Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan War: Morally Wrong, or Incompetently Waged?

The problem with Obama's Afghanistan war is that it is morally wrong and meant to discipline the American people, not that it is being waged incompetently.*

Writers who investigate the war to expose facts that supposedly demonstrate the incompetence of our generals and president actually reveal facts that tell a very different story. One such writer is Jeff Huber who recently wrote "Obama's Bananastan" on Huber shows that our military leaders and president have no clear objective or war strategy or exit strategy in Afghanistan, but he implies that the problem is stupidity and incompetence.

Huber's opening paragraph is:
"Sun Tzu maintained that proper planning secures victory before the battle begins. Carl von Clausewitz insisted that war must focus on the political aim. How is it, then, that we are about to put more troops into a war we know is unwinnable and in which we have no coherent objective for them to pursue?"
Huber assumes that our leaders have some reason to be worried about the fact that the war is unwinnable and lacks a coherent objective. What Huber doesn't grasp is that American leaders' primary purpose for waging a war is not to "win" it or to achieve some objective on the other side of the world, but rather simply to be at war. George Orwell was right on the mark when, in his novel 1984, he wrote about war saying:
"In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact."
For our rulers, the point of a war is to make us Americans feel the way only a war can--determined to prevail over a dangerous foreign enemy by supporting our leaders when we would otherwise oppose them over domestic issues.

Wars are waged for domestic social control and to justify enormous arms expenditures and contracts. Our leaders need wars to drag on so the enemy can be deemed sufficiently dangerous and implacable and thus the war made to seem important or necessary. If a war has an easy "coherent objective" with a clear "exit strategy" then it is minimally useful. Conquering Grenada was quick and easy and a useful public relations antidote to the loss of 241 marines in Lebanon. But a string of Grenadas would be material for late night comedians rather than high drama.

Huber repeatedly identifies examples of what he characterizes as incompetence. He fails to grasp that these examples are explained not by incompetence but by shrewdness from the elite's social-control perspective.

Huber tells us that the generals are incompetent. He writes of General David McKiernan, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan :
"He thinks we need to keep 60,000 troops in Afghanistan for the next three to four years. 'We've got to put them in the right places,' he says, but he doesn't appear to know where those places are."
Huber complains that the military service chiefs are no smarter, writing:
"According to NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, Obama asked his service chiefs 'What is the end game?' in Afghanistan. His service chiefs replied, 'Frankly, we don't have one.'"
He is angry that:
"Gates, Mullen, Petraeus, and McKiernan...are... pushing for an escalation without knowing what they're escalating to or what to do with the escalators. They don't even know which escalators to send. According to the Washington Post, nobody has even decided what kinds of forces to deploy."
And he can't understand the stupidity of Obama spreading the war and getting more people to join the "enemy," writing:
"And Obama should rendition whoever told him it would be a good idea to step up the air strikes in Pakistan. What, we weren't pushing enough locals into the arms of the militants as it was?"
But do these important facts that Huber presents really demonstrate the stupidity of our generals and president? The great Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, that Huber quotes also said that, "He who...underestimates his enemy will surely be captured by him." It appears that it is Jeff Huber who has understimated the enemy and been captured.

The president and generals wage war the way they do because they are using war for a purpose that has little to do with winning any objective in Afghanistan but everything to do with controlling Americans. Of course the top brass don't care exactly where the troops fight in Afghanistan, or exactly what kind of troops do the fighting. All that really matters is that Americans believe that "our young men and women soldiers are risking their lives fighting in Afghanistan to defend our freedom from terrorists." Of course the service chiefs have no end game. Who wants a good war to end? And what's wrong with pushing more locals into the arms of the militants? After all, if the supply of militants ran out there would be no more war.

Huber sees all of the facts, but interprets them wrongly. He concludes by calling for a purge of the "incompetents":
"Our military's senior officers are either unforgivably ignorant of the basic tenets of their profession or they've pawned their integrity for enduring job security through the 'persistent conflict' of the 'long war.' Whichever is the case, it's time for a Stalinesque purge of the Department of Defense. "
But creating a "persistent conflict" with a "long war" is precisely the true aim of the American ruling class. They would no more purge the architects of such a war than purge themselves.

The problem with our rulers is not that they are incompetent people with noble goals, but that they are highly intelligent people with ignoble goals. They use wars of mass murder to strengthen the power of a sociopathic elite.


* The war is also illegal. On this point, see

(2) Is Bush's War Illegal? Let Us Count the Ways (

(3) War is illegal (, signed by hundreds of personalities

and finally (in French):

(4) La guerre contre l’Afghanistan: un acte illicite et criminel (, which is, according to a note by the author to me, a bit different from others, who criticize the war on Afghanistan, as he demonstrates that the claim of "self-defense" was bogus because there is no evidence that Afghanistan or people from there attacked the US.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Banning Cigarette Sales, and Class Inequality

The oh-so-liberal City of Boston has banned smoking in all workplaces, and banned the sale of cigarettes in drug stores. It is all in the name of improving our health. Where will it end?

Mom and pop drugstore owners (yes, there are still some in Boston) complain that it's not fair they should be deprived of their income from cigarette sales, but other businesses not. A Boston Globe columnist who supports the ban on cigarettes in general made the overwhelmingly powerful case today that this discrimination against drugstore businesses is unfair. In all likelihood, the logic of this argument will lead the zealots in the city's Public Health Commission to extend the ban on cigarette sales to all businesses. Then cigarettes will be, for all practical purposes, illegal to purchase in Boston, as alcohol once was in the days of Prohibition. Unlike alcohol during Prohibition, however, the manufacture and sale of cigarettes (outside of Boston, at least) will presumably remain legal. No doubt these legally produced cigarettes will make their way into Boston via a criminal black market, with all of the violence and sorrow that will entail.

I am not a cigarette smoker. But on behalf of cigarette smokers, I protest the ban on cigarette sales, whether it applies only to drugstores or not. The ban on cigarette sales reflects the liberals' approach to dealing with social problems. They ignore the root of the problem, which in this case is the fact that the wealthy owners of tobacco companies make huge fortunes by doing everything they can to hook people on cigarette smoking. Instead the liberals come up with "solutions" that only make life harder for the least powerful people in society. One cannot help but wonder if the motto of the Public Health Commission is the backwards version of the one that journalists are supposed to have. Is the Commission's motto "Comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted"?

Who smokes today? It is disproportionately the poorest people from the working class, not professionals and the business elite. And why is this? Academic research into this question is inconclusive, but the leading theory is this. Working class people are as desirous of quitting smoking as other people, but it is harder for them to quit because their lives are more stressful and unforgiving. This makes it harder for them to endure the several weeks of intense discomfort that comes immediately after quitting, and makes it more likely they will "light up" during that difficult period. There are other theories. One is that the immediate pleasure from nicotine (or at least the relief from the displeasure of prior nicotine withdrawal) that "lighting up" offers somebody matters more to a working class person who knows that his or her life will be all down hill after the senior high school prom, than to a person from a higher social-economic class who looks forward to a better and better life in an advancing career. Another theory is that smoking a cigarette is one of the few moments when a stressed out working class person can do something just for themself, making smoking more valuable to a working class than to an upper class person.

Instead of making it illegal for people who are addicted to nicotine to buy cigarettes, as the Boston Public Health Commission may do, we should make it illegal for anybody to make a huge fortune by hooking people on nicotine the way the owners of the big tobacco companies do. At the same time we should let people who wish to grow tobacco or manufacture cigarettes or sell cigarettes in their store do so, but not get rich by doing so. We should let people who want to smoke do so (in places where non-smokers are not forced to breathe in the smoke.) If nobody stands to get rich from people being addicted to nicotine there will be a lot less nicotine addiction and better health.

What this illustrates is that the problems in our society largely stem from the fact that we let people make huge personal fortunes, and we define "success" to mean acquiring vastly more wealth than others in a very unequal society. If people can get rich by hooking people on nicotine they do it. If they can get rich by hooking people on illegal drugs like heroin, they do that too. Working class people around the world are being impoverished and stressed out (and driven to smoke!) by the actions of banksters like Hank Paulson and Bernie Madoff who did what they did for only one reason--it made them rich.

If we abolished the right of anybody to be inordinately wealthy then we would eliminate the motive to do the nasty things that harm the rest of us. In a society that did not permit the few to be vastly wealthier than the many there would be no upper class who own vast amounts of land or huge factories, and no lower working class who, because they don't own such things, must work for those who do. Everybody would be the same class. In such an egalitarian society people would have no material-gain reason for doing something harmful to others. People would work for shared goals chosen to make life better for all.

How would this impact smoking? One of the reasons why working class children take up smoking is because official society tells them not to. Anti-smoking campaigns actually seem to increase smoking. In one study investigators reported, "there has been growing concern that antismoking campaigns may have unintended or boomerang effects, in that exposure to such campaigns intensifies initial prosmoking attitudes among young smokers (Meltzer, 2003) or increases adolescents' smoking susceptibility (Farrelly et al., 2002). One 21-year old male participant in a qualitative examination of 150 college students' responses to antismoking messages said the following: 'Those ads just make me want to light up a cigarette' (Wolburg, 2004)."

For working class youths it is cool to do the opposite of what official society with its anti-smoking campaigns tells one to do. Why is this? I don't think it is because of innate human (or teenage) nature. I think it is because our society is based on class inequality, with real power in the hands of a wealthy upper class that treats working people with contempt, as "the hired help" who exist only to serve the upper class and make them rich. The upper class lies to working class people for selfish reasons and working class people know it. Working class people, with good reason, do not trust the upper class people who manage society and create anti-smoking campaigns.

As long as our society is based on class inequality, public health messages about the health consequences of smoking will, with good reason, never be taken seriously by all smokers. Class inequality is also the reason why working people have lives that are so stressful and difficult and, quite possibly, why they smoke. Class inequality is the root of the problem.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is It Realistic to Demand the Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees?

Many Americans, myself included, want our government to stop supporting Israel because Israel oppresses Palestinians. The root of the Israel/Palestine conflict is that Israel carries out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in order to ensure that the great majority of the population inside Israel remains Jewish. The biggest grievance of Palestinians against Israel is that it does not allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and villages inside of what is now Israel. They demand the right of return as a basic human right.

Many people who oppose Israel's oppression of Palestinians, however, do not emphasize the right of return demand; some avoid mentioning it altogether. Instead, they focus on the demand that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How come?

Their reasoning goes like this. Yes, the best solution would be for Palestinians to win the right of return with compensation from Israel for the property that was stolen from them by Zionists, and with the right to live as the equals of Jews under the law in all of Palestine. But this is a demand that is impossible to win. Israel would never allow it because it would mean the end of the Jewish state. The American political elite would never support it because they are committed to defending the security of Israel as a Jewish state. We must be realistic. The best that can be hoped for is to persuade American politicians to at least put pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. This is a realistic goal, because it doesn't challenge the idea of a Jewish state, and it is what American politicians (and other world leaders) already claim to support. It won't address the fundamental grievance of Palestinians, but it will at least end the terrible oppression of them in the occupied territories. It is a realistic strategy. If we start demanding the right of return and, in doing so, challenge the rightness of the Jewish state idea itself, we will lose whatever influence we might otherwise have among the people with the real power to change things. Demanding the right of return is an unrealistic strategy.

But is it really? As Dr. Phil would say, "How is your 'realistic' strategy working for you?" Few would deny that it has accomplished nothing. The Occupation shows no sign of ending, and the oppression is only getting worse, as the recent slaughter of people in Gaza highlights. Even if Israel officially ended its occupation of the West Bank it would continue to oppress Palestinians there just as it oppresses Palestinians in Gaza, which it purports not to be occupying now. The "practical" strategy is based on a false assumption--that American and Israeli leaders want a peaceful resolution of the conflict and can be nudged and persuaded to make it happen. All of the evidence indicates, on the contrary, that they want to keep the conflict going indefinitely.

There is a reason why they do. The conflict strengthens both the Israeli and the American ruling elites' control over their own people--always the top concern of any ruling elite. Israel's ruling class of billionaires and generals and politicians needs the conflict to continue in order to ensure that the Israeli public remains so frightened of "Arabs" that they will obey their rulers who claim to be protecting them. The American ruling class of billionaires likewise uses the "War on Terror" to control Americans, and this requires that Americans stay frightened of "Arab terrorists." The Israel/Palestine conflict provides the American mass media the film footage it needs to keep American TV sets filled with images of what the media say are "anti-Semitic hate-driven Arab terrorists."

This is why the truly practical strategy is a revolutionary one: forget trying to persuade the politicians to do the right thing and focus instead on building a revolutionary movement among ordinary people. Building such a movement means talking to people about lots of things besides the Israel/Palestine conflict, but when we do talk about that conflict--which we very much need to do--the approach should be to focus precisely on the fundamental injustice at its root, which is Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and refusal to let them return to their homes and villages inside Israel and live as the equals of Jews before the law. Unlike politicians beholden to the rich, ordinary people care very much about what is right and what is wrong. When they learn that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is actually between those who value equality versus those who value inequality, they rapidly take the side of equality and oppose Zionism.

When it comes to persuading ordinary people that Israel is wrong, focusing on the occupation, rather than the ethnic cleansing and the wrongness of the Jewish state idea, is a loser. When one only talks about the occupation, the pro-Israel side wins the argument by replying this way: "Israel hates oppressing Palestinians but it has no choice. It needs to maintain the occupation in order to make the Jewish state secure. Otherwise Palestinians who deny Israel has a right to exist would be able to mount an attack on Israel from the West Bank. You don't deny that Israel, the Jewish state, has a right to exist, do you?"

What is at stake here are not "long range" versus "short range" goals. Focusing on the occupation to be persuasive with politicians loses in both the short run and the long run. Relying on ordinary people by explaining the root of the conflict, and building a movement that aims, frankly, to overthrow the anti-democratic rule of the American plutocracy, wins in both the short and the long run. In the long run it makes it possible to actually win what we want--a more equal and democratic world based on justice and concern for one another. In the short run it maximizes the pressure on the ruling elite because what they fear more than anything else is a revolution. This is not to say that the elite will necessarily respond by oppressing people less; they might increase the level of repression instead. The only thing that the revolutionary approach can guarantee in the short run is the satisfaction of knowing that one is doing the only thing that has any realistic chance of ever solving the problem. The non-revolutionary approach cannot even accomplish that.

The Israel Lobby's Power Comes from The American Ruling Class

Among those who, like myself, oppose Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, there is an important debate about a fundamental question. The debate is about how to explain the fact that the American government supports Israel virtually unconditionally with more economic, military and diplomatic aid than it gives to any other country.

One commonly believed explanation is that the "Israel Lobby"--consisting of organizations like AIPAC and a host of other pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the United States--has hijacked U.S. foreign policy by using its wealth and control of the mass media to buy or intimidate Congressmen. According to this view, the American government's pro-Israel foreign policy is harmful to the interests of the non-Jewish American corporate upper class, and were it not for the power of the Israel Lobby American foreign policy, reflecting as it does the interests of the American upper class, would not be as pro-Israel as it is today.

I call this the "The Lobby Makes Them Do It" view. I think it is just plain factually wrong. The alternative view that I hold is that the Israel Lobby's power comes from the (mostly non-Jewish) American ruling class.

The leading advocate of the "The Lobby Makes Them Do It" view is James Petras. Petras asserts that the Israel Lobby prevailed over America's Big Oil elite to get the U.S. to invade Iraq for the benefit of Israel:

"The principal governmental architects of the war, the intellectual promoters of the war, their publicly enunciated published strategies for the war were all deeply attached to the Israel lobby and worked for the Israeli state. Wolfowitz, number 2 in the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, number 3 in the Pentagon, Richard Perle, head of the Defense Board, Elliot Abrams in charge of Middle East affairs for the National Security Council, and dozens of other key operatives in the government and ideologues in the mass media were life-long fanatical activists in favor of Israel, some of whom had lost security clearances in previous administrations for handing over documents to the Israeli government...

"In fact the US-Middle East wars prejudice the oil interests in several strategic senses. The wars generate generalized hostility to oil companies with long-term relations with Arab countries. The wars result in undermining new contracts opening in Arab countries for US oil investments. US oil companies have been much friendlier to peacefully resolving conflicts than Israel and especially its Lobbyists as any reading of the specialized oil industry journals and spokespeople emphasize. "

Just on the facts, Petras is wrong. Far from opposing the Israel Lobby, Big Oil uses that lobby. As Juan Cole writes:

"Neoconservative Jews in the US like Richard Perle, Frederick Kagan and Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute who vocally support the Iraq War (and have gotten rich off it) are a minority of a minority, and even are at odds with the Israeli security establishment! Moreover, the American Enterprise Institute, which crafted the Iraq War, gets funding from Exxon Mobil, and last I checked it was run by white Protestants. The vice chair of AEI is Lee Raymond, former CEO of Exxon Mobil and surely Dick Cheney's old golf partner in the Dallas years. That is, the Kagans and the Rubins, who identify with the Revisionist Zionist movement on the Israeli Right, are useful idiots for Big Oil, not movers and shakers in their own right."

The American corporate upper class, the American ruling class, is pro-Israel because they (or at least their sophisticated advisors, like Henry Kissinger, Condoleeza Rice, General James Jones, etc.) know that Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians performs a strategically crucial service for the American ruling class. The ethnic cleansing polarizes the Middle East along non-class lines, fomenting an ethnic war pitting Jews against non-Jews. The American ruling class uses this ethnic war to strengthen its domestic control over ordinary Americans, and to strengthen the control of Middle Eastern ruling elites (kings, mullahs, dictators) over ordinary people in their respective nations. These are the most important strategic objectives of the American ruling class: social control to prevent the spread of pro-democratic, pro-working class, pro-solidarity movements from overthrowing elite rule anywhere in the world.

Regarding domestic control of the American population, the key strategy of elite social control has for many decades been to rely on Orwellian wars of social control. The particular "foreign enemy" has changed over time, from Teddy Roosevelt's Spain to Woodrow Wilson's "Huns" to FDR's Fascists to Truman's Communists to Bush's and Obama's Terrorists. By ensuring that the American mass media refrain from telling Americans the true reason (Israel's ethnic cleansing) why Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims take up arms against Israel, the American ruling class ensures that Americans will believe the lie that Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims are hateful, irrational, anti-semitic terrorists who kill decent Israelis "just like us" and would likewise kill Americans if we fail to obey our upper class rulers who protect us from terrorism.

Similarly, the oil-rich Middle East ruling classes, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, use their people's anger at Israel to strengthen their power over them, as I discuss in some detail in
How Israel Helps Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Control their Working Class and How Israel Helps the Islamic Republic of Iran Control the Iranian Working Class. James Petras is naive to think that Big Oil's interests are prejudiced by the pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy. If the Saudi royal family, for example, were really opposed to U.S. support for Israel, then it would use its vast wealth to support pro-Palestinian forces inside the United States, to counter the Israel Lobby; but it doesn't.

By the same token, if any members of the American mostly non-Jewish ruling class, with billions of dollars to throw around (Buffet gave away $40 billion alone!), wanted to tell Americans the truth about Zionism (the movement to create and protect a Jewish state), they could do so. They could tell Americans how Zionism is all about ethnic cleansing, how Albert Einstein (whom the Israeli government asked to be the President of Israel, and declined) always opposed the Jewish state idea because it was morally wrong, and how the Zionists betrayed European Jews during World War II by opposing rescue efforts (so there would be more dead Jews to give them greater standing at the post-war negotiations over who would "get" Palestine)--they could do so; but they don't. If they did, they could turn the American public against Zionism and against the Israel Lobby as quickly as they turn it against a politician soliciting sex in a toilet stall.

So why don't they do it? It is not because Zionists control the mass media. Sure, pro-Zionists do control the mass media, but billionaires could create their own anti-Zionist media if they wanted to. After all, Rupert Murdoch owns a large enough media network to do the job and at the time of his divorce in 1998 his personal fortune was only 3.3 billion pounds (less than $5 billion I imagine.) The American ruling class chooses not to oppose the Israel Lobby because they have no reason to. The Israel Lobby is an instrument ("useful idiots" as Juan Cole puts it) of the American ruling class. The Lobby spreads the lies that the pro-Israel foreign policy requires, and it keeps politicians in line who might otherwise stray from the path. The Lobby is powerful because it does the bidding of the powerful.

Very different organizing strategies against Zionism are appropriate, depending on whether one agrees with "The Lobby Makes Them Do It" view of James Petras or the view I advocate. If Petras is correct, then the natural strategy to turn U.S. foreign policy around would be to side with the likes of Big Oil against the Israel Lobby. But since Big Oil and the Israel Lobby are in fact on the same team, this is a ridiculous strategy. Instead, the strategy that makes sense is to mobilize the general public against the American ruling class around not only opposition to Israeli ethnic cleansing but also opposition to the entire anti-democratic, anti-equality agenda of the ruling class. This is a revolutionary pro-working class strategy, and only it can win.