How appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

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The power of the state of exception

It saddens me to hear Americans speak of their country as a paragon of freedom governed by the rule of law. It is possible that it once was. However, it is clear that the United States is no longer a free country. It is only free to those who put their heads down and keep quiet.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt wrote Political Theology, where he outlined his ideas on the state of exception. Schmitt advocated that the sovereign, defined as he who decides the exception, should be vested with extraordinary powers to deal decisively with an extreme emergency. If the state, and democracy, are in jeopardy, Schmitt believed, the sovereign should take control until the situation is defused. Schmitt erroneously believed, however, that the sovereign would restore democracy when conditions were reasonable to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Schmitt enthusiastically supported Hitler during his rise through the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, including the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives. In a democracy, the sovereign is supposed to be the people. The people have the power to bring down governments, start wars and approve of virtually anything in their name. In the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led Americans to turn their power over to their government to keep them safe.

Elites frequently try to create a state of exception in order to use emergency powers. Sometimes, of course, they do not need to. The sight of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center was so shocking that most Americans threw their hands up and cried out for a strong government to take over. As we now know, planning for a war in Iraq had begun before 9/11, so the US government could proceed to put its plan into action.

Since 9/11, the US government has blatantly flouted its own rules. Take the abrogation of the Bill of Rights with the USA Patriot Act. The government assumed greater power to spy on and detain its own people. The Patriot Act has not yet been repealed. Though such laws should only be enacted during a state of exception, the US government has done its best to prolong the state of exception through war and the creation of enemies, and keep everyone scared. Few Americans even question the Patriot Act anymore, perhaps because doing so might land them in jail.

In the course of the war in Afghanistan, the US locked up hundreds of “unlawful combatants”, a term deliberately chosen by the Bush administration because it fell into a legal grey area. The phrase does not appear in the Third Geneva Convention, which means that, unlike, say, prisoners of war, those designated unlawful combatants have no legal recourse. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that anyone captured in war be protected and eventually charged. These are laws that the US helped craft for its own benefit. After all, if other states follow these laws, Americans are treated better by their enemies. But in a state of exception, laws go out the window. According to journalist Andy Worthington, there are still 174 inmates at Gitmo, 90 “approved for transfer”, 33 recommended for trial, and 48 still there indefinitely.

The intervention in Afghanistan was legally permissible. The UN Security Council acknowledged the US’s right to self defense with Resolution 1368. However, international law also bars indiscriminate use of bombs that do not attempt to hit specified enemy targets. It is all right to bomb what one strongly suspects is a military or terrorist stronghold, but many of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan targeted heavily populated civilian areas. Over three thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of that war. Most American citizens did not question the bombs and the dead people, because they saw that whole part of the world, wherever it was, as deserving of retribution.

Next came Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraqi Freedom was not approved by the Security Council and was a wholly illegal war. It was an act of aggression, which is ius cogens, universally accepted as law and permitting no derogation. In case you have forgotten Abu Ghraib and CIA waterboarding (see more here), torture is also ius cogens. Extraordinary rendition, in which the UK’s and Canada’s governments also participated, and which seems like the kind of legal term or political euphemism that makes the average person turn the page, is abducting and transferring someone without trial to somewhere they might be tortured. The practice may still be going on. Government secrecy has made it almost impossible for us to know the truth.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Pakistan has become the new frontier in the fight against terrorism, with drone attacks increasing under Barack Obama and killing 54 this past week. The war in Pakistan is an undeclared war, making it also illegal. After seven years of violence, the president announced in March 2009 the administration’s goal in the AfPak war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” It is likely that special interests want a US presence to safeguard the building of oil pipelines through Afghanistan and the mining of the trillion-dollar mineral deposits under Afghan soil. So confident is he that the ongoing state of exception will vindicate him, Barack is free to continue drone strikes (which occupy something of a legal grey area; they may be legal if they can actually be shown to be used in self defense) and still not formally declare any kind of war in Pakistan (which is not grey at all) because the only ones who can truly stop him only receive a few soundbytes about it a week on TV.

