Sunday, December 27, 2009

Autumn of the Republic?

Autumn of the Republic?

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Did America slip into a semiliterate, polarized, pre-fascist state over the past decade or so, allowing greedy oligarchs and corporate elites to run the government? Two books I recently read offer reasonably persuasive evidence and arguments that the country did, and a third suggests that dictatorial mindsets could besiege Americans, with an assist from the Internet, if they don't come to their more deliberative senses. Each of the books offers an informed diagnosis of the dangers that widespread ignorance and ideological polarization pose for American democracy, though none offers a comprehensive treatment for the malaise.

I read the three books in less than two weeks; friends ask how that was possible. The trick is to avoid not only Facebook and Twitter but also: celebrity news, cable news, Oprah, Jerry Springer, American Idol, The Swan, other reality-TV shows, professional wrestling, violent pornography, positive psychology and right-wing Christian fundamentalism.

The latter list includes some of the spectacularly mind-numbing American pursuits that Chris Hedges examines in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges submits that while they mesmerized large portions of the American citizenry, CEOs being paid millions of dollars a year to run companies that feed on taxpayer money usurped our government — with the help of elected officials bought by campaign contributions and tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who now write many of the nation's laws.

"Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports," Hedges writes. "The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate, semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clich├ęs and slogans. They seek refuge in familiar brands and labels. ... Life is a state of permanent amnesia, a world in search of new forms of escapism and quick, sensual gratification."

Of course, they did not get into this clueless state by themselves. They were manipulated by "agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion," Hedges continues. "They are the puppet masters. ... The techniques of theater have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime."

I know those fools are out there — many millions of them. I might even be one. But what is absolutely maddening about this book is Hedges' penchant for stating sweeping, generalized claims as absolutes. And yet this master of divinity turned New York Times war correspondent become sociological scholar often bolsters his summations with just enough research, statistical data and anecdotal evidence to make them plausible. The book takes readers to Madison Square Garden for an exegesis of professional wrestling; to the Adult Video News Expo in Las Vegas for lengthy interviews with porn actors and producers and an inflatable doll vendor; and to Claremont Graduate University in California for a seminar on positive psychology, which Hedges terms a "quack science" that "is to the corporate state what eugenics was for the Nazis."

As a resident of Miami Beach, where the pornographic sensibility is a way of life, I wasn't shocked to read that annual porn sales in the United States "are estimated at $10 billion or higher" or that DIRECTV distributes "more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month." But I shuddered when Hedges documented not just a growing appetite for violent forms of porn in America but their remarkable visual similarity to photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society," he writes. "The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy. ... The Abu Ghraib images that were released, and the hundreds more disturbing images that remain classified, could be stills from porn films."

Unfortunately, Empire of Illusion won't enlighten or offend the large swaths of functionally illiterate Americans transfixed by smut, pro wrestling, reality TV or celebrity gossip, because those people won't read the book. But this scholarly 193-page diatribe, which draws from a 100-author bibliography ranging from the late neo-Marxist Frankfurt School icon Theodor Adorno (The Culture Industry) to Princeton professor emeritus Sheldon Wolin (Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism), would surely madden many proud affiliates and alumni of America's elite university system.

Hedges, who attended New England prep schools, Colgate and Harvard as a young man, and later taught at Princeton, Columbia and New York University, asserts in Chapter 3, "The Illusion of Wisdom," that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and most elite schools "do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think." Elite universities are in the business of producing "hordes of competent systems managers" not critical thinkers. Those statements strike me as generally accurate. But I'd expect some fierce academic blowback from this notion: "The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive." And Hedges suggests that these high-end schools "refuse to question a self-justifying system" in which "organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter."

Hedges not only blames the elite universities for our mortgage-fueled financial crisis but is sure their alumni on Wall Street and in Washington have no capacity to really fix the economic system. "Indeed, they'll make it worse," he predicts, exchanging his reportorial register for the absolutist. "They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one." (He includes George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Obama's "degree-laden" cabinet members in this group.)

