Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolution

By Janet Biehl On December 16, 2014

Post image for Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolutionIn early December an international delegation visited Rojava’s Cezire canton where they learned about the ongoing revolution, cooperation and tolerance.

From December 1 to 9, I had the privilege of visiting Rojava as part of a delegation of academics from Austria, Germany, Norway, Turkey, the UK, and the US. We assembled in Erbil, Iraq, on November 29 and spent the next day learning about the petrostate known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with its oil politics, patronage politics, feuding parties (KDP and PUK), and apparent aspirations to emulate Dubai. We soon had enough and on Monday morning were relieved to drive to the Tigris, where we crossed the border into Syria and entered Rojava, the majority-Kurdish autonomous region of northern Syria.

The Tigris river channel was narrow, but the society we encountered on the far shore could not have been more different from the KRG: the spirit of a social and political revolution was in the air. As we disembarked, we were greeted by the Asayis, or civilian security forces of the revolution. The Asayis reject the label police, since police serve the state whereas they serve society.

Over the next nine days, we would explore Rojava’s revolutionary self-government in an old-fashioned state of total immersion (we had no internet access to distract us). Our delegation’s two organizers — Dilar Dirik (a talented PhD student at Cambridge University) and Devriş Çimen (head of Civaka Azad, the Kurdish Center for Public Information in Germany) — took us on an intensive tour of the various revolutionary institutions.

Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly.

Rojava’s Third Way

At the outset, the deputy foreign minister, Amine Ossi, introduced us to the history of the revolution. The Syrian Ba’ath regime, a system of one-party rule, had long insisted that all Syrians were Arabs and attempted to “Arabize” the country’s four million Kurds, suppressing their identity and stripping those who objected of their citizenship.

After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.

Rojavans (I’ll call them by that name because while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.

Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism.

Initially, under his leadership, Kurds had fought for a state, but several decades ago, again under his leadership, their goal began to change: they now reject the state as a source of oppression and instead strive for self-government, for popular democracy. Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Öcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.

A Women’s Revolution

Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a “social contract” (the non-statist term it uses instead of “constitution”). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.

When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.

Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.

But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official — for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.

Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.

Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ — or women’s protection units — whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.

When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. “We are fighting for our ideas,” they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch — both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.

Cooperation and Education

Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.

When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression — and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.

Rojava’s economic model “is the same as its political model,” an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a “community economy,” building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.

They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.

Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: “If there is only bread, then we all have a share,” the adviser told us.

We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.

The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Ba’ath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.

Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Ba’ath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.

A DIY Revolution

The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies — the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo — that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.

The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they “search for meaning,” as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.

Images of Abdullah Öcalan are everywhere, which to Western eyes might suggest something Orwellian: indoctrination, knee-jerk belief. But to interpret those images that way would be to miss the situation entirely. “No one will give you your rights,” someone quoted Öcalan to us, “you will have to struggle to obtain them.”

And to carry out that struggle, Rojavans know they must educate both themselves and society. Öcalan taught them Democratic Confederalism as a set of principles. Their role has been to figure out how to implement it, in Democratic Autonomy, and thereby to empower themselves.

The Kurds have historically had few friends. They were ignored by the Treaty of Lausanne that divided up the Middle East after World War I. For most of the past century, they suffered as minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Their language and culture have been suppressed, their identities denied, their human rights overruled.

They are on the wrong side of NATO, where Turkey is permitted to call the shots on Kurdish matters. They have long been outsiders. That experience has been brutal, involving torture, exile and war. But it has also given them strength and independence of mind. Öcalan taught them how to reset the terms of their existence in a way that gave them dignity and self-respect.

This do-it-yourself revolution by an educated populace is embargoed by their neighbors and gets along by the skin of its teeth. It is nonetheless an endeavor that pushes the human prospect forward. In the wake of the twentieth century, many people have come to the worst conclusions about human nature, but in the twenty-first, Rojavans are setting a new standard for what human beings are capable of. In a world fast losing hope, they shine as a beacon.

Anyone with a bit of faith in humanity should wish the Rojavans well with their revolution and do what they can to help it succeed. They should demand that their governments stop allowing Turkey to define a rejectionist international policy toward the Kurds and toward Democratic Autonomy. They should demand an end to the embargo against Rojava.