Another practice that has not abated is illegal detention of Americans. Just this week, 131 peaceful antiwar protesters were arrested outside the White House, guilty of nothing more than voicing disagreement with their government. No less depressing is the state of Bradley Manning, stuck in solitary confinement for leaking documents that compromised the US’s and other governments’ ability to hide their crimes. Manning has not been charged; he has no access to the outside world; he is not let out of his cell for more than an hour a day and cannot exercise in it; nor does he have even a pillow or sheets. Psychological studies find prolonged solitary confinement highly destructive to the brain, with effects including “overwhelming anxiety, confusion and hallucination, and sudden violent and self-destructive outbursts”. The effects of such solitary confinement are not far from those of torture. According to lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald, the government is extremely concerned about leaks, and torturing those who do what concerns you is a brilliant way to prevent it. Bradley Manning, like Julian Assange, is being made an example of. Criminalising the publishing of classified information is akin to banning investigative journalism. But the US officials that ordered and approved of locking up Bradley Manning, along with the cutting up of the Bill of Rights, the illegal war, the bombing of civilians, the torture and the indefinite detentions, will never see a courtroom.

In a world where chaos is inevitable, we cannot let fear permit our worst behaviour and legitimise anything the government does. There are going to be more disasters, more terrorist attacks and more wars. We must not lose our heads and let them take our freedoms when no one has the right to take your freedom. How can we trust the government on anything? If the government does not follow its own laws, why should the rest of us? We should attempt to free ourselves from the arbitrary force of governments, and deny them the chance to take our freedom.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

An assessment of US drug war policy: no victories, only failure

What is the purpose of law? To promote justice and eliminate injustice, or to promote violence and corruption? US federal drug laws do the latter, domestically and around the world. This post is an assessment of the effects of the War on Drugs on the world. If you cannot stand the sight of blood, look away.

American demand

The criminalisation of drugs began with alcohol prohibition in the US. Dr Hamilton Wright was named a delegate to the US-initiated International Opium Commission of 1909 and soon started pushing for the prohibition of all drugs. To do so, he sought out evidence of enormous numbers of drug addicts in the US, which there were not, and made up figures where the real ones were unconvincing. At the time, narcotics were dealt by doctors. After a few maneuvers around the constitution (that annoying thing again), Wright had the federal government terrorise physicians into compliance with his ideals.

Meanwhile, Wright pronounced liberally on the “drug-crazed Nigger”, fanning the flames of racism with lies we would scoff at today. “Cocaine,” said Dr Wright, “is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes”. Because of the sea of propaganda, a country that in 1900 looked at drug addicts as unfortunate medical cases saw in 1920 a horde of “drug fiends”, twisted, immoral vampires.

The Anti-Saloon League lobbied for 30 years for prohibition. When they finally succeeded, they issued a statement saying that “an era of clean thinking and clean living” had begun. Unfortunately, the reverse was true. Crime rose 24% in US cities in the first year of Prohibition, and the courts were soon overwhelmed. (Sound familiar?) Historian Andrew Sinclair says “National prohibition transferred $2b a year from the hands of brewers, distillers and shareholders to the hands of murderers, crooks and illiterates.” Police killed gangsters, but they could not get them arrested, because witnesses were afraid to testify against them. Because criminalisation did not affect demand, prices did not change and more people entered the black market to replace those who were shot. Moreover, because the restrictions on, say, selling alcohol to minors, were removed, underage boys and girls could get liquor without being carded. The moral and logical arguments for criminalisation of hooch had already fallen on their faces.

After Prohibition ended, the people needed a new enemy, and in the 1930s, the lies began flooding the press about marijuana. For instance, marijuana was said to induce murder (perhaps the best known example being “Reefer Madness“), and children were said to be buying it in droves. The racism had not abated, of course, and charismatic spokespeople without consciences were now accusing Mexicans of bringing in marijuana and driving everyone crazy (though the N-s weren’t spared the groundless accusations either). Legislation got harsher. Jail times rose, police powers expanded and nothing changed on the street.

