Nuclear Weapons: Iran, North Korea, USA

Yesterday (February 25, 2012) the New York Times reported that US still agencies continue to believe that Iran is NOT trying to develop nuclear weapons. That was a shocker, given the current war fever being whipped up in the US and Israel.

However, there is a bigger question. Is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty sustainable? This treaty basically says that there is a privileged group of nations that has nuclear weapons and will keep them, and the rest of the world which is prohibited from having them. Or, to put it more bluntly, there are a few countries which get to tell all the others what do do and when to do it.

For those of us who are Americans, it’s easy to miss the point here. Americans tend to think that we are benevolent and friendly, so we don’t see why anyone would mind if we dominate them. With a little effort, though, you can see it the way others do–which can be summed up as “The US is great until they want our resources.”

As a result, many countries have proceeded to develop their own nuclear weapons, ignoring the treaty (or refusing to sign it). These include, at a minimum, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The list is likely to grow, whatever Iran might do.

Having fewer countries with nukes is better than having more; but it doesn’t work. The only real path to a safe future is the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The US, as the biggest nuclear power, has to take the lead on this. There is little sign that it will do so any time soon, but until it does nonproliferation will continue to fail.

Investment Banks Caused the Crisis – NOT Mortgage Borrowers

Barry Ritholtz of the Washington Post recently published this excellent column about the causes of the current economic crisis. It’s important, because one of the main talking points of the Tea Party delegation in Congress (and in the public) is that the crisis was caused by loose credit.

To give the full-blown loony conspiracy version: ACORN, inspired by the writings of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, set out to destroy capitalism by overloading the system. Specifically, they:

  • Lobbied to get the Community Reinvestment Act passed, and then to modify it to require banks to issue sub-prime mortgages without credit checks.
  • Organized people, many of them without means, to apply for mortgages they couldn’t afford.
  • Ran fraudulent voter registration drives to register illegal aliens and others to elect Barack Obama and keep the government handing out the money.

There are other parts to it, but you get the picture. And of course it is rare that anyone lays out the full story like this; instead, right-wing voices just mention all the parts and let people put them together for themselves; so anything they say about ACORN, for example, becomes confirming evidence.

The reality is very different. The Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to make loans in the areas they get deposits from; it does not require them to make bad loans! And almost everyone who got a mortgage was able to pay for it initially; the problem was that the mortgage companies, who were going to resell the mortgage anyway, concealed the fact that the rate was likely to go way up at some point in the future.

But there is another, more basic point: the crisis was not caused by people who defaulted on their mortgages. People default on mortgages all the time. High-risk mortgages earn higher interest, and when the markets are working right the high return will balance the risk of loss.

The problem was different. Mortgages known to be high-risk were combined into packages with others thought to be low-risk; then the ratings certified the packages as safe investments, and the packages were sold (or rather, derivatives based on their value were sold) to investors.

When the default rate went up, it suddenly became clear that these safe investments weren’t safe after all. Even more important, investors realized that no one knew what the packages were worth. Since no one knew what to buy or sell them for, the market just collapsed – and there was the crisis.

Well, Ritholtz explains it much better than I, so go back to the top of this post, click on the link, and read his article. I just want to conclude by looking at the implications.

  • If the problem was caused by poor people getting mortgages, then the lesson is that we all have to learn not to live beyond our means. Austerity!
  • But if the problem was caused by the banking system (and it was!), the lesson is different: we have to get the banks under control! Unfortunately, governments around the world are moving in the opposite direction, using the IMF to force us all under the thumbs of the bankers.

In Greece, in Italy, in the United States, Another World Is Possible

The news from Europe is horrible. First Greece, and now Italy are being told that they have to give up any semblance of democracy and put bankers directly in charge of their government. At one point it looked as if Greece was actually going to get a banker, Lucas Papademos, as its new prime minister. That isn’t happening (at least as I write this), probably because the symbolism was too eerie – but it might as well happen, because the banks are running the show.

Why? The answer we are getting from the mainstream politicians, the mainstream media, and the bankers themselves is that There Is No Alternative (a phrase Margaret Thatcher used so much that people started calling it TINA). Greece has to keep using the euro, the banks that own Greek bonds have to be paid (even the plan to pay them only 50% requires their voluntary cooperation), the Greek state has to be gutted, and the Greek people have to suffer huge losses of jobs, income, pensions, and health care.

Why? Different answers are given. Some are just mindless: “That’s just the way it is,” or “That’s how capitalism works.” The slightly more substantive answer is usually something about investor confidence. If investors think their money is at risk, the argument goes, then they won’t invest, and where would we be?

