Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reports reveal devastation wreaked by Israeli military in Gaza

Reports reveal devastation wreaked by Israeli military in Gaza

By Patrick O’Connor

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With the ceasefire in Gaza now in effect, for the time being at least, many international journalists are now able to enter the Palestinian territory for the first time since the Israeli military offensive began last month. Initial reports have highlighted the utter destruction inflicted upon the population by Israel's armed forces. At least 5,000 homes have been destroyed and more than 20,000 damaged, with many urban centers reduced to nothing more than rubble. Gaza's limited social infrastructure has been largely obliterated, as have numerous factories and agricultural centers.

The picture emerging from Gaza puts paid to the Israeli government's lies—that its military assault was a defensive response to Hamas rockets, and that those leading "Operation Cast Lead" were taking great care to avoid civilian casualties. The offensive was in fact a war crime—an act of collective punishment aimed at demoralizing and intimidating the Palestinian population, thereby suppressing all resistance to the ongoing Israeli occupation. The Zionist state also no doubt intended to send a warning to Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other potential opponents of its expansionist strategy.

Journalists in Gaza struggled to find appropriate metaphors or historical precedents to describe the devastation. From Gaza City, Reuters' Douglas Hamilton wrote: "The destruction is total, as if a terrible earthquake had struck. But this was no natural disaster... [D]rive up into the suburb that once sat proudly on the ridge, and it's as if one had turned a corner of Stalingrad, a dark scene from some World War Two battle of annihilation."

Associated Press: "Destruction in some areas left streets that resembled a moonscape."

The Financial Times spoke with Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. "This reminds us of the film The Day After," he said, referring to a film about a nuclear catastrophe. "People are in compete shock."

Buildings and sites associated with any form of Palestinian autonomy were among those targeted. The parliament and cabinet buildings in Gaza City were destroyed, as was the city's police headquarters, the Bank of Palestine building, the main university, and several mosques. Israeli shells and tanks ruined acres of olive and fruit groves. Major shopping centers and markets were hit. Many of the small number of factories previously able to operate in Gaza were also targeted. "Gaza's only cement packing factory is now a giant scrap heap, its towering silo tilting precariously," Associated Press reported. "The owner's villa, pounded by Israeli tank shells, looks like Swiss cheese."

Residential areas, including a large number of apartment buildings, were badly damaged and in many cases entirely destroyed by mortars and bombs. The UN has reported that more than 50,000 Palestinians are homeless and are crowding into 50 emergency shelters. The exact number of people made homeless by the Israeli assault is likely to increase as the full scale of the damage becomes better known. According to an initial estimate issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the structural damage will cost at least $1.9 billion.

Reuters reported: "Municipal bulldozers pushed aside crushed cars and fallen chunks of concrete from the streets, but nothing could conceal the scale of destruction wrought by Israel's military machine. ‘Some people can't even recognize the place where their house used to be,' one policeman radioed to his commander from the northern town of Beit Lahiya."

Several journalists reported on the racist graffiti left by Israeli troops on the walls of bombed-out apartment buildings and mosques. "Hamas whores" in Hebrew and "Hamas is dead" in English was sprayed onto one mosque in Gaza City's Zeitoun suburb. The Guardian reported that a nearby home had slogans including, "Arabs need to die" and "Arabs: 1948 to 2009." Such taunts are evidence of the fascistic sentiments being cultivated within the Israeli Defense Forces.

The humanitarian crisis now confronting the Palestinian people has been made worse by Israel's targeting of Gaza's water and electricity networks. People in Gaza City have reportedly been forced to light fires and cook in pots on the side of rubble-littered roads.

Even before the war, water and power infrastructure had already been damaged by the Israeli siege, with the main power station operating only intermittently and fuel shortages affecting water pumps. The military assault saw six major water wells damaged or destroyed, disrupting water supplies to an additional 200,000 of Gaza's 1.4 million people, according to a senior water authority official cited by the Washington Post. The UN has reported that 400,000 Gazans now have no access to running water. In Gaza City, 80 percent of the electricity grid was damaged, including power lines. Palestinian technicians said that restoring water and electricity services would take weeks, but only if Israel permits the entry of necessary spare parts and equipment.

The terrible casualties inflicted on the Palestinian population underscores the barbarism of the Israeli military assault. At least 1,300 people were killed, including hundreds of children. The toll is likely to rise, as many families are still discovering decomposing bodies beneath the rubble of what were their homes and businesses.

An estimated 5,300 people were wounded, many seriously. Medical personnel in Gaza have reported an unusually high proportion of limb amputations. Dr. Jan Brommundt, a German doctor working for Medecins du Monde in the south Gazan city of Khan Younis, told Al Jazeera that the injuries he had seen were "absolutely gruesome." He said surgeons had reported many cases where casualties had lost both legs rather than one, raising suspicions that the Israeli military was using Dense Inert Metal Explosives (Dime), an experimental explosive device that expels charged tungsten dust that acts as micro-shrapnel, burning and destroying everything within a four-meter radius.

"Victims will present within one to five hours with an acute abdomen which looks like appendicitis, but it turns out on operation that dozens of miniature particles can be found in all of their organs," Dr. Brommundt explained. "It seems to be some sort of explosive or shell that disperses tiny particles at around 1x1 or 2x1 millimeters that penetrate all organs. These miniature injuries, you are not able to attack them surgically."

Another doctor corroborated these reports. Dr. Erik Fosse, a Norwegian surgeon who worked at the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza during the Israeli attack, told Al Jazeera that there was a significant increase in double amputations. "We suspect they used Dime weapons because we saw cases of huge amputations or flesh torn off the lower parts of the body," he said. "The pressure wave [from a Dime device] moves from the ground upwards and that's why the majority of patients have huge injuries to the lower part of the body and abdomen...The problem is that most of the patients I saw were children. If they [the Israelis] are trying to be accurate, it seems obvious these weapons were aimed at children."

Reports continue to emerge of Israeli war crimes committed during its offensive. Amnesty International yesterday said the deployment of white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas of Gaza was indiscriminate and illegal. The Israeli military has claimed it was using phosphorous for illumination purposes, but Amnesty found evidence that the incendiary and corrosive substance had been used as a chemical weapon.

There have also been reports of the Israeli army firing bullets and shells tipped with depleted uranium. Arab ambassadors yesterday delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency asking Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to "carry out a radiological and physical assessment in order to verify the presence of depleted uranium in the weaponry used by Israel in the Gaza Strip."

According to Israeli officials, ground forces are expected to be withdrawn from Gaza by the time Barack Obama is inaugurated as US president. These cynical political calculations point to the fragility of the ceasefire. There are already voices within the Israeli political and military establishment warning that renewed military action is only a matter of time. Opposition Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the military "has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been completed."

There remains the danger that the firing of rockets from Gaza will provide the pretext for Israel to launch a broader regional offensive, potentially involving an attack on Iran. Both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz have published reports today claiming that Tehran plans to smuggle long-range missiles into the Palestinian territories. Neither article included any supporting evidence for this claim, and instead cited "intelligence reports," indicating that the stories were Israeli intelligence-military plants.