The War on Drugs is based on lies. If Reefer Madness were not enough, here are two more examples. Take Richard Nixon. When Nixon came into office, his opponents–in short, hippies–were of the cannabis culture, and Nixon’s reputation for petty vindictiveness can be seen in his approach to marijuana. In order to scare everyone, Nixon’s government fabricated numbers. According to their data, the number of drug addicts rose from some 70,000 in 1969 to 500,000 in 1971. Upon completing a survey, the Bureau of Narcotics thought the latter figure was off by about 800%. Second, remember “crack babies”, the 375,000 misshapen, ineducable freaks that were going to populate the US? They turned out to be as real as Negro Cocaine Rape. But they scared people into supporting the drug war, so the idea alone served its purpose. On the other hand, the lies have been counterproductive in other ways. By the 1990s, kids in the US were so used to grown-up scaremongering that they assumed all the tales about how bad heroin was for you were lies too. Next thing you knew, the rate of heroin addiction had jumped 20%, and the number of heroin-related emergencies doubled between 1990 and 1995.

The War on Drugs has been called racist, a claim that could easily be brushed aside if not for evidence. Today in the US, most drug users in all categories are white, yet blacks run a 500 percent greater risk of being arrested for drug offenses. By 1990, black men and women were 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to the authorities for drug charges.

The War on Drugs brings the US in constant conflict with the constitution meant to contain it. The US Constitution starting eroding long before the Patriot Act. Police seeing black teenagers walking on the street might throw them up against the wall and search their pockets without justification, which breaks the Fourth Amendment against arbitrary search and seizure. Even if they find drugs, the police cannot simply take it to a judge, tell the judge “this kid looked suspicious so I searched him” and expect a conviction. As a result, there are innumerable cases in which police claim that the suspect dropped a suspicious-looking bag on the pavement, which is perjury. (For more on police corruption, see here.)

The figures speak for themselves. The US murder rate peaked at the end of alcohol prohibition, shot up again at the end of the 1960s and has barely moved since then. The US federal drug war budget steadily increased by billions of dollars annually and has shown no results. The national prison population doubled between 1976 and 1986, and nearly quadrupled in the following decade. The numbers have not decreased since then. The facts are unequivocal: prohibition does not work.

Latin supply

What is the US government trying to achieve with its policy of tackling drugs at their source? It seems to be trying to eradicate the supply of drugs, but that is futile while demand is still high. Efforts must then be put into disrupting the supply of illicit drugs, driving up the retail price and reducing demand, right? But after three decades, billions of dollars of effort and many dead drug warriors, prices are down. The 2001 price of heroin is 20% of that of two decades earlier; the price of cocaine barely a third of its former price; and the price of marijuana way off its 1991 peak. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says “[u]ltimately, the prohibitionist approach is an attempt to repeal the economic law of supply and demand, and therefore it is doomed to fail.” The illegal drug trade, also despite all the effort expended (or perhaps even because of it), has gone global.

In 1969, Nixon commissioned a task force to recommend eradicating Mexico’s drug crops. The Mexican government said no, and Nixon took revenge. He deployed two thousand customs and border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border to conduct an enormous search-and-seizure operation. The desired effect–chaos–was reached.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency softened on drugs, and since then drug warriors have been seething, attempting to establish cause and effect relationships between Jimmy Carter’s supposedly lax drug policies and the rise in drug use during his presidency. Eleven states decriminalised private marijuana use without the federal government breathing down their necks. Nonetheless, during that time, the US government continued to put pressure on Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to end drug cultivation, a baton that Ronald Reagan could pick up when he assumed power. Reagan made it clear that the War on Drugs would be a big priority of both his domestic and foreign policy.

Conservatives held up drug use as the reason for the upsurge in crime in the US (though the real culprit was obviously drug law enforcement). Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL), for example, said drugs were “the single most threatening menace to civilization today.” But despite such alarmist rhetoric and poor sentence structure, drug consumption did not decrease. They decided instead to try to shut off the supply. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) blamed the administration for not waging a sufficiently serious War on Drugs. His criticism evinced the increasingly militant attitude of Democrats and Republicans alike toward drug-source countries in the mid-1980s. Drug laws got harsher, including instating the death penalty for major traffickers and life in prison for repeat offenders. Between fiscal years 1980 and 1987, US spending on countering the international narcotics trade tripled. Yet by 1989, the DEA earned more revenue from seizures than from its congressionally-allotted budget.

