Thursday, June 26, 2014


A change of mood…

I’ve just read Americanah. It’s very different, but as impressive as Half a Yellow Sunwhich I read a couple of years ago. Adichie is remarkable, a great writer. Americanah sparkles with insights into a panoply of personal relationships and matters of race in different cultures. The lead character in the novel gives a very personal account of her years as a resident in the USA and on return to her native Nigeria.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


'If only we had intervened militarily in Syria on the side of rebels fighting to oust Assad… If only we had insisted on keeping a military force in Iraq…'

That’s the chorus of Dick and Liz Chaney, Robert Kagan and all the neocons, and not a few “liberal interventionists”. Of Iraq, John McCain says, “ we had it won” and then we left.

Is that so?

Let’s do a “hypothetical”.  Suppose we had bombed Syria, intervened to arm chosen rebel factions, and brought about the ouster of Assad.

Isn’t it likely that ISIS, as the most dynamic force in the rebel mix, would gain the most — that it would have even greater advantage in crusading for its Syria-Iraq regional caliphate? Would the US be better able to control events in that situation than it has been in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade of war? Would the Sunni-Shiite religious, ethnic and economic conflicts subside? Would intrigues and struggles over oil cease? Would deep antagonism toward “Western” interventionism fade away?

Applying the “hypothetical” to Iraq, how long would McCain have US troops killing and dying there until it was “safe” to leave Iraq to its own arrangements?

* * *
Now, consider a not-so-hypothetical exercise. After the above lines were written, I found a “reality check” on the front page of today’s NY Times. The headline reads: After Opening Way to Rebels, Turkey is Paying Heavy Price.

             “…Turkey allowed rebel groups of any stripe easy access to the battlefields in Syria in an effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad. But that created fertile ground in Syria for the development of the Sunni militant group that launched a blitzkrieg in Iraq this month, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“…Now, with the rise of ISIS, the Turkish government is paying a steep price for the chaos it helped create.

 “The fall of Mosul was the epitome of the failure of Turkish foreign policy over the last four years,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. ‘I can’t disassociate what happened in Mosul from what happened in Syria, and Turkish foreign policy toward Syria has been unrealistic, hubristic, ideological and stubborn.’”

The interventionist chorus has drowned out reason and truth before, and the price has been heavy in lost and cruelly damaged lives. And still they are unashamed. They denounce any and all who at last shy away from the futile quest for military solutions to deep-seated political and economic problems. Their faith is in the “shock and awe” of military might to quell historic religious and ideological antagonisms. That delusion is unshaken by failure after failure, in the Middle East most of all.

What accounts for the stubborn denial of experience and common sense? It’s hard for the powers that be, who live and breathe “American exceptionalism”, to recognize 21st Century reality. It’s hard to accept that the far-flung military and economic holdings of the most powerful of nations cannot make this an “American Century” with the rest of the world gratefully following our leads.

Some voices in the interventionist chorus are raised out of frustration and horror over the vast human suffering and dislocation caused by civil and religious wars. But logic doesn’t point to more acts of war as remedy. Relief for the victims of war and fratricide demands maximum cooperative effort across national and ideological divides. Just so, reducing violence and warfare demands a massive political effort to bring together all countries and entities, regardless of serious differences, that have a common interest in encouraging arrangements that make peace possible.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


When things fall apart, there is a frenzy to fix the blame on this or that individual in a position of political power. And there are plenty of candidates for “who” is to blame for particular aspects of recent fiascos highlighted by the tragedy engulfing Iraq and Syria.

William Kristof, in yesterday’s NY Times, blames Maliki mainly, but assigns a share to Obama (for failing to intervene militarily in Syria) and parenthetically to Bush (although he treats that as a matter of history, no longer particularly relevant to dealing with the current crisis). David Brooks, along with John McCain and hawks in both parties, has it in for Obama for “under reach” in the exercise of US military power. In the blame contest, the easiest bipartisan consensus is that the main fault is with Maliki, as with Karsai in Afghanistan, whose corrupt and autocratic regimes of our own creation failed to bow totally to demands for long term US intervention as military overseer.

It’s time to focus on “what”, more than “who”, is to blame. One trouble with putting all the onus on one individual culprit versus another is the implication that a different tactical decision here or there about how to deploy US armed forces could have made our military intervention a success and stabilized (pacified?) the Middle East. Yet the last half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st show beyond doubt that war and military power, however superior in favor of the United States, don’t produce “victory”, don’t bring peace and compliance, and almost always make matters more dangerous. No matter how often and how hard we bring down the hammer, solutions to problems within and among nations fail to take shape.

Beyond debates over whom to blame when violence and chaos create an acute crisis, the question becomes what do we do now, right now? Of course there never is a magic short term answer when deep antagonisms — especially nationalist, ethnic, and religious — erupt into warfare that victimizes millions, engulfs nations and regions, and endangers the world community. The first essential is not to do more harm through another futile resort to US military intervention. The only helpful response is to participate urgently in building a coalition of all nations and groups who have a common interest in stemming the tide of war in Iraq and Syria and organizing massive humanitarian relief. Whether our hawks like it or not, that collective effort has to include assumed US adversaries Iran and Russia, as well as the United Nations. The Bush Administration courted the UN notoriously in the run-up to its invasion of Iraq. Maybe US support for a coalition of all who want to end war in the Middle East could yield greater success and breath life into lingering hopes for an effective UN.

There is no escaping the need for a longer view, not just an “emergency response”. We are in a time when “things fall apart”. (Those three words are the title of a novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who describes the collapse of African communal society as colonial intervention took root.) The violent ethnic and religious conflicts of today have deep roots, and have been exploited and nurtured in a long history of Western colonialism and post-colonial imperialism. Now the economic and political system that fashioned and dominates the present world order cannot keep it under control. More than anything, its increasingly dysfunctional state and decline are the product of widening chasms of extreme inequality that fuel antagonisms within and among nations.

At some stage, a process of fundamental change has to take hold in a more equalitarian and humane direction. That has been what socialists of different stripes have understood. The notion that far flung US military power can sustain a failing economic order, that it can by force keep things from falling apart, is as irrational as other messianic currents plaguing our world.

I’m not happy to wind up this longer than usual blog on a note of “I don’t know”. Who knows how, when or even if the ways to serious social change can come together before everything falls apart?  Past 90, one may feel that life is very long. Each generation, though, only has a very short time in human history, not long enough to foresee or guarantee the future. Yet, over many generations, humanity is resilient and the struggle for liberty, equality and, ultimately, for survival is refreshed. That’s what makes for hope, and may also make the impossible possible:  “we shall overcome some day.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The news that grabs me today:  Of course, there is the demolition of Eric Cantor; also, the California judge’s ruling against teacher tenure.

It’s sad that many parents who are outraged by the disastrously low quality of education think that the answer is a war to get rid of bad teachers and to weaken teacher’s unions. Not surprisingly, inadequate teachers and bad schools plague poor and minority communities especially. But things have taken a bizarre turn in the name of “education reform”. Instead of an emphasis on preparing and recruiting many more good teachers, of making teaching attractive and highly valued by society, of investing in better schools and educational support, the thrust is to make it easier to fire teachers, to demonize unions, to devalue and shrink public schools.

Sad, too, that many liberals who are solidly against the wars on women, on the unemployed and the homeless, on voting rights, and so on, nevertheless, buy into the anti-union thrust of purported “education reform”. Whatever improvements need to be made in teacher evaluation and performance through strong interaction between parents, educators, and unions, there is little question as to what outlawing tenure would mean. Further weakening unions would do nothing to make teaching more attractive. Rather it would give unlimited power over hiring, firing, conditions of work and educational process to those in authority. That would open the way to arbitrariness, acts of personal and political prejudice, such as sullied the practices of many education administrators when conformity was demanded at the expense of civil liberties.

No wonder that war against teacher and public employee unions is top priority for Scott Walker, the Koch brothers and ALEC: just leave everything up to the boss.

* * *

How can one not get a charge out of what happened to Eric Cantor? Just desserts! Still, there is a queasy feeling. One can hope that this stunning turn of events will weaken the GOP’s electoral prospects, but there’s more reason for alarm than for celebration in the Tea Party’s promotion of anti-immigrant and racist poison.

I wonder who is most pained by Cantor’s debacle. There is AIPAC and Netanyahu, for whom Cantor was foremost champion in Congress of total support for Israel’s occupation regime; he also tried his darndest to undermine any negotiations with Iran. Then there is David Brooks and others trying to save the GOP through a “new” conservative agenda, one with a more human face, one that acknowledges the concerns of ordinary folk.

The last time this “new” Republican thinking tried to makeover a harsh public image, we got “compassionate conservatism” with George W. Bush. ‘Not this time’, according to Cantor’s nemesis, David Brat, and the Tea Party cohort. The prevailing GOP winds are not going the way of the “new” (once again?) reformers.