Obama’s team: A right-wing cabinet for a government of big business

Obama’s team: A right-wing cabinet for a government of big business

By Patrick Martin

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In advance of his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has assembled a cabinet drawn from the upper echelons of American society and the right-wing of the Democratic Party. Despite his invocations of “change,” his appeals to antiwar sentiment and to young people in the course of nearly two years of campaigning, there is not a single figure in the leading personnel of the Obama administration drawn from the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, let alone anyone representative of the broad masses of working people and youth.

The right-wing character of Obama’s nominees is described by the media under the approving labels of “centrist,” “moderate,” and—most of all—“pragmatic.” This terminology signifies that the incoming Obama team consists entirely of individuals who pass muster with the corporate-financial elite. There is not a whiff of genuine oppositional sentiment, let alone political radicalism, among the lot of them.

It is a remarkable fact that if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination and the presidency instead of Obama, there would be virtually no change in the cabinet selections. The Washington Post noted Sunday, in its overview of the transition process, that Obama staffers have a running joke: “If you wanted Obama to win for president, you should have worked on his campaign, but if you wanted to work for him, you should have worked for Hillary.”

If the most virulently pro-war Democrat in the Senate, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, were entering the White House, he would be quite comfortable presiding over a meeting of the cabinet selected by Barack Obama—even though the former professed such sharp opposition to Obama that he campaigned publicly for Republican John McCain last fall.

In its basic policies, the incoming Democratic administration will change the policies of the Bush administration only at the margins. One could posit a law of political physics: the more peripheral the policy area, the more “change” Obama will bring. Conversely, on the most critical issues—war, the economy, democratic rights—the shifts in policy and personnel will be cosmetic at best.

The continuity from Bush to Obama is symbolized by two of the main appointees: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of the Treasury-designate Timothy Geithner. Both played key roles in the Bush administration, and both will play even more important roles in the Obama administration.

Obama postured as the most antiwar of the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and owed his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in large measure to the support among youth and students mobilized on the basis of opposition to the war in Iraq. He has now decided, however, to retain the chief administrator of Bush’s war policies. Gates was installed at the Pentagon in December 2006 and oversaw the Bush “surge” of 30,000 troops into Iraq, as well as a continuation of the war in Afghanistan.

Geithner is moving up from the number three position in the Bush administration’s financial bailout squad, where he served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and worked with outgoing Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Geithner’s reward for the collapse on Wall Street, where he was the chief day-to-day government monitor of the financial markets, is to be promoted to the topmost policy-making position.

The confirmation hearings held so far this month have demonstrated the essential unity of the Democrats and Republicans under conditions of financial and military-political crisis. Transgressions of the kind that would have invariably derailed a presidential appointment in the last several transitions—failure to pay taxes, employing undocumented immigrants, even involvement in policy debacles and corrupt deal-making—have been swept aside in the interests of swiftly assembling the team to carry out the new president’s program.

Geithner, for example, will head the department that includes the Internal Revenue Service having failed to pay his payroll taxes over a four-year period, only providing restitution with interest and penalties after he was nominated as treasury secretary. Attorney General-designate Eric Holder was responsible for implementing the pardon of fugitive billionaire speculator Marc Rich in the last days of the Clinton administration in 2000.

But after their respective confirmation hearings this week, Republican senators lined up to support both nominees. Orrin Hatch of Utah, speaking of Geithner, told Fox News, “He’s a very, very competent guy.” Even more effusive was Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who called Geithner’s tax problems “a lot to do about nothing.” He added, “I just find it to be really unfortunate because here is an extraordinarily qualified guy who we really do want to have in leadership here in Washington.”

As for Holder, even after a hearing where he flatly declared water boarding to be torture—which could make Bush administration officials legally liable for criminal prosecution at the International Court of Justice in the Hague—Republican senators lined up to support him.

When Holder agreed that the United States is “at war” with terrorists, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina responded, “I’m almost ready to vote for you right now.” Senator Mel Martinez of Florida issued a written statement declaring, “Eric Holder understands the unique role of the attorney general and further, I think he’s qualified to serve in that role… Therefore, I intend to support Mr. Holder's confirmation and urge my colleagues to do the same.”

As for Hillary Clinton, once the highest-profile target for demonization by the Republican right, her confirmation hearing was described in all media accounts as a love fest. Senators spent 45 minutes praising her before allowing the nominee to read her prepared statement. Senators who voted to remove her husband from office ten years ago ratified her nomination for secretary of state and sent it to the floor of the Senate where she will be confirmed within minutes of Obama’s official inauguration.

The only Republican to vote against her nomination, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, cited potentially corrupt relationships involving fundraising by former president Clinton from foreign governments and individuals, who might use their contributions to provide political leverage with Secretary of State Clinton.

The bipartisan consensus driving the approval of the Obama cabinet was summed up aptly enough in a satirical column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who described Geithner’s appearance before the Senate Finance Committee under the headline, “The Nomination That's Too Big to Fail.”

Under conditions of a mounting financial crisis which has shocked and frightened the corporate elite, nothing must stand in the way of putting in place the personnel and policies needed to provide an ever-expanding government bailout to Wall Street.

Greater Than the Great Depression?

Greater Than the Great Depression?

The Day the Earth Still Stood

What Will Obama Inherit?

By Tom Engelhardt

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Inauguration day!

Gazillions of Americans descended on Washington. The rest of us were watching on TV or checking out streaming video on our computers. No one was paying attention to anything else. Every pundit in sight was nattering away all day long, as they will tomorrow and, undoubtedly, the next day about whatever comes to mind until we get bored. And in the morning, when this post is still hanging around in your inbox, you'll be reading your newspaper on… well, you know… the same things: Obama's speech! So many inaugural balls! Etc., etc.

So I'm thinking of this post as a freebie, a way to lay out a little news about the world that no one will notice. And all I can say -- for those of you who aren't reading this anyway, and in the spirit of the clunky 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still -- is: Klaatu barada nikto!

Okay, no actual translation of that phrase (to the best of Wikipedia's knowledge) exists. We do know that, when invoked, the three words acted as a kind of "fail-safe" device, essentially disarming the super-robot Gort (which arrived on the Washington Mall by spacecraft with the alien Klaatu). That was no small thing, since Gort was capable not just of melting down tanks but possibly of ending life on this planet. Still, I remain convinced, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the phrase could also mean: "Whew! We're still here!"

Though I skipped the recent remake of the film, which bombed (so to speak), I consider this post my remake, though with a slightly altered title:

January 20, 2009: The Day the Earth Still Stood.

Klaatu barada nikto has, by the way, been called "the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial." After watching the final press conference of George W. Bush, I wonder.

Now, whether Bush was the extraterrestrial and Dick Cheney the super (goof-it-up) robot, or vice-versa, is debatable, but whatever the case, let's celebrate the obvious: We're still here, more or less, and they're gone. Dick Cheney to fish and shoot. George W. to think big, big thoughts at his still-to-be-built library. Let's face it, on the day on which Barack Obama has taken the oath of office, that constitutes something of a small miracle. But a nagging question remains: just how small?

Or rather, just how large is the disaster? If the Earth still stands, how wobbly is it?

In fact, our last president -- in that remarkable final news conference of his ("the ultimate exit interview," he called it) in which he swanned around, did his anti-Sally Fields imitation (you don't like me, right now, you don't like me!), sloshed in self-pity while denouncing self-pity, brimmed with anger, and mugged (while mugging the press) -- even blurted out one genuine, and startling, piece of news. With the Washington press corps being true to itself to the last second of his administration, however, not a soul seemed to notice.

Reporters, pundits, and analysts of every sort focused with laser beam predictability on whether the President would admit to his mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere. In the meantime, out of the blue, Bush offered something strikingly new and potentially germane to any assessment of our moment.

Here's what he said:

"Now, obviously these are very difficult economic times. When people analyze the situation, there will be -- this problem started before my presidency, it obviously took place during my presidency. The question facing a President is not when the problem started, but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem. And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by [my] chief economic advisors that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

"So I've told some of my friends who said -- you know, who have taken an ideological position on this issue -- why did you do what you did? I said, well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too, which I did. And we've taken extraordinary measures to deal with the frozen credit markets, which have affected the economy."

Hold onto those "worse than the Great Depression… greater than the Great Depression" comments for a moment and let's try to give this a little context. Assumedly, our last president was referring to his acceptance of what became his administration's $700 billion bailout package for the financial system, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. He signed that into law in early October. So -- for crude dating purposes -- let's assume that his "chief economic advisors," speaking to him in deepest privacy, told him in perhaps early September that the U.S. was facing a situation that might be "worse than the Great Depression."

By then, the Bush administration had long publicly rejected the idea that the country had even entered a recession. As early as February 28, 2008, at a press conference, Bush himself had said: "I don't think we're headed to a recession, but no question we're in a slowdown." In May, his Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Edward Lazear had been no less assertive: "The data are pretty clear that we are not in a recession." At the end of July in a CNBC interview, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle typically reassured the public this way: "I think we have avoided a recession."

By late September, the president, now campaigning for Congress to give him his bailout package, was warning that we could otherwise indeed "experience a long and painful recession." But well into October, White House press spokesperson Dana Perino still responded to a question about whether we were in a recession by insisting, "You know I don't think that we know."

Lest you imagine that this no-recession verbal minuet was simply a typical administration prevarication operation, for much of the year top newspapers (and the TV news) essentially agreed to agree. While waiting for economic confirmation that the nation's gross national product had dropped in at least two successive quarters, the papers reported increasingly grim economic news using curious circumlocutions to avoid directly calling what was underway a "recession." We were said, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan put it in February, to be at "the edge of a recession," a formulation many reporters picked up, or "near" one, or simply in an "economic slowdown," or an "economic downturn."

At the beginning of December, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group of leading economists, made "official," as CNN wrote, "what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy" (no thanks to the press). We were not only officially in a recession, the Bureau announced, but, far more strikingly, had been since December 2007. For at least a year, that is. Suddenly, "recession" was an acceptable media description of our state, without qualifiers (though you can look high and low for a single major paper which then reviewed its economic labeling system, December 2007-December 2008, and questioned its own coverage.) Recession simply became the new norm.

Now, as times have gotten even tougher, it's become a commonplace turn of phrase to call what's underway "the worst" or "deepest" economic or financial crisis "since the Great Depression." Recently, a few brave economic souls -- in particular, columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times -- have begun to use the previously verboten "d" word, or even the "GD" label more directly. As Krugman wrote recently, "Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression." But he remains the exception to the public news rule in claiming that, barring the right economic formula from the new Obama administration, we might well find ourselves in a situation as bad as the Great Depression.

Now, let's return to our last president's news conference and consider what he claims his "chief economic advisors" told him in private last fall. His statement was, in fact, staggeringly worse than just about anything you can presently read in your newspapers or see on the TV news. What was heading our way, he claimed he was told, might be "worse" or "greater" than the Great Depression itself. Admittedly, John Whitehead, the 86-year-old former chairman of Goldman Sachs, suggested in November that the current economic crisis might turn out to be "worse than the [Great] depression." But on this, he was speaking as something of a public minority of one.

Stop for a minute and consider what Bush actually told us. It's a staggering thought. Who even knows what it might mean? In the United States, for example, the unemployment rate in the decade of the Great Depression never fell below 14%. In cities like Chicago and Detroit in the early 1930s, it approached 50%. So, worse than that? And yet in the privacy of the Oval Office, that was evidently a majority view, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

It's possible, of course, that Bush's "chief economic advisors" simply came up with a formulation so startling it could wake the dead or make a truly lame-duck president quack. Still, doesn't it make you wonder? What if, a year from now, the same National Bureau of Economic Research announces that, by January 2009, we were already in a depression?

I'm only saying that, on the question of just how steadily the Earth now stands, the verdict is out. Recent history, cited above, indicates how possible it is that, on this question, we are in the dark.

And one more thing, while we're on the subject of recessions and depressions, what if what's happening isn't, prospectively, the worst since the Great Depression, or as bad as the Great Depression, or even, worse than the Great Depression. What if it's something new? Something without a name or reference point? What then? How do we judge what's still standing in that case?

Standing Questions

If I were the Obama administration, I might be exceedingly curious about a couple of other "standing" questions right now. Here's one I might ask, for example: Just what kind of a government are the Obamanians really inheriting? When, tomorrow, they settle into the Oval Office -- or its departmental and agency equivalents -- and begin opening all the closets and drawers, what are they going to find that Bush's people have left behind?

This is no small matter. After all, they are betting the store on an enormous economic stimulus package -- approximately $550 billion in pump-priming government spending, and another $275 billion in tax cuts of various sorts, according to the present plan in the House of Representatives. All kinds of possibilities are being proposed from daringly experimental renewable energy projects to computerizing health-care records and building a national "smart" electricity grid, not to speak of rebuilding an infrastructure of bridges, roads, levees, and transport systems known to be in a desperate state of disrepair.

But what if the federal government slated to organize, channel, and oversee that spending is itself thoroughly demoralized and broken? What then?

We know that, after eight catastrophic years, some parts of it are definitely in an advanced state of wear and tear. The Justice Department is a notorious, demoralized wreck. So, infamously, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So, for that matter, is the whole Department of Homeland Security, as it has been ever since it was (ill) formed in 2002. So, evidently, is the CIA. Who knows what condition the eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency is in, or the Housing Department, or the Interior Department, or the Treasury Department, or the Energy Department after these years of thoroughgoing politicization in which all those crony capitalist pals of the Bush administration and all those industry lobbyist foxes were let loose among the federal chickens meant to oversee them?

In those same years, huge new complexes of interests formed around certain agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security, and all sorts of government functions were privatized and outsourced, often to crony corporations and often, it seems, expensively and inefficiently. Who knows how well any parts of our government now function?

All I'm saying is that it can take months, or even years, to restore an agency in disrepair or a staff in a state of massive demoralization. In the meantime, how effectively will those agencies and departments direct the Obama stimulus package? The manner in which the Treasury Department threw $350 billion down a banking hole in these last frenetic months should certainly give us pause, especially since the banking system has been anything but rescued. In the end, the U.S. government can order up hundreds of billions of dollars, but applying them well may be another matter entirely. What if, that is, the government now supposed to save us isn't itself really standing? What if it, too, needs to be saved?