If Hedges knows how to fix the system, he doesn't tell us in Empire of Illusion. I hope that'll be the subject of his next book, because in the meantime, "powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth" are waiting for "a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control," he warns, without citing verifiable evidence for his dire prediction.

What if PBS, Fox and YouTube organized a national debate featuring Chris Hedges, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, his predecessor Hank Paulson, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? That panel is a little far-fetched, but it's the sort of cross-ideological forum that Cass Sunstein prescribes in 2.0 as a way of preventing the nation from sliding into factional, perhaps even violent strife.

Sunstein is a law professor, author and perennial all-star in the world of public intellectuals; he took leave from Harvard Law School to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at President Obama's Office of Management and Budget. "The American constitutional order was designed to create a republic, as opposed to a monarch or direct democracy," he writes. "Representatives would be accountable to the public at large. But there was also supposed to be a large degree of reflection and debate, both within the citizenry and within government itself."

Of course, the Founding Fathers knew public debate could get ugly. Sunstein notes Alexander Hamilton's belief that the "jarring of parties" was a good thing because it would engender deliberation and, over time, a "republic of reasons."

Are we one today? Not as much as we could be, Sunstein thinks. His fundamental concern in 2.0 is the Internet's potential for impeding deliberation between groups with opposing viewpoints, eventually increasing ideological rigidity and polarization to a point of no return. It's vastly easier to join like-minded Internet "enclaves" across the world than to drive across town for a meeting in which someone might challenge one's pre-established beliefs and positions. Sunstein walks readers through behavioral studies finding that when groups of like-minded individuals are isolated from different viewpoints, they tend toward consensus on the most extreme position held within the group.

At worst, Sunstein says, Internet-induced polarization could lead to social instability. "The danger is that through the mechanisms of persuasive arguments, social comparisons, and corroboration, members will move to positions that lack merit," he writes. "It is impossible to say, in the abstract, that those who sort themselves into enclaves will generally move in a direction that is desirable for society at large or even for its own members. It is easy to think of examples to the contrary, as, for example, Nazism, hate groups, terrorists, and cults of various sorts."

Clearly, the Internet has potential to create political good. Citizens have access to vast amounts of information and commentary. Even like-minded enclave proliferation can be good: The more there are, the greater the potential for inter-enclave discussion.

But a study of 1,400 liberal and conservative blogs found the vast majority of bloggers link only to like-minded blogs. Worse, another study showed that when "liberal" bloggers comment on "conservative" blog posts, and vice-versa, a plurality of comments simply cast contempt on opposing views. "Only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion. In this way, real deliberation is often occurring within established points of view, but only infrequently across them," Sunstein reports.

One cure for Internet-driven polarization lies with "general interest intermediaries." By that terminology, Sunstein means media outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, current affairs magazines, PBS, NPR and old-fashioned network news broadcasts: "People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experiences with diverse others, and also exposure to materials and topics that they did not seek out in advance."

Of course, these are the media that are in decline because of the Internet. Sunstein imagines a greater role for private and public institutions, including the federal government, in ensuring enough general-interest intermediaries exist to make the republic's communications system "a help rather than a hindrance to democratic self-government" and a counterbalance to the echo chambers of the Web.

For the most part, Thom Hartmann's Threshold: Crisis of Western Civilization functions as a general-interest intermediary in book form. Still, readers can be forgiven for wondering, at times, whether they are in a no-conservatives zone. Hartmann is host of the Thom Hartmann Show, a nationally syndicated "progressive" radio talk show.

Just the same, Threshold is so geographically and temporally sprawling that it offers material even progressive readers might not have chosen in advance: a refugee camp in contemporary Darfur in southern Sudan (Lesson: Famine leads to war and more suffering.); ancient New Zealand, where the Maoris exterminated the moa birds, forcing them to become cannibals (Don't repeat this mistake.); contemporary Denmark, where people happily send 30 to 60 percent of their income to the government in exchange for free health care, free university tuition, yearlong maternity leave, ample unemployment coverage and more (Americans should consider this.); Caral in ancient Peru, where anthropologists have found no evidence of weaponry ("Maybe peace is the natural state of things."); the Iroquois people, who made certain decisions based on how they would affect tribe members seven generations hence. (If only the rest of us Americans would do that.)

