When the wrong people say the right things
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is hardly a paragon of virtue, though, to the tune of multibillions in aid, his corrupt and oppressive government has long been supported by the United States as a regional bulwark. The other day, as Steven R. Weisman and Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times reported on 2/27/04, the Bush administration in its usual manner managed to put forward a plan for the Middle East without bothering to consult either our European “allies” or our Middle Eastern ones. (Whoops, Colin Powell swears we meant to. Honestly, we just hadn’t quite gotten around to it.) Here’s Mubarak’s initial response, admittedly a self-interested one, but no less on target for that (“U.S. Plan for Mideast Reform Draws Ire of Arab Leaders”):
- “‘Whoever imagines that it is possible to impose solutions or reform from abroad on any society or region is delusional,’ Mr. Mubarak said on Wednesday. ‘All peoples by their nature reject whoever tries to impose ideas on them. ‘ Egypt’s three semiofficial dailies — Al Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al Gumhuriya — all reported Mr. Mubarak’s remarks, including another pointed statement that the Bush administration was behaving ‘as if the region and its states do not exist, as if they have no people or societies, as if they have no sovereignty over their land, no ownership…’
- “‘It’s not the message, it’s the messenger,’ [an unnamed Arab diplomat] said. ‘But I don’t think the administration will be affected by the criticism. I don’t think they regard such opinions very highly. They’re going to forge ahead.’”
When discussing the handing over of Iraqi “sovereignty” at the end of June, they speak openly of putting an Iraqi “face” on the country — that is, of placing a mask of Iraqi-ness over American power.
Hand them this, while our newspapers write in all seriousness about turning over sovereignty to Iraqis, they couldn’t be blunter about what they actually have in mind. They are, after all, imperial fundamentalists of the first order and, even now, the mask is all they know.
The (big) cheese stands alone
Take, for instance, a small but devastating recent administration decision — on land mines. According to Bradley Graham of the Washington Post (2/27/04), “President Bush will bar the U.S. military from using certain types of land mines after 2010 but will allow forces to continue to employ more sophisticated mines that the administration argues pose little threat to civilians, officials said yesterday.”
This Graham calls, in the exceedingly polite language of our press, a “departure from the previous U.S. goal of banning all land mines designed to kill troops.” The Clinton administration had not made it on board the landmine treaty either but was at least theoretically aiming in that direction. In the meantime, 150 countries have already signed on to the treaty which prohibits the production, use, stockpiling or transfer of antipersonnel mines. But one country naturally outweighs the other 150.
Graham continues: “Bush, however, has decided to impose no limits on the use of ‘smart’ land mines, which have timing devices to automatically defuse the explosives within hours or days, officials said. His ban will apply only to ‘dumb’ mines — those without self-destruct features.” In real numbers, here’s what this evidently turns out to mean: “The Pentagon maintains a stockpile of about 18 million land mines, including 15 million of the newer, self-destructing kinds.”
And actually it’s not exactly accurate to say that we’ve gotten rid of the ‘dumb’ mines either: “Under Bush’s new policy, dumb mines will continue to be used only for the defense of South Korea until their elimination after 2010. Use of dumb anti-vehicle mines will require special presidential approval.” That, I’m sure, will be tough to get.
Imagine the message this sends to other nations: Yes, you get rid of all your mines and we’ll just keep producing smarter and smarter ones for ourselves and, until we’ve made it there, reserve the right to use the dumb ones for the next 6 years upon a presidential order to do so. Of course, this administration has declared itself intent upon being militarily a giant among pygmies in every field of weaponry, in every kind of militarized technology until the end of time. (That may sound histrionic, but believe me it’s just reportorial — check out our policies on the development of new generations of nuclear weapons if you don’t believe me.) As with so much else, the message to the world is actually remarkably repetitive: stuff it.
Talking in company
The actress Greta Garbo’s famously said, “I vant to be alone.” But if you’re not the U.S. government globally, then really, you shouldn’t imagine yourself alone or capable of having a private conversation about anything. Ever.
As of this week, we seem to know that, during the run-up to war in Iraq, either we or the Brits were listening in on UN head Kofi Annan, head of UN weapons inspection teams Hans Blix, various waffling delegations at the UN, former head inspector Richard Butler, former UN diplomat Hans Von Sponek, and heavens knows who else. (By the way, in this particular case, the distinction between American and British intelligence is nil. Each uses the other to get around domestic laws that put limits on intelligence operations against its citizens. So the Brits listen in on people we want overheard and then pass the info on to us and vice-versa, all nice and “legal.”)
This story was broken by Clare Short, a minister in Tony Blair’s wartime cabinet, who once again shook the ever shakier Blair government by saying on a BBC radio show: “I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan’s conversations. In fact I have had conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war, thinking: ‘Oh dear. There will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying.’” (Independent, 2/27/04)
While Blair excoriated Short as “deeply irresponsible” and claimed that she had threatened Britain’s national security, he did not deny (or admit) that British intelligence had indeed listened in on Annan at the moment when he was trying to prevent an invasion of Iraq. The Australian Broadcasting Service then reported the news on Blix (“The British or US intelligence services monitored former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s mobile phone whenever he was in Iraq… and the transcripts were then made available to the United States, Australia, Canada, the UK and also New Zealand”) and the Australian Richard Butler (“Mr Butler says he welcomes Ms Short’s comments because it is time the world knew how international diplomacy really works.”) Then Von Sponek was tossed into the mix (Guardian, 2/27/04).
UN officials certainly assumed that bugging was a possibility and regularly had their offices swept for eavesdropping devices, but evidently had little faith in the results. Butler commented:
- “If I really truly wanted to have a sensitive conversation with somebody where I was asking them to be honest with me … I was reduced to having to go either to a noisy cafeteria in the basement of the UN where there was so much noise around, and then whisper in the hope that we wouldn’t be overheard.
- “Or I’d literally take a walk in Central Park. I’d take a walk with a person in a park and speak in a low voice and keep moving so that we could avoid directional microphones and maybe, maybe just have a private conversation.”
- “The United States is conducting a secret ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against UN Security Council delegations in New York as part of its battle to win votes in favour of war against Iraq. Details of the aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York, are revealed in a document leaked to The Observer.” (3/2/03)
Though the British essentially admitted to the matter by charging a translator, Katherine Gun, who worked at GCHQ (the British equivalent of our NSA), with leaking the document, this has, until recently, been a non-story here. The Blair government’s unexplained decision so many months later suddenly to drop its charges against Gun this very week certainly helped spark these revelations.
Middle Eastern historian Juan Cole at his weblog offered the following commentary on all of this:
- “The Blix wiretaps raise an interesting question. Did the US and UK know even more about the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction than we thought, from what Blix was saying privately in spring of 2003 before the war?
- “While the GCHQ [British intelligence] listening in on phone calls in the US is apparently just a regular occurrence, tapping Kofi Annan’s line would be illegal because the UN headquarters is not considered US soil. Whatever deal Roosevelt and Churchill made about each spying on the other’s citizens doesn’t apply at the UN.
- “The framers of the US constitution wanted individuals to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own homes, and wanted the police to leave them alone unless there was good evidence they had committed a crime. The rise of the National Security State during WW II and in the Cold War has effectively gutted the constitution in this regard for all practical purposes. The Patriot Act more or less repeals the Bill of Rights, which has bedeviled successive US regimes, especially that of Richard Nixon, who now finally has his revenge.
- “I suppose the real question is whether, when Bin Laden boasted, ‘I will take away their freedom,’ it was an empty boast or an accurate prediction.”
- “For those still puzzling over the whys and wherefores of Washington’s invasion of Iraq 11 months ago, major new, but curiously unnoticed, clues were offered this week by two central players in the events leading up to the war.
- “Both clues tend to confirm growing suspicions that the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq had very little, if anything, to do with the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or his alleged ties to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda — the two main reasons the U.S. Congress and public were given for the invasion.
- “Separate statements by Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and U.S. retired Gen Jay Garner, who was in charge of planning and administering post-war reconstruction from January through May 2002, suggest that other, less public motives were behind the war, none of which concerned self-defence, pre-emptive or otherwise.”
Chalmers Johnson, author of the recently published book The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, has a simpler solution to at least some of our intelligence problems. He suggests in a piece that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (2/22/04) that we simply abolish the agency, “reducing our annual deficit by about $30 billion.”
Oddly enough, despite the intelligence mess of the last year, there has been little or no discussion of the real usefulness of our various intelligence services. Right now, they simply continue to fail upwards. The worse their work is shown to be, the larger they grow, the more layers of them there are, and the more money we pour into them. As far as I can see, all we’ve proved so far is that we’re remarkably good at bugging our friends.
See the pheasant flutter. See Dick Shoot. See the pheasant run. See Antonin shoot. I seem to remember this book from somewhere or other.
And so the slaughter mounts — quail, pheasants, ducks, and now more pheasants. It seems as if neither our vice president, nor our leading candidate for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in a second Bush term, can leave Washington without wiping out a flock or two of birds. Now it turns out that Justice Antonin Scalia, like the vice president, was “socializin ‘n shootin” way back when. In the late 1990s, Cheney was hunting quail while scarfing up companies for Halliburton; while in 2001, according to Richard Serrano and David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times (“Scalia Took Trip Set Up by Lawyer in Two Cases,” 2/27/04), the good justice was wiping out pheasants in the heartland while a guest of Kansas law school “on a trip arranged by the school’s dean, all within weeks of hearing two cases in which the dean was a lead attorney. The cases involved issues of public policy important to Kansas officials. Accompanying Scalia on the November 2001 hunting trip were the Kansas governor and recently retired state Senate president, who flew with Scalia to the hunting camp aboard a state plane.
- “Two weeks before the trip, University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen R. McAllister, along with the state’s attorney general, had appeared before the Supreme Court to defend a Kansas law to confine sex offenders after they complete their prison terms. Two weeks after the trip, the dean led the state’s defense before the Supreme Court of a Kansas prison program for treating sex offenders.”
Only two weeks after every other paper in the country, my hometown paper whipped up a belated lead editorial Saturday denouncing the duck hunting episode and suggesting Scalia recuse himself over the energy case (“Justice Scalia and Mr. Cheney,” New York Times, 2/28/04):
- “Recusal rules protect not only litigants, but also the court itself. Justice Scalia’s actions have again made the court fodder for late-night comedy, as it was after the 2000 election. If Justice Scalia stays on the case and votes in Mr. Cheney’s favor, the court will no doubt face more criticism. Justice Scalia should recuse himself, either of his own volition or with the encouragement of his colleagues.”
Oh, and then there’s the vice president, who may soon find himself in bubbling, if not boiling, oil over a growing Halliburton bribery scandal which took place in Nigeria on his watch. Dan Kennedy lays out this intricate and developing case in a piece entitled Dick Cheney’s Nigerian nightmare in the Boston Phoenix:
- “The story defies easy summary. In essence, an international consortium of four companies, including Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary, is suspected of having paid a $180 million bribe to the former government of Nigeria in order to build a liquefied-natural-gas plant in that country valued at $4 billion to $6 billion. The other companies are from France, Italy, and Japan. The alleged bribe has been under investigation since last year by Renaud van Ruymbeke, a French judge with a reputation for probity and independence. Van Ruymbeke has gone so far as to suggest that he may summon Cheney to France to be questioned about what, if anything, he knew about the payments — and possibly even to face legal charges. Recently, the Nigerian government, the US Justice Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened their own inquiries into the Nigerian matter. And Halliburton has retained a lawyer with close ties to the Bush administration to conduct an internal investigation.”
It turns out the Japanese are doing our mad-cow work for us. By refusing to accept American beef exports without the sort of testing safeguards now in place in Europe, they are driving American beef producers toward sanity. But not, of course, our stand-alone government. According to Sandra Blakeslee in a piece of corporate high comedy tucked away in the New York Times of 2/27/04, a major beef producer in Kansas city, Creekstone Farms, losing $80,000 a day thanks to evaporating international markets (all that premium black Angus that used to head Japan-wards), has just broken from the herd of beef companies and suggested its willingness to test all its cattle for Mad Cow disease (B.S.E.).
Creekstone’s president, John Stewart commented:
- “The problem we’re having now is that the U.S.D.A. is not wanting to do this. They don’t want to test. They don’t want to recognize B.S.E. is a problem. They are not going to allow anyone to test until they decide how or when. We believe that may be never.”
- “According to a statement from J. B. Penn, the under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, the Agriculture Department will respond to Creekstone when it has completed its evaluation. A press spokesman, Jim Rogers, said that the reply will ‘take some time’ and that anyone interested should ‘check back in future.’”
- “Lisa Ferguson, a senior staff veterinarian at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [suggested]… that Creekstone would be violating a 1913 law that states that only the inspection service can license the use of animal diagnostic test kits. But yesterday, Mr. Rogers said that the agency did not mean to imply that Creekstone Farms would face criminal penalties if it adopted mad cow testing. On the other hand, any company that sold such testing equipment to a meat processor could be breaking the law, he said.”
Justice of One
We seem to be pioneering a unique system of justice at our prison camp in Guantanamo, where hundreds of prisoners have now been held beyond the reach of any law for over two years. This week it was finally announced that two of the detainees would be brought up on charges before military tribunals. The BBC reports further developments:
- “Pentagon officials have confirmed that Guantanamo detainees may still be kept in detention, even if they are found not guilty by a military tribunal. They say detainees could be kept prisoner if they are considered a security risk. If found guilty, they could also be held beyond any sentence laid down by the tribunal.”
Sometimes the mainstream can tell you a lot. David Broder, old-time, old-line columnist for the Washington Post, sometimes referred to as the “dean” of the Washington press corps, is hardly a bold man. But recently he traveled to Ohio, where Senators Kerry and Edwards were campaigning and wrote a column declaring that the state, previously locked down by the Republicans who control the state house, its two Senate seats, and 12 out of its 18 seats in the House, a state without which no Republican in memory has won the White House, was up for grabs in the upcoming election. Here are a few of his comments (“Ohio a Test for Democrats Now, And for GOP’s Dominance Later,” 2/27/04):
- “The Ohio Poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, reported last week that for the first time in his presidency, Bush’s job approval rating in the state fell below 50 percent. The 49 percent overall rating was reinforced by even lower scores on major issues … JoAnn Davidson, regional manager of the Bush campaign in Ohio… pointed out that in 2000, Bush won only 50 percent of the vote, even though Al Gore had pulled out his staff and canceled ads six weeks before Election Day in the mistaken belief he had no chance.”
Broder points out that the state government web site has posted “an ominous roll call of job losses still to come” and comments:
- “Rep. Ted Strickland (D), who represents that area, said: ‘There is a dissatisfaction and anger with this administration I haven’t witnessed since I don’t know when. Unemployment and health care are huge concerns. The veterans are angry with their treatment….’
- “The late James A. Rhodes, the most successful politician in modern Ohio history and a four-term GOP governor, liked to say, ‘There are only three issues in Ohio — jobs, jobs and jobs.’ If he was right, this state will be a battleground — and a real test for the president — this fall.”
- “When even the United States constitution becomes a weapon in George Bush’s re-election campaign, you know the Republicans are running scared — and running back home to their core voters.
- “With the President’s popularity dragging along in the doldrums, Team Bush has decided to start playing its down-and-dirty cards. It no longer counts on a frictionless sweep to victory, as personified by pictures of the man in the flight suit distributing tax-cut bounty to grateful masses. Suffering from conservative doubts over stupendous deficits and what the hard-core Right sees as an overly illegal-Hispanic-friendly immigration program, they’ve had to revert to Plan B: early mobilization of a bristling front in the culture war.”
Bob Fertik, who runs the Democrats.com website and is often ahead of the game, recently wrote me a two-line response to a dispatch of mine on the Bush administration’s troubles. In this context, he’s well worth quoting, especially since I’ve always believed that when these guys went down they would go down shooting: “The scary question is: how ugly will rove get? And what will he do when ugly isn’t working?”
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]