And let's not forget the world out there. If you watched Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton breeze through her confirmation hearings, she seemed like the wonky picture of confidence, mixing the usual thingscustodians of empire, it's easy enough to avoid the obvious thought: that they are about to face a world -- from Latvia to Somalia, Gaza to Afghanistan -- which may be in far greater disarray than we imagine. you say in Washington ("We are not taking any option off the table at all") with promises of new policies. Looking at her, or our other new and recycled

Only the other day, for instance, in a hardly noticed report, "Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008)," the U.S. Joint Forces Command on worldwide security threats suggested that "two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse." One -- Pakistan -- was no surprise, though all sorts of potentially catastrophic scenarios lurk in its nasty brew of potential economic collapse, tribal wars, terrorism, border disputes, and nuclear politics. The other country, however, should make any American sit back and wonder. It's Mexico.

Here's the money passage in the report: "The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press[ed] by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

Of course, it could just be a matter of part of the U.S. military looking for new arenas of potential expansion, but let's remember that we're no longer in the frightening but strangely orderly Cold War world, nor even on a planet any longer overshadowed by a "lone superpower," the "New Rome." No indeed. Events in Mumbai reminded us of this recently. There, ten trained terrorists armed with the most ordinary of weapons and off-the-shelf high-tech equipment of a sort that could be bought in any mall managed to bring two nuclear-armed superpowers to the edge of conflict. Ten men. Imagine that.

We don't know what the world holds for us in the Obama years, but it's not likely to be pretty and some of what's heading our way may not be in any of the familiar playbooks by which we've been operating for the past half century-plus. We don't yet know if whole countries, even whole continents, may collapse in the economic, or environmental, rubble of our twenty-first century moment, or what that would actually mean.

I'm no expert on any of this, but on this day of anxious celebration, here's my question: Is the world still standing? Do you know? Really? Does anyone?

Historical Mystery of Bush's Presidency

Historical Mystery of Bush's Presidency

By Robert Parry

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After little more than two years of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned and his successor, Gerald Ford, famously declared, “our long national nightmare is over.” But the painful end game of Nixon’s presidency was nothing compared to the eight excruciating years of George W. Bush.

Even on Inauguration Day 2009, as most Americans rejoice that Bush’s disastrous presidency is finally heading into the history books, there should be reflection on how this catastrophe could have befallen the United States – and on who else was responsible.

Indeed, it may become one of the great historical mysteries, leaving future scholars to scratch their heads over how a leader with as few qualifications as George W. Bush came to lead the world’s most powerful nation at the start of the 21st century.

How could a significant number of American voters have thought that an enterprise as vast and complicated as the U.S. government could be guided by a person who had failed at nearly every job he ever had, whose principal qualification was that his father, George H.W. Bush, was fondly remembered as having greater personal morality than Bill Clinton?

Why did so many Americans think that a little-traveled, incurious and inarticulate man of privilege could lead the United States in a world of daunting challenges, shifting dangers and sharpening competition?

What had transformed American politics so much that, for many Americans, personal trivia, like Al Gore’s earth-tone sweaters, trumped serious policy debates, like global warming, health care for citizens, prudent fiscal policies and a responsible foreign policy? How could George W. Bush, who was born with a shiny silver spoon in his mouth, sell himself as a populist everyman?

Even taking into account the controversial outcome of Election 2000 – which saw Gore win more votes than Bush – why was the margin close enough so Bush could snatch the White House away with the help of five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court?

And why did the nation – after the 9/11 attacks – so willingly follow Bush into a radical divergence from traditional U.S. foreign policy and into violations of longstanding national principles of inalienable rights and the rule of law?

Why did the institutions designed to protect U.S. constitutional liberties, including the press and Congress, crumble so readily, allowing Bush to seize so much power that he could entangle the United States in an aggressive – and costly – war in Iraq with few questions asked?

Perceptions of Reality

Part of the answer to this historical mystery can be found in the complex relationship between the American people and mass media. The multi-billion-dollar stakes involved in selling commercial products to the world’s richest market also made the American people the most analyzed population on earth.

Controlling their perceptions of reality and eliciting their emotions became more than just art forms; they were economic imperatives.

Just as Madison Avenue ad executives got rich selling products to American consumers, K Street political consultants earned tidy sums for using the false intimacy of TV to make their candidates appear more “down-to-earth” or “authentic” and their opponents seem “weird” or “dirty.”

By 2000, the Republicans also had pulled far ahead of the Democrats in the machinery of political messaging, both in the technological sophistication of the party apparatus and the emergence of an overtly conservative media that stretched from print forms of newspapers, magazines and books to electronic outlets of radio, TV and the Internet.

Nothing remotely as advanced existed on the liberal side of American political life. Conservatives liked to call the mainstream news media “liberal,” but in reality, its outlook was either corporate with a strong sympathy for many Republican positions or consciously “centrist” with a goal of positioning the news content somewhere in the “middle.”

In Campaign 2000, the Republican advantages in media guaranteed a rosier glow around George W. Bush’s attributes and a harsher light on Al Gore’s shortcomings. Many voters said they found Bush a more likeable fellow – “a regular guy” – while viewing Gore as a wonky know-it-all, who “thinks he’s smarter than we are.”

That was, at least in part, a reflection of how the two candidates were presented by the dominant news media, from Fox News to The New York Times. [For details on this media imbalance, see our book, Neck Deep.]

The talented Republican image-makers portrayed Bush as a refreshing alternative to the endless parade of consultant-driven, poll-tested candidates – though, in reality, Bush’s image was as consultant-driven and poll-tested as anybody’s, down to his purchase of a 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 1999, just before running for the White House.

Post 9/11

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington less than nine months into Bush’s presidency, the American people immediately invested their hopes in what the press portrayed as Bush’s natural leadership skills. The Democrats also granted Bush extraordinary deference.

But that wasn't enough. Bush’s political advisers and the right-wing media sensed the opportunity presented by the 9/11 crisis to strengthen their ideological hand. Karl Rove, for instance, saw the possibility of locking in permanent Republican control of the U.S. government.

With the nation gripped by fear and jingoism, an enforced unity took hold. Bush declared a “war on terror” and oversaw a fundamental transformation of the U.S. constitutional system, asserting the “plenary” – or unlimited – powers of Commander in Chief at a time of war, making him what his advisers called the “unitary executive.”

But the “war on terror” was unique in American history because it knew no limits either in time or space. It was an endless conflict on a global battlefield, including the American homeland.

So, under Bush’s post-9/11 presidential theories, he could ignore laws passed by Congress. He simply attached a “signing statement” declaring that he would not be bound by any restrictions on his authority. As for laws enacted before his presidency, those, too, could be cast aside if they infringed on his view of his own power.

Bush also could override constitutional provisions that protected the rights of citizens. He could deny the ancient right of habeas corpus which requires some due process for a person to be locked away by the government. All Bush had to do was designate someone an “enemy combatant.”

He also could order warrantless searches and wiretaps, waiving the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for court-approved search warrants based on “probable cause.”

Bush even could authorize U.S. interrogators to abuse and torture captives if he thought that would make them talk. He could order assassinations of anyone he deemed a “terrorist” or somehow linked to “terrorism.” He could take the nation to war with or without congressional consent.

Former Vice President Gore asked in a 2006 speech: “Can it be true that any President really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?”