In sum, Threshold is 262 pages of scientific and historical anecdote suggesting that unregulated markets, undemocratic behavior and unecological practices lead to catastrophe. If you haven't already read a good overview of topsoil depletion, the marine fisheries crisis, rain forest destruction, the democratic behavior of red deer, the 1888 Supreme Court decision that defined corporations as "persons," the $15 million that 30,000 corporate lobbyists spend weekly when Congress is in session, President Eisenhower's premonition of a military-industrial complex with "unwarranted influence," the 2004 computerized voting machines controversy, the $1 trillion in tax dollars the U.S. government spent on war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not on infrastructure and schools, and the subprime loan/toxic securities debacle — you can find one in Threshold. Hartmann's common-sense remedies include "recovering a culture of democracy," "balancing the power of men and women," "reuniting with nature," "creating an economy modeled on biology" and "influencing people by helping them rather than bombing them." His book offers few specifics on how these ends might be accomplished in the real world.

So are we drifting along in a pre-fascist state? Has our democratic system really fallen under the control of corporate America? Hartmann's take obviously starts and stays (far) to the left of center, and we'll just have to stay tuned and see whether future events support the dire view he and Hedges have of America's political direction. Meanwhile, I'll be on the lookout for a persuasive book telling me how it isn't exactly so, and why America can escape from the economic and ecological spectacle it has made itself.

The Racial Diversity of Hunger

The Racial Diversity of Hunger

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Everyone knows that Oakland is diverse. Probably more people from more races and nationalities live in the city than anywhere west of New York or north of Los Angeles. But before we celebrate diversity, think of its most diverse places. Some of them are surely the lines of hungry people lining up for food.

Oakland has many food pantries — programs run primarily by churches on a shoestring. Church elders are often found at the Alameda County Community Food Bank's huge warehouse out by the airport, buying as much food as they can for as little money as possible. They worry that the bags of cans and produce they distribute will run out before everyone in line gets one.

Patrons of a food pantry in Oakland.  Photos by David Bacon.

Reverend Lee from the Cornerstone Baptist Church, a food bank stalwart, fills the small storefront off MacArthur Boulevard with white plastic bags of cans, dried goods, and bread. Then the people come. Mostly Chinese-American and African-American families get their food from the African-American activists from his church.

Patrons of a food pantry in Oakland.  Photos by David Bacon.

On the other side of the airport, in a park by the freeway sound wall next to the 98th Avenue exit, a very diverse group of Asian, black, Latino, and white folks bag up fruits and vegetables. Early in the morning, families of primarily Mexican immigrants arrive to get numbers and wait. After the big food bank truck unloads and the baggers begin work, Columbian Gardens breathes a sigh of relief as people once again have food for the coming week.

Patrons of a food pantry in Oakland.  Photos by David Bacon.

The early morning also is the arrival time for the Good Samaritan food pantry in the neighborhood of East Oakland some folks call New Chinatown. Older Chinese women line up their shopping carts and sit or stand on the sidewalk across the street from a small, ramshackle house filled with food. Then, joined by African Americans and Latinos, they trade numbers for bags, and patiently surround huge cardboard bins of lettuce, cucumbers, and pears.

Patrons of a food pantry in Oakland.  Photos by David Bacon.

Later this year, the Food Bank will publish a study that will estimate the size and depth of Alameda County's hungry population. We already know some of the figures. A third of the people in hungry families are younger than eighteen, and a quarter are older than 50. With Oakland's official unemployment rate well over 10 percent, and the unofficial rate well over that, fewer than one quarter of food-pantry clients get most of their income from a job, although probably most work.

Patrons of a food pantry in Oakland.  Photos by David Bacon.

We'll learn more when that report comes out. But a look at the people in line tells you the basic facts. Oakland has thousands of families who don't have enough to eat. They come in all races and nationalities. And so do the people who care enough to help them find the food they need to survive.

A Lesson Too Long Unlearned

A Lesson Too Long Unlearned

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Despite the importance of unions in our lives, our schools pay only slight attention to that importance - or even to their existence.

