Wednesday, December 28, 2005

London Review of Books 27,33 (Dec 1st 2005)

Late, but very good piece on the French riots by the excellent Jeremy Harding.

LRB Vol. 27 No. 23 dated 1 December 2005 Jeremy Harding
Diary from Paris

Of the many graffiti to be found in the Paris banlieues just now – and creeping into the city itself – the most apt has surely been the simple injunction: ‘Riot!’ In French, this newish addition to the lexicon is reflexive: ‘Emeute-toi!’ in canister white; the imperative singular of s’émeuter. Thirty years ago, it would have been faire une émeute or something like it. Cassell’s dictionary gives a transitive verb émeuter, ‘to stir up’, and though none of the public commentary on the upheaval in France in the first two weeks of November used this word, the view of what’s been happening is pretty clear: the trouble was whipped up by the attitude and language of the minister of the interior. Even so, with the worst of the breaking and burning done and an inkling of confidence among the political class that the ‘crisis’ is surmountable, Nicolas Sarkozy – who’d begun to look isolated in the government – has seen his position steadily improve.

The public, no longer quite so nervous, has rewarded him for his outspokenness with a boost in his popularity rating and the Sarkozy show rolls on, with its own imperturbable, riveting script, watched with fascination by those who love him and those who don’t. The two young boys, Bouna Traoré and Ziad Benna, both in their teens, who were electrocuted in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, north of Paris, on 27 October, are all but forgotten, though their deaths set the rioting in motion. Few recall that when they died Sarkozy wasn’t the only public servant to argue that it was their own fault: several officials, from the administration in Seine-St-Denis to the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, took a similar line. Where Sarkozy suggested that the boys, or their friends, were implicated in a petty theft, Villepin opted for the vaguer and loftier formulation ‘thieves at work in the area at the time’: a nuance that confirms the different styles of the two rivals for the presidency in 2007, but leaves them substantially close in this instance. The most understandable assertion from officials, and yet the unlikeliest of all, was that the boys weren’t being pursued by the police when they scaled the wall around the substation. A combination of these unfortunate pronouncements turned the localised rioting in Clichy-sous-Bois into a nationwide phenomenon.

Even so, it might not have happened without Sarkozy’s rhetorical flourish, a few days earlier, in another tricky Paris suburb, where he spoke of the trouble-makers on a local sink estate as ‘racaille’. It’s a powerful word, whose force has been deliberately weakened by ironic usage: disaffected, disabused youth (and well-educated, not-yet-disabused youth who wish to slum it) talk about themselves as ‘racaille’ in much the same way as African Americans used to call each other ‘niggers’. To be described from on high as ‘racaille’ (riffraff? rabble? trash?) is a different matter. Sarkozy insists that he knows the racaille from ordinary, disadvantaged young men trying to find a way for themselves, but his judgment on this point was under attack even before the incident in Clichy-sous-Bois. Since then, the term ‘racaille’ has carried over to include the rioters. Whatever the majority of French people think, there is a fierce sense among young black and North African French that the government’s position has been unacceptable: that the moment certain words were uttered they should have turned to ashes in the mouths of various talkative ministers, Sarkozy in particular. Perhaps that’s what so much of this burning has been about.

Now there is a state of emergency, a proper symbol of national crisis, and a bitter reminder of the colonial past in as much as the law the government has resurrected dates from 1955, three years into the Algerian war. It allows local dignitaries to impose a selective curfew – on minors, notably – or ban gatherings, and gives extraordinary powers to the police. In mid-November it was renewed for three months. In these circumstances, it will only matter to a handful of people if an inquiry finds that the two dead boys, or some of their friends, were cutting themselves a slice of zinc cladding or kick-boxing a Portakabin. That another young man, also electrocuted but since recovered, has described a police chase taking place is similarly unimportant. Everyone had figured that out.

The dead boys were from a little section of Clichy-sous-Bois called Le Chêne Pointu, parts of which are moderately comfortable; others are distinguished only by running water and electricity from the housing projects (built at roughly the same time) in a city like Kinshasa. On the night Bouna and Ziad died, the cost of the reaction, spreading out from Le Chêne Pointu, was high but containable: a smashed-up shopping mall, damage to a police station, a school and parts of the local town hall, plus 23 cars set on fire. Three hundred police were deployed. Once Sarkozy and Villepin had put their case to the media, suburbs all over France took it to heart and by 6 November, probably the high-point of the reaction, about 270 communes, scattered anywhere between the Pas de Calais, Pyrénées Atlantiques and the Bouches du Rhône were affected. Thousands of police were on the streets (35 of them were injured that night), 1400 vehicles were torched, roughly 400 arrests were made and an elderly man died after being roughed up.

French public opinion seemed horribly uncertain whether elected officials and public dignitaries should face up sensibly, and carefully, to incidents of the kind that took place in Clichy-sous-Bois, or simply face them down. Perhaps at the outset, Sarkozy’s line looked like a rash gamble with the public interest but as time went on, and the rioting began to subside, the gamble appeared to have paid off. Sarkozy, in any case, has stuck to his uncompromising posture.

Were he not at odds with so many of his colleagues – including Chirac and the prime minister – the government’s position would look very much like a good cop/bad cop strategy: for every impenitent word Sarkozy utters, there have been kinder noises from the rest of the administration. More likely this is a political struggle inside the UMP, of which Sarkozy is also president, and as Villepin’s popularity has picked up in the polls, Sarkozy has seen the wisdom of moving further to the right: the suburbs, and the frightful ‘cités’ that define so many of them, supply the harsh truths that men of the right prefer.

One of the problems of big public housing estates around the larger cities in France is their physical isolation from the centre: places like Clichy-sous-Bois, or nearby Aulnay-sous-Bois, which has seen some of the worst damage, are versions of the leafy suburb with bolt-on sink estates. That might be manageable except that there is not enough conjugal sprawl between these workers’ dormitories and the big town centres themselves. The quiet residential streets that stand back from the estates consist mostly of small detached houses with a yard or garden. As neighbourhoods go, these suburbs hold few attractions for people from further afield who might want to move nearer to a major city centre, and fewer still for those who wish to get out of the city. In the 1970s they were far more approachable than they are now and I remember thinking they were livelier, in their reticent way. Nowadays they have an invariable, battened-down feel; the sociology seems fixed and ugly, the air a little motionless; there is not much new blood; there are not many new businesses; estate agents, I imagine, are forced to take the long view, over their long but inexpensive lunches.

It was not the idea, when the ‘cités’ went up – and building peaked thirty years ago, with half a million homes under construction in 1973 – to create huge, peripheral camps for workers, but it became a reflex as France was forced to create housing at enormous speed, first to cope with the acute homelessness that brought the Abbé Pierre to prominence in the 1950s and then to accommodate the growing numbers of migrant workers living in shanty towns on the edges of the cities: in many cases the demoralised public housing estate is the legacy of the shanty town. It was also some sort of answer to the postwar rural exodus – and, in 1962, to the influx of pieds-noirs from Algeria. Finished in record time, the high-rises and the long, balconied blocks, or barres, had the same shortcomings as a lot of council housing in Britain. Mediocre high-density building on designated out-of-town aprons – creating an exurbia within suburbia – is at the root of the ghettoisation that’s taken place in France.

On the face of it, one solution would have been to manage immigration according to the requirements of the labour market. This was tried in the mid-1970s as Giscard presided over the beginnings of de-industrialisation. Cutting off work permits did, in fact, reduce the number of new arrivals in France by about half, but there’s been no decline in the steady rate of immigration under the family reunion regime. The brutal coincidence of interest between the migrant and the host has changed enormously since the Trente Glorieuses, when more than 200,000 work permits might have been issued in a single year. In 2003, according to one statistic, right of residency was given to 6000 people on grounds of work and to 80,000 on grounds of family reunion – something successive administrations keep trying to tighten. Immigrants still want to get here, but fewer employers or local councils wish to have them, even though the building sector is said to be running on clandestine immigrant labour in much of France.

Where there isn’t the opportunity to work undeclared, there is very little work, not just for the quarter of a million migrants who’ve entered on family reunion grounds during the last ten years, but for the French themselves – which is to say the children, and increasingly the children’s children, of the (mostly) Maghrebi men and women who came during the 1960s and 1970s. French unemployment figures, which hover just below 10 per cent and include one in four young people coming into the job market, are now notorious. But in the suburbs, and especially the suburbs classified as ‘sensitive urban zones’ (ZUSs) – there are about 750, including most of the riot areas – it’s somewhere between 19 and 21 per cent. Roughly one in three young people in these parts of the country is unemployed. The last census in Clichy-sous-Bois and neighbouring Montfermeil – parts of which are as rough as Clichy – showed that 41 per cent of the population was under 20. Almost more worrying than the latest rioting in the ZUSs is the fact that it doesn’t happen more often.

France, which has not yet recovered from de-industrialisation, has agreed to begin winding down agriculture in 2006 – not a high employment activity, but central to old ideas about the nation – and is now wondering what unemployment as a long-term phenomenon might look like. Aside from tourism, the concept of a service sector is something people have been reluctant to grasp. Now, though, the heroic creation of busy management tiers is underway. So is the rise of takeaway sushi bars, complicated financial instruments and video-game stores. But France will have to run more state provision into the ground – health and transport especially – to get the proper dystopian buzz of confusion and profligacy which lets you know the service sector is really on the up and up. When it does, and if it does, there may be a few more jobs for young people in the suburbs, where so much of the vibrant secondary industry that provided work for their parents – textiles and electronics especially – disappeared years ago.

Occasionally, through the haze of immobilism and racial prejudice that’s kept the drama of ghettoised France in semi-obscurity, there have been genuine attempts to assail the problem. In 1981, after riots around Lyon, Mitterrand created priority education zones – lots of money and smaller classes for selected groups – with depressing results. There were various renovation schemes in the most run-down neighbourhoods and then, nine years ago, Alain Juppé started a Free Urban Zones plan, not unlike the Free Trade Zones in the Third World: businesses would have incentives to start up in deprived areas and, in this case, a duty to hire a proportion of staff locally. The Free Urban Zones have provided jobs for about 3 or 4 per cent of the potential working population in run-down areas. There are also any number of employer, state and local authority ‘contracts’ and youth employment schemes, which have created 80,000 to 90,000 jobs or job-training opportunities in the last four years – nothing to compare with the ‘emploi jeunes’ of Jospin’s jobs and solidarity minister, Martine Aubry, which saw nearly a quarter of a million people into work.

None of these initiatives by themselves, or together, has managed to defuse the problem. The 2006 budget, when it’s passed, will include at least seven billion euros for the ZUSs, spread between job creation, education and reconstruction, with the most money going into ‘security’, i.e. anti-delinquency programmes involving the police for the most part. Local government will add another billion to the package. Recently, the administration has pledged even more, as part of a curious dialogue with the rioters, for whom the five-door saloon car in flames has been the rhetorical device of choice. (More than 20,000 cars get torched every year anyway, so a flurry of burning cars – 9000 in a fortnight – is simply a way of making a point.) The response, from Villepin and indeed from Chirac, was that money and initiatives were on their way, some would now be coming ahead of schedule, and there would be a bit extra, including the formation of a volunteer corps to help get unemployed youth back to work. A bit more in the pot, then, and some sort of gesture. One way or another, the crisis means that France will be sticking its dusty head a little further through the 3 per cent overspend ceiling of the EU stability pact, but what option does the government have? From a budgetary point of view, the puzzle of how to create civilised conditions for unemployed French people, born to immigrants for whom there was a lifetime’s work where now there is nothing, must seem frighteningly like the puzzle of how best to manage growing numbers of elderly.

We shouldn’t always expect a riot to mean something. There’s been a carnival air about some of the destruction in France, and as anthropologists know, the meaning of carnival is to be found in the ordinary days of the calendar. The crudest question seemed simply to be whether there was anybody out there. Would anyone who wasn’t the descendant of a Maghrebi or sub-Saharan migrant living in abject conditions be willing to acknowledge the existence of these conditions and the people afflicted by them? But with that came a threatening message about mistaken or ill-assigned identity that briefly clarified the cities like a flare over an earthworks: ‘we will become the people you imagine we are, just watch.’ It is the defensive-aggressive strategy that Sartre discerned in Genet’s ostentatious criminality.

Unless you really are the racaille Sarkozy has in mind, it takes more than a little exasperation before this strategy gets lowered into place. B., a youngish resident on an estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois, has spent the last fortnight rioting, then pulling back, feeling it’s beneath him or that it’s somehow wrong, then rioting again, because if he can keep summoning the courage, this is the moment to make himself as conspicuous as possible, even in the guise of the destructive figure everybody takes him to be. There is no point dressing smart casual and trying to impress indigenous French people – a verdict he’s reached after failing, frequently, to get a job, and mostly even an interview. He has a qualification – a job-friendly version of the baccalauréat – which would sooner or later see a white person into work as a trainee manager of nothing very crucial. B. is now one of the long-term unemployed, living in an apartment with his parents, first-generation immigrants from Morocco. Most of his waking life is spent out of doors, in Aulnay, with other people, male for the most part, who are in the same situation.

B. had come into Paris, unusually, to attend a rally. The rally itself was strange enough: it was called, three days after the emergency had come into force, to object to ‘the logic of colonialism’ that had taken hold of the authorities. The day before, however, Pierre Mutz, the chief of police in Paris, invoked the state of emergency to ban any gatherings in the capital that could lead to ‘disorder’. It was thought for a moment that the event would have to be called off, but it turned out that Mutz had made an exception for the rally protesting the very law he’d just invoked.

B. was not impressed by the contradiction when I met him later that evening. To him it was just part of the pathetic, hypocritical mess the state was in. He spoke of the routine ID checks he’s been through on many nights, even before the rioting began. One involved him lying on the ground while a policeman stood on his face. But in the criminalised cités of Aulnay, the police were just one dangerous element among others, detached from the rest of the French state apparatus, which B. couldn’t quite condemn out of hand. Maybe that was just good manners in front of a foreigner. His real hatred was reserved for the employment agency he visited all too often and the prospective employers he occasionally got to see. He said he felt a ‘physical discrimination’ at reception when he sat next to a white job-seeker. The very purpose of these agencies, he was convinced, was to ‘close down’ people like him. He was about ready to set a ‘boss’ alight, though a car would probably do.

I sat in with B. and Mouloud Aounit, the leader of the main anti-racist group that had called the rally, as they fielded questions during a phone-in on Beur FM, a popular commercial radio station that got off the ground in 1981, and has a very much wider and more diverse audience now than it had when it started out. (The beurs are the children of North African immigrants growing up in France.) The show was hosted by the head of the station, Ahmed el Keiy. Towards the end, he turned to B. and asked him what he thought of the word ‘racaille’, but he couldn’t keep a straight face – and you could feel the ironic safety nets coming out again. Well you should have a view, he was saying to B; after all, you’re the rioter here. I mean, it’s not just that you know the rabble, you are the rabble. There was a brief moment of conspiracy between three very different people trying not to laugh too loudly: the radio journalist, the activist and the unlucky young man from Aulnay-sous-Bois, live on air. Plausibly serious, B. leaned into the microphone and conjured some sort of answer.

When he insists on the ‘colonial’ character of the emergency, as he does, I think Mouloud Aounit wants to make a more forceful point than the obvious one about the fact that the emergency powers date from the Algerian war: his point is about the general situation of so many Africans – North Africans especially – living in France. So little in the mentality of the indigenous French and the French of Maghrebi origin has changed in the last forty years. So many beurs are worse off than their parents. The shanty town is a vertical structure now, built in ugly, pockmarked concrete, like something on a set for a film about an underdeveloped country plunged into war. And the shanty town is an aspect of things, a piece of mental topography which distinguishes a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ in ways that most British people simply can’t imagine any more. Across the divide the exchanges are perfunctory, or downright hostile. ‘When we come into town,’ I remember B. saying, ‘it’s a completely different world, and we know we’re not wanted.’ I’d heard the same thing said by a young man on TV a few days earlier. It’s true. You can see a group of young men from a cité walking in Paris and mostly what you think about is the clatter of their footsteps on the stairs of the dismal block they’ll be going back to in a few hours’ time.

After his show, Ahmed el Keiy wondered if there really was a ‘colonial’ thread in this impasse. He seemed vaguely suspicious of the word. But in the end, after several remarks about the mono-racial character of the fourth estate (no black or brown faces to speak of on the TV, for instance), and indeed of most French institutions (there are no non-white MPs), he felt that a Republic which could only really conceive of itself with the skin colour, and the habits, of its indigenous citizens was in poor shape. Why were immigrants, or the sons and daughters of immigrants, so invisible in France’s self-representation? He thought the answer could be found in Fanon. ‘The gaze of the other,’ he said. ‘It’s all still there.’ A colonial question after all, then.

Most of the youth rioting at the end of 2005 were not alive at the time of the Beur March 22 years ago, when the children of North African immigrants, scandalised by the way their parents had been treated and worried by the discrimination that lay ahead for themselves, set off in their thousands from Marseille on a long, well-publicised hike to Paris. It was a moment of optimism and truce. A delegation was received at the Elysée; a major concession was made on the rights of non-naturalised residents to remain in France: the introduction of a ten-year permit gave young people of Maghrebi origin a bit of space to think about where they were and the ways in which they belonged. As it turned out, that was the only significant gain. The occasion was, in the end, a wasted opportunity for France to become the thing it is trying, late in the day, to become: ‘this multiple France of ours’ – the equivocal phrase on every troubled politician’s lips, though I last heard it on Sarkozy’s.

The riots may make the country readier to face the fact that it is ‘multiple’, even if the idea is disagreeable. In that much, the rioters will have achieved something, even for their own. But the episode will do more, I guess, for Sarkozy. He’s made his position clear about the rabble, and cleaning out the bad guys from the estates with a power hose – and most recently about the vices of polygamy among the Africans in France – and altogether he’s caused a stir. But his most significant point was apparently rather mild by comparison, and nothing much has been made of it. He was appearing on a TV programme about a week and a half into the riots, and remarked that the problem with the underprivileged suburbs was that they’d always been approached within the framework of ‘social policy’ – benefits and patch-up funds of various sorts – when really it was a ‘jobs policy’ (‘politique du travail’) that would revive them.

It was a brief, powerful statement of intent, about the need to effect a more rapid and thorough transition to the all-in neo-liberal market economy that so disturbs the French. Sarkozy is in favour of positive discrimination (unlike Chirac) and more minority representation in the media (like Chirac) – both of which can be found in the top-dog neo-liberal culture of the US, and both of which have become more available issues for debate in France than they were a few weeks back.

Joblessness is a major motivating force of these riots, which is why the politicians and the press turn endlessly around the question of job creation in the banlieues. But ‘job creation’ is only all right so far as it goes: not much further than the ‘social policy’ which Sarkozy can claim, quite rightly, hasn’t worked. A ‘jobs policy’ is not at all the same thing: it is Sarkozy-shorthand for a freer, fuller, more competitive market, with a less cosseted, more ‘mobile’ workforce, plus bigger tax breaks and a smaller national insurance burden for businesses; all this in a new-look France which must start shedding civil servants, vexatious laws on employment and working hours, and old protectionist attitudes that can no longer hold the real world at arm’s length. Racism is part of the bad old Republican way. An injection of vigorous enterprise, a big deregulating kick, and racial discrimination would evaporate in the tremendous, creative release of market forces. No race riots in an untrammelled market economy: that’s what Sarkozy really means. It’s an ingenious, high-pressure sales pitch for the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ – indeed, it’s bordering on blackmail.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Alexander Cockburn on the 'Revolt of the Generals'

Counterpunch (Weekend Edition December 3/4, 2005)
"Broken, Worn Out" and "Living Hand to Mouth"
The Revolt of the Generals
The immense significance of Rep John Murtha's November 17 speech calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is that it signals mutiny in the US senior officer corps, seeing the institution they lead as "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth", to use the biting words of their spokesman, John Murtha, as he reiterated on December his denunciation of Bush's destruction of the Army.

A CounterPuncher with nearly 40 years experience working in and around the Pentagon told me this week that "The Four Star Generals picked Murtha to make this speech because he has maximum credibility." It's true. Even in the US Senate there's no one with quite Murtha's standing to deliver the message, except maybe for Byrd, but the venerable senator from West Virginia was a vehement opponent of the war from the outset , whereas Murtha voted for it and only recently has turned around.

So the Four-Star Generals briefed Murtha and gave him the state-of-the-art data which made his speech so deadly, stinging the White House into panic-stricken and foolish denunciations of Murtha as a clone of Michael Moore.

It cannot have taken vice president Cheney, a former US Defense Secretary, more than a moment to scan Murtha's speech and realize the import of Murtha's speech as an announcement that the generals have had enough.

Listen once more to what the generals want the country to know:
"The future of our military is at risk. Our military and our families are stretched thin. Many say the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowered its standards. They expect to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest category, which they said they'd never take. They have been forced to do that to try to meet a reduced quota.
"Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing, particularly in health care. Choices will have to be made. We cannot allow promises we have made to our military families in terms of service benefits, in terms of their health care to be negotiated away. Procurement programs that ensure our military dominance cannot be negotiated away. We must be prepared.
"The war in Iraq has caused huge shortfalls in our bases at home. I've been to three bases in the United States, and each one of them were short of things they need to train the people going to Iraq.
"Much of our ground equipment is worn out.
"Most importantly -- this is the most important point -- incidents have increased from 150 a week to over 700 in the last year. Instead of attacks going down over a time when we had additional more troops, attacks have grown dramatically. Since the revolution at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled."

What happened on the heels of this speech is very instructive. The Democrats fell over themselves distancing themselves from Murtha, emboldening the White House to go one the attack.

From Bush's presidential plane, touring Asia, came the derisive comment that Murtha was of "endorsing the policies of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
It took the traveling White House about 48 hours to realize that this was a dumb thing to have said. Murtha's not the kind of guy you can slime, the way Bush and Co did the glass-jawed Kerry in 2004. The much decorated vet Murtha snapped back publicly that he hadn't much time for smears from people like Cheney who'd got five deferments from military service in Vietnam.

By the weekend Bush was speaking of Murtha respectfully. On Monday, gritting his teeth, Cheney told a Washington audience that though he disagreed with Murtha ihe's a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."
One day later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News, ``I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now because -- for very much longer -- because Iraqis are stepping up.'' A week later Bush was preparing a speech laying heavy emphasis on US withdrawals as the Iraqi armed forces take up the burden.

Are there US-trained Iraqi detachments ready in the wings? Not if you believe reports from Iraq, but they could be nonagenarians armed with bows and arrows and the Bush high command would still be invoking their superb training and readiness for the great mission.
Ten days after Murtha's speech commentators on the tv Sunday talk shows were clambering aboard the Bring eem home bandwagon. Voices calling for America to istay the course" in Iraq were few and far between. On December 1 Murtha returned to the attack in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, telling a civic group there that he was wrong to have voted for the war and that most U.S. troops will leave Iraq within a year because the Army is "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth".

The stench of panic in Washington that hangs like a winter fog over Capitol Hill intensified. The panic stems from the core concern of every politician in the nation's capital: survival. The people sweating are Republicans and the source of their terror is the deadly message spelled out in every current poll: Bush's war on Iraq spells disaster for the Republican Party in next year's midterm elections.

Take a mid-November poll by SurveyUSA: in only seven states did Bush's current approval rating exceed 50 per consisted of the thinly populated states of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi. In twelve states, including California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan, his rating was under 35.

You have to go back to the early 1970s, when a scandal-stained Nixon was on the verge of resignation, to find numbers lower than Bush's. Like Bush, Nixon had swept to triumphant reelection in 1972. Less than two years later he turned the White House over to vice president Ford and flew off into exile.

No one expects Bush to resign, or even to be impeached (though vice president Cheney's future is less assured) and his second term has more than three years to run.

But right now, to use a famous phrase from the Nixon era, a cancer is gnawing at his presidency and that cancer is the war in Iraq. The American people are now 60 per cent against it and 40 per cent think Bush lied to get them to back it.

Hence the panic. Even though the seats in the House of Representatives are now so gerrymandered that less than 50 out of 435 districts are reckoned as ever being likely to change hands, Republicans worry that few seats, however gerrymandered, can withstand a Force 5 political hurricane.

What they get from current polls is a simple message. If the US has not withdrawn substantial numbers of its troops from Iraq by the fall of next year, a Force 5 storm surge might very well wash them away.

Amid this potential debacle, the Republicans' only source of comfort is the truly incredible conduct of the Democrats. First came the Democrats' terrified reaction to Murtha, symbolized by Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi's cancellation of a press conference supporting Murtha. This prompted the Republicans to realize that the Democrats were ready to have their bluff called by the Republican- sponsored resolution calling for immediate withdrawal, for which only three Democrats voted, while so-called progressives like Kucinich and Sanders and Conyers ran for cover.

Listen to any prominent Democrat senator , like Kerry or Clinton or Feingold or Obama and you get the same adamant refusal to go beyond the savage characterization by Glenn Ford and Peter Gamble of the Black Commentator, of Obama's address to the Council on Foreign Relations:
U.S. Senator Barack Obama has planted his feet deeply inside the Iraq war-prolongation camp of the Democratic Party, the great swamp that, if not drained, will swallow up any hope of victory over the GOP in next year's congressional elections. In a masterpiece of double-speak before the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, November 22, the Black Illinois lawmaker managed to out-mush-mouth Sen. John Kerry - a prodigious feat, indeed.

In essence, all Obama wants from the Bush regime is that it fess up to having launched the war based on false information, and to henceforth come clean with the Senate on how it plans to proceed in the future. Those Democrats who want to dwell on the past - the actual genesis and rationale for the war, and the real reasons for its continuation - should be quiet.
"Withdrawal" and "timetables" are bad words, and Obama will have nothing to do with them.
Of course, the "insurgents" are not a "faction," and must therefore be defeated. On this point, Obama and the Bush men agree: "In sum, we have to focus, methodically and without partisanship, on those steps that will: one, stabilize Iraq, avoid all out civil war, and give the factions within Iraq the space they need to forge a political settlement; two, contain and ultimately extinguish the insurgency in Iraq; and three, bring our troops safely home."
Nobody in the White House would argue with any of these points. Point number two in Obama's "pragmatic" baseline is, the containment and elimination of the "insurgency." Of course, one can only do that by continuing the war. Indeed, it appears that Obama and many of his colleagues are more intent on consulting the Bush men on the best ways to "win" the war than in effecting an American withdrawal at any foreseeable time.

They want "victory" just as much as the White House; they just don't want the word shouted at every press conference.

The Black Commentator concludes its excoriation of Obama and his fellow Democrats with these words:
By late summer of 2006, when voters are deciding what they want their Senate and House to look like, if the Democrats have not caught up to public opinion to offer a tangible and quick exit from Iraq, the Republicans will retain control of both chambers of congress.
All that will be left in November is mush from Kerry, Hillary, Biden, Edwards - and Obama's - mouths."

Here at CounterPunch we heartily endorse this sentiment.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The American left response and debate on what is happening in Iraq is continuing at a high level. Coming before Kim Scipes contribution was this piece on Tomgram: 'How (Not) to Withdraw from Iraq' by Tom Engelhardt

On the September 27th Charlie Rose Show, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick, Rose brought up the question of what the United States should do in Iraq. Should we "get out" -- or, as Remnick so delicately put it, should we "bolt"? Here was how Remnick ended their discussion, while talking about those who had written on Iraq for his magazine:
"There's Jon Lee Anderson and George Packer and Sy Hersh and Rick [Hertzberg], they all look at it from different angles. But I think all of those people would agree -- I don't know about Sy -- would agree that an immediate American withdrawal just, you know, just pick up your skirts and run, would not lead to a happy situation in the short term or the long."
Pick up your skirts and run. Forget the Republicans, that more or less sums up the state of mainstream liberal opinion on Iraq just two months ago. Only that recently "withdrawal" was still synonymous with cowardice, or, in a classic phrase of the Vietnam era (that like so many others has taken an extra bow in our own moment), "cutting and running." Withdrawal from Iraq was a subject for the margins and the political Internet (as well as secret Pentagon planning); certainly not something to be bandied about in Congress or taken seriously by the mainstream media. What a difference a few weeks can make -- a few weeks and one hawkish congressman with heart (channeling the views of a panicky military facing an increasingly unwinnable war). When Congressman John Murtha stood up -- and there wasn't a "skirt" in sight (not, at least, until Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt accused him, briefly, of cowardice on the floor of the House of Representatives) -- and suggested a withdrawal of American ground troops from Iraq on a six-month timetable, you could hear the administration's angry heart thumping.

Then, Chicken Little, the sky began to fall and withdrawal proposals, withdrawal trial balloons, withdrawal op-eds, withdrawal hints, clues, and suggestions of every sort suddenly rained down on us like those cats and dogs of children's books. It turns out that there was hardly a major mainstream figure anywhere who didn't have some kind of "withdrawal" proposal in his or her hip pocket; or put another way, when Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden come out with positions that fit, however faintly, under the ever-widening label of "withdrawal" and only good ol' Joe Lieberman is left twisting, twisting in the Presidential hot air of "progress" and "victory," something is certainly afoot.

It gives one heart, really, to think about the strange processes that sometimes suddenly unclog the arteries of American discussion and debate, turning the previously impermissible into a topic quite suitable for the mainstream to take possession of. Give us another two months and who knows, maybe Judge Alito will actually go down to a filibuster; give us a year and maybe impeachment, just now creeping out from the margins, will find itself a topic in Congress and on the editorial pages of our papers. Like Charlie Rose, everybody knows what the proper limits of conversation are… until, of course, they unpredictably change.

Watch the Words
That said, this new withdrawal season of ours will undoubtedly prove a difficult one to sort out. With the President's speech at Annapolis, after a huge hint from Condoleezza Rice earlier in the week ("I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now because -- for very much longer -- because Iraqis are stepping up"), "withdrawal" or "pullout" or "draw-down" is everybody's property. In some ways, it was the Iraqis, meeting in Cairo, who helped get the withdrawal ball rolling by calling for a withdrawal "timetable" -- promptly rejected by the Bush administration. Now, Bush officials and military men are jumping on board in a thoroughly confusing way. No surprise there, since a lot of yesterday's non-withdrawal people have a fair amount at stake in muddying the waters today.

We've just entered a period where you won't be able tell the players without a scorecard and, unfortunately, nobody in the know is going to be selling scorecards. In fact, as the public withdrawal debate began, and the administration first "lashed out" in anger at its suddenly voluble opponents and then rushed to put forward its own "plans," the news in our papers and on TV promptly shifted into full-frontal anonymity mode. Even Congressman Murtha spoke with, it might be said, more than one tongue. After all, as a key figure on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he is known for his closeness to the military brass; and, in laying out his proposal, he offered some startling figures (on soaring attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and on the 50,000 soldiers who are likely to suffer from "battle fatigue") that clearly came directly from the military. Here's how the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh explained the Murtha proposal in a recent interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman:
"He's known for his closeness to the four-stars. They come and they bleed on him… So Murtha's message is a message… from a lot of generals on active duty today. This is what they think, at least a significant percentage of them, I assure you. This is, I'm not over-dramatizing this. It's a shot across the bow. They don't think [the Iraq war is] doable. You can't tell that to this President. He doesn't want to hear it. But you can say it to Murtha."

So when, for instance, you read in the press about some general officially worrying that we may "draw-down" too quickly, you have no way of knowing whether at this point his real position is the one Murtha articulated. Get the hell out fast!

In a typical recent front-page piece on "withdrawal," for instance (As Calls for an Iraq Pullout Rise, 2 Political Calendars Loom Large), David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker of the New York Times start with the "mounting calls to set a deadline to begin a withdrawal from Iraq." By paragraph two, however, that "withdrawal" has somehow been pluralized: "But in private conversations American officials are beginning to acknowledge that a judgment about when withdrawals can begin…" ("withdrawals" being, of course, something less than "withdrawal"). By the fifth paragraph (just after the jump to an inside page), anonymous "White House aides" are saying that the President "will begin examining the timing of a draw-down after he sees the outcome of the Dec. 15 election in Iraq."

So in five paragraphs and a headline, you have pullout, withdrawal, withdrawals, draw-down… and by then you've already met a plethora of pluralized sources as well -- not just those "White House officials," but even vaguer "American officials," and lest even that give away too much, "several officials." They're soon joined by a roiling mass of other obscurely less-then-identified beings ("current and former White House officials," "one former aide with close ties to the National Security Council," "senior officers," plain old "officers," and "senior Pentagon civilians and officers"). And if that isn't murky enough for you, just throw in the "ifs" that go with any story of this sort and tend to negate even the best proposed plan:
"[O]fficials in the Bush White House were already actively reviewing possible plans under which 40,000 to 50,000 troops or more could be recalled next year if ‘a plausible case could be made' that a significant number of Iraqi battalions could hold their own."

Here, for instance, are typical phrases from correspondent Rosiland Jordan's withdrawal story on NBC national news last Sunday: "The debate is focusing on how many and when… that depends on how quiet the situation is… if conditions on the ground allow it… provided the situation on the ground improves." Or consider the following quote from a Los Angeles Times piece: "'It looks like things are headed in the right direction to enable [a large drawdown of forces] to happen in 2006,' said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But he said those hopes could be derailed if there were setbacks." Or take this bit from the latest report on Hillary Clinton's ponderously shifting position: "…troops could be redeployed next year if coming elections in Iraq go well." So our news is now filled with posses of unidentifiable officials offering limited "withdrawal plans," which are actually draw-down plans, which are so provisionally linked to matters unlikely to unfold as expected that they may, in a sense, simply be meaningless.

The Return of Vietnamization
What then are the "plans" of those in power, as best we can tell?
The realities of the moment are, in a sense, simple and strange all at once. The grandiose preparations for planetary military and energy domination hatched by a group of utopian (or, if you prefer, dystopian) thinkers in Washington, aided and abetted by "native" dreamers and schemers in exile, and meant to begin but hardly end in Iraq, have by now run aground on the shoals of reality. A modest-sized but fierce and well-stocked insurgency, conducting a low-level guerrilla war -- Americans are basically killed on roads on their way somewhere, seldom in regular battles or on their bases -- fueled by our President's hubris, by an unquenchable urge for national sovereignty, and by religious fundamentalism as well as fanaticism, has driven this administration from its emplacements.

Now, a second force has joined the fray, turning this into one of the stranger two-front "wars" in memory. Unlike in the Vietnam era, the second front at home remains something of a specter. Perhaps it's not so surprising though that a President ever in fantasy-land and his utopian followers (many now set out to pasture) are being driven by publics that, at the moment, exist largely as sets of poll-driven numbers. The streets are seldom filled with demonstrators; the universities are not up in arms; and yet it's quite clear that some ghostly form of popular pressure is indeed at work -- in combination with growing pressures from Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald (think Watergate) and a military command that, as in the Vietnam era, fears, if something doesn't happen soon, the wheels might truly start coming off the American military machine. Still, it is fascinating that, without a significant political opposition yet in sight, we're witnessing what looks ever more like an administration and Republican meltdown. (For those of you who believe that the Republicans have put all election victories beyond anyone's grasp, rising Republican fears about the 2006 congressional elections should indicate that this is not yet so.)

In the eye of its own strange storm, the administration is finally starting to put policy back into the hands of those who pass for "realists," as journalist Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service has been pointing out recently. For instance, the astute and Machiavellian neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, our former ambassador to Afghanistan and present-day ambassador to the Green Zone of Iraq, has just been given permission to negotiate with the Iranians for help in Iraq and is, according to Newsweek, beginning to put American funds where they might actually matter -- into bribes to Sunni officials. In the meantime -- just a little straw in the gale -- Secretary of State Rice recently met for the first time in who knows how long for a chat with her former mentor, the elder Bush's National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. (If Daddy's men are ever actually called back in, then you'll know for sure that the White House is in humiliating "withdrawal" mode.)

In the meantime, we are once again seeing the return of the repressed (that is, the Vietnam era) to American consciousness. It's not just the language of that moment -- White House aides "circling the wagons" and going into "bunker mode," or Democratic Senator Jack Reed insisting that the President has a growing "credibility gap" -- but the way the White House is digging itself ever deeper into the Big Muddy of that era's playbook.

As if on cue this month -- in fact, it's hard to believe it could have been happenstance -- Nixon's Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the man who claims he invented the term "Vietnamization," has returned as if from the dead (in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine) to argue that his policy actually worked, and so would "Iraqification." Maybe Laird was simply called back into existence when Dick Cheney denounced those intent on "rewriting history," but now we know from the horse's mouth that we coulda, woulda, shoulda won -- except for a pusillanimous Congress! ("The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973... I believed then and still believe today that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself, just as I believe Iraq can do the same now.")

The essence of Laird's Vietnamization policy was a realization that, on the draft-era home front, the Vietnam War was being driven by American casualties and that the Army itself was in a state of incipient revolt and disintegration. So Nixon abolished the draft, began the all-volunteer military, put an emphasis on building up the South Vietnamese army, and withdrew 500,000 American ground troops over a three-year period. What he replaced them with was a fiercely intensified air war over South Vietnam (and neighboring countries). And this policy was indeed successful in tamping down protest at home, though (despite Laird's claims) it created insuperable problems in South Vietnam (as Iraqification will in Iraq). These led, after much further bloodshed, to the collapse of our allies in the south.

The Bush administration's new "plan," such as it is, to draw-down our troops (while pressing our shrinking set of allies not to do the same) is clearly modeled on Laird's Vietnamization experience -- a failed strategy being re-imagined as a successful one. By a shift of tactical priorities, it is meant to create the look of withdrawal before the 2006 congressional elections, and it, too, will emphasize the mayhem of air power. On the ground, American forces are to be slowly withdrawn from Iraq's cities to their bases, cutting down on both casualties and, for Iraqis, that oppressive sense of being occupied by foreigners.

In draw-down terms, the plan seems to go something like this: While withdrawal was making onto the public agenda, our actual force in Iraq has risen in recent months from approximately 138,000 to about 160,000. So the first "withdrawals" (plural) the administration will be able to announce after the December 15 election -- about 20,000 troops -- will simply get us back to the levels that Donald Rumsfeld and his planners always meant us to be at.

General George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, and others have been letting the news ooze out for a while (despite rumors of presidential slap-downs for doing so) that, if all goes half-well, we will perhaps withdraw another 40,000 troops (the figures vary depending upon the leak) in 2006, leaving us with just under 100,000 troops there. In 2007… well, who knows, but the process, it's clear, is meant to be more or less unending, and, mind you, that's according to the Pentagon's "moderately optimistic" scenario. (Seymour Hersh claims that the administration's "most ambitious" plans call for all troops designated "combat," which is not all troops, to be withdrawn by the summer of 2008.)

Nothing in the last two-and-a-half-plus years, of course, should lead anyone to be "moderately optimistic." If you want a little dose of realism, just consider the latest report on the new Iraqi army from the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows; or visit the rare Iraqi unit that has been more or less "stood up" with Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter and consider what it's been stood up for (a Shiite revenge war in Sunni neighborhoods); or check in with "two senior Army analysts who in 2003 accurately foretold the turmoil that would be unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq" and now claim it is "no longer clear that the United States will be able to create (Iraqi) military and police forces that can secure the entire country no matter how long U.S. forces remain"; or visit with "the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's list of required reading for officers," Hebrew University military historian Martin Van Cleveld, who recently called George Bush's little Iraqi adventure "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions into Germany and lost them."

In perhaps the most important piece of reportage of the year, Up in the Air, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh dissects the sinews of the administration's Iraqification strategy. Unsurprisingly, while drawing-down troops (in hopes of lessening American casualties), the Pentagon is to intensify the air war, which means, of course, loosing the U.S. Air Force on Iraq's urban areas where the insurgency thrives and undoubtedly increasing Iraqi casualties. Or as Hersh puts it:
"A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what."

As Hersh essentially points out, what this is likely to mean in practice -- if combat is significantly turned over to the new Iraqi Army -- is sending our Air Force against targets of that army's choosing; that is, putting American air power in service to a Shiite and Kurdish revenge war against the Sunnis -- not exactly a recipe for a pacified Iraq.

The thinking behind such strategies is, in fact, as recognizable to those of us who lived through the Vietnam era as "Vietnamization." Here's what I wrote about such "withdrawal" plans during the Vietnam era in my book, The End of Victory Culture, published a distant decade ago. See if it doesn't have a familiar ring to it:
"The idea of ‘withdrawing' from Vietnam was there from the beginning, though never as an actual plan. All real options for ending the war were invariably linked to ‘cutting and running,' or ‘dishonor,' or ‘surrender,' or ‘humiliation,' and so dismissed within the councils of government more or less before being raised. The attempt to prosecute the war and to withdraw from it were never separable, no less opposites. If anything, withdrawal became a way to maintain or intensify the war, while pacifying the American public.
"'Withdrawal' involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers – from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a ‘Vietnamization' plan in which ground troops would be pulled out as the air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer; but if withdrawal did not withdraw the country from the war, the war's prosecution never brought it close to a victorious conclusion."

Clash of Languages
So now, having passed through much of the Vietnam era's strategy and language in a mere couple of years, we find ourselves in the Vietnamization/Iraqification period. Forgetting for a minute that, among other differences with Vietnam, this seems increasingly to be a war not for national unification but for national disunification, we seem finally, as in those distant years, to be on the downhill slope of language and imagery.

To give but one example: Proud neocon neocolonials like Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the President himself, regularly talked about bringing "democracy" to Iraq in patronizingly parental terms. They liked to say that they were trying to figure out the moment to take the "training wheels" off the Iraqi bike and let the toddler wheel around the nearest corner on his own. Now we find one of our many anonymous generals quoted in a Washington Post piece using that very image no less patronizingly but far more fearfully in military terms. "Another senior general likened an accelerated withdrawal to ‘taking the training wheels off of a bike too early.'"

Or here's another example: American "senior officials" in the glory days of our Iraq adventure spoke regularly and without shame about the need to "put an Iraqi face" on Iraq. This was a wonderfully grim phrase which, in a strange way, expressed their deeper meaning exactly; they wanted to put a comforting Iraqi mask over the American face of the occupation. Now, we find a military version of the same, whose bluntness makes a certain sense of our moment, as quoted in a mid-November piece from Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor of the British Telegraph:
"Senior US military commanders have long argued that the way to defeat the insurgency is to reduce substantially the number of foreign troops in order to ‘reduce the perception of occupation' and draw Sunnis into the political process."

To "reduce the perception of occupation," that's a phrase to savor for its truth-telling essence. It catches something of the administration's policy now that it's actually on the run at home.
In the meantime, our President, in the first of several speeches he is to give on Iraq before the December 15th elections, took a roller-coaster ride through Iraqi Disneyland. As Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post commented, "President Bush's safety zone these days doesn't appear to extend very far beyond military bases, other federal installations and Republican fundraisers."

Not exactly surprising, then, that his speech should have been so la-la-(out)landish. For instance, as Paul Woodward of the War in Context website pointed out, he promoted his "strategy for victory in Iraq" by referring to "progress" a mere 28 times before the assembled cadets of the Naval Academy. And then there was "victory," once quite hard to find in administration documents that emphasized how we were in an endless multi-generational struggle against terrorism. Yet, at this desperate moment, the President managed to mention "victory" 15 times (and add another for the title of the speech) -- and not just victory but the fact that we would not "accept anything less than complete victory."

That had a ring not heard since Americans called for total victory and unconditional surrender in World War II, but then the President remains in a World War II dream world, that thrilling place he experienced in the movies of his childhood where the Marines always advance; our grinning native sidekicks are friendly and remarkably willing to die in our place; the enemy is destined to fall by their hundreds before our fire; and total victory is an American birthright. In fact, the President, who mentioned no post-1945 war (except the Cold one) -- and there were so many to chose from -- spoke of World War II twice. You know, that war so like the present one in which "free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism, and freedom prevailed." (Just in case you've forgotten, that was the war in which the other side had the Guantánamos…)

Perhaps there's poetic justice in seeing a President trapped in his fantasy world being driven from pillar to post by a fantasy public, while his generals and top officials do their best to ignore him as they search desperately for ways out, and his advisers (and political supporters) hire lawyers.

How to Tell Withdrawal from Its Doppelgangers
If you pay attention not to the war of words or the storm of confusing withdrawal proposals, but to four bedrock matters, you'll have a far better sense of where we're really heading. These are air power, permanent bases, an "American" Kurdistan, and oil; and, not surprisingly, they coincide with the great uncovered, or barely covered, stories of the war. In the present flurry of withdrawal discussions, only air power, thanks to Hersh, is getting any attention. The others have so far gone largely or totally unmentioned -- and yet, without them, none of this makes any sense at all.

Air Power: It remains amazing to me that Hersh's report is the first serious mainstream piece since the invasion of Iraq to take up the uses of air power in that country. It's a subject I've written about for the last two years. After all, we've loosed our Air Force on heavily populated urban Iraq, regularly bombing (and sometimes destroying significant sections of) Sunni cities and towns (and in 2004 Shiite ones as well). There have been hundreds and hundreds of reporters in Iraq, many embedded with the military -- and yet it's as if they simply never look up. Figures on the use of air power are almost impossible to come by, though Hersh tells us in his Democracy Now interview that the bombing has "gone up exponentially, certainly in the last four or five months in the Sunni Triangle." He adds, however, that "we don't have reporters at the air bases. We don't know what's going on with the air war." Here's just one passage that gives a modest sense of some of what the Bush administration has been doing from the air: "Naval efforts in Iraq include not only the Marine Corps but also virtually every type of deployable Naval asset in our inventory. Navy and Marine carrier-based aircraft flew over 21,000 hours, dropped over 54,000 pounds of ordnance and played a vital role in the fight for Fallujah."

Add in another reality of America's Iraq: L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, in a burst of blind pride in 2003, disbanded the Iraqi military. For well over a year or more, Pentagon plans for rebuilding it called for a future Iraqi military force (lite) of only 40,000 men with minimal armaments and essentially no air force at all! This is the Middle East, mind you. What that meant, simply enough, was that the Bush administration intended the American Army and Air Force to be the Iraqi military for eons to come. Under the pressure of the insurgency, the army part of that plan was thrown out the window. But "standing up" the Iraqi military has meant just that. Standing on the ground. There is still no real Iraqi air force. Iraq was never to "fly," but to stay on that "bike" and under the tutelage of Washington.
The actual use of American air power will undoubtedly prove tricky indeed (without many American ground troops around) and probably no more successful in the long run than it was in Iraq -- except, of course, in terms of devastating the country. But watch the Iraqi skies as best you can. They will tell you something.

Permanent Bases: We were to control military-less Iraq and perhaps the region from a small series of permanent bases, already imagined and on the drawing boards as the invasion began. At the height of our base-building mania, we had about 106 bases there, ranging from multibillion-dollar Vietnam-era-sized mega-structures like Camp Victory North (renamed Camp Liberty) just outside of Baghdad to tiny base camps in outlying parts of the country. We now claim to be turning these over to the Iraqis. Part of our draw-down plan, according to Hersh, includes "heavily scripted change-of-command ceremonies, complete with the lowering of American flags at bases and the raising of Iraqi ones" -- one of these occurred, conveniently enough, near the Syrian border the day the President spoke.

We have so many of these bases that we can hand them back one by one with appropriate special ceremonies almost in perpetuity without ever getting to the small core of 4-5 bases that the Pentagon planned on permanently garrisoning as American troops first crossed the Iraqi border. So here's what to watch for: If any of these key bases are handed back, with flags lowered and troops removed, then you can begin to believe that an actual withdrawal may be in the offing.

Kurdistan: You would largely not know that the Kurdish parts of Iraq existed from most daily news reports on the war. But one major change from the Vietnam era is that we have potential "sanctuaries" in the area to withdraw to. Murtha suggested one of them, Kuwait, and it is the focus of attention at the moment. But Kurdistan, at present the quietest part of Iraq (despite fierce tensions between the two main Kurdish political parties and non-Kurdish residents of the as-yet somewhat undefined area), is also likely to be the most welcoming to American forces "withdrawing" from "Iraq." Present-day Kurdistan was created under the American and British no-fly zones in the 1990s and its future autonomy, no less independence, would be at least temporarily guaranteed by the presence of American troops there. Even the Turks might prefer American forces in Kurdistan, if they restrained local forces from any kind of cross-border shenanigans in Kurdish regions of Turkey. The sole reference I've seen to this possibility was in a recent piece by veteran reporter Martin Walker who wrote: "There are other ideas circulating in the Pentagon, including the establishment of a major and possibly permanent base in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where U.S. troops are less controversial, and would be welcomed by the neighboring Turks, always worried at the prospect of an independent Kurdistan becoming a magnet for their own disaffected Kurdish minority."

Were the rest of Iraq to fall completely out of our hands, it's easy to imagine an "American" Kurdistan (conveniently near the Iranian border), possibly expanded to include the oil lands around the tinderbox city of Kirkuk, with its own set of bases. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times has just revealed that one of the Kurdish political parties signed a private oil exploration deal with a Norwegian company. Of course, the Kurdish areas would have their own set of explosive problems, but over the next year watch for Kurdistan to surface as part of any American draw-down which isn't actually a withdrawal.

Oil: So here we are at another of the great, hardly covered stories of the Iraq war. As Mark LeVine has recently made so clear, the Bush administration, with its former energy industry execs and consultants, was thinking oil -- and Iraqi oil in particular -- from literally the first moments of its existence. "[T]he few documents that have been made public from [Vice President Cheney's] Energy Task Force… reveal not only that industry executives met with Cheney's staff [in February 2001] but that a map of Iraq and an accompanying list of ‘Iraq oil foreign suitors' were the center of discussion." Hmmm… These were people who already had "peak oil" on their minds. They entered Iraq, a nation sitting on untold amounts of oil, thinking about the global control of future energy resources. They sent soldiers to guard the Oil Ministry and the oil fields, while allowing pretty much everything else to be looted as the country fell to them. They have no desire to abandon either their permanent bases or that reservoir of "black gold" to others. But beyond pious statements about preserving the Iraqi "patrimony" (i.e. oil) in the early days of the war, they never broached the subject publicly and the media followed their lead. It's rare today -- though a perfectly obvious point to make -- for someone to say, as Ambassador Khalilzad did recently, "You could have a regional war that could go on for a very long time, and affect the security of oil supplies." Keep your eyes on this issue. It's what separates Vietnam, which itself contained nothing special for a foreign power, from Iraq.

In the end, ignore (if you can) the whirlwind of withdrawal language that will turn all sorts of non- or semi-withdrawal schemes into something other than what they are, and try to keep your eyes on those shoals of reality. This is not Vietnam, which happened in slow-time. This war, as the historian Marilyn Young claimed in its first weeks so few years ago, is "Vietnam on crack cocaine" and, whatever anyone is saying now, it's a fair bet that events will outpace all administration plans and fantasies in the explosive year to come.

Kim Scipes 'Beginning of the End - for the Empire'

It's the Beginning of the End-For the Empire, Not Just the War
by Kim Scipes on Z-Net (December 01, 2005)

There's avery interesting piece by American labour activist Kim Scipes. He's been wanting to write something, following the successful mobilisation against the war on Sept 24th, along lines from Winston Churchill in, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Two months later and there is the criticisms being made in Congress of the ocupation policy by Vietnam vet John P. Murtha.
"Oil production and energy production are below pre-war levels. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of the $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment remains at about 60 percent. Clean water is scarce. Only $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects has been spent. And most importantly, insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to over 700 in the last year. Instead of attacks going down over time and with the addition of more troops, attacks have grown more dramatically. Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled. … I have concluded that the presence of US troops in Iraq is impeding this progress".

Scipes points out the ideological importance of this: it's not that Murtha has become a lefty 'peacenik', he believes in an American presence in the middle east, but that for someone with his background and credibility to attack the government's war policy is a threat to Bush.

Scipes says that 'Murtha's statement moves us from "the end of the beginning," I believe, to "the beginning of the end"'. But there's also been Hurricane Katrina and 'one point needs to be made about that hurricane and the aftermath: as limited as it's been, for the first time in 25 years, we've have been able to have a serious widespread public discussion about poverty and race in this country. Katrina tore the scab off these issues.'

SCipes adds to this 'National Priorities Project' research showing that 44 percent of military service people recruited in 2004 are from the rural areas, 'which basically means they are poor whites'. Michael Moore has shown 'that recruits are coming out of the impoverished inner cities, with African Americans and Latinos being forced into the military by lack of viable economic alternatives. In other words, we have a economic draft currently taking place in this country, "drafting" our poor men and women of all colors into the military-and many, to Iraq.'

More: "US is spending approximately $450 billion for the military this year. That does not include the almost $250 billion for the Iraq war to date, nor he $44 billion for our vaunted intelligence systems that failed so obviously on 9/11."
While at the same time: "our society is becoming more and more unequal-in fact, not only much more unequal than any other so-called developed country in the world, but more unequal than a number of the poorest countries on the face of the Earth, including Bangladesh! (See for a report from last year.) We have General Motors, once the most powerful corporation in the world announcing 30,000 jobs will be cut in the near future. We know 45 million Americans have no health insurance. We know African-American and Latino poverty rates are more than double that of whites. We know women make around 74% of what males make. Additionally, our schools are in desperate shape and our drop-out rates are incredible."

And Scipes political conclusiond: "amazingly, the left has seemed incapable of taking advantage of the situation. Our organizations should be growing like crazy, our finances expanding. Yet, if this is happening, it certainly is not being made obvious.

"There are all kinds of reasons for this. Rather than rag on the left for our deficiencies, I'm going to argue that our biggest problem collectively is that we are being too timid; we have not taken advantage of what is going on. And we need to get off our butts and strike while the iron is hot!
Yet, I don't think it is enough to challenge the war, and the "war president." I basically think that the war is over, politically, although that doesn't mean there won't be a lot more killing and dying going on between today and when the US withdraws (and afterwards).

"I believe that for the first time in 30 years we can have perhaps our biggest issue heard and responded to by the American public. We need to ask in every place, and in every way imaginable, a simple question: How should the US act toward all the other nations of the world: do we want to continue trying to dominate them, or do we want to find ways to help other countries and try to live in peace and harmony?

"The choice is stark. If we want to continue dominating other countries, we will have to keep pissing away $400 billion (give or take) every year from here until infinity. We must be willing to force our sons and daughters into the military to fight wars for the US Empire-and no one can explain satisfactorily how Rumsfeld can keep 135,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely without reinstating the draft. We have to accept our social problems, since we won't have the resources to address them and fight the war, so that means millions will be uninsured, and our schools will only get worse, as millions suffer from inadequate health care.

"On the other hand, if we want to live in peace and harmony, the US military could be drastically reduced, confined simply to defense of the country's borders (and not allowed overseas); the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank could be used to address developmental and international financial failures around the world, rather than causing them; our health care "system" could be replaced with a single-payer plan than spends its resources in preventing and treating bad health while promoting good health; and we could address the glaring disparities in our residentially-based school systems, which hurt people of color the most. And we could use the money to create jobs, and/or create opportunities for all to contribute to the well-being of our society."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wallerstein on France: 'rebellion of the underclass'

Commentary No. 174, Dec. 1, 2005 "The French Riots: Rebellion of the Underclass"

France had a rebellion of its underclass in November 2005 that lasted for about two weeks. Groups of young people across France, mostly of North African or Black African descent, set fires to cars and hurled rocks at police. In some ways, this was the kind of uprising that has been occurring throughout the world in recent decades. But it also had particular French explanations. It exploded like a phoenix. It has been suppressed by the force of the state. It is far from over.The immediate story is very simple. Three young men saw police stopping other youths and asking for identity cards. This happens routinely in France to young people of "color" who live in the de facto segregated high-rise dilapidated housing of "les banlieues" (the suburbs, which is where France's ghettos are located). These housing complexes are home to largely unemployed, undereducated youth who have few prospects for jobs, for upward mobility, or even for non-work activity (sports, cultural centers). These youth run away from identity checks primarily because they are often pointlessly taken into custody, where they are frequently harassed and remain in police stations for many hours until their parents come to bring them home.In this particular case, the youths jumped a wall and landed in an electrical complex, where two of them were electrocuted. This was the spark to the rebellion. It was a rebellion against poverty, joblessness, racist behavior by French police, and above all lack of acceptance as the citizens they mostly are and as the cultural minority they feel they have the right to remain. The French government seemed primarily concerned with repressing the rebellion, and eventually it succeeded. The fact that the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior are fierce rivals for the future candidacy for president of the governing party ensured that neither of them was going to seem soft on rebellion and thereby give an advantage to the other.

It always amazes me that people are surprised when underclasses rebel. The surprising thing is that they do not do it more often. The combination of the oppressiveness of poverty and racism with lack of visible short-term or even medium-term hope is surely a recipe for rebellion. What keeps rebellion down is fear of repression, which is why repression is usually swift. But the repression never makes the anger go away. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin says that this uprising was not as bad as that in Los Angeles in 1992 in which 54 people died and 2000 were hurt. Perhaps not, but that is hardly a basis for boasting.

Throughout the world today, the metropolitan areas are filled with people who match the profile of the rebels in France: poor, jobless, socially marginalized and defined as "different" - and therefore angry. If they are teenagers, they have the energy to rebel and the absence of even the minimal family responsibilities that might restrain them. Furthermore, the anger is reciprocated. Those who are in the more comfortable majority fear these young people precisely for the characteristics they have. The better off feel that the poor youths tend to be lawless and well, "different." So, many of the better off (perhaps not all) tend to endorse strong measures to contain these rebellions, including exclusion totally from the society, even the country.

France in some ways is an exaggerated version of what we find elsewhere - not only in North America and the rest of Europe, but throughout the South in countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, South Africa. Indeed, it is hard to think of a country where this issue does not exist. The problem with France is that too many of its citizens have long denied to themselves that this is a French problem as well. France defines itself as the country of universal values, where discrimination cannot exist because everyone can become a French person if they're ready to integrate fully. The reality is that France has always (yes, I said always) been a country of immigration. In the days of the Ancien Régime and even in the first half of the nineteenth century, the non-French speakers (50% up to the French Revolution) migrated to Paris and other northern cities. Later it was the Italians, the Belgians, and the Corsicans. The came the Poles, and then the Portuguese and Spaniards. And in the last 40 years or so, massively the North Africans, the Black Africans, and the Chinese from what was formerly French Indochina.

France is a multicultural country par excellence still living the Jacobin dream of uniformity. The number of practicing Catholics is zooming down while the number of practicing Muslims is increasing daily. The major consequence of this has been a hallucinatory debate for over a decade about what to do about young Moslem girls who wish to have their hair covered when they go to school. The racist right saw the wearing of the foulard as an affront to Frenchness, and if truth be told, to Christianity. The classical left (or at least a large part of it) saw it as a challenge to sacrosanct laicité. Both sides combined to outlaw the foulard (and in order to be balanced, Christian and Jewish "large" symbols too). So, a certain number of Moslem girls were expelled from school. And the matter was thought to be solved, somehow.

What was remarkable about this rebellion this time in France is that it did not focus on religious issues. For example, it did not result in anti-Semitic tirades. Because France has a large number of poor Jews who live in the same housing complexes, there have been Muslim-Jewish or rather Palestinian-Israeli tensions for the last two decades. But that issue was shelved. The French rebellion was a spontaneous class uprising. And like most spontaneous uprisings, it could not be sustained for too long. But also like most rebellions, the possibility of recurrence will not disappear unless the gross inequalities are overcome. And it does not seem that too much effort is being made by French authorities (or for that matter by authorities elsewhere in the world) to overcome inequalities. We are in an epoch of accentuating, not alleviating, inequalities. And therefore, we are in an epoch of increasing, not decreasing, rebellions.