasputin’s claim to be a healer that cemented his relationship with the Czar and Czarina–and especially the latter.

For Nicholas and Alexandra lived with a frightening secret–one known to only a handful of trusted doctors: Their only son, Alexei–next in line to the throne when his father died–was a hemophiliac.

Nicholas 11 and Alexandra

A disease inherited on the mother’s side, hemophilia prevents the blood from clotting normally.  A slight cut can result in massive–and fatal–bleeding.  Even a slight bruise cause internal bleeding.

Doctors had told the Czar there was nothing they could do to cure his young son.  If an accident happened, all that could be done was to await the outcome.

Alexei

So when Nicholas and Alexandra learned of Rasputin’s supposed reputation as a healer, they dared to hope that a miracle might be possible for their son.

And on several occasions, Rasputin seemed to deliver on his reputation–and claims–of being able to work miracles in God’s name.

One such instance occurred in October, 1912.  Alexei, riding in a train carriage, received an unexpected jolt, and began bleeding internally.

His condition became steadily worse.  He was given the last rites, and Russians were informed that the Czarevich was ill and needed their prayers to recover.  No mention of hemophilia was made.

Finally, Alexandra sent word–via telegram–of the situation to Rasputin, who was then in Siberia.  He promptly sent back a telegram: “The Little One will not die.  Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.”

From that moment, Alexei underwent a steady recovery.

For Rasputin–and the royal family–it was a fateful moment.

Rasputin had been exiled to Siberia because the Czar was outraged by his notorious womanizing.  Drunk on his newfound celebrity at court, Rasputin had found himself sought out by scores of women.

Grigori Rasputin

They came in all ages and comprised both rich and poor.  For jaded aristocratic women, going to bed with a semi-literate peasant was a novel and deliciously carnal experience.

And Rasputin, who claimed to be a holy man, had a ready formula for relieving the guilt so many women felt after such encounters.

Rasputin preached a gospel that one could not truly repent until one had committed sin.  So first came the sinning, and then the repenting–and this, in turn, brought the sinner closer to God.

But Rasputin’s outrageous reputation made the Czar a target for scandal.  Gossips even whispered that Rasputin and the Czarina were lovers.

So, in 1912, Nicholas had sent Rasputin packing back to Siberia.

But with his apparent healing of Alexei, Czarina Alexandra demanded that he be returned to the nation’s capitol.

For her, Rasputin offered the only promise of hope for her constantly endangered son.

With Rasputin’s return, the rumors–increasingly uttered in public–started up again.

In 1914, Russia was drawn into World War 1 against Imperial Germany.  The Russian army–poorly equipped and trained–suffered a series of disastrous reverses early on.

The Czar decided to take personal command of the war effort–which meant spending most of his time at the front.

This, in turn, left the Czarina, Alexandra, behind in St. Petersburg, to essentially run the country.  And at her side, “guiding” her decisions, was the semi-literate peasant, Grigori Rasputin.

Rasputin, in turn, was the subject of countless and scandalous affairs–with wives, daughters, aristocrats and chambermaids.

Enemies of Nicholas II–including the Communistic Bolsheviks–relished the scandals as a way to attack the Czar through one of his intimates.

Finally, a group of outraged aristocrats, led by Prince Felix Yusspov, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, decided to “save” the Czar–by murdering Rasputin.

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