(Artwork: Charmingly Bohemian)
"Observance of customs and laws can very easily be a cloak for a lie so subtle that our fellow human beings are unable to detect it. It may help us to escape all criticism, we may even be able to deceive ourselves in the belief of our obvious righteousness. But deep down, below the surface of the average man's conscience, he hears a voice whispering, 'There is something not right,' no matter how much his rightness is supported by public opinion or by the moral code." - Carl Gustav Jung
What's in a system?
We in the United States have grown acclimatized to a system that first dehumanizes us and then inevitably feeds on our dehumanization, sucking away at our resources, our rights, and our resistance while we scamper frantically around in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
We would like to imagine that it is our agency that drives us, and that our lives are under our control. The truth, however, is that we are the ones under control. The reason we do not notice it is that this control is masked as security, which we have been told is synonymous with freedom.
Recently, I passed through an airport checkpoint monitored by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and witnessed the "system" rear its ugly head yet again.
TSA is one of several security gifts from the Bush administration, or rather, from the twisted conjunction of corporate business and state power that oversees and safeguards our "freedom" and "democracy" through an elaborate system of control mechanisms.
Immediately in front of me, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair was trying to reason with the security guard who was asking him to take off his sandals. "What do you want me to do? I didn't wear socks so you could see my feet since I'm unable to bend over and take off my sandals."
"Sir, you must comply with policy," the guard said in a raised voice, as three other TSA agents moved in behind him, arms folded ominously across their chests, and surrounded the elderly man in the wheelchair who requested their assistance, doing what he could to "comply." None of the guards stepped forward to take off his sandals for him in order to check his feet.
In exasperation he shouted, "I'm asking for help, and you won't do it, so what do you want me to do? What the Hell am I supposed to do? What are you afraid of? I'm an old man in a wheelchair! Are you afraid of my sandals?"
The guards would not allow him through the x-ray until he eventually lowered his voice. We must never upset the status quo, because that is an important pillar of a system that holds change in dread. Do not rock the boat, and don't you dare speak up, lest it indicate that something is wrong.
It requires no crystal ball to see that we are embedded in a system that has no qualms about harassing old men in wheelchairs or making pregnant women walk through x-ray machines. It is the same system that is killing scores of Iraqi and Afghan civilians daily, and killing the planet systemically. It is a system that requires us to be sleepwalkers, rather than alert and sensitive humans.
A Symbol Is Born
My partner was in Tanzania recently. I quote from an email from her which encapsulates the elation that individuals and societies across the globe have experienced at the unprecedented outcome of the recent presidential election in the United States. "My short band radio was already on, tuned to the BBC ... I bent down to photograph a small beautiful white flower that grows on the plains here, and as I clicked the shutter, the radio announced that Obama had won the election ... It was an incredible moment, to be here in East Africa as we elected our first African-American President."
Indeed, the profundity of an African-American being elected into the office of the president of the United States of America cannot be overstated. Barack Obama will soon be living, with his family, in a White House that was constructed by black slaves. The significance is not lost on most of us, or on people across the world, especially in Africa. Indeed, the times they are a-changing.
The entire presidential campaign was abuzz with talk of change. Barack Obama, elected, symbolizes the deep desire for change in our country. We thirst for it like one would for cool water in the desert. Our lungs are starved for a breath of positive change in a new direction. We crave a genuine diversion from the death-wish course that corporate capitalism has been pursuing for as long back as most adults in this country can remember.
The victory of Barack Obama symbolizes our need for change. The inhabitants of this planet are beginning to sense the need for something that can replace the willful and self defeating death urge of corporate consumer culture that is bent upon destroying everything. The fate of the world, one could argue, is dependent on a shift in consciousness. The election of Barack Obama has demonstrated that this shift is, in fact, occurring.
My partner wrote that her entire journey "... has been wonderfully saturated by the immense excitement for Obama. Being so close to Kenya, the local news shows images of his family's joy and the villagers dancing, and also Kenya's own mock election of our candidates. I haven't met a single person, who upon learning of my US citizenship didn't initiate a conversation about Obama and the future of the US. They are thrilled, and seemingly proud, of America poised for change ... and as I traverse one corner of this massive continent, I hear it over and over again: 'We love Obama - he has a hard road ahead of him, but the world is ready to stand by him.' One woman chose to clarify to me '... and it's not because he's black-skinned that we believe in him ...'"
She continued, "After eight years of feeling angry at and ashamed by the actions of the Bush administration, and in the very moments of worldwide celebration for our country's clear voice for a new path, I find myself feeling a certain excitement for the challenging road that lies ahead for our country. Here, amidst nearby turmoil and tribal conflicts, Africa is, as is the whole world, looking to us again with a sense of renewed possibility in their eyes."
Undeniably, there is possibility in this moment.
But is there change?
Since it is the United States that is primarily responsible for dragging the world economy into a recession, much of the world is now relying on it to provide the solution. Needless to say, the same applies to our vainglorious attempts at empire building, our excessive contribution to heedless pollution, our invasion of sovereign states, our transgressions and violations of international law....
We have an African-American president, but let us also bear in mind that he is but a symbol, and our need and faith may not suffice for the symbol of change to deliver real change.
There is a tremendous schism between what Barack Obama is saying, and what he is doing. Already, he is gathering around him a group of people that are not only likely to maintain status quo, but worse, cause our current catastrophic situation to worsen.
On November 17, Obama promised on CBS News 60 Minutes to shut down the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, while his advisers are simultaneously crafting a plan to create a brand new system of "Preventive Detention" and "National Security Courts." Preventive detention facilities do not give people the right to challenge their own detention, which is essentially what the Guantanamo Bay gulag has been all about - detaining people without charging them with a crime, and without trial. All we have at the moment is a suggestion of brand change, but nothing about policy change.
Obama promises to restore the moral stature of the United States. He has John Brennan and Jami Miscik, former intelligence officials under George Tenet, leading his review of intelligence agencies and making recommendations to the new administration. Brennan supported warrantless wiretapping and kidnapping (extraordinary rendition) and Miscik was involved with the politicized intelligence alleging WMDs in Iraq. They were both part of the team that provided the phony intelligence when Tenet informed Bush during the lead up to the Iraq invasion that the intelligence to support it was a "slam dunk." The incoming administration has also revealed that there will be no attempt to bring criminal charges against government officials who authorized or engaged in torture during the Bush presidency.
The new Defense team is being led by former Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White, who is the chair of the Kennedy School of Middle East Initiative at Harvard, and Michele Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security famed for the Iraq bombing and sanctions under President Bill Clinton.
Obama's transition team leaders are six of his top fundraisers, four of whom raised $500,000 or more for his campaign. One of them, Tom Donilan, was a lobbyist for mortgage giant Fannie Mae during 1999-2005. The President-elect himself voted in favor of the recent $750 billion bailout.
We were also treated to an echo of hollow rhetoric from the Bush chambers when the new president said on CBS that, "It is a top priority for us to stamp out al Qaeda once and for all," and that killing or capturing the groups mastermind Osama bin Laden was "critical" to US security.
On that note, let us note that Obama has already made it clear he refuses to "rule out" using mercenary companies in war zones, he has labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "terrorist organization," he plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has pledged to use unilateral force in Pakistan to defend US interests.
Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, despite having stated that his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq was "mistaken," was an important facilitator of the war. He has also shamelessly championed the absurd idea of partitioning Iraq into three areas based primarily on ethnicity and religion (Balkanization).
Nor let us forgive the apparent selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. She was an ardent supporter of her husband's sanctions and bombing campaign against the people of Iraq throughout the 1990s, and she supported the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which helped lay the groundwork for George W. Bush's invasion in 2003. As a US Senator, Hillary Clinton said, "Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile-delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaida members ... I want to insure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and our support for the president's efforts to wage America's war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."
Other so-called liberal hawks either in or advising Obama's team include the likes of Madeleine Albright, a war criminal who, as Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, was asked on 60 Minutes if she thought the price of 500,000 Iraqi children killed by the sanctions was worth the price to contain Saddam Hussein and said she thought that the price was "worth it."
The list is long, but I will just mention two more of note. Martin Indyk, the founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spent years working for AIPAC and served as Clinton's ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, while also playing a major role in developing US policy toward Iraq and Iran. In addition to his work for the US government, he has worked for the Israeli government, and with the neo-conservative think-tank the Project for the New American Century - which devised the US blueprint for global domination.
The idea of Obama keeping Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is equally disturbing. Let us remember, it is Gates who supports a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when even George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are calling for nuclear abolition. Gates wants to apply his surge approach to Afghanistan, and while he has criticized the massive budget and influence of the Pentagon, when he had the chance to rectify both problems, he has refused to do so. For example, in his FY 2009 budget request - the last he will be officially responsible for - he added $36 billion, an increase former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni noted, "is roughly equivalent to the entire budget for International Affairs."
On November 16 it was reported that Obama is pursuing an ambitious peace plan in the Middle East that involves the recognition of Israel by the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.
Yet, the first appointment he made was of Rahm Israel Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff, easily the most powerful office in the executive branch. In the 1940s Rahm's father, Benjamin, helped smuggle weapons to the Irgun, the Zionist militia of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Irgun carried out numerous terrorist attacks on Palestinian civilians, including the bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel in 1946.
Rahm's father, commenting on how his son would influence US policies toward Israel, is reported to have told an Israeli paper, "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."
To his credit, Emanuel apologized for his father's incendiary remarks. But that does not alter the fact that he has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner. In July 2006, Emanuel was one of several members who called for the cancellation of a speech by visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the Congress because al-Maliki had criticized Israel's bombing of Lebanon. Around the same time, Emanuel referred to the Lebanese and Palestinian governments as ‘totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting as democracies" in a speech supporting a House resolution backing Israel's bombing of both countries that had caused thousands of civilian casualties. He accompanied Obama to an AIPAC executive board meeting last June, immediately after the Illinois senator had addressed the pro-Israel lobby's conference.
Emanuel is one of the most influential politicians and fundraisers in the party, and has played not an insignificant role in the costliest campaign for presidency that the country has known.
Sheldon Wolin writes in "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism":
"When a minimum of a million dollars is required of House candidates and elected judges, and when patriotism is for the draft free to extol and for the ordinary citizen to serve, in such times it is a simple act of bad faith to claim that politics-as-we-know-it can miraculously cure the evils which are essential to its very existence."
Security Lies in Securing Bases
"The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie." - Yevgeny Yevteshenko
Barack Obama announced on CBS that immediately upon taking office on January 20, he and his security advisers will "start executing a plan that draws down our troops" from Iraq.
What we never hear him mention is the massive US military infrastructure being developed in Iraq. The US "embassy" in Iraq is the largest embassy in the world and the most secure diplomatic compound in the world.
At a construction budget that now exceeds $1 billion, the "embassy" is a self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced 2.5 times the usual standards, with some walls as thick as 15 feet.
Plans are for over 1,000 US government officials to work and reside there. They will have access to gyms, swimming pools, barber and beauty shops, food courts and the commissary. There will also be large-scale barracks for troops, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units. The total site will be two-thirds the area of the National Mall in Washington, DC. And, luckily for these "government officials," their water and electricity supplies and sewage treatment plants will be independent of Baghdad's city utilities. Meanwhile, one of four residents of Baghdad, a capital city of over six million, are now displaced from their homes thanks to the so-called surge. Of those lucky enough to still have a roof over their head, they receive an average of 3-4 hours of electricity on good days, and recent reports show that at least 45 percent of Iraqis lack access to safe drinking water.
Then there are the permanent military bases in Iraq.
To give you an idea of what these look like, let's start with Camp Anaconda, near Balad. Spread over a modest 15 square miles, the base boasts two swimming pools, a gym, a mini-golf course and first-run movie theater.
There are 30,000 soldiers who live at the Balad Air Base, where they can inspect new iPod accessories in one of the two base exchanges, which additionally offer piles of the latest electronics and racks of CDs to choose from. Thousands of civilian contractors live at the base in a section called "KBR-land." Doctors at the base hospital carry out as many as 400 surgeries every month on wounded troops.
Air Force officials on the base claim their runway is one of the busiest in the world. A steady stream of unmanned Predator drones carrying Hellfire missiles take off from there along with F-16s, C-130s, helicopters and other aircraft from a total of 250 that the base houses.
If our troops aren't up for the rather lavish dinners served by Third Country nationals from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh working for slave wages, they can dine at Burger King, Pizza Hut, Popeye's or Subway, then wash it down with a mocha from Starbucks.
There are other gigantic bases in Iraq, such as Camp Victory near Baghdad Airport, which when complete will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, currently the largest overseas US base since Vietnam.
At Camp Liberty, adjacent to Camp Victory, soldiers even compete in triathlons. According to a news article on a DOD web site, "The course, longer than 140 total miles, spanned several bases in the greater Camp Victory area in west Baghdad."
There is never any talk of full withdrawal of all forces from Iraq because US policy dictates a continuance of its military presence there. Less than two weeks after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, military officials announced the US intention to maintain at least four large bases in Iraq for future use, to be located respectively near Baghdad International Airport (where the triathlon was), at Tallil near Nasiriyah in the south, at either Irbil or Qayyarah (80 kilometers apart) in the Kurdish north, and one in western al-Anbar province at al-Asad. These do not include Camp Anaconda in Balad.
Billions of dollars have been spent in their construction, and if today they are in the mentioned locations, it only indicates that the military planners had blueprints ready long before Mr. Bush declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq.
Note that while US officials never use the word "permanent" when referring to military bases in Iraq, they do talk of "permanent access." I quote from a front page story in The New York Times on April 19, 2003, entitled "Pentagon Expects Long Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq": "There will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops. Not permanent basing, but permanent access is all that is required, officials say."
None of the 700-plus US military bases and installations located abroad are considered "permanent," which is why ambivalent instruments like SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement exist.
A quick glance at US government military strategy documents is even more revealing.
The 2002 National Security Strategy claims: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." To accomplish this, it adds, we will "require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."
Another interesting document is "Joint Vision 2020," within which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's "vision" is, "Dedicated individuals and innovative organizations transforming the joint force of the 21st Century to achieve full spectrum dominance: persuasive in peace, decisive in war, preeminent in any form of conflict."
The Quadrennial Defense Review offers another priceless key to US foreign policy. In this document, a stated ambition for the US military is to have the capacity to fight "multiple, overlapping wars" (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. ...) and to use the US military to "ensure that all major and emerging powers are integrated as constructive actors and stakeholders into the international system."
What can be a more obvious proclamation from US policymakers about having replaced the Cold War with a Long War for Global Empire and Unchallenged Military Hegemony? Viewed through this lens, it is not difficult to comprehend the need for permanent US bases in Iraq and elsewhere.
At the height of the Roman Empire, Rome had 39 foreign military outposts. The British had 38 at their peak. The US, in the twilight of her lust for empire, currently has just over 730 according to the Department of Defense.
We have not heard from our new President-elect any articulation of the intent of total withdrawal of all US military personnel and bases from Iraq. Nor has he made any suggestion about the imperative to alter the country's policy of global domination.
Making Real the Symbol
But this is not the time to despair, or merely hope.
"The cure for despair is not hope. It's discovering what we want to do about something we care about." - Margaret Wheatley
To underscore the essence of this moment in history, I refer once again to my partner's email from Africa, "We must not forget the tremendous responsibility we have now, to see that Obama maintains his promise of change ... we must not relinquish this moment nor this victory into his hands entirely. As he learns to lead us, so must we learn to lead him."