The answer to Gore’s rhetorical question was clearly, “no,” there were no boundaries for Bush’s “plenary” powers. In the President’s opinion, his powers were constrained only by his own judgment. Bush was “the decider.”

End of Rights

Looking at Bush’s arrogation of powers, the troubling conclusion was that the nation’s treasured “unalienable rights,” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, no longer applied, at least not as something guaranteed or “unalienable.”

Under the Bush theories, the rights were optional. They belonged not to each American citizen as a birthright, but to George W. Bush as Commander in Chief who got to decide how those rights would be parceled out.

The only safeguard left for American citizens – and for people around the world – was Bush’s assurance that his extraordinary authority would be used to stop “bad guys” and to protect the homeland.

Patriotic Americans would not feel any change, he promised. They could still go to the shopping mall or to baseball games. Only those who were judged threats to the national security would find themselves in trouble. That list kept growing, however, to include terrorist “affiliates,” “any person” who aids a terrorist, and government “leakers” who divulged Bush’s secret decisions.

To comfort Americans who feared that Bush was accumulating powers more fitting a King than a President, Bush’s supporters cited previous examples of presidents suspending parts of the Constitution, as Abraham Lincoln did with habeas corpus during the Civil War and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in incarcerating thousands of Japanese-Americans after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the start of American involvement in World War II.

But those conflicts were traditional wars, definable in length and with endings marked by surrenders or treaties. By contrast, the “war on terror” was a global struggle against a tactic – terrorism – that had been employed by armies and irregular forces throughout history.

Administration officials acknowledged that there would be no precise moment when the struggle would be won, no clear-cut surrender ceremony on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the conflict the “long war,” but it could be dubbed the “endless war,” a struggle against elusive and ill-defined enemies.

At times, Bush expanded the scope of the conflict beyond defeating terrorism to eliminating “evil.”

Yet, since there was no reason to think the “war on terror” would ever end, a logical corollary was that the American political system – as redefined by Bush – had changed permanently.

If the war would last forever, so too would the “plenary” powers of the Commander in Chief. With the President’s emergency powers established as routine, the de facto suspension of American constitutional rights also would become permanent. The democratic Republic with its constitutional checks and balances – as envisioned by the Founders – would be no more.

Pushing Back

But the emergence of an imperial presidency did not occur without some resistance. Despite residual fears about another 9/11, many rank-and-file Americans, both liberals and traditional conservatives, grew uneasy over Bush’s power grab. Their voices, however, were rarely heard in the major media, confined mostly to Internet sites and alternative radio outlets.

Then, in 2005, the administration’s incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans awakened more Americans to the emptiness of Bush’s promises about protecting the homeland. With Bush’s Iraq War also going badly, his approval rating sank below 50 percent on its way to the 20th percentiles.

In November 2006, American voters returned control of Congress to the opposition Democrats, and in November 2008, voters stripped the Republican Party of the White House, too.

Barack Obama's election represented a stunning repudiation of George W. Bush’s radical concept of unlimited presidential power, but many of the factors that enabled Bush to get as far as he did remain in place to this day.

The major U.S. news media, which either cheered Bush on or looked the other way, has changed little. Indeed, in the days before the Inauguration, President-elect Obama made a point of courting the favor of right-wing columnists, such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, and of the mainstream press, like the Washington Post’s editorial board.

Obama also has reassured the Washington Establishment that he doesn’t intend to shake things up too much. He’s kept on one of the insiders' favorites, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and has appointed other officials to manage foreign and economic policy who have had a hand in many of the dubious decisions implemented by the Bush administration.

The incoming President also has been paying heed to Establishment voices urging him not to hold Bush and his subordinates accountable for the many crimes they committed. Don’t listen to those American citizens who are demanding that the nation’s laws be enforced against high-ranking officials, Obama is being counseled.

Yet, beyond the issue of accountability for lawbreaking, there is another even more daunting challenge, how to replace the political and media institutions that aided and abetted the Bush administration’s assault on the nation’s constitutional principles and on reason itself.

After all, one can only solve the mystery of how George W. Bush became President -- and inflicted so much damage -- by taking into account the collaboration of Washington's political and media Establishments.

TARP II: Money for Banks, Not Homeowners

TARP II: Money for Banks, Not Homeowners

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TARP II, the second helping of $350 billion that is supposed to restore the health of our financial system, will soon be dished out by the Obama administration. Ostensibly, much of this money will go to help homeowners stay in their homes. But, as is the case with many Washington policies, this money is also going to end up in the bankers' pockets.

The basic deal is simple. More than ten million homeowners are underwater, owing more than the market value of their home. Millions of these homeowners have fallen behind on their mortgages and now face foreclosure.

But, under TARP II, the Treasury rushes to the rescue, buying up the current mortgage at far more than the market value. It then issues a new mortgage that reflects the market value of the home, which allows the homeowner to stay in their home.

Depending on the price decline of the house, the Treasury can easily be handing $30,000, $40,000, even $50,000 to the banks so that a homeowner can stay in a home in which he/she has little or no equity. This is a great deal for the banks, but it is not very helpful to homeowners, and just about the worst use of money that the Washington policy wonks ever produced.

This is not to attack the idea of helping homeowners. Millions of people listened to the politicians, the policy wonks and even nonprofits, who told them that buying a home in a bubble-inflated market was a good way to build wealth. Almost all the wizards who gave this advice still have their high-paying jobs, but the people who took the advice are underwater in their mortgages and facing foreclosure.

People should perhaps know better than to listen to the "experts," but unfortunately, most do not. It is fair to try to give a hand to those who got taken. There are simple, no-cost ways to do this, as I have pointed out in the past.

The most obvious way to help these homeowners is to temporarily change the foreclosure process so that people would have the right to stay in their homes as renters for a substantial period of time, paying the market rent. This requires no taxpayer dollars, no new bureaucracy and it can take effect the day Congress passes it. In addition to giving former homeowners security in their home, it also gives bankers a real incentive to negotiate terms to allow homeowners to stay in their house as homeowners, since banks do not want to become landlords.

Along the same lines, Congress can change the bankruptcy law to allow judges to alter the terms of mortgage debts as part of a bankruptcy, just as is done with other debts. While this will provide limited help to a limited number of homeowners, it is likely that Congress will at least pass this measure.

But the method of "helping homeowners" that draws the most enthusiasm in Washington policy circles these days is handing tens of billions of dollars to banks for their bad mortgages. There should be no mistake that this is exactly what the TARP II plan is all about.

Banks can already get market value for their mortgages under the Hope for Homeowners legislation approved by Congress last summer. But, there is no reason they should accept market value when the Democrats in Congress are prepared to hand them tens of billions of dollars above market value.

If the point is to help homeowners, there is a really simple way to restructure the plan. When the government has worked out a deal with the bank, it can then offer to just give the homeowner the same amount. This means that if the government was prepared to give a bank $250,000 for a mortgage on a home that is currently appraised at $200,000, that it offers to hand the homeowner the $50,000 difference ($250,000 minus $200,000) before the deal goes through. This would mean that we give the homeowner the option of pocketing the $50,000 that we would otherwise be giving to banks.

Is this fair? Well, people can debate how much help we think is appropriate to give to the homeowners who got nailed by the crash of the housing bubble, but it certainly makes more sense to help the homeowners than to help the banks who made bad mortgages.

At this point, it seems that Congress is intent on handing tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars to the banks under the guise of helping homeowners. The public should insist that if the point is to help homeowners, then the homeowners should be the ones receiving the checks, not the banks.

Plague kills 40 al-Qaeda operatives

Deadliest weapon so far... the plague


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ANTI-TERROR bosses last night hailed their latest ally in the war on terror — the BLACK DEATH.

At least 40 al-Qaeda fanatics died horribly after being struck down with the disease that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

The killer bug, also known as the plague, swept through insurgents training at a forest camp in Algeria, North Africa. It came to light when security forces found a body by a roadside.

The victim was a terrorist in AQLIM (al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb), the largest and most powerful al-Qaeda group outside the Middle East.

It trains Muslim fighters to kill British and US troops.

Now al-Qaeda chiefs fear the plague has been passed to other terror cells — or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

One security source said: “This is the deadliest weapon yet in the war against terror. Most of the terrorists do not have the basic medical supplies needed to treat the disease.

“It spreads quickly and kills within hours. This will be really worrying al-Qaeda.”

Black Death comes in various forms.

Bubonic Plague is spread by bites from infected rat fleas. Symptoms include boils in the groin, neck and armpits. In Pneumonic Plague, airborn bacteria spread like flu.

It can be in the body for more than a week — highly contagious but not revealing tell-tale symptoms.

Deadly ... the plague bacteria causes horrific symptoms

The al-Qaeda epidemic began in the cave hideouts of AQLIM in Tizi Ouzou province, 150km east of the capital Algiers. The group, led by wanted terror boss Abdelmalek Droudkal, was forced to turn its shelters in the Yakouren forest into mass graves and flee.

The extremists supporting madman Osama bin Laden went to Bejaia and Jijel provinces — hoping the plague did not go with them.

A source said: “The emirs (leaders) fear surviving terrorists will surrender to escape a horrible death.”

AQLIM boss Droudkal claims to command around 1,000 insurgents. Training camps are also based in Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria.

AQLIM bombed the UN headquarters in Algiers in 2007, killing 41. Attacks across Algeria last year killed at least 70 people.

In an interview last July, Droudkal boasted his cell was in constant contact with other al-Qaeda “brothers”.

More Americans Joining Military as Jobs Dwindle

More Americans Joining Military as Jobs Dwindle


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As the number of jobs across the nation dwindles, more Americans are joining the military, lured by a steady paycheck, benefits and training.

The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said.

And the trend seems to be accelerating. The Army exceeded its targets each month for October, November and December — the first quarter of the new fiscal year — bringing in 21,443 new soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. December figures were released last week.

Recruiters also report that more people are inquiring about joining the military, a trend that could further bolster the ranks. Of the four armed services, the Army has faced the toughest recruiting challenge in recent years because of high casualty rates in Iraq and long deployments overseas. Recruitment is also strong for the Army National Guard, according to Pentagon figures. The Guard tends to draw older people.

“When the economy slackens and unemployment rises and jobs become more scarce in civilian society, recruiting is less challenging,” said Curtis Gilroy, the director of accession policy for the Department of Defense.

Still, the economy alone does not account for the military’s success in attracting more recruits. The recent decline in violence in Iraq has “also had a positive effect,” Dr. Gilroy said.

Another lure is the new G. I. Bill, which will significantly expand education benefits. Beginning this August, service members who spend at least three years on active duty can attend any public college at government expense or apply the payment toward tuition at a private university. No data exist yet, but there has traditionally been a strong link between increased education benefits and new enlistments.

The Army and Marine Corps have also added more recruiters to offices around the country in the past few years, increased bonuses and capitalized on an expensive marketing campaign.

The Army has managed to meet its goals each year since 2006, but not without difficulty.

As casualties in Iraq mounted, the Army began luring new soldiers by increasing signing bonuses for recruits and accepting a greater number of people who had medical and criminal histories, who scored low on entrance exams and who failed to graduate from high school.

The recession has provided a jolt for the Army, which hopes to decrease its roster of less qualified applicants in the coming year. It also has helped ease the job of recruiters who face one of the most stressful assignments in the military. Recruiters must typically talk to 150 people before finding one person who meets military qualifications and is interested in enlisting. Dr. Gilroy said the term “all-volunteer force” should really be “an all-recruited force.”

Now, at least, the pool has widened. Recruiting offices are reporting a jump in the number of young men and women inquiring about joining the service in the past three months.

As a rule, when unemployment rates climb so do military enlistments. In November, the Army recruited 5,605 active-duty soldiers, 6 percent more than its target, and the Army Reserve signed up 3,270 soldiers, 16 percent more than its goal. December, when the jobless rate reached 7.2 percent, saw similar increases in recruitments.

“They are saying, ‘There are no jobs, no one is hiring,’ or if someone is hiring they are not getting enough hours to support their families or themselves,” said Sgt. First Class Phillip Lee, 41, the senior recruiter in the Army office in Bridgeport, Conn.

The Bridgeport recruitment center is not exactly a hotbed for enlistments. But Sergeant Lee said it had signed up more than a dozen people since October, which is above average.

He said he had been struck by the number of unemployed construction workers and older potential recruits — people in their 30s and beyond — who had contacted him to explore the possibility. The Army age limit is 42, which was raised from 35 in 2006 to draw more applicants.

“Some are past the age limit, and they come in and say, ‘Will the military take me now?’ ” Sergeant Lee said. “They are having trouble finding well-paying jobs.”

Of the high school graduates, a few told him recently that they had to scratch college plans because they could not get students loans or financial aid. The new G. I. bill is an especially attractive incentive for that group.

The Army Reserve and the National Guard have also received a boost from people eager to supplement their falling incomes.

Sean D. O’Neil, a 22-year-old who stood shivering outside an Army recruitment office in St. Louis, said he was forgoing plans to become a guitar maker for now, realizing that instruments are seen as a luxury during a recession. Mr. O’Neil, a Texas native, ventured to St. Louis for an apprenticeship but found himself $30,000 in debt. Joining the Army, his Plan B, was a purely financial decision. With President-elect Barack Obama in office, he expects the troop levels in Iraq to be lowered.

Going to war, although likely, feels safer to him. “I’m doing this for eight years,” he said. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.”

Ryen Trexler, 21, saw the recession barreling toward him as he was fixing truck tires for Allegheny Trucks in Altoona, Pa. By last summer, his workload had dropped from fixing 10 to 15 tires a day to mending two to four, or sometimes none. As the new guy on the job, he knew he would be the first to go.

He quit and signed up for the Jobs Corps Center in Pittsburgh, a federal labor program that would pay for two years of training, figuring he would learn to be a heavy equipment operator. When a local Army recruiter walked into the center, his pitch hit a nerve. Mr. Trexler figured he could earn more money and learn leadership skills in the Army. Just as important, he could ride out the recession for four years and walk out ready to work in civilian construction.

Although the other branches of the military have not struggled as much as the Army to recruit, they, too, are attracting people who would not ordinarily consider enlisting.

Just a few months ago, Guy Derenoncourt was working as an equity trader at a boutique investment firm in New York. Then the equity market fell apart and he quit.

Last week, he enlisted for a four-year stint in the Navy, a military branch he chose because it would keep him out of Afghanistan and offer him a variety of aviation-related jobs.

“I really had no intention to join if it weren’t for the financial turmoil, because I was doing quite well,” Mr. Derenoncourt, 25, said, adding that a sense of patriotism made it an easier choice.

The Army has struggled to attract the same caliber of enlistee that it did before the war. In 2003, 94 percent of new active-duty recruits had high school degrees. Last year, the number increased slightly from 2007, but it was still 82 percent. The percentage of new recruits who score poorly on the military entrance exam also remains comparatively high. The same is true for enlistees who need permission to enter the military for medical or “moral” reasons, typically misdemeanor juvenile convictions. Last year, 21.5 percent of the 80,000 new recruits in the Army required a so-called medical or moral waiver, 2 percent higher than in 2006. Fewer recruits needed waivers for felony convictions, though, compared with 2007.

Will Public Education Be Militarized?

Will Public Education Be Militarized?

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In two days, we enter a new Bush and Cheney-less era, though we'll be living with their nightmarish legacy forever and a day. In response to change, all of us have to adapt -- TomDispatch included. This site certainly won't lose its focus on the world out there, the ongoing militarization of our country, the way we continue to garrison the planet, or the new military and civilian team of custodians and bureaucrats of empire just now being put in place to manage our ongoing wars. This coming week and next, for instance, the site will turn to the nightmare in Gaza, well covered indeed by the political blogosphere, while considering what, in the new Obama era, the future may hold in the Middle East; but TomDispatch will also (as today) aim to expand its domestic focus, while keeping a steady eye upon the economic devastation now roiling our country and planet. (By the way, on some Saturdays, including the next one, I'll be having a surprise or two for TD readers, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Just as the Bush administration is handing off a host of foreign policy debacles to Barack Obama (including seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), a woefully mismanaged economic bailout, and possibly a second Great Depression, so the outgoing president is leaving the new administration with a public education mess. There's the much maligned and underfunded No Child Left Behind Act which is up for reauthorization this year. The cost of going to college is also rapidly spiraling out of control, as evidenced in a recent report in which every state except California received an "F" for college affordability. And at the same time, student loans are drying up as lenders, fearing economic disaster, scale back their programs.

With this in mind, the stakes are high for the incoming Secretary of Education and Obama pal Arne Duncan, who was received with striking warmth during his Senate confirmation hearings this week. As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it, "Mr. Duncan, there is no question that schools across America can benefit from the same kind of fresh thinking that you brought to Chicago public schools. As you know very well, perhaps our greatest educational challenge is to improve the performance of urban and rural public schools serving high-poverty communities."

Today, Andy Kroll skips the "applause" and the "warm reception." Instead, he puts Duncan's "fresh thinking" in Chicago under the microscope. The results may surprise. (To catch a TomDispatch audio interview with Kroll on the new Secretary of Education, click here.) Tom

The Duncan Doctrine

The Military-Corporate Legacy of the New Secretary of Education
By Andy Kroll

On December 16th, a friendship forged nearly two decades ago on the hardwood of the basketball court culminated in a press conference at the Dodge Renaissance Academy, an elementary school located on the west side of Chicago. In a glowing introduction to the media, President-elect Barack Obama named Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools system (CPS), as his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. "When it comes to school reform," the President-elect said, "Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book -- it's the cause of his life. And the results aren't just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job."

Though the announcement came amidst a deluge of other Obama nominations -- he had unveiled key members of his energy and environment teams the day before and would add his picks for the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior the next day -- Duncan's selection was eagerly anticipated, and garnered mostly favorable reactions in education circles and in the media. He was described as the compromise candidate between powerful teachers' unions and the advocates of charter schools and merit pay. He was also regularly hailed as a "reformer," fearless when it came to challenging the educational status quo and more than willing to shake up hidebound, moribund public school systems.

Yet a closer investigation of Duncan's record in Chicago casts doubt on that label. As he packs up for Washington, Duncan leaves behind a Windy City legacy that's hardly cause for optimism, emphasizing as it does a business-minded, market-driven model for education. If he is a "reformer," his style of management is distinctly top-down, corporate, and privatizing. It views teachers as expendable, unions as unnecessary, and students as customers.

Disturbing as well is the prominence of Duncan's belief in offering a key role in public education to the military. Chicago's school system is currently the most militarized in the country, boasting five military academies, nearly three dozen smaller Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs within existing high schools, and numerous middle school Junior ROTC programs. More troubling yet, the military academies he's started are nearly all located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This merging of military training and education naturally raises concerns about whether such academies will be not just education centers, but recruitment centers as well.

Rather than handing Duncan a free pass on his way into office, as lawmakers did during Duncan's breezy confirmation hearings last week, a closer examination of the Chicago native's record is in order. Only then can we begin to imagine where public education might be heading under Arne Duncan, and whether his vision represents the kind of "change" that will bring our students meaningfully in line with the rest of the world.

The Militarization of Secondary Education

Today, the flagship projects in CPS's militarization are its five military academies, affiliated with either the Army, Navy, or Marines. All students -- or cadets, as they're known -- attending one of these schools are required to enroll as well in the academy's Junior ROTC program. That means cadets must wear full military uniforms to school everyday, and undergo daily uniform inspections. As part of the academy's curriculum, they must also take a daily ROTC course focusing on military history, map reading and navigation, drug prevention, and the branches of the Department of Defense.

Cadets can practice marching on an academy's drill team, learn the proper way to fire a weapon on the rifle team, and choose to attend extracurricular spring or summer military training sessions. At the Phoenix Military Academy, cadets are even organized into an academy battalion, modeled on an Army infantry division battalion, in which upper-class cadets fill the leading roles of commander, executive officer, and sergeant major.

In addition, military personnel from the U.S. armed services teach alongside regular teachers in each academy, and also fill administrative roles such as academy "commandants." Three of these military academies were created in part with Department of Defense appropriations -- funds secured by Illinois lawmakers -- and when the proposed Air Force Academy High School opens this fall, CPS will be the only public school system in the country with Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps high school academies.

CPS also boasts almost three dozen smaller Junior ROTC programs within existing high schools that students can opt to join, and over 20 voluntary middle school Junior ROTC programs. All told, between the academies and the voluntary Junior ROTC programs, more than 10,000 students are enrolled in a military education program of some sort in the CPS system. Officials like Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley justify the need for the military academies by claiming they do a superlative job teaching students discipline and providing them with character-building opportunities. "These are positive learning environments," Duncan said in 2007. "I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline."

Without a doubt, teaching students about discipline and leadership is an important aspect of being an educator. But is the full-scale uniformed culture of the military actually necessary to impart these values? A student who learns to play the cello, who studies how to read music, will learn discipline too, without a military-themed learning environment. In addition, encouraging students to be critical thinkers, to question accepted beliefs and norms, remains key to a teacher's role at any grade level. The military's culture of uniformity and discipline, important as it may be for an army, hardly aligns with these pedagogical values.

Of no less concern are the types of students Chicago's military academies are trying to attract. All of CPS's military academies (except the Rickover Naval Academy) are located in low-income neighborhoods with primarily black and/or Hispanic residents. As a result, student enrollment in the academies consists almost entirely of minorities. Whites, who already represent a mere 9% of the students in the Chicago system, make up only 4% of the students enrolled in the military academies.