Little is done in the classroom to overcome the negative view of organized labor held by many Americans; little is done to explain the true nature of organized labor.

There have been many attempts to remedy that situation, none more promising than the steps taken recently in Wisconsin with enactment of a law that makes the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining part of the state's model standards for social studies classes in Wisconsin's public schools.

The law does not mandate the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining, as its sponsors had wanted. But it amounts to about the same thing by requiring the state superintendent of public instruction to make the subjects part of the state's educational standards and to provide schools and teachers assistance in teaching labor subjects.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society, the state AFL-CIO and other labor and educational groups worked a dozen years to finally win enactment of the law, the first such state law anywhere. But the History Society fully expects other states to follow Wisconsin's example.

The importance of including labor history in the classroom was underscored effectively in the latest issue of the American Federation of Teachers journal, American Educator.

"With the key protections for workers that unions have gained under attack," said a journal article, "there is a greater need for the next generation to understand the real role of working men and women in building the nation and making it a better place."

James Green, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explains that, in studying labor, students learn important lessons - above all, "the contributions that generations of union activists have made to building a nation and democratizing and humanizing its often brutal workplaces."

Fred Glass, communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, provides an ideal primer for students studying labor. His summary is an excellent guide to what they should know about labor - a guide to what we should all know.

"Some people," said Glass, "interpret the decline of organized labor as if unions belong to the past and have no role to play in the global economy of the 21st century. They point to the numbers and say that workers are choosing not to join unions anymore.

"The real picture is more complex and contradicts this view. Most workers would prefer to belong to unions if they could. But many are being prevented from joining, rather than choosing not to join."

Unions, Glass concludes, "remain the best guarantee of economic protection and political advocacy for workers. But as unions shrink, fewer people know what unions are, and what they do. And fewer remember what unions have to do with the prosperity of working people."

That's what our schools should be teaching, and presumably what they'll be teaching in Wisconsin shortly, thanks to the new law there. If we're fortunate, more states will soon follow suit.

No Chance Obama’s War in Afghanistan Will Succeed

No Chance Obama’s War in Afghanistan Will Succeed

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“There isn’t the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his December 1 speech (at West Point) will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan,” writes Thomas Johnson in the current Foreign Policy magazine. And for emphasis, he adds the word “None.”

“The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles,” Johnson goes on to write, noting, “The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing.”

Author Johnson is no armchair admiral. He is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, a man who has conducted his own on-site investigation in Afghanistan.

Also referring to the President’s West Point address, The Nation magazine editorialized that Obama failed to explain why his goal to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan “requires 100,000 troops at a cost of nearly $100 billion. By the military’s own calculation, there are at most 100 Al Qaeda operatives, mostly low-level, in Afghanistan, the leadership having fled to Pakistan years ago.”

Even as the Afghan war bids to become the longest in U.S. history, The Nation adds:

“The undeniable fact is that eight years of US occupation and war have led to a growing insurgency, fueled by anger at one of the world’s most corrupt governments, run mostly by former and not-so-former warlords who were installed by the United States after 9/11. Many of these warlords are deeply involved in the opium trade, among them the brother of Hamid Karzai, the president, who was re-elected only through massive fraud.”

Writing in the Miami Herald of December 20th, Carl Hiaasen says that Johnson believes “Obama knows this war is unwinnable, and that the surge is meant to provide political cover in advance of a full U.S. withdrawal before the 2012 election.”

Hiaasen adds, “Obama wouldn’t be the first U.S. president to let domestic political concerns affect his military moves abroad, but he certainly campaigned as a different kind of leader.”

Does this mean Obama is escalating an unwinnable war for political considerations? Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the December 14th New Yorker, thinks politics has a lot to do with it. An immediate withdrawal, he writes, would inflict “severe” political and diplomatic damage to Obama and trigger, among other things, “a probable Pentagon revolt.” And the Pentagon has left no doubt about the right course. As General David Petraeus, who commands U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan forces, told The New York Times, “a sustained, substantial commitment” is required.

As the war drags on, the death toll mounts. Writing in the December 21st issue of Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, says by his conservative count, the war has claimed 30,000 lives. And the CIA’s drone warplane sorties authorized by Obama are boosting that toll.

Obama’s strategy is also spreading the war ever deeper into Pakistan. As Dan Pearson and Kathy Kelly report in the December Catholic Worker, 3,000,000 people were uprooted by violence in the Swat Valley and neighboring districts and those who returned found “that their homes, crops and other means of survival had been damaged or destroyed.”

They quote Dr. Aasim Saijad of Lahore University of Management Sciences as saying the attacks in Pakistan are only swelling the Taliban’s ranks. “The hundreds of thousands languishing in refugee camps talk of the mortar shells that have destroyed their homes and killed their relatives,” Saijad said.

“They seethe with anger and warn the government that most Taliban fighters hail from the local population. The longer the war continues—and it has only just begun in this region—the better the chances that the Taliban will be able to recruit from the refugees,” he said.

If Afghans are dying by the thousands and Pakistanis have become refugees by the millions to ensure Obama’s political survival, the U.S. has lost any vestige of moral authority. Is it thinkable to ask what if the purpose of the war is not “victory” but to keep the engines of the military-industrial complex humming? If so, it is not only primitive peoples’ who sacrificed the flower of their youth to ensure a good harvest.

U.S. promises unlimited financial assistance to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac

U.S. promises unlimited financial assistance to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac

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The Obama administration pledged Thursday to provide unlimited financial assistance to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, an eleventh-hour move that allows the government to exceed the current $400 billion cap on emergency aid without seeking permission from a bailout-weary Congress.

The Christmas Eve announcement by the Treasury Department means that it can continue to run the companies, which were seized last year, as arms of the government for the rest of President Obama's current term.

But even as the administration was making this open-ended financial commitment, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disclosed that they had received approval from their federal regulator to pay $42 million in Wall Street-style compensation packages to 12 top executives for 2009.

The compensation packages, including up to $6 million each to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's chief executives, come amid an ongoing public debate about lavish payments to executives at banks and other financial firms that have received taxpayer aid. But while many firms on Wall Street have repaid the assistance, there is no prospect that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will do so.

The administration faced a congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 to increase the amount of aid it could provide to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together have already received $111 billion in assistance.

Treasury said Thursday that its decision did not mean the firms would need $200 billion or more apiece, but that it instead was seeking to assure markets that the government would stand behind the companies. In a statement, Treasury said the move "should leave no uncertainty about the Treasury's commitment to support these firms as they continue to play a vital role in the housing market during this current crisis."

By promising to keep the companies solvent, the government can maintain its sweeping power over the housing market. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have played a central role in Obama administration policies to keep mortgage interest rates low, restructure unaffordable mortgages, stop foreclosures and funnel money to housing programs around the country.

The Bush administration took over the firms in September 2008 as the financial crisis entered its most severe phase and promised $200 billion to keep the companies solvent. The Obama administration later doubled that figure.

While the ultimate cost of the bailouts is unknown, the administration estimated earlier this year it would cost $171 billion, and some officials said they expect it could rise further. Analysts have said it could be much higher. The cost will depend in part on how aggressively the administration continues to use the firms to stimulate the housing market because these steps could curtail profitability.

Under the terms of the latest decision, the administration's open-ended commitment will expire in 2012. Then, the firms will only be allowed to receive the balance of the $400 billion remaining today -- about $290 billion.

The administration is set to release broad principles in February for reforming the companies. Many experts predict that the government will have no choice but to hold on indefinitely to many of the companies' most troubled assets -- mortgage investments made during the housing bubble to less-than-worthy borrowers.

But an administration official said it could take several years to resolve the future of the companies, especially if Congress isn't keen to take up the politically charged issue during the 2010 midterm election year, and if the government wants to preserve the ability to influence the housing market. The companies together own or insure the majority of home loans, and no viable private system exists that could replace them.

Even as the administration has broadened its commitment to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it said it would wind down mortgage-assistance programs, including one that bought Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's mortgage investments.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have long been targets for Republicans, who say they are evidence of how government support for the housing market contributed to the financial crisis.

"The Obama administration's decision to write a blank check with taxpayer dollars for the continued bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is appalling," said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), a member of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Not only is this a continued bailout of failed entities that need to be privatized to protect the taxpayer, the timing of the announcement is clearly designed to try and sneak the bailout by the taxpayers."

On Thursday, federal officials defended the administration's new bailout authority and the compensation packages. They said the pay was necessary to retain talented executives who can oversee the companies' vast mortgage holdings.

Fannie Mae chief executive Michael J. Williams and Freddie Mac chief executive Charles E. Haldeman each will receive a $900,000 base salary. The rest of their compensation will be in incentive payments and bonuses dependent on whether they stay with the companies and achieve business targets. The compensation of other top executives will follow a similar formula.

While the pay is significantly more than what Fannie and Freddie executives received a year ago, the packages are less than what top company officials got before the government takeover. Only five executives at each firm will be eligible to receive more than $500,000 in salary.

"The management of these companies involves responsibility for $2 to $3 trillion of mortgage assets," said Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the chief regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "It is critical to the taxpayers' financial interests that these assets be carefully managed in a difficult environment to minimize taxpayer losses."

America's New Crusade: Imperial U.S. vs Political Islam

America's New Crusade: Imperial U.S. vs Political Islam

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"I am as intolerant of imperialistic designs on the part of other nations as I was of such designs on the part of Germany. The choice is between two ideals; on the one hand, the ideal of democracy, which represents the rights of free peoples everywhere to govern themselves, and, the ideal of imperialism which seeks to dominate by force and unjust power, an ideal which is by no means dead and which is earnestly [sought] in many quarters still." U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, July 1919

"Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war." The Qur'an (9:5), Islam's holy book

"We are fighting them (the terrorists) over there so that we won't have to fight them here at home." Former U.S. President George W. Bush's political slogan

“I, like any head of state, reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” U.S. President Barack Obama, December 10, 2009

“When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest...and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war.” Plato, ancient Greek philosopher (428/427-348/347 B.C.)

In the political movie “Charlie Wilson's War” about the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the hero states “America does not fight religious wars.” Is this possibly wrong, dead wrong?

In fact, is it not possible that since September 11, 2001, a new type of “holy war” may have begun? This time, the new crusade with strong religious overtones pits fundamentalist Christian America and its allies, against political Islam and the Islamist al Qaeda terrorist organization. On September 16, 2001, then President George W. Bush set the tone when he said: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is gonna take awhile.”

On December 1, 2009 Nobel “Peace” laureate Barack Obama, president of the United States since January 20, 2009, decided to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. He announced a policy of stepping up the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan-Pashtunistan. He announced an escalation in the military occupation of Afghanistan by sending extra American troops in that Muslim country, putting the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan at more than 100,000. Not satisfied in using the same vocabulary as George W. Bush, Barack Obama pushed the symbolism by adopting Bush's practice of announcing policies surrounded by more than 4,000 students dressed as soldiers at the West Point Academy. This was all too reminiscent of President Lyndon B. Johnson's fatal decision in 1965 to acquiesce to the request from U.S. commanders to enlarge the Vietnam war by sending scores of additional U.S. soldiers to that Asiatic country.

America seems to be in a constant need of a foreign enemy. First, it was the British. Then it was the Indians. Then it was the Mexicans. Then it was the Spanish. Then it was the Filipinos. Then it was the Japanese. Then it was the Germans. Then it was the Italians. Then it was the Koreans. Then it was the Cubans. Then it was the Vietnamese. Then it was the Soviets. Then it was the Iraqis. Then it was the Islamists. Then it was the Talibans. And, once the current conflict in Pashtunistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan is over, it will possibly be the Iranians, the Chinese, the Russians...etc.!

The reason for such a permanent-war mentality is most likely related to the U.S. military-industrial complex, an enormous beast that must be fed regularly hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars, to sustain itself.

In the months following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the high echelons at the Pentagon were busy designing a new post-cold-war strategy designed to keep the U.S. war machine humming. Paul Wolfowitz, then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in the George H. Bush administration, wrote a memorandum titled “The Defense Policy Guidance 1992-1994”, which was dated February 18, 1992. The new so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine was a blueprint to "set the nation’s [military] direction for the next century." This new neocon military doctrine called for the replacement of the policy of "containment" with one of military "preemption" and international "unilateralism", in effect, discarding the United Nations Charter that forbids such international behavior.

The Pentagon's overall goal was to establish, through military force, a “one-Superpower World”. The more immediate objectives of the new U.S. neocon doctrine was to "...preserve U.S. and Western access to the [Middle East and Southwest Asia] region's oil", and, as stated in an April 16, 1992 addendum, to contribute “to the security of Israel and to maintaining the qualitative edge that is critical to Israel's security”.

Because of some opposition within the U.S. Government, the new policy did not become immediately effective. But the objective remained.

For instance, in September 2000, under the auspices of “The Project for the New American Century”, a new strategic document was issued and was entitled "
Rebuilding America's Defenses, Strategy: Forces and Resources For a New Century". The same goals expressed in the 1992 document were reiterated.

The belief was expressed that the kind of military transformation the (neocon) planners were considering required "some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor”, to make it possible to sell the plan to the American public.

They were either very prescient or very lucky, because exactly one year later, they were served with the "New Pearl Harbor" they had been openly hoping for. Indeed, the Islamist terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned out to have been a bonanza for the American military-industrial complex. The military planners' wish for a "New Pearl Harbor", was fulfilled at the right time. It is important to remember that from 2001 to 2005, Paul Wolfowitz served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, reporting to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In this capacity, he was well positioned to implement his own Wolfowitz doctrine that later morphed into the George W. Bush Doctrine. For the time being, this is the “doctrine” that newly-elected President Barack Obama continues to implement in the Pashtunistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor. As a politician, Barack Obama may be new at the job, but the policy he is being asked to implement was crafted long before he even set foot in Washington D.C.

Another possible reason why the United States is so often involved in foreign wars, besides its obvious aim of imposing a New American Empire on the world, may be due to the strong influence of religion in the United States. Just as for some aggressive Islamic countries, the U.S. is also the most religious of all first world countries. Researchers have found strong positive correlations between a nation's religious belief and high levels of domestic stress and anxiety, and other indicators of social dysfunction such as homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births and abortions, corruption, large income inequalities, economic and social insecurity...etc.

It is possible that wars serve as an emotional outlet that allows some Americans to forget about their nation's domestic problems. I suppose more research would be necessary on this issue. Indeed, is it possible that foreign wars, including wars of aggression, are a way for the American elites to deflect attention from domestic social problems and, as such, are a convenient pretext to direct tax money to defense expenditures rather than to social programs? The issue deserves at least to be raised. This could explain why U.S. foreign policy is so devoid of fundamental morality.

U. S. politicians who become president understand this American proclivity for war. They know that the best way to popularity is to be seen as a “war president”. A president who does not start a war abroad or who does not enlarge one already in progress is open to criticism and is likely to suffer politically. He must be seen less as a president than as “commander-in-chief”, in effect, as an emperor. How could this be, when the framers of the U.S. Constitution attempted precisely to avoid that?

Indeed, Article One (the War Powers Clause) of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress, and not the President, the authority to declare war.

Since World War II, however, this central article of the U.S. Constitution has been circumvented by having Congress give the President a blanket authorization to deploy troops abroad for euphemistically called "police actions", without an explicit or formal congressional declaration of war. The term was first used by President Harry S. Truman to describe the Korean War.

This artifice has done a lot to trivialize the act of war. It also contributed much in the transfer of the powers of war and peace from the legislative branch to the executive branch. In doing so, it has reinforced the role of the U.S. president as a commander-in-chief or as a de facto emperor. Only a formal constitutional amendment could restore, in practice, the framers' initial intent.

All said, it is easy to understand why when political faces change in Washington D.C., policies do not necessarily change. This push toward empire on the part of the United States can also explain why there is resentment and an anti-Americanism movement abroad.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and can be reached at

He is the author of the coming book "The Code for Global Ethics" at: