Political and Moral Disarray


herman-2Usually great-power electoral candidates claim to be peace-minded, as well as promising to forcefully address economic and social problems. The 2016 presidential election was different. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump largely avoided war and peace issues, with foreign policy matters mainly confined to Trump’s despicable focus on dealing with immigrants and both candidates taking stands on foreign trade-investment (TPP) policy. Clinton stressed her foreign policy experience (without giving details), contrasting it with Trump’s ignorance and naivete (or worse) in supposedly aligning himself with Russian president Vladimir Putin. A good case can be made that it was not been the muddled Trump—who represents himself and widely diffused white middle and lower class discontent—but rather Clinton who was the true representative of the corporate elite and war party. Trump aroused the anger of the mainstream media and establishment leadership, partly because of his ineptitude and frequent wild and ugly pronouncements, but partly because he raised uncomfortable questions and policy suggestions. He expressed strong opposition to NAFTA, TPP that Republicans and the corporate community have traditionally supported, and that the pre-electoral campaign Clinton also supported, but that the Democratic base opposed. He has called for a reduction in U.S. bases abroad, a diminished foreign military presence, and the possibility of more cooperative relations with Russia. But he has also called for beefing up our military establishment, expressed his devotion to Israel, and has hinted at a willingness to use nuclear arms. His economic program, moreover, is remarkably helpful to himself and the economic elite, and not his middle and lower class supporters.

Serious Democracy Deficit

In short, in the 2016 presidential election the U.S. citizenry did not have an effective choice of a candidate who would turn away from the permanent war system and corporate welfare state; that is, one who had any chance of winning. (The 2000 election in which Ralph Nader could not get 5 percent of the vote showed clearly that U.S. democracy does not allow an effective challenge to the existing political duopoly.) This manifests a serious “democratic deficit,” a weak and weakening democracy in disarray and threatening the general welfare at home and abroad.

The moral disarray in this country has many manifestations. Torture was institutionalized and openly defended and rationalized in the Bush-Cheney years, and there has been a bitter struggle to get the long internal report on CIA torture into the public domain. Obama has been unwilling to force this disclosure or prosecute any Bush-Cheney or CIA officials for engaging in torture, in violation of his constitutional oath to enforce the law. Instead he has focused on the pursuit of whistleblowers, ignoring his earlier promises to improve government “transparency.”

Torture is also widely prevalent in the huge (2.2 million strong) U.S. prison system. It is displayed most conspicuously in the widespread use of “solitary confinement,” often for extended periods, in what are also known as “segregation prisons,” or “restrictive housing” It is estimated that there are some 80-100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in this country, in tiny cells and deprived not only of human contact but often of TV and sometimes reading matter.

“Jails have become the U.S.’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers, and solitary confinement cells in particular are now used to house thousands of individuals with mental illness.” (Jean Casella and Sal Rodriguez, “What Is Solitary Confinement?,” Guardian, April 27, 2016.) These authors note that a surge in this form of torture took place following passage of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which gave federal grants to states that lengthened sentences, with many of those states using the grants “to build supermax prisons or solitary units to cope with their expanding prison populations. The construction of that infrastructure in turn led to an explosion in the number of inmates in solitary. Between 1995 and 2000 the number increased by 40 percent.”

Police: An Occupation Army

herman-xtraA disproportionate fraction of the prison population is accounted for by people of color (over half), and people of color, and especially blacks, have suffered relative and even absolute declines in income and wealth in the last decade or so. There also seems to have been a surge in police killings of black civilians, and black urban areas have increasingly seemed to be policed by an army of occupation. Racial politics and racial strife have escalated, and widened voting restrictions and  other developments have produced best-sellers like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in An Age of Colorblindness. These are ominous setbacks to a democratic order and could easily worsen in a society where only warfare-state demands are easily attended to in the political system. Moral disarray in the sphere of foreign relations and policy is also dramatic. This is clear in the evolution of President Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric and policy. Early in his first term he announced the objective of  a total elimination of  nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. In a major turnabout and regression, within the past year, he announced a multiyear trillion dollar program for rebuilding and improving our nuclear war capability, including the development of smaller more “practicable” (i.e., useable) nuclear weapons.

Forty Years of Ethnic Cleansing

In another setback, Obama declined to accept a no-first-strike nuclear weapons pledge, which would have somewhat reduced the threat of nuclear warfare based on lack of information and fear. (William Broad and David Sanger, “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” NYT, September 5, 2016.) This reflects the deeper immorality of the dominant elements in the warfare state. The Nobel Peace Laureate has also broken new ground with his pioneering in the use of drone warfare, his regular Tuesday assassination-assignment meetings, his declaration of a right to bomb targets anywhere on the globe, and his carrying out of regular bombing raids and sometimes boots-on-the-ground-incursions against seven Muslim-dominated states. These attacks are carried out in regular violation of the U.S. Constitution, which requires wars to be approved by acts of congress, and they are regularly in violation of the UN Charter which would find them to be illegal acts of aggression. It would be interesting to see how Obama might deal with these matters if he ever returned to academia to lecture on constitutional law.

Moral disarray, or perhaps more accurately, institutionalized immorality, has also long been evident in the steady U.S. political and economic support of Israel’s 40-year-long program of ethnic cleansing in Palestine, with its sporadic bouts of massacre, notably in the three Gaza assaults (much too one-sided to be called “wars”). This reflects the financial, propaganda and political power of the pro-Israel lobby, which has led to Obama’s upping the ante of ethnic cleansing financial and arms support (by $38 billion over 10 years) and with good prospects for its continuation and even possible increase.

Destroyed States

The warfare in Syria is a follow-on to the attacks on Iraq and Libya. We may recall General Wesley Clark’s claim in March 2007 that shortly after 9/11 a Pentagon official had shown him a Rumsfeld- Wolfowitz list of seven Middle East and North African countries that  ere scheduled for attack and regime change. Iraq and Libya, both on that list, have been attacked and transformed into U.S.-destroyed states with new or unsettled leadership. The United States has been supporting regime change forces in Syria from at least as far back as 2011, but the job has not been completed, in part because of increased Russian support for president Assad. Truce efforts by the U.S. and Russia have regularly broken down because the U.S. still aims at regime change and supports the rebel forces that Russia targets, many or most of which are Al Qaeda- or ISIS-related and whose victory would yield another Libya-like failed state.  It is possible that continued low level warfare draining the regime is an option that U.S. officials prefer to an Assad victory (Edward Hunt, “Perpetuating Stalemate in Syria,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 13, 2016).

The costs to the population does not register in the U.S. political system any more than the very large Libyan or Iraq civilian costs have done. A major problem, however, is that further Russian successes in Syria may be intolerable to the U.S. leadership. This could lead to a military challenge, open conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and possible escalation of warfare beyond Syria.

W e may also see escalated action in Ukraine, where fighting and pacification efforts continue and the unrelenting campaign of Russia/Putin demonization has gotten a lift with the recent and problematic Dutch report claiming Russian responsibility for the downing of MH-17 (see Robert Parry, “Troubling Gaps in the New MH-17 Report,” Consortium- News.Com, September 28, 2016). The Ukrainian coup leaders are doing badly under Western economic discipline and bearing the costs of internal warfare, and they have a tenuous hold on power.

In sum, the prospects of serious internal reforms and an improved distribution of income and wealth in the United States resulting from the 2016 election do not appear promising, given the structure of power. But we may reasonably expect a return to Bush-Cheney type attempts to employ U.S. military power to confront any perceived U.S. rivals or challenges, real or imagined. We are likely to be in for a very expensive, as well as hazardous, hegemony- bound ride in coming years.

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Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic and author of many articles and books, focusing on the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign and domestic policies.