The government’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) on the drug trade said that, not only were drugs corrupting governments, insurgent and terrorist groups were cultivating them to finance their operations. Revelations that the Taliban, NATO’s latest insurgent enemy, have done the same should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the drug war. The same directive insisted on an escalation and further militarisation of the drug war. A CBS-New York Times poll of April 1988 found that half of respondents believed drug trafficking was the number one problem in the world. Washington had both the will and the popular mandate to ramp up the War on Drugs. Government spending on drug law enforcement went from $1.2b in 1981 to more than $5.7b in 1989 (the days of Reagan’s small government promises). Ironically, though not surprisingly, both usage rates of and violence connected to drugs rose during the same time.

The implementation of the directive effectively securitised drugs, which means that drugs officially became a threat to national security, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The military was enlisted to help even in domestic drug law enforcement. For instance, one law asked the navy to secure borders against all vessels containing narcotics. Such a suggestion was ludicrous, of course, as even attempting to do so would have destroyed trade and diverted drug smuggling to other routes. A lot of the billions of dollars sent to Latin America went to militaries, which Galen Carpenter calls “an extremely dubious strategy given the long history of military coups throughout the region.”

Much of Reagan and Bush’s efforts had centered on Peru. Peru is a natural haven for coca plants: they grow like grass in the vast jungles and even on the sides of cliffs. American officials encouraged Peruvian farmers to grow rice, tomatoes and beans. But such crops require time and money to cultivate, whereas the coca plant just needs air. Coca plants last forty years and are harvested every ninety days. Farmers in Bolivia planted various crops for cash incentives from the US, but by the end of the season they returned to coca because supply of fruit, nuts and ginger had far outstripped demand. Who needs tomatoes? Moreover, the buyer comes to you and does not bother with taxes, customs or paperwork. Smuggling is so easy because, according to a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, “[f]our Boeing 747 cargo planes or thirteen trailer trucks can supply American cocaine consumption for a year.”

As US officials put pressure on their Latin American counterparts, the latter tended to blame the US and suggest that the problem was on the demand side, rather than their side. They saw the US sense of urgency as self-serving, aiming to put Latin Americans in harm’s way to stop Americans from doing drugs. Moreover, many Latin American cultures differed from that of the US in terms of its taboo on the use of narcotics. Peasants in the Andes have been chewing and brewing tea from coca leaves for centuries. Jamaicans and various Latin American countries accept casual marijuana use as part of the culture. Why would they forcibly change their culture for a bunch of self-righteous Yanks?

Many officials were also colluding with drug cartels. Manuel Noriega is the obvious case; but before he was even indicted (and thousands of Panamanians killed), many high-level members of Panama’s government and Panamanian bankers were making money off drugs. The invasion of Panama in December of 1989 was portrayed as an anti-drug effort, to take out Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s friends in the State Department had looked the other way on his drug trafficking, but by 1989, because of the administration’s anti-drug rhetoric and the mounting evidence against Noriega, doing so had become politically untenable.

Ronald Reagan and the law-and-order promises he made were no better than Nixon, imposing yet stronger drug laws, killing and arresting people all over the place and taking the War on Drugs worldwide. George H.W. Bush had been Reagan’s point man for the anti-drug campaign, and after eight years of nothing to show for it, he told the American people, “Take my word, this scourge will stop.” Yet, how did Bush have the power or even the moral authority to stop it? Bush’s government had known for some time about contra drug smuggling and Noriega.

In November of 1989, the US Justice Department issued the alarming legal opinion that the US military had the authority to pursue and arrest drug traffickers overseas, even without the host government’s consent. Soon after its invasion of Panama, which the Bush administration touted as a victory over the drug scourge, the US stationed a fleet of aircraft carriers off the coast of Colombia, without the Colombian government’s permission, in order to apprehend Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious of the billionaire kingpins who have made their fortune from drugs. Violence in Colombia exploded as Escobar mounted a campaign of horrific terrorist violence to avoid extradition to the US. After a huge effort, Escobar was shot dead, and the flow of drugs did not change. He left behind a Colombia of crooked public officials and fearful citizens.

Where the US government considered the host government’s permission important (Article 173 of Colombia’s constitution states that foreign troops are not allowed to operate on Colombian soil), it applied pressure to obtain it. It became easy for left-wing guerrillas like the Sendero Luminoso to paint governments as American puppets. The FARC and ELN started because Colombian peasants were angered by their government. These are people whose legitimate trades were driven bankrupt by US taxpayer-subsidised agribusiness. Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that, given that the FARC and ELN do not have wide support, their base might have dried up if not for the violence and crop destruction of the War on Drugs. In spite of concerted crop spraying, coca continues to flourish in Colombia, just as it did in Peru in the 1980s. What have been the effects of spraying crops? Toxins emptying into the Amazon basin and increased cancer rates among the farmers. (Learn more here.)

Gustavo de Greiff, Colombia’s prosecutor general in the 1990s, was not afraid of US pressure. The War on Drugs

does not have victories, only failure. Despite spraying and manual eradication, the areas of cultivation have not diminished, only increased. Drug interdiction doesn’t even reach 10 percent of the drugs that reach international markets. We kill the big capos, we put them in jail, we extradite them to the US–and yet prices don’t even move…. We have to study legalisation…. Change frightens people. There are a lot of vested interests in the drug war. There are a lot of people who would lose their jobs with legalisation…. Legalisation is the worst thing that could happen to drug traffickers.

But Ernesto Samper, Colombia’s president at the time, was eager to continue to placate the Clinton administration and not budge on drugs. Outrage at his crop fumigation policies spilled into the streets when 50,000 peasants protested.

Samper was one of countless Colombian politicians who may have attained power partly through drug money. DEA agents in Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia witnessed a large percentage of police and military personnel making money off the drug trade, either by turning a blind eye or even directly aiding it. Prohibition and pressure were making some groups rich. As Americans pressured Latin American leaders to clamp down on drugs, those who did often ended up threatened by the now very powerful cartels.

Despite all efforts to eliminate the drug traffickers themselves, they tend to follow the “push down, pop up” effect: attack them in one place and they will leave for another. Eradication efforts have been useless for the same reason, as any success in destroying crops has simply pushed them to another part of the vast hinterland of the Andes. Interdiction of drugs en route, once again, does nothing, because as the authorities push down on one spot, say on what they believe is the traffickers’ current favourite spot on the US-Mexico border, the next traffickers move somewhere else.

The War on Drugs fills the cold void

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the slipping away of an enemy meant certain US government bureaus, such as State and Defense, would face major reductions in budgets. They needed a new enemy, and a new war. They had the creeping War on Drugs, and seized upon it. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, one Dick Cheney, was one of the high ups who seized on the NSDD’s securitisation of drug trafficking and set about reordering his department to tackle it. During the latter stages of the Cold War, the US’s strategy had been to engage in small wars that were easier to win to contain communism. As the threat from communism receded, the War on Drugs filled the void.

The public generally swallowed the tripe about drugs’ being the US’s biggest threat, and the need for increased military spending to stop it. Drug cartels were seen as evil in the same way as communists had been (and terrorists are today). The ideological elements of the Cold War provided a pretext for US military intervention anywhere there was a perceived communist threat. The equivalent today is, of course, the War on Terror. Also like the other two wars, drug warmongers framed their war as one that could last generations. Between the Cold War and War on Terror, the War on Drugs fit like a glove. It was the ideal justification for intervention.

Huge amounts of aid were handed out to the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru for signing on to the Andean Initiative and pledging to reduce drug traffic. Of course, US government drug war plans did not stretch very far into crop substitution (to the objection of governments on the ground that knew better) or other options beside violence. Since governments obtain their resources by force (taxation), it is natural that they might have a blind spot regarding alternatives to it.

Under Bill Clinton, the War on Drugs led to more Americans in jail on drug offenses, more military assistance to Latin American governments and more military interdiction on the US-Mexico border. Clinton demanded that assistance to Colombia be spent fighting narcotrafficking, as this was the US government’s big concern. However, Colombia has two major anti-government guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, and they are partly financed by the drug trade. (The other part is kidnapping.) These groups frequently work with whichever narcotraffickers are in the region they control. Supplying the Colombian military with hardware and telling it not to use it against groups it is at war with is futile. And after 9/11 of course, the distinction between narcotraffickers and “narcoterrorists” was erased.

Millions of Colombians have been displaced by the fighting, and middle and upper class Colombians have left Colombia in droves. A reporter described lines that “snake around the block near foreign consulates where people stand in line all night seeking visas.” Colombia has received $5b in aid since 2000. The “left-wing” FARC guerrillas have grown weaker but the military-linked paramilitaries have not. 35,000 civilians died during the 1990s, and though 2.5m Colombians have been forced from their homes in the past decade, only a couple of thousand have been killed. As anyone with a newspaper can tell us, the killing has moved to Mexico. Even before the recent escalation under Felipe Calderon, Mexico had had its share of rich drug barons, corrupt policemen and dead victims in the crossfire. Some 23,000 have died in the US government’s proxy drug war in Mexico. (See more here.)

Galen Carpenter explains the conservative attitude in Washington to bad policy. “The attitude of US officials about the progress of the international phase of the drug war has a dreary consistency. Setbacks are ignored or explained away; every sign of success is touted, often to the point of absurdity; and victory is said to be just around the corner–if the current policies continue awhile longer.” What Richard Cowan calls the iron law of prohibition is that, “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.” Marijuana has become more potent (and crack was invented) because traffickers want to reduce the bulk of their cargo. The situation was no different during alcohol prohibition, when bootleggers developed white lightning, the 190-proof crack of the 1920s. Even worse, industrial alcohol, of the sort used to make paint and plastic, was usually added to what was drunk. One can only imagine what today’s street drugs have in them.

The solution

At present, illegal drugs are taxed. However, instead of democratic governments collecting the tax, it is the drug traffickers who collect it. Gustavo de Greiff explains. “As long as the trade is illicit, the narcotraficantes will continue to receive these immense profits that allow them to corrupt everyone…. In 10, 15, 20 years, we will finally arrive at controlled legalization,” he predicts. “What makes me sad is that when this measure is finally adopted we will look back at all the deaths, all the corruption, and everything evil that drug trafficking brought us in the intervening 20 years.”

All kinds of people support legalisation: police, doctors, and if they are not convincing enough, celebrities. Former Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle said “During the past 30 years [the War on Drugs] has grown, grown, grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarisation. This has not gotten people off drugs. And what’s more, if you remove the economic incentive…it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate.” The presidents of both Mexico and Colombia–the countries hardest hit by the consequences of drug criminalisation–have called at least for debate on the issue. Some Americans are listening, hence the California legislature’s recent decriminalisation of marijuana. If more Americans begin to realise the trouble their government’s policies are causing, they will vote to change them. The legalisation of drugs will not make them disappear, as the millions of people hooked on prescription drugs attest to.

Britain and the Netherlands both experimented with decriminalisation. Like in the US in the 1920s, British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin and the government could do nothing about it. What were the results? When Dr John Marks made a survey of Liverpool in 1982, he expected to find AIDS rates of 15 to 20% among heroin users. Instead, he did not find a single case. Another surprise came from local police in Cheshire, who had tracked 100 users and found that after entering clinics, their tendency to crime fell by 94%. Fewer overdoses were reported, and fewer people were trying heroin. One would be correct to guess that all the same harm reduction was reported from the Netherlands. Portugal has had even more success. Can we learn nothing from them?

Winston Churchill once said that “without victory, there is no survival.” A century of failure with one obvious source can be reversed, and victory attained, but not before the end of the War on Drugs.

Galen Carpenter, Ted: Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s futile war on drugs in Latin America
Gray, Mike: Drug Crazy: how we got into this mess and how we can get out

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

Turkey’s Incursion in Iraq: Why No Legal Consequences?

Between October 2007 and February 2008, Turkey intervened into northern Iraq several times, by air and on the ground. On the face of it, without having been invited by either the Iraqi government or the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, these acts were illegal. According to UN Charter Article 2(4), Turkey should not have used force against Iraq’s “territorial integrity or political independence”. But there are reasons it might have been permissible under international law.

This essay explores the legality of Turkey’s incursion and then the political discourse around it. It argues that, whether or not its incursion was legal, the reason no one attempted to charge Turkey with violating international law is that they consider good relations with Turkey more important than law.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity