Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Pitiless, Punitive Giant and the Death of Empire

A Pitiless, Punitive Giant and the Death of Empire

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In the aftermath of the December 30 suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees, US drone assaults in Pakistan's northwest border region have increased in number with the resultant "collateral damage." Seventeen such missile launchings occurred on February 2, the largest number in a single day. We may never know how many innocent people were killed, especially since Pakistan's ruling party and the military are complicit in trying to cover up civilian deaths. On the other hand, the outrage of the Pakistani people over these pre-emptive attacks keeps growing. A recent poll of Pakistan citizens resulted in over 90 percent opposed to the drones.

Given the growing criticism of the use of such technology, it may seem surprising that the Quadrennial Defense Review, released as part of the Pentagon budget request for 2011, calls for even great reliance on drones and special counterinsurgency forces for myriad projected threats. In fact, no longer is the Pentagon focused on just a two-war strategy; rather, the Review contemplates multiple campaigns in the future. One has to wonder about this deep denial of imperial overstretch represented in the Review.

To pay for such military operations, the Pentagon budget continues to grow like a cancer. Since 2001, Pentagon spending has risen by 70 percent. The 2011 budget submitted by the Obama administration proposed a record 708 billion, excluding the 33 billion it will be asking additionally for 2010 military operations in Afghanistan.

This insatiable military machine appears to be sapping the very life blood of the nation, recalling in the process Dr. King's warning that spending more on military than social programs opens up the possibility of "spiritual death." With the economic meltdown and spending freezes, it appears that such forecasted death is as much material as spiritual.

It has been almost 40 years since Richard Nixon's national address announcing the invasion of Cambodia. Although four decades have passed and different circumstances now confront a dying US empire, one of the key articulations in that speech still resonates among the political class. "If, when the chips are down," Nixon intoned, " the world's most powerful nation, the USA, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout this world."

It is clear that the ruling elite in Washington continue to rely on such rhetoric to reassert their right to determine the fate of others. Irrespective of the touting of "smart power" by Barack Obama, the US is acting with brute, dumb power as a rather pitiless, punitive giant. Can the fall of this Goliath be close at hand?

Health Care Spending Skyrockets and Shows No Signs of Tapering

Health Care Spending Skyrockets and Shows No Signs of Tapering

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In 2009, health care spending grew by 5.7 percent, now reaching $2.5 trillion. It is the largest increase since the federal government began tracking these figures in 1960, according to a report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Health care costs also made up 17.3 percent of the US's gross domestic product (GDP), which was 1.1 percent higher than in 2008. CMS's 2009-2019 projections indicate that health expenditures will continue to grow "increasingly faster," at an annual rate of 6.1 percent - 1.7 percentage points faster than annual GDP growth - and climb to $4.5 trillion.

Without the passage of a health care reform bill, currently stalled in the House, public spending will comprise more than 50 percent of all national health expenditures by 2012.

The costs grew at a rate of 8.7 percent in 2009, higher than the 3 percent increase in private spending, which has a slower growth rate due to the economic downturn. CMS projected that public spending will continue to increase at a higher rate than private spending over the next nine years.

Per capita health care spending was $8,046 in 2009, and is expected to increase to $13,387 by 2019.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US spent about $7,290 per person in 2007, by far the highest amount for any of the developed countries observed. Switzerland came in second at $4,417 per person. Canada spent $3,895, while the UK, which spent the average amount for developed countries in the OECD data, spent $2,986.

The report might galvanize efforts to pass health care reform legislation, which have been floundering lately. The Obama administration faces tough opposition in the House and the Senate, and the president announced in his State of the Union address that jobs would be his main priority. Polls also show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the way health care reform has been handled.

On Thursday at a Democratic Party fundraising event, President Obama said that health care reform was the "single best way" to reduce the deficit, a fact that he added has raised no argument.

"Nobody can dispute the fact that if we don't tackle surging health care costs, then we can't control our budget," he said.

The report lists prices and utilization (both the volume and intensity of services) as the two primary drivers of growth in overall health care spending, with smaller effects from population growth and the age-sex mix.

The two main areas of federal spending are Medicare and Medicaid. Last year, Medicare costs rose by 8.9 percent as more baby boomers reached the age to qualify for its benefits. Though the growth will slow in 2010 due to mandated reductions in physician payments, Medicare will continue to grow as more individuals become eligible for it.

Meanwhile, the rise in Medicaid spending, the largest since 2002, was "largely a result of rising unemployment." CMS expects the costs of both to increase continuously as eligibility rises and the economic downturn continues, and predicts an annual increase of 7.1 percent in federal spending from 2009 to 2019.

The growth of private health insurance spending was slower, at 3.3 percent, while out-of-pocket payments grew by 2.1 percent. The annual growth prediction for private spending was 5.2 percent. The report cited "private insurance enrollment that is expected to have declined 1.2 percent" and increasing unemployment as factors in this decline, which occurred despite the federal subsidies granted by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (AARA) of 2009.

Spending on actual health services and supplies, including hospital care, physician and clinical services, prescription drugs and other medical products, increased by 5.7 percent in 2009. Annual growth rates from 2009 to 2019 are projected at 6.1 percent.

The CMS report states that no "estimated impacts of any health care reform proposals" are included as a factor in its projections.

At the same fundraiser on Thursday, President Obama said "we should take our time" in passing a final health care bill so that he could hear ideas from the Republicans, sit down with both parties and health care experts and move forward on a vote.

However, he added, the key is to "not let the moment slip away."

Republicans have largely opposed the health care bill, with some, like House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), calling it a "government takeover" of health care that will raise costs. They have also argued that the Democrats have not invited them to help draft the legislation.

Since Republican Sen. Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate race, Democrats are divided over what to do about the health care bill, as the Republicans now have enough members to filibuster and block the vote. Additionally, many prefer to focus on stressing job growth.

If the bill doesn't pass through Congress, President Obama warned that lawmakers in both parties would have to explain to their voters why plans for more efficient health care and cheaper health insurance fell apart.

"There will be elections coming up," he said, referring to Congressional elections in November. "Then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not."

The Sword and the Shield: Surround Russia and China with Mobile "Missile Defense" Systems

The Sword and the Shield: Surround Russia and China with Mobile "Missile Defense" Systems

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The latest news is that Romania will be hosting the U.S. Army's ground-based "missile defense" systems. Russia is not pleased with these developments.

These same Army Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) systems are going to be deployed in Taiwan as the U.S. continues its military encirclement of China. U.S. PAC-3 systems have already been deployed in Japan and South Korea.

Army Ground-based "missile defense" interceptors

The Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), already in the Persian Gulf and soon to be permanently based on Navy Aegis destroyers in the Baltic, South China, Mediterranean and Black Seas, has a range of 500 kilometers but can be enhanced for longer distances. The missile was used by the U.S. Navy to destroy a satellite 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean in February of 2008 in a test viewed by Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The satellite was unlike any target the system was designed to go after....The satellite was in orbit rather than on a ballistic trajectory. Also, the satellite was traveling at incredible speeds," Mullen said.

Aegis destroyers launching SM-3 "missile defense" systems

Translation: the SM-3 also has "anti-satellite" (ASAT) weapons capability. That means the Pentagon can use the Aegis-based missile to knock out Russian or Chinese satellites as part of a first-strike attack.

News that the U.S. is about to deploy a PAC-3 missile battery in Poland led Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, to recently state: "Do they really think that we will calmly watch the location of a rocket system, at a distance of 60 km from Kaliningrad?"
The deployment of SM-3, with several times the reach of the Patriot, on land and sea in the same neighborhood will only makes matters more dangerous.

The official authorization of Patriot transfers to Taiwan - the missiles are produced by Raytheon Company headquartered in Massachusetts, whose former vice president of Government Operations and Strategy William Lynn is now Obama's Deputy Secretary of Defense - resulted in China's vice foreign minister, He Yafei, saying "We believe this move endangers China's national security." Luo Yuan, senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Military Science, added "The U.S. action gives China a justified cause to increase its national defense expenditure, to enhance the development and purchase of weapons, and to accelerate its modernization process in national defense....China did nothing to threaten the U.S., why should the US challenge our core strategic interests?"

William Lynn delivered a speech in Washington, DC on January 21, where he demanded that Congress "put the Defense Department on a permanent footing to fight both low-intensity conflicts to maintaining air dominance and the ability to strike any target on Earth at any time....The next air warfare priority for the Pentagon is developing a next-generation, deep-penetrating strike capability that can overcome advanced air defenses."
The new Prompt Global Strike system is designed to accomplish just those objectives.

So the strategy is clear. Surround Russia and China with mobile "missile defense" systems whose job is to take out their retaliatory capability after a U.S. first-strike against their nuclear weapons. Russia and China then build counter-measures to the U.S. missile defense systems and then the Pentagon in return counters with the new "global strike" systems that are today under development.
All this means one thing - an extended arms race with Russia and China which will mean huge profits for the weapons industry and the very likely reality that no effective arms control treaties will be negotiated during this administration. Why would Russia and China negotiate to seriously reduce their nuclear arsenals when the U.S. is surrounding them with missile defense and building new global strike systems?
The U.S. war state (supported and funded by Democrats and Republicans) has become a pariah on this planet. You can dress it up nice with a smiling Obama but in the end one has to judge the U.S. by its deeds.