The members of the delegation in which I participated (even though I am not an academic) did their work well. Sympathetic to the revolution, they nonetheless asked challenging questions, about Rojava’s economic outlook, about the handling of ethnicity and nationalism, and more. The Rojavans we met, accustomed to grappling with hard questions, responded thoughtfully and even welcomed critique. Readers interested in learning more about the Rojava Revolution may look forward to forthcoming writings by the other delegation members: Welat (Oktay) Ay, Rebecca Coles, Antonia Davidovic, Eirik Eiglad, David Graeber, Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Johanna Riha, Nazan Üstündag, and Christian Zimmer. As for me, I have much more to say than this short article allows and plan to write a further work, one that incorporates drawings I made during the trip.

Janet Biehl is an independent writer, artist, and translator living in Burlington, Vt. She previously edited The Murray Bookchin Reader and is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

 

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Battle of the Bulge

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Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive campaign launched through the Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium toward the end of World War II in Europe. My father, Henry, participated in this bloody battle and it changed his life: he returned from the war suffering from what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome. Every year he suffered deeply around the holiday season dealing with his terrible experiences in Belgium where most of his buddies were killed in a defensive action. He never discussed the details with me except to note that Christmas had a dark side for him connected with this epic battle.

As many of you know, I’m working on a novel about the Battle, my father and his comrades, my cousin on the German side and his friends, and the action leading up to this last German offensive beginning where my father appeared on the scene at the Invasion of Normandy. I’ve read stacks of books about the War and the Battle from many perspectives as well as lots of primary sources I’ve found online including discussions with veterans on both sides. There is still much more to be examined, but the more sources I examine, the more fully I come to understanding my father and the amazing generation that fought in World War II. That in itself is worth the time and effort.

Photo of my father in Belgium during World War II.

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A history of state repression in Guerrero, Mexico

By Francisco Alonso On December 12, 2014

Post image for A history of state repression in Guerrero, MexicoThe recent massacre of 43 students shocked the world, but was only the latest act in a long history of state repression in Mexico’s Guerrero region.

The Iguala massacre woke up a society that seems inured to widespread corruption, impunity and brutal violence. Recently, Mexican society did show a reaction to other massacres, like the one that occurred in Monterrey where 52 people died locked up in a casino building after it had been deliberately set on fire. Or in Tamaulipas where 72 Central American migrants heading to the U.S. were kidnapped and murdered after they refused to become hit men or pay ransom for their release. However, what happened in Iguala was different. It was a clear act of political repression and this time the participation of state agents as perpetrators was impossible to hide.

Moreover, the massacre targeted a focal point of political activism in Mexico; a school of teachers, a ‘school of democracy’.  For more than half a century, teachers from Ayotzinapa have been fighting against corrupt policemen, homicidal soldiers, paramilitary forces, caciques (local strong men) and now the narco state. Ayotzinapa has provided a disproportionate amount of leaders toGuerrero’s social movements, including Lucio Cabañas, founder of the Partido de los Pobres (PDLP), the most important rural guerrilla organization during the 1970’s.

On one side the Iguala massacre is an archetypical case — so recurrent in Mexican history — in which a peaceful protest turns into a rebellion because of state repression. On the other hand, although it is by no means new, the fact that repression was carried out by public officers and policemen who were collaborating with hit men from a criminal organization is a present-day distinctive. In such a case a major social outburst is hard to avoid. In this moment, actions taken by the government and civil society will determine if a system collapse will be avoided. As Trejo states, “in Iguala past, present and future converge.” This convergence may be shown by tracing a long cycle of mobilization and repression in Guerrero where impunity has always prevailed, from la guerra en el paraíso to Iguala’s inferno.

Not a Revolution, but a ranchero revolt

According to Ian Jacobs, author of The Ranchero Revolt, Guerrero’s history was shaped by its physical geography. In the early twentieth century there were very few roads in a region with very rough terrain. The lack of roads made land unattractive to elites during the Porfiriato. Hence, the problem of stolen lands did not acquire the dimensions it took in the neighbouring region of Morelos, where sugar cane haciendas dispossessed peasants and generated a fertile ground for the Zapatista rebellion of 1911.

In contrast, Guerrero did not experience widespread usurpation of communal lands in the early twentieth century. Hence, the political evolution of the region was different; without a rebellion such as the one led by Zapata, the Porfirian structure of caciques remained intact during the Mexican Revolution and was even reinforced when caciques disguised themselves as ‘revolutionaries’ and were accepted by the regime during the post-revolutionary decades.

In Guerrero, the Figueroa brothers (Ambrosio and Francisco), who betrayed Zapata on many occasions, imposed themselves as the main overlords. They became the quintessential caciques in the region and founders of the everlasting Figueroa dynasty, a sort of ‘Somosa family’ in Guerrero.

 

 

 

 

December 30, 1960, Chilpancingo, Guerrero

A student demonstration claiming university autonomy was repressed at Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital. Seventeen protesters were killed. The massacre forced the governor, general Raúl Caballero Aburto, to resign (Cervantes, 2007). The student uprising evolved into an urban popular movement with presence in many state regions spearheaded by the Asociación Cívica Guerrerense (ACG), a political organization created in 1959 by regime opponents. There were many teachers among them.

December 30, 1962, Iguala, Guerrero

During 1961 the popular movement grew in strength. The provisional local government called for elections to be held in December 1962 in order to renew state and local authorities. The ACG presented José María Téllez as their candidate for Guerrero’s governorship. After losing the elections, they protested against what they considered to be a fraudulent result. Again, demonstrators were confronted by the police and the military.That time the toll of the repression was 8 deaths and 156 arrests.

The ACG leader Genaro Vázquez fled the state but was captured in 1966. ACG members rescued him in 1968 from the Iguala prison and fled to the Sierra (Guerrero’s western highlands), where Vazquez renamed the ACG as Asociación Cívica Nacional Revolucionaria (ACNR) and stated that members of his organization were convinced that the armed struggle was the only means to transform the situation (Salgado, 1971).

May 18, 1967, Atoyac, Guerrero

A protest rally took place to demand the destitution of the primary school director and the school committee. The rally was led by Lucio Cabañas. The police had warned Cabañas that they would not tolerate any demonstration, so they opened fire when Cabañas started to speak, killing five people, including a pregnant woman. Like Vazquez, Cabañas also fled to the Sierra and formed thePartido de los Pobres and its armed branch; the Brigada campesina de ajusticiamiento (Peasant execution brigade).

1960s  – 1970s, Guerrero, La guerra en el paraíso

In the Sierra, the rebels found the fertile ground for rebellion that was absent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The federal and state governments were carrying out two large-scale modernization projects in Guerrero, both taking place either in the Sierra or in localities close to it. Partly financed by the World Bank, the first project consisted of the construction of a series of dams and civil engineering enterprises through the Balsas River, mainly for energy production.

The goal of the second project was to develop the port of Acapulco and its surroundings as a mayor international tourist destination. This state-sponsored modernization was planned by a central bureaucracy interested in economic progress at the national level but caring little about concerns of the local population. Hence, it became a process of  authoritarian economic exploitation.

During the 1960’s and the 1970’s labour conflicts erupted in the Sierra; land was taken away from peasants and forests were cut down by foreign timber companies. Popular protest emerged with a broad set of demands ranging from land redistribution, an end to forest exploitation, attendance of educational, health and socioeconomic needs of the popular classes, rights to unionize, democratic transparency, and community decision making.

The wave of mobilization was severely repressed and guerrilla organizations nurtured the grievances. According to Trejo, repression in Guerrero in the 1960’s and 1970’s reached levels of the guerras sucias in Chile and Argentina. According to the special prosecutor’s office, the Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado (FEMOSPP), that was investigating the guerra sucia, at least 482 forced disappearances took place during that period.

May 30, 1974

PRI senator Ruben Figueroa Figueroa (Francisco’s nephew) was kidnapped by the PDLP. As asked by the rebels, the Mexican government announced the retrenchment of the army from Guerrero rural areas to the headquarters, but Guerrero’s countryside was heavily militarized in secret. Soldiers were looking for Figueroa and hunted down the PDLP. Cabañas died in combat, and Figueroa was rescued. In 1975 he became the governor of Guerrero.

The FEMOSPP, with more than 500 oral testimonies and documents from the Mexican national archive (Archivo General de la Nación), asserted that, once Figueroa became governor of Guerrero, he perpetrated hundreds of crimes. Figueroa then ordered arbitrary detentions. The state’s chief of security Mario Acosta Chaparro, together with Alfredo Mendiola, Alberto Aguirre and Humberto Rodríguez, was in charge of executing the victims and throwing their bodies from airplanes in the ocean.

Army and police forces managed to suppress the rebellion in the highlands by killing or imprisoning most of the rebels. By the 1980’s neither the ANCR, nor the PDLP, nor the other dozens of guerrilla organizations formed in the 1970’s, were a threat to the Mexican state.

Carrots and sticks

The ‘stick’ came together with some ‘carrots’. Two of those carrots were particularly important. After wars, reconstruction processes follow. Something similar happened after Guerrero’s guerra sucia. The first carrot meant significant state resources and a new program for land redistribution aimed at winning the ‘hearts and minds’ and avoiding a subsequent rebellion in rural areas. This process can be seen as the state’s “massive incursion” in Guerrero’s eastern highlands, ‘la Montaña’ region. The second carrot was a democratic opening in which former guerrilleros were exonerated and the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) legalized and allowed to compete in the elections.

Nevertheless, no one was held responsible for the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the guerra sucia. Furthermore, the forced disappearances of radical opposition leaders continued despite the process of democratization and government alternation at the federal and state levels. Impunity prevailed. The tension of this historic moment was captured in the closing lines of Carlos Montemayor’s novel Guerra en el paraíso. In the novel, when Lucio Cabañas is shot, a thought resonates while he is falling to the ground: “there is still a lot to be done, to be done, to be done…”

Francisco Alonso is a PhD researcher in Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence.

 

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Obama claims “turning point” for US militarism

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By Bill Van Auken

16 December 2014

President Barack Obama used a trip to Fort Dix, New Jersey Monday to deliver a speech to assembled troops proclaiming that after 13 years, America’s war in Afghanistan is being brought to a close.

Obama’s remarks received little applause from the audience of enlisted personnel, for whom the empty “support our troops” rhetoric and claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been successful crusades for freedom and against terrorism are no doubt wearing thin. With polls showing that the majority of Americans think both wars were mistakes, similar attitudes are common within the military.

Among the few lines to elicit a spontaneous reaction from the uniformed audience was Obama’s statement that the recent budget bill passed in Washington includes a pay raise for the military.

It is noteworthy that Obama’s first address since official Washington has been thrown into turmoil by the release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture was delivered to a captive military audience in which the subject was never mentioned—and there was no danger that anyone else would raise it.

The Obama White House has left it to the likes of CIA Director John Brennan and former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney to defend the “patriotism” of the American intelligence agency against the official confirmation of its responsibility for war crimes.

The thrust of the president’s remarks, that the US is “marking an important milestone” in ending the US war in Afghanistan and having Afghan forces “take full responsibility for their security,” was belied by developments on the ground and mealy-mouthed admissions in the speech itself.

Just last week, the Pentagon revealed that it is leaving 1,000 more US troops behind at the end of this month than it had originally planned, bringing the total head count to at least 10,800. And while it was initially claimed that the mission of the remaining US forces would be confined to training and advising Afghan troops and pursuing remnants of Al Qaeda, it was announced last week that they would also take action against the Taliban, providing combat support to the Afghan military as needed.

At the same time, the Afghan security forces remain dependent upon the US military for air support, intelligence and logistics. In other words, the war will continue, albeit with a smaller number of “boots on the ground.”

To drive home this point, two more US soldiers were killed on Friday in an attack on their convoy near the Bagram Air Base, as a Taliban offensive continued throughout much of the country. Last month alone, the capital of Kabul, supposedly Afghanistan’s most secure area, suffered 12 major Taliban attacks.

“Even as our combat mission ends, our commitment to Afghanistan endures,” Obama told the troops, underlining the lies and double-talk that pervaded his speech. The “limited military presence” that would remain, he said, would “keep training and equipping the Afghan forces” and “conduct counterterrorism missions,” i.e., the kind of night raids and air strikes that have claimed civilian casualties and aroused popular opposition to the US occupation.

Regardless of the war in Afghanistan, Obama added, “… there are still challenges to our security around the world. In times of crisis, people around the world look to one nation to lead, and that is the United States of America.” Foremost among these crises, Obama continued, is the struggle “against the brutal terrorist group ISIL [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria.”

The reality is that the rise of ISIS is rooted entirely in the previous and ongoing US imperialist interventions in the Middle East. First, there was the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which killed over a million Iraqis, shattered the country’s social infrastructure, and bred bitter sectarian divisions. Then there was the war for regime-change in Syria, in which ISIS emerged as the dominant military force among the Western-backed “rebels.”

Obama claimed the US was at a “turning point” in relation to its wars abroad, pointing out that while nearly 180,000 troops had been deployed at their peak in Iraq and Afghanistan, the present forces amounted to around 15,000.

“The time of deploying large ground forces with big military footprints to engage in nation-building overseas, that’s coming to an end,” he told his military audience.

Whatever the reality of this supposed tactical shift, Obama stressed that militarism would remain the driving force of the American state. “Going forward our military will be leaner,” Obama said. “But as your commander in chief, I’m going to make sure we keep you ready for the range of missions that we ask of you. We are going to keep you the best trained, the best led, the best equipped military in the history of the world because the world will still be calling.”

This supposed “calling” has led not only to a new open-ended war that encompasses Iraq and Syria, while threatening to spread throughout the Middle East, but has also placed Washington on a collision course with both Russia and China. Obama’s supposed “turning point” is emerging ever more clearly as a turn toward a new world war.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/12/16/obam-d16.html

 

“If the people are not convinced (that the Free World is in mortal danger) it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert danger. With the support of public opinion, as marshalled by the press, we are off to a good start. It is our Job – yours and mine — to keep our people convinced that the only way to keep disaster away from our shores is to build up America’s might.”

~Charles Wilson, Chairman of the Board of General Electric and Truman appointee to head the Office of Defence Mobilization, in a speech to the Newspaper Publishers Association, 1950~

In 2009, the president promised nuclear disarmament. Five years later, our stockpile remains frightfully intact

Obama channels Dr. Stangelove: How the president learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

, TOMDISPATCH.COM

Obama channels Dr. Stangelove: How the president learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

It was one of the most stirring speeches an American president had ever given. The place was Prague; the year was 2009; the president was the recently sworn in Barack Obama. The promise made that day is worth recalling at length, especially since, by now, it is largely forgotten:

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…’”

President Obama had been in office only three months when, boldly claiming his place on the world stage, he unequivocally committed himself and his country to a nuclear abolition movement that, until then, had at best existed somewhere on the distant fringes of power politics. “I know,” he added, “that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible… and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.”

The simple existence of nuclear weapons, an American president declared, paved the road to perdition for humanity.

Obama as The Captain Ahab of Nuclear Weapons

At that moment, the foundations for an imagined abolitionist world were modest indeed, but not nonexistent.  The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had, for instance, struck a bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots, under which a path to abolition was treated as real.  The dealseemed clear enough: the have-nots would promise to forego obtaining nukes and, in return, the world’s reigning nuclear powers would pledge to take, in the words of the treaty, “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”



For decades before the Obama moment, however, the superpower arsenals of nuclear warheads continued to grow like so many mushrooms, while new nuclear states — Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea — built their own impressive arsenals.  In those years, with the singular exception of South Africa, nuclear-weapons states simply ignored their half of the NPT bargain and the crucial clause mandating progress toward eventual disarmament was all but forgotten.

When the Cold War ended in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the next year Americans elected as president Bill Clinton, who was famously against the Vietnam War, it was at least possible to imagine that nukes might go the way of internationally banned chemical weapons. But Washington chose otherwise.  Despite a paucity of enemies anywhere on Earth, the Pentagon’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review insisted on maintaining the American nuclear arsenal at Cold War levels as a “hedge,” an insurance policy, against an imagined return of Communism, fascism, or something terrible in Russia anyway — and Clinton accepted the Pentagon’s position.

Soon enough, however, even prominent hawks of the Cold War era began to worry that such a nuclear insurance policy could itself ignite a global fire. In 1999, a chief architect of the nuclear mindset, Paul Nitze, stepped away from a lifetime obsession with building up nuclear power to denounce nukes as “a threat mostly to ourselves” and to explicitly call for unilateral disarmament. Other former apostles of nuclear realpolitik also came to embrace the goal of abolition. In 2008, four high priests of the cult of nuclear normalcy — former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, and former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger — jointly issued a sacrilegious renunciation of their nuclear faith on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” they wrote, “and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”

Unfortunately, such figures had come to Jesus only after leaving office, when they were exempt from the responsibility of matching their high-flown rhetoric with the gritty work of making it real.

Obama in Prague was another matter.  He was at the start of what would become an eight-year presidency and his rejection of nuclear fatalism rang across the world. Only months later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part because of this stunning commitment. A core hope of the post-World-War-II peace movement, always marginal, had at last been embraced in the seat of power. A year later, at Obama’s direction, the Pentagon, in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, actually advanced the president’s purpose, committing itself to “a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.”

“The United States,” that document promised, “will not develop new nuclear warheads.” When it came to the future of the nuclear arsenal, a program of responsible maintenance was foreseen, but no new ground was to be broken. “Life Extension Programs,” the Pentagon promised, “will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide new military capabilities.”

Obama’s timing in 2009 was critical. The weapons and delivery systems of the nuclear arsenal were aging fast. Many of the country’s missiles, warheads, strategic bombers, and nuclear-powered submarines dated back to the early Cold War era and were effectively approaching their radioactive sell-by dates. In other words, massive reductions in the arsenal had to begin before pressures to launch a program for the wholesale replacement of those weapons systems grew too strong to resist.  Such a program, in turn, would necessarily mean combining the latest technological innovations with ever greater lethality in a way guaranteed to reinvigorate the entire enterprise across the world — the polar opposite of “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

Obama, in other words, was presiding over a golden moment, but an apocalyptic deadline was bearing down. And sure enough, that deadline came crashing through when three things happened: Vladimir Putin resurfaced as an incipient fascist intent on returning Russia to great power status; extremist Republicans took Congress hostage; and Barack Obama found himself lashed, like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, to “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on half a heart and half a lung.” Insiders often compare the Pentagon to Moby Dick, the Great White Whale, and Obama learned why. The peaceful intentions with which he began his presidency were slapped away by the flukes of the monster, like so many novice oarsmen in a whaling skiff.

Hence Obama’s course reversals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; hence the White House stumbles, including an unseemly succession of secretaries of defense, the fourth of whom, Ashton Carter, can reliably be counted on to advance the renewal of the nuclear force. The Pentagon’s “intangible malignity,” in Melville’s phrase, was steadily quickened by both Putin and the Republicans, but Obama’s half-devoured heart shows in nothing so much as his remarkably full-bore retreat, in both rhetoric and policy, from the goal of nuclear abolition.

recent piece by New York Times science correspondent William J. Broad made the president’s nuclear failure dramatic. Cuts to the U.S. nuclear stockpile initiated by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, he pointed out, totaled 14,801 weapons; Obama’s reductions so far: 507 weapons. In 2010, a new START treaty between Moscow and Washington capped future deployed nukes at 1,500. As of this October, the U.S. still deploys 1,642 of them and Russia 1,643; neither nation, that is, has achieved START levels, which only count deployed weapons. (Including stored but readily re-armed and targeted nukes, the U.S. arsenal today totals about 4,800 weapons.)

In order to get the votes of Senate Republicans to ratify the START treaty, Obama made what turned out to be a devil’s bargain.  He agreed to lay the groundwork for a vast “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which, in the name of updating an aged system, is already morphing into a full-blown reinvention of the arms cache at an estimated future cost of more than atrillion dollars. In the process, the Navy wants, and may get, 12 new strategic submarines; the Air Force wants, and may get, a new long-range strike bomber force. Bombers and submarines would, of course, both be outfitted with next-generation missiles, and we’d be off to the races. The arms races.

All of this unfolds as Vladimir Putin warms the hearts of nuclear enthusiasts everywhere not only by his aggressions in Ukraine, but also by undercutting the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a new ground-launched cruise missile. Indeed, just this fall, Russia successfully launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It seems that Moscow, too, can modernize.

On a Twenty-First Century Road to Perdition

Responding to the early Obama vision of “effective measures” toward nuclear disarmament, and following up on that 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, senior Pentagon officials pursued serious discussions about practical measures to reduce the nuclear arsenal. Leading experts advocated a shift away from the Cold War’s orgasmic strike targeting doctrine that still necessitates an arsenal of weapons counted in the thousands.

In fact, in response to budget constraints, legal obligations under a jeopardized non-proliferation treaty, and the most urgent moral mandate facing the country, America’s nuclear strategy could shift without wrenching difficulty, at the very least, to one of “minimal deterrence.” Hardcore national security mavens tell us this. Such a shift would involve a reduction in both the deployed and stored nuclear arsenal to something like 500 warheads. Even if that goal were pursued unilaterally, it would leave more than enough weaponry to deter any conceivable state-based nuclear threat, including Russia’s, no matter what Putin may do.

Five hundred is, of course, a long way from zero and so from the president’s 2009 goal of abolition, and yet opposition even to that level would be fierce in Washington. Though disarming and disposing of thousands of nukes would cost far less than replacement, it would still be expensive, and you can count on one thing: Pentagon nuclearists would find firm allies among congressional Republicans, who would be loathe to fund such a retreat from virtue’s Armageddon. Meanwhile, confronting such cuts, the defense industry’s samurai lobbyists would unsheathe their swords.

But if a passionate Obama could make a compelling case for a nuclear-free world from Prague in 2009, why not go directly to the American people and make the case today? There is, of course, no sign that the president intends to do such a thing any longer, but if a commander-in-chief were to order nuclear reductions into the hundreds, the result might actually be a transformation of the American political conscience. In the process, the global dream of a nuclear-free world could be resuscitated and the commitment of non-nuclear states (including Iran) to refrain from nuclear-weapons development could be rescued. Most crucially, there would no longer be any rationale for the large-scale reinvention of the American nuclear arsenal, a deadly project this nation is even now preparing to launch. At the very least, a vocal rededication to an ultimate disarmament, to the actual abolition of nuclear weapons, would keep that road open for a future president to re-embark upon.

Alas, Pentagon advocates of “minimal deterrence” have already been overridden. The president’s once fiercely held conviction is now a mere shadow of itself. As happened with Ahab’s wrecked whaling ship, tumultuous seas are closing over the hope that once seized the world’s attention. Take it for granted that, in retirement and out of power, ex-president Obama will rediscover his one-time commitment to a world freed from the nuclear nightmare. He will feel the special responsibility proper to a citizen of “the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon.” The then-former president’s speeches on the subject will be riveting and his philanthropy will be sharply targeted. All for naught.

Because of decisions likely to be taken this year and next, no American president will ever again be able to embrace this purpose as Obama once did. Nuclear weapons will instead become a normalized and permanent part of the twenty-first century American arsenal, and therefore of the arsenals of many other nations; nuclear weapons, that is, will have become an essential element of the human future — as long as that future lasts.

So yes, mark these days down. Nuclear abolition itself is being abolished. Meanwhile, let us acknowledge, as that hopeful young president once asked us to, that we know where this road leads.

James Carroll is the bestselling author of the National Book Award-winning memoir “An American Requiem,” “Constantine’s Sword,” a history of Christian anti-Semitism and 10 novels. His latest book is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World.” He lectures widely on war and peace and on Jewish-Christian-Muslim reconciliation. He lives in Boston.

US budget resolution funds war and repression

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By Patrick Martin
13 December 2014

The omnibus spending resolution adopted by the US House of Representatives just before midnight Thursday, and which is now before the Senate, is a detailed public statement of the priorities of the American ruling elite. The bulk of the more than $1.1 trillion in funding goes to the military and other repressive functions of the federal government, such as spying, prisons and the police.

President Obama hailed the measure as a “bipartisan effort to include full-year appropriations legislation for most government functions that allows for planning and provides certainty, while making progress toward appropriately investing in economic growth and opportunity, and adequately funding national security requirements.” In other words, the bill makes it possible for the administration to continue waging war around the world and building up the apparatus for a police state at home.

Attached to the funding bill are hundreds of policy measures, many of them added at the last minute with no public discussion and, in many cases, without most congressmen or senators even being aware of what was being proposed before they rubber-stamped the bill. These include, most notoriously, the repeal of a major section of the Dodd-Frank legislation that sought to place some restrictions on the speculative activities of the banks following the 2008 financial crash.

The language in this section, permitting banks to use federally insured deposits to gamble in the swaps and derivative markets, was literally drafted by the banks. According to an analysis by the New York Times, 70 of the 85 lines in that section of the bill come directly from Citibank, which spearheaded the lobbying by Wall Street on this issue.

The four largest Wall Street banks conduct 93 percent of all US derivatives trading, so the measure is a brazen demonstration of the subservience of Congress to the big banks. According to the Washington Post, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, another of the big four banks, personally telephoned individual congressmen to urge them to vote for the amendment to Dodd-Frank.

The House of Representatives passed the funding bill late Thursday by a vote of 219 to 206 after a delay of seven hours. The delay was to allow the Obama administration to pressure a sufficient number of Democratic congressmen to support the Republican-drafted bill and offset defections among ultra-right Republicans who wanted the legislation to block Obama’s executive order on immigration.

The final vote saw 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats supporting the bill, while 136 Democrats and 70 Republicans opposed it. As always, just enough Democratic votes were found to assure that the reactionary measure passed, the government agencies were funded, and the financial markets were reassured.

Some liberal Democrats, most notably the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, made speeches posturing as opponents of the legislation. Pelosi even declared, in a comment that was widely publicized, that she was “enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with this.”

But in remarks to a meeting of the Democratic caucus, Pelosi gave the game away, refusing to seek a party-line vote and instead telling members, “I’m giving you the leverage to do whatever you have to do.” The second-ranking and third-ranking Democratic leaders, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Deputy Whip James Clyburn, broke with Pelosi and sided with the White House on the bill, openly recruiting the votes required for passage.

Along with the $1.1 trillion bill that will fund most federal agencies through September 30, the House passed by voice vote a resolution funding the whole government through Saturday midnight, to give the Senate time to act on the main measure. The Senate approved this stopgap as well, and Obama signed it at the White House on Friday morning.

The House met again Friday afternoon and passed another extension, this time for five days, giving the Senate until midnight Wednesday to complete action on the funding legislation. Ultimate Senate passage is not in doubt. Outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid has given his public backing, saying Thursday, “I’m upset with certain things in the bill. It’s not perfect. But a longer-term funding is much better for our economy than a short-term one.”

Most press coverage of the funding bill gives the following breakdown of the spending: $521 billion for the military, $492 billion for nonmilitary items, and $73 billion in emergency spending, most of it military-related. This is highly misleading, since much of the “nonmilitary” spending is demonstrably in support of US military operations or domestic police and security operations directed against the American population.

The $492 billion of “nonmilitary” spending includes the following, according to the official summary posted on the web site of Congress. (Click here and then page down to the section titled “Omnibus summaries,” which contains live links to department-by-department spending).

· $11.4 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the unit of the Department of Energy that assembles US nuclear weapons.

· $40.6 billion for Department of Energy, NASA, NSF and other scientific research, much of it related to nuclear energy, cybersecurity and missile technology.

· $65 billion for the Veterans Administration, which provides medical care and other services for those shattered in body and mind by their service as cannon fodder in American wars.

· $26.7 billion for the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, DEA and BATF ($10.7 billion), federal prisons ($6.9 billion), and aid to local police ($2.3 billion).

· $25 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, which is funded only through February 27, 2015 because of its role in enforcing immigration policy (the full-year amount would be more than $60 billion).

· $7 billion from the health budget for biodefense and bioterrorism research.

· An undisclosed figure, believed to be in the range of $60 billion, for intelligence operations, including the CIA and 17 other federal agencies.

At a minimum, these figures suggest that $236 billion, or nearly half, of the supposedly “nonmilitary” spending is actually directed to sustaining the military-intelligence capabilities of American imperialism.

Adding that to the explicitly military and overseas contingency funding, the real dimensions of the US military-intelligence-police-prison complex begin to come into view: a staggering $830 billion, more than 80 cents out of every dollar in the funding bill, is devoted to killing, spying on, imprisoning or otherwise oppressing the people of the world, including the American people.

Further details of the massive legislation, weighing in at more than 1,600 pages, will undoubtedly emerge over the coming days. Among the provisions worth taking note of:

· The bill provides $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, mostly financial subsidies, and $1.45 billion in aid to Egypt, most of it military, as well as $1 billion in aid to Jordan, another US client state in the region.

· The bill eliminates the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, used for six years to promote private charter schools and attacks on teachers in public schools. Republicans attacked the program as an effort to impose federal standards in education.

· The bill bans enforcement of a series of environmental and labor regulations, ensuring that air and water will be more polluted and workers will be more brutally exploited.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/12/13/budg-d13.html