Well, probably we (or Greece, or Italy) would be better off. After all, it was the investors who got us into this mess. If Greece took control of its own currency (which would mean going back to the drachma), they could direct public resources into work that meets real human needs. Or if the government wouldn’t do that, the people could (that’s what happened in Argentina during their last crisis: investors shut down factories and pulled out of the country, whereupon groups of workers seized control of the factories and repoened them). People making decisions to meet human needs, rather than to profit investors – that’s what democracy looks like!

Does this sound utopian? Sure! It is utopian. It’s an attempt to visualize another world, to show that there is an alternative, another world is possible! That is the message of the demonstrations in Athens, Cairo, Madrid, New York, Oakland, and everywhere else. We can’t accept the claim that their is only one way to do things. Another world is possible, another world is absolutely necessary, and it is up to us to figure out how to get there.

I’ll try to suggest some details, including historical examples, in future posts. This is just to get the ideas flowing.

Greek Crisis Shows the Power of Protest

Critics of the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Everywhere movement argue that the movement needs to have a positive program to succeed. The events going on in Greece right now suggest that they are wrong.

The Greek protest movement has been (and is) much larger and more militant than anything in the US. However, it is similar to Occupy Wall Street in one important way: it is a protest against the domination of politics by the 1%, not a call to implement a particular program. The protesters reject austerity — deep cuts in social services and jobs — as a solution to the financial crisis caused by the banks. They do not, as far as I can see, prescribe a different solution; rather, they demand that politicians find one.

These protests have already forced an important concession from the banks: they have agreed to take a big loss, 50%, on their loans to the Greek government (or rather, they have been told that they have to do so by the German and French governments). However, this settlement, announced late last week, still demanded that Greece impose the “austerity” program.

Prime Minister Papandreou, seeing the depth and strength of public opposition to austerity, suddenly announced that he would call a referendum on the plan, which had already passed parliament. This was a second victory for the protest – actual democracy! Letting the people really decide if the cuts were the best solution. How radical!

Too radical for the EU, it turns out,and maybe too radical for Papandreou’s cabinet. As I write this, it looks like he may be forced out. One rumor is that elections will be called – another victory for protest and democracy. However, there is also talk of turning the government over to a banker, Lucas Papademos, which would certainly be a victory for the 1%.

What we have to bear in mind here is that austerity is not the only solution (if it is a solution at all). The crisis is largely caused by Greece’s being on the euro, so that it cannot control its own currency (see my earlier post, “Why Greece Is in Trouble”). I’ll leave the details to the economists, but Greece could go back to the drachma, devalue, and tell the banks who are holding it to ransom to either accept payment in devalued drachmas or else face default.

That may or may not be the best solution (and many variants are possible) – and the decision belongs to the people of Greece, not to me (and certainly not to Angela Merkel). That decision could be made either by Papandreou’s proposed referendum or by a snap election. My point is simply that there are solutions that let the Greek people take back their democratic sovereignty.

The Occupy movement can learn a lot from this. The important thing to do right now is not to focus on a particular solution to the jobs crisis. Nor is it to rally behind a set of candidates. The important thing is to demand that the politicians stop serving the banks and start serving the people.

Assassination as a Foreign Policy

The Boston Globe today (September 16, 2011) has this story about a debate within the Obama administration. The debate topic is when it’s OK for the US to assassinate people in other countries, primarily through attacks by remote-controlled aircraft, the so-called “drones.”

The claim that any such strikes are justified by international law is nonsense. Remember all those old Western movies where the Native Americans, fleeing a bunch of soldiers bent on killing them, fled over the border to Canada – and the soldiers halted in their tracks? That’s because military incursion into another country is illegal – unless you have that country’s permission. The US has such permission from Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the government ordered us to stop all drone attacks, and we announced that we would ignore them. And we have no permission in Yemen (although there is tacit cooperation from the government there), and least of all in Somalia.

That doesn’t mean that the US has to sit idle while terrorists prepare to attack us; but there are established legal ways to respond. We can demand that the government of the state where the terrorists are located take action. We can offer aid to that government. And, if we don’t get results, we can declare war on them and, if we win, occupy the country and act on our own. (That’s what we did in Afghanistan, except that the declaration of war was missing.) But there is no legal right to simply kill people in another country because they are “likely” members of al-Qaeda.

Why is this important? Because international law provides a way for disputes to be settled peaceably most of the time, and to limit the conflict when they can’t be settled peaceably. Right now, the rulers of the US – not only Obama, but Bush and Clinton before him – believe that the US is so powerful that we can simply ignore the law. Unfortunately, that path leads to a chaotic world, one more dangerous than one where the norms of law prevail.

One side maintains that the US has the legal right to try to kill known leaders of al-Qaeda in other countries (specifically, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, though the claim is more general). Those guys are the liberal side of the argument – the ‘doves,’ I guess.

The other side says that it’s OK to kill a bunch of people even if their identity is unknown, as long as they are in some place that suggests they may be associated with al-Qaeda. As the Globe phrases it, this involves attacks “aimed at killing clusters of people whose identities are not known but who are deemed likely members of a militant group based on patterns like training in terrorist camps.” Note the word “likely.” And note that the example used here, terrorist training, is chosen to make the killing look good. Other examples have included attacks on weddings, attacks on houses inhabited by large extended families, and even attacks on people standing around in the street. Large numbers of civilians with no connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations have been killed by these strikes.

Ten Years After

I just heard that members of the Fire Department of New York are spending the day (probably more than that) in Binghamton, helping rescue people from the Susquehanna River flood. It’s hard to think of any more fitting memorial to their lost comrades. And it shows one of the two very contradictory things that came out of the 9/11 tragedy: the great spirit that we are all in this together, that we need to help each other out, and that one way we help each other out is by supporting dedicated public servants prepared to deal with emergencies.

The other thing to come out of those events is very different – a legacy of stupid wars justified by government lying, torture, and willingness to kill hundreds of civilians for each terrorist leader through fairly indiscriminate drone strikes.

Today is not the day for political argument. But as we remember, we need to remember both sides.

As is often true, “Candorville” says it much better than I.

Libya – Let’s Not Get Carried Away!

I’m back in town for a week, so will try to blog every day until I leave next week for the APSA meeting in Seattle. Where to start! A lot has happened – but I guess I have to say something about Libya.

As I write this (the morning of August 23d), it is looking like the triumph proclaimes over the weekend was overdone. Gaddafi is still holding on, he has troops loyal to him, and some other parts of the country are sticking to him as well. (The press is dismissing these as the areas of his tribe, but so what? They are people, too.) Maybe by the end of the day he will be gone, but maybe not. So let me just make a few points:

  • There used to be something in England called “Whig history.” Basically, this was the idea that England (and I do mean England, not the UK) was the bearer of political liberty, and destined to triumph and enlighten the rest of the world. Everything that happened was for that purpose, and therefore fated to happen. This attitutde is alive and well in the US. Specifically, there is a feeling that Gaddafi is destined to fall – so whenever there are some signs that he is weakening, victory is proclaimed prematurely. Teleology takes the place of analysis – always a mistake. (Orthodox Marxists used to make the same error; it’s one of the things Nicos Poulantzas was trying to correct.)
  • Even if this turns out to be a victory, that does not mean the war was illegal. Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and now a professor, makes the following argument (among others) in today’s Boston Globe: “. . . the president was subjected to an unusual, highly partisan, and unreasonable assault by Congress on his constitutional right to commit US forces in the first place. Yet Obama persisted, and it has paid off.” That’s just silly. The War Powers Act says that the President must get approval from Congress for foreign military inteverntion. There is no exception that says “unless the US wins.” If intervention was illegal (as I think), then it still is.
  • Now for the basic point. This should be about democracy and the will of the Libyan people, not about whether Libya will be dominated by the US. That’s going to be difficult. Unlike Egypt or Tunis, Libya has a substantial part of the population that seemed to prefer Gaddafi to the rebels. (I remember vividly hearing a radio interview with people in Surt saying how they would fight to the end to keep the rebels out of their city.) This seemed to be more a civil war between two groups, rather than a popular uprising against a tyrant. (Sure, he was a tyrant, my point is that many people still preferred him. It was not just ethnic loyalty, either – see James Petras’s recent book for an argument that Libyans got substantial social benefits under Gaddafi’s rule.). As in any civil war, you have the problem of how the losing side fits in. They are still Libyans, and entitled to be part of any democratic government.

If Gaddafi is replaced by an independent democratic government, I will be delighted. I just think that the triumphalist crowing is both premature and out of place.

London Riots Now, American Riots Then

Official reaction to the UK riots – from the Cameron government, from the police, but also from the leaders of the other political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – has been to condemn them as mindless criminality. Similar arguments were made about the urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s. I remember particularly the view offered by the ultra-conservative political science professor Edward Banfield, that they were ‘a combination of animal spirits and stealing.’

There’s more to it than that, I think.

Let me add right away that I am not in the UK, and I haven’t spoken to anyone who participated. My views are based only on what I have read – most recently this insightful piece from Reuters – and on thinking about what happened here in the US 50 years ago.

Of course the riots were not well planned, and are not likely to achieve any political goals. Nevertheless, it seems clear by now that they were based on real grievances and had real targets. These were basically two:

  1. The police. Well, duh! The whole thing began when the police shot Mark Duggan dead, left it to his family to learn of his death through the news media, and then stonewalled that family and other community members when they came to the police station to seek an explanation – see this piece from the Guardian for details. Many people have said that this contemptuous treatment is typical of the relations between the UK police and urban low-income communities, and particularly with black people.
  2. Chain stores. Yes, people are stealing, and yes, they are stealing things that they want to have and maybe cannot afford. At the same time, the stores they are looting are symbols of oppression – outposts of big corporations which sell shoddy goods for too much money, drain the money out of the community, and don’t put anything back in. Here in America, such looting was driven in part by hatred; I suspect it’s the same there, a view confirmed by some of the interviews in the Reuters articl linked above.

The riots have been suppressed for now, but the problems and the attitudes are still there. If David Cameron insists on treating them purely as a law and order issue, he will fail. Meanwhile, I hope the British left gets out there and steps up its organizing around ways to find real solutions to the problems these riots have highlighted.

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

This weekend marks the 66th anniversary of the first – and only – uses of atomic bombs in war. On August 6, 1945 the US dropped the first wartime nuclear bomb ever on the Japanese city, Hiroshima. On August 9 a second nuclear bomb was dropped on another city Nagasaki.

The Hiroshima bomb eventually killed 140,000 people – some right away, many others later of radiation poisoning. The justification offered was that the bombing was needed to bring a quick end to the war; otherwise, the argument went, American troops would have had to continue the series of difficult amphibious assaults in which so many had died already as the US fought its way, island to island, across the Pacific. The most eloquent statement of this argument, in my opinion, was made by the essayist Paul Fussell in Thank God for the Atom Bomb.

Others – like my friend Gar Alperovitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb – deny that using the bomb was necessary to get a quick Japanese surrender. The real reason, according to this school, lay in the politics of what was to become the Cold War. It was well known that the USSR was about to declare war on Japan, and thought likely that such a declaration would lead to a Japanese surrender. President Truman wanted the US, not the USSR, to get the credit for forcing a surrender; and he wanted to demonstrate to the world that the US had a terrifyingly powerful weapon.

If the second argument is correct, the decision to drop the bomb seems moreally questionable. It’s one thing to save your people’s lives by killing a lot of your enemy; it’s quite another to kill 140,000 people for purely political reasons.

Whatever the truth about Hiroshima, though, I have never understood how bombing Nagasaki could be justifiable. The demonstration had been made, the Japanese had been shocked, the Russians had been kept out – so what was the purpose? There is a strong suspicion (not only by me) that the second bomb was dropped only because it used a different technology from the first, and the military people wanted to see how well it worked in comparison. I hope that’s not true – it’s barbaric – but I’ve never heard another explanation that is the least bit convincing.

I always try to pause for a moment at this time of year and think about these two terrible events. Now that the Cold War is over, there is no need for nuclear weapons. They are slowly proliferating to more countries, and will continue to do so – unless and until we in the US commit to getting rid of our own nuclear weapons as part of a move to a nuclear-free world. It’s time to do this.

Is the US Returning to Cold War Standards?

I had just graduated from college when I saw my government invade the Dominican Republic to support a military dictator who had just overturned the democratically elected President, Juan Bosch. As my awareness grew, I realized that we were supporting brutal dictators in Vietnam, much of Latin America, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and in many other countries. We had overthrown democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran, as well as the Dominican Republic, and a few years later were to collaborate in the overthrow and murder of the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, and his replacement by the brutal military dictator Pinochet.

At the same time, we supported the continuation of colonial rule, often very brutally, in Angola, Mozambique, what was then Rhodesia, and many smaller countries; and, most shamefully at all, we supported the atrocious system of apartheid in South Africa.

All of this was “justified” in the name of stopping Communism, which supposedly would take over all those countries if we let them become democratic.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the outbreak of the “third wave” of democratization – in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, and to some extent in Africa. With no more fear of Communism, there seemed to be no more need for the US to support dictatorships in other countries.

But what is happening today? The US government is turning a blind eye to brutal depression by the absolute monarch of Bahrain. It supported the coup against President Zelaya in Honduras, even while claiming to oppose it. It is maneuvering to keep the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt from becoming “too” democratic. More broadly, it seems like the Cold War all over again!

This trend is appalling. Many people had hoped that President Obama would turn us in a different direction, but instead he seems to be opting for more of the same. The explanation given, when any is given at all, tends to be that terrorism is just like Communism – if we allow too much democracy, it is said, the terrorists will take over. This isn’t very credible, though – it’s just hard to envision massive electoral support for terrorists! (I mean, if they had that kind of support they wouldn’t need to resort to terrorism!)

Far more likely, in my opinion, is that support for dictatorship abroad is linked to the attack on democracy at home. The increase in economic inequality basically means that a relatively small number of people control more and more of the world’s resources. They benefit immensely from doing so, but they can only keep it up if they keep people from voting on it. Here in the US, they do so by a variety of disenfranchising devices (massive imprisonment, intimidation campaigns, cumbersome registration processes, gerrymandering, etc.) In countries like Bahrain, they don’t have to be so subtle. They just work through the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the like to arrest, torture, and shoot those who demand democracy.

It’s time we got more democracy at home, and used it to support democracy in other countries.