There is obviously a correlation between these low-income, minority communities, the military academies being established in them, and the long-term recruitment needs of the U.S. military. The schools essentially function as recruiting tools, despite the expectable military disclaimers. The Chicago Tribune typically reported in 1999 that the creation of the system's first military school in the historically black community of Bronzeville grew, in part, out of "a desire for the military to increase the pool of minority candidates for its academies." And before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, the armed services chiefs of staff testified that 30%-50% of all Junior ROTC cadets later enlist in the military. Organizations opposing the military's growing presence in public schools insist that it's no mistake the number of military academies in Chicago is on the rise at a time when the U.S. military has had difficulty meeting its recruitment targets while fighting two unpopular wars.

It seems clear enough that, when it comes to the militarization of the Chicago school system, whatever Duncan's goals, the results are likely to be only partly "educational."

Merging the Market and the Classroom

While discussing his nomination, President-elect Obama praised the fact that Duncan isn't "beholden to any one ideology." A closer examination of his career in education, however, suggests otherwise. As Chicago's chief executive officer (not to be confused with CPS's chief educationput it in a 2003 profile in Catalyst Chicago, an independent magazine that covers education reform, "We're in the business of education." And indeed, managing the country's third-largest school system does officer), Duncan ran his district in a most businesslike manner. As he require sharp business acumen. But what's evident from Duncan's seven years in charge is his belief that the business of education should, first and foremost, embrace the logic of the free market and privatization.

Duncan's belief in privatizing public education can be most clearly seen in Chicago's Renaissance 2010 plan, the centerpiece of his time in that city. Designed by corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearney and backed by the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization representing some of the city's largest businesses, Renaissance 2010 has pushed hard for the closing of underperforming schools -- to be replaced by multiple new, smaller, "entrepreneurial" schools. Under the plan, many of the new institutions established have been privatized charter or "contract" schools run by independent nonprofit outfits. They, then, turn out to have the option of contracting school management out to for-profit education management organizations. In addition, Renaissance 2010 charter schools, not being subject to state laws and district initiatives, can -- as many have -- eliminate the teachers' union altogether.

Under Duncan's leadership, CPS and Renaissance 2010 schools have adopted a performance-driven style of governance in which well-run schools and their teachers and administrators are rewarded, and low-performing schools are penalized. As Catalyst Chicago reported, "Star schools and principals have been granted more flexibility and autonomy, and often financial freedom and bonus pay." Low-performing schools put on probation, on the other hand, "have little say over how they can spend poverty funding, an area otherwise controlled by elected local school councils… [Local school councils] at struggling schools have also lost the right to hire or fire principals -- restrictions that have outraged some parent activists."

Students as well as teachers and principals are experiencing firsthand the impact of Duncan's belief in competition and incentive-based learning. This fall, the Chicago Public Schools rolled out a Green for Grade$ program in which the district will pay freshmen at 20 selected high schools for good grades -- $50 in cash for an A, $35 for a B, and even $20 for a C. Though students not surprisingly say they support the program -- what student wouldn't want to get paid for grades? -- critics contend that cash-for-grades incentives, which stir interest in learning for all the wrong reasons, turn being educated into a job.

Duncan's rhetoric offers a good sense of what his business-minded approach and support for bringing free-market ideologies into public education means. At a May 2008 symposium hosted by the Renaissance Schools Fund, the nonprofit financial arm of Renaissance 2010, entitled "Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market of Public Education," Duncan typically compared his job running a school district to that of a stock portfolio manager. As he explained, "I am not a manager of 600 schools. I'm a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I'm trying to improve the portfolio." He would later add, "We're trying to blur the lines between the public and the private."

A Top-Down Leadership Style

Barack Obama built his campaign on impressive grassroots support and the democratic nature of his candidacy. Judging by his continued outreach to supporters, he seems intent on leading, at least in part, with the same bottom-up style. Duncan's style couldn't be more different.

Under Duncan, the critical voices of parents, community leaders, students, and teachers regularly fell on deaf ears. As described by University of Illinois at Chicago professor and education activist Pauline Lipman in the journal Educational Policy in 2007, Renaissance 2010 provoked striking resistance within affected communities and neighborhoods. There were heated community hearings and similarly angry testimony at Board of Education meetings, as well as door-to-door organizing, picketing, and even, at one point, a student walk-out.

"The opposition," Lipman wrote, "brought together unions, teachers, students, school reformers, community leaders and organizations, parents in African American South and West Side communities, and some Latino community activists and teachers." Yet, as she pointed out recently, mounting neighborhood opposition had little effect. "I'm pretty in tune with the grassroots activism in education in Chicago," she said, "and people are uniformly opposed to these policies, and uniformly feel that they have no voice."

During Duncan's tenure, decision-making responsibilities that once belonged to elected officials shifted into the hands of unelected individuals handpicked by the city's corporate or political elite. For instance, elected local school councils, made up mostly of parents and community leaders, are to be scaled back or eliminated altogether as part of Renaissance 2010. Now, many new schools can simply opt out of such councils.

Then there's the Renaissance Schools Fund. It oversees the selection and evaluation of new schools and subsequent investment in them. Made up of unelected business leaders, the CEO of the system, and the Chicago Board of Education president, the Fund takes the money it raises and makes schools compete against each other for limited private funding. It has typically been criticized by community leaders and activists for being an opaque, unaccountable body indifferent to the will of Chicago's citizens.

Making the grade?

Despite his controversial educational policies, Duncan's supporters ultimately contend that, as the CEO of Chicago's schools, he's gotten results where it matters -- test scores. An objective, easily quantifiable yet imperfect measure of student learning, test scores have indeed improved in several areas under Duncan (though many attribute this to lowered statewide testing standards and more lenient testing guidelines). Between 2001 and 2008, for instance, the percentage of elementary school students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test increased from 39.5% to 65%. The number of CPS students meeting or exceeding the Illinois Learning Standards, another statewide secondary education achievement assessment, also increased from 38% in 2002 to 60% in 2008.

When measured on a national scale, however, Duncan's record looks a lot less impressive. In comparison to other major urban school districts (including Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or "The Nation's Report Card," Chicago fourth and eighth graders ranked, with only one exception, in the bottom half of all districts in math, reading, and science in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In addition, from 2004 to 2008, the Chicago Public Schools district failed to make "adequate yearly progress" as mandated by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act.

Even if Duncan's policies do continue to boost test scores in coming years, the question must be asked: At whose expense? In a competition-driven educational system, some schools will, of course, succeed, receiving more funding and so hiring the most talented teachers. At the same time, schools that aren't "performing" will be put on probation, stripped of their autonomy, and possibly closed, only to be reopened as privately-run outfits -- or even handed over to the military. The highest achieving students (that is, the best test-takers) will have access to the most up-to-date facilities, advanced equipment, and academic support programs; struggling students will likely be left behind, separate and unequal, stuck in decrepit classrooms and underfunded schools.

Public education is not meant to be a win-lose, us-versus-them system, nor is it meant to be a recruitment system for the military -- and yet this, it seems, is at the heart of Duncan's legacy in Chicago, and so a reasonable indication of the kind of "reform" he's likely to bring to the country as education secretary.