Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sunday in the Market With McCain

The New York Times
April 8, 2007

JOHN McCAIN’S April Fools’ Day stroll through Baghdad’s Shorja market last weekend was instantly acclaimed as a classic political pratfall. Protected by more than a hundred American soldiers, three Black Hawk helicopters, two Apache gunships and a bulletproof vest, the senator extolled the “progress” and “good news” in Iraq. Befitting this loopy brand of comedy — reminiscent of “Wedding Crashers,” in which Mr. McCain gamely made a cameo appearance — the star had a crackerjack cast of supporting buffoons: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who told reporters “I bought five rugs for five bucks!,” and Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, who likened the scene to “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”

Five rugs for five bucks: boy, we’ve really got that Iraq economy up and running now! No wonder the McCain show was quickly dubbed “McCain’s Mission Accomplished” and “McCain’s Dukakis-in-the-Tank Photo Op.” But at a certain point the laughter curdled. Reporters rudely pointed out there were 60-plus casualties in this market from one February attack alone and that six Americans were killed in the Baghdad environs on the day of his visit. “Your heart goes out to just the typical Iraqi because they can’t have that kind of entourage,” said Kyra Phillips of CNN. The day after Mr. McCain’s stroll, The Times of London reported that 21 of the Shorja market’s merchants and workers were ambushed and murdered.

The political press has stepped up its sotto voce deathwatch on the McCain presidential campaign ever since, a drumbeat enhanced by last week’s announcement of Mr. McCain’s third-place finish in the Republican field’s fund-raising sweepstakes. (He is scheduled to restate his commitment to the race on “60 Minutes” tonight.) But his campaign was sagging well before he went to Baghdad. In retrospect, his disastrous trip may be less significant as yet another downturn in a faltering presidential candidacy than as a turning point in hastening the inevitable American exit from Iraq.

Mr. McCain is no Michael Dukakis. Unlike the 1988 Democratic standard-bearer, who was trying to counter accusations that he was weak on national defense, the Arizona senator has more military cred than any current presidential aspirant, let alone the current president. Every American knows that Mr. McCain is a genuine hero who survived torture during more than five years of captivity at the Hanoi Hilton. That’s why when he squandered that credibility on an embarrassing propaganda stunt, he didn’t hurt only himself but also inflicted collateral damage on lesser Washington mortals who still claim that the “surge” can bring “victory” in Iraq.

It can’t be lost on those dwindling die-hards, particularly those on the 2008 ballot, that if defending the indefensible can reduce even a politician of Mr. McCain’s heroic stature to that of Dukakis-in-the-tank, they have nowhere to go but down. They’ll cut and run soon enough. For starters, just watch as Mr. McCain’s G.O.P. presidential rivals add more caveats to their support for the administration’s Iraq policy. Already, in a Tuesday interview on “Good Morning America,” Mitt Romney inched toward concrete “timetables and milestones” for Iraq, with the nonsensical proviso they shouldn’t be published “for the enemy.”

As if to confirm we’re in the last throes, President Bush threw any remaining caution to the winds during his news conference in the Rose Garden that same morning. Almost everything he said was patently misleading or an outright lie, a sure sign of a leader so entombed in his bunker (he couldn’t even emerge for the Washington Nationals’ ceremonial first pitch last week) that he feels he has nothing left to lose.

Incredibly, he chided his adversaries on the Hill for going on vacation just as he was heading off for his own vacation in Crawford. Then he attacked Congress for taking 57 days to “pass emergency funds for our troops” even though the previous, Republican-led Congress took 119 days on the same bill in 2006. He ridiculed the House bill for “pork and other spending that has nothing to do with the war,” though last year’s war-spending bill was also larded with unrelated pork, from Congressional efforts to add agricultural subsidies to the president’s own request for money for bird-flu preparation.

Mr. Bush’s claim that military equipment would be shortchanged if he couldn’t sign a spending bill by mid-April was contradicted by not one but two government agencies. A Government Accountability Office report faulted poor Pentagon planning for endemic existing equipment shortages in the National Guard. The Congressional Research Service found that the Pentagon could pay for the war until well into July. Since by that point we’ll already be on the threshold of our own commanders’ late-summer deadline for judging the surge, what’s the crisis?

The president then ratcheted up his habitual exploitation of the suffering of the troops and their families — a button he had pushed five days earlier when making his six-weeks-tardy visit to pose for photos at scandal-ridden Walter Reed. “Congress’s failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines,” he said. “And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to.”

His own failures had already foreordained exactly these grim results. Only the day before this news conference, the Pentagon said that the first unit tossed into the Baghdad surge would stay in Iraq a full year rather than the expected nine months, and that three other units had been ordered back there without the usual yearlong stay at home. By week’s end, we would learn the story of the suspected friendly-fire death of 18-year-old Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, just two hours after assuming his first combat post. He had been among those who had been shipped to war with a vastly stripped-down training regimen, 10 days instead of four weeks, forced by the relentless need for new troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile the Iraqi “democracy” that Mr. Zeimer died for was given yet another free pass. Mr. Bush applauded the Iraqi government for “working on an oil law,” though it languishes in Parliament, and for having named a commander for its Baghdad troops. Much of this was a replay of Mr. Bush’s sunny Rose Garden news conference in June, only then he claimed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was taking charge of Baghdad security on his own. Now it’s not even clear whom the newly named Iraqi commander is commanding. The number of military operations with Iraqis in the lead is falling, not rising, according to the Pentagon. Even as the administration claims that Iraqis are leading the Baghdad crackdown, American military losses were double those of the Iraqi Army in March.

Mr. Bush or anyone else who sees progress in the surge is correct only in the most literal and temporary sense. Yes, an influx of American troops is depressing some Baghdad violence. But any falloff in the capital is being offset by increased violence in the rest of the country; the civilian death toll rose 15 percent from February to March. Mosul, which was supposedly secured in 2003 by the current American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is now a safe haven for terrorists, according to an Iraqi government spokesman. The once-pacified Tal Afar, which Mr. Bush declared “a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq” in 2006, is a cauldron of bloodshed.

If Baghdad isn’t going to repeat Tal Afar’s history, we will have to send many more American troops than promised and keep them there until Mr. Maliki presides over a stable coalition government providing its own security. Hell is more likely to freeze over first. Yet if American troops don’t start to leave far sooner than that — by the beginning of next year, according to the retired general and sometime White House consultant Barry McCaffrey — the American Army will start to unravel. The National Guard, whose own new involuntary deployments to Iraq were uncovered last week by NBC News, can’t ride to the rescue indefinitely.

The center will not hold, no matter what happens in the Washington standoff over war funding. Surely no one understands better than Mr. McCain that American lives are being wasted in the war’s escalation. That is what he said on David Letterman’s show in an unguarded moment some five weeks ago — though he recanted the word wasted after taking flak the morning after.

Like his Letterman gaffe, Mr. McCain’s ludicrous market stunt was at least in the tradition of his old brand of straight talk, in that it revealed the truth, however unintentionally. But many more have watched the constantly recycled and ridiculed spectacle of his “safe” walk in Baghdad than heard him on a late-night talk show. This incident has the staying power of the Howard Dean scream. Should it speed America’s disengagement from Iraq, what looks today like John McCain’s farcical act of political suicide may some day loom large as a patriot’s final act of sacrifice for his country.

A War of Narratives

The New York Times
April 8, 2007

On the Dead Sea, Jordan

I just attended a conference that was both illuminating and depressing. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan and the American Enterprise Institute, and the idea was to get Americans and moderate Arab reformers together to talk about Iraq, Iran, and any remaining prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

As it happened, though, the Arab speakers mainly wanted to talk about the Israel lobby. One described a book edited in the mid-1990s by the Jewish policy analyst David Wurmser as the secret blueprint for American foreign policy over the past decade. A pollster showed that large majorities in Arab countries believe that the Israel lobby has more influence over American policy than the Bush administration. Speaker after speaker triumphantly cited the work of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter as proof that even Americans were coming to admit that the Israel lobby controls their government.

The problems between America and the Arab world have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism or ideological extremism, several Arab speakers argued. They have to do with American policies toward Israel, and the forces controlling those policies.

As for problems in the Middle East itself, these speakers added, they have a common source, Israel. One elderly statesman noted that the four most pressing issues in the Middle East are the Arab-Israeli dispute, instability in Lebanon, chaos in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran. They are all interconnected, he said, and Israel is at the root of each of them.

We Americans tried to press our Arab friends to talk more about the Sunni-Shiite split, the Iraqi civil war and the rise of Iran, but they seemed uninterested. They mimicked a speech King Abdullah of Jordan recently delivered before Congress, in which he scarcely mentioned the Iraqi chaos on his border. It was all Israel, all the time.

The Americans, needless to say, had a different narrative. We tended to argue that problems like Muslim fundamentalism, extremism and autocracy could not be blamed on Israel or Paul Wolfowitz but had deeper historical roots. We tended to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue not as the root of all fundamentalism, but as a problem made intractable by fundamentalism.

In other words, they had their narrative and we had ours, and the two passed each other without touching. But the striking thing about this meeting was the emotional tone. There seemed to be a time, after 9/11, when it was generally accepted that terror and extremism were symptoms of a deeper Arab malaise. There seemed to be a general recognition that the Arab world had fallen behind, and that it needed economic, political and religious modernization.

But there was nothing defensive or introspective about the Arab speakers here. In response to Bernard Lewis’s question, “What Went Wrong?” their answer seemed to be: Nothing’s wrong with us. What’s wrong with you?

The events of the past three years have shifted their diagnosis of where the cancer is — from dysfunction in the Arab world to malevolence in Jerusalem and in Aipac. Furthermore, the Walt and Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby has had a profound effect on Arab elites. It has encouraged them not to be introspective, not to think about their own problems, but to blame everything on the villainous Israeli network.

And so we enter a more intractable phase in the conflict, which will not be a war over land or oil or even democratic institutions, but a war over narratives. The Arabs will nurture this Zionist-centric mythology, which is as self-flattering as it is self-destructive. They will demand that the U.S. and Israel adopt their narrative and admit historical guilt. Failing politically, militarily and economically, they will fight a battle for moral superiority, the kind of battle that does not allow for compromises or truces.

Americans, meanwhile, will simply want to get out. After 9/11, George Bush called on the U.S. to get deeply involved in the Middle East. But now, most Americans have given up on their ability to transform the Middle East and on Arab willingness to change. Faced with an arc of conspiracy-mongering, most Americans will get sick of the whole cesspool, and will support any energy policy or anything else that will enable them to cut ties with the region.

What we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a gap between civilizations, increasingly without common narratives, common goals or means of communication.

A Woman’s Work Earns Her Enemies

The New York Times
April 8, 2007

MEERWALA, Pakistan

You might think that the worst tragedy that could befall a couple would be for their young daughter to be raped and murdered.

But here in rural Pakistan, that was only the beginning for Hasina Bibi and her husband, Rashid Ahmed. Their story underscores how to be poor in the developing world often means having not only no food but also no justice — and how any war against poverty must be devised not only to enrich the world’s poorest people but also to educate and empower them.

On the morning of July 3 last year, Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid were cutting grass in the fields along with their daughter, Shamshad, who was 11 years old, and a group of other laborers. Shamshad carried a stack of grass to a pile across the field — and then disappeared.

Villagers found Shamshad’s body a few hours later. She had been raped and tortured: There were many bite marks, and burns from cigarettes.

Everybody guessed who could have done this: the grandchildren of the local feudal lord. These grandchildren, in their teens and 20s, often harassed girls.

The grandchildren, however, said that the culprits were their servants — and so the police arrested the servants (who presumably would be beaten until they confessed). But Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid knew that the servants could not be guilty, because they had all been together when Shamshad vanished.

“We went to the police, and after five minutes the police said, ‘Go home,’ ” Ms. Hasina related. The police told the parents to forget about making accusations against anyone in the feudal lord’s family.

So Ms. Hasina traveled to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, 400 miles to the north, to appeal for assistance from the government — but she received no help and her trip infuriated the feudal lord’s family. The feudal lord’s family members beat up her family members and warned them to be silent.

“They said, ‘We killed the girl, and if you don’t keep quiet we’ll kill all of you as well,’ ” Ms. Hasina explained. She sighed and added: “Everybody says, that is just what happens to poor people.”

Yet there is one place that Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid have found a sanctuary: the shelter run by Mukhtar Mai here in the remote village of Meerwala. Mukhtar (who also goes by the name Mukhtaran Bibi) survived a gang rape to become a fervent campaigner for voiceless women in Pakistan.

I’ve written about Mukhtar repeatedly over the last few years, and she now runs several schools, an ambulance service and a women’s aid group. Her home and courtyard are full of women and girls who trickle in each day, shellshocked by injustice or disfigured by beatings or acid attacks. Mukhtar arranges medical or legal help and does what she can to address their needs.

A year ago on a visit to Mukhtar’s village, I wrote about a young woman named Aisha Parveen who was fighting efforts by the police to return her to the brothel from which she had escaped. Mukhtar helped rescue Aisha, and now Aisha is trying to replicate Mukhtar’s work farther south. One of Aisha’s first cases was to help Ms. Hasina after her daughter’s murder.

Mukhtar is a hero of mine. But her work has earned her many enemies, particularly among the feudal lords — and even in the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who fears that Mukhtar displays Pakistan’s dirty laundry before the world. So the Pakistani authorities are harassing Mukhtar, trying to break her organization. (For readers who want to help, I’ve posted some ideas on my blog, You can also post your comments about this column there.)

Most of the pressure right now is on Mukhtar’s top aide and soul mate, Naseem Akhtar. Lately Naseem’s brother was in a mysterious vehicle accident, her father was ordered arrested for no apparent reason and her own house was broken into.

Farooq Leghari, a police chief, was transferred away from Meerwala because — he and others say — he tried too hard to protect Mukhtar. He now is police chief in another town and, when I visited him, he told me that “this harassment and pressure on them is from very high up, from Islamabad.”

“Their lives are in danger,” Mr. Leghari said of Mukhtar and Naseem, adding that they could be killed by assassins sent by feudal lords or by the Pakistani government itself (our close allies!).

So I have a message for President Musharraf: Don’t even think about it. Start protecting Mukhtar instead of harassing her. And if any “accident” happens to Mukhtar or Naseem, you will be held responsible before the world. We are watching.


Increase in Iraqi Deaths Despite 'Surge'

For all those journalists and politicians who keep insisting that there are new "glimmers" of "hope" in Iraq because of the new security plan started 6 weeks ago, here is a sobering statistic from the Iraqi government: Iraqis killed in February: 1806 (64.5/day); Iraqis killed in March: 2078 (67/day). [ MORE ]


Pope, maybe…But never President…

Friday, April 06, 2007

An Easter Sermon

The New York Times
April 7, 2007

Jesus knew viral marketing.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciple John complains that nondisciples are selling bootlegged copies of Jesus’ miraculous powers. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Jesus tells John to quit obsessing about the intellectual property and to focus on getting the brand out. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Fast-forward two millennia. Weeks after 9/11, George Bush says roughly the opposite. His famous “You’re either with us or against us” means that those who don’t follow his lead will be considered enemies. The rest is history. Today, Jesus has more than a billion devoted followers. Mr. Bush has ... well, fewer than that.

The religious left — yes, there is such a thing — complains that Mr. Bush ignores the Bible’s moral injunctions. But leave morality aside. If he could just match the Bible’s strategic savvy, that would make a world of difference.

Consider a teaching of Jesus that seems on its surface devoid of strategic import. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Christians often cast this verse as innovative, a sharp break from Jesus’ Jewish tradition. But the same idea can be found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), and here it is clear that the point of the kindness is to thwart the enemy: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”

Coals of fire? As the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible explain, submitting to this treatment was an Egyptian ritual that “demonstrated contrition.” (And how!) “The sense here seems to be that undeserved kindness awakens the remorse and hence conversion of the enemies.”

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unlikely that sending Osama bin Laden a Hallmark card would induce paroxysms of self-doubt. Still, there are other ways that reining in hatred can hurt your enemy’s cause.

Suppose, for example, you were nurturing a nascent religious movement in the Roman Empire, and your antagonists welcomed excuses to harass you. Suppose, that is, you were the Apostle Paul. When Paul preaches kindness to enemies, he uses not the formulation found in the Gospels, but the one from the Hebrew Bible, complete with the coals of fire.

Of course, Mr. Bush is more in the shoes of the Roman emperor than of Paul. America isn’t a small but growing religious movement. It’s a great power threatened by a small but growing religious movement — radical Islam. But the logic can work both ways. Great powers, by mindlessly indulging retributive impulses, can give fuel to small but growing religious movements. If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.

Right after Paul espouses kindness to enemies, he adds: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Sounds like naïve moralizing until you look at those Abu Ghraib photos that have become Al Qaeda recruiting posters.

The key distinction is between man and meme. Yes, a great power can always kill and torment enemies, and, yes, there will always be times when that makes sense. Still, when you’re dealing with terrorists, it’s their memes — their ideas, their attitudes — that are Public Enemy No. 1. Jihadists are hosts for the virus of hatred, and the object of the game is to keep the virus from finding new hosts.

The Internet is fertile ground for memes, and jihadists are good at getting the brand out. One of the few things Osama bin Laden has in common with the Jesus of the Gospels is belief in the power of viral marketing.

The ultimate in viral marketing was Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Deemed a threat to the social order, he was crucified under Roman auspices. But the Romans forgot one thing: If you face a small but growing movement that threatens the imperial order, you shouldn’t attack the men in ways that help the memes.

Mr. Bush says his favorite philosopher is Jesus. One way to show it would be to spend less time repeating the mistake of the Romans and more time heeding the wisdom of Christ.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Children Versus Insurers

The New York Times
April 6, 2007

Consider the choice between two government programs.

Program A would provide essential health care to the eight million uninsured children in this country.

Program B would subsidize insurance companies, who would in turn spend much of the money on marketing and paperwork, and also siphon off a substantial fraction of the money as profits. With what’s left, the insurers would provide additional benefits, over and above basic Medicare coverage, to some older Americans.

Which program would you choose? If money is no object, you might go for both. But if you can only have one, it’s hard to see how anyone could, in good conscience, fail to choose Program A. I mean, even conservatives claim to believe in equal opportunity — and it’s hard to say that our society offers equal opportunity to children whose education may be disrupted, who may even find their lives cut short, because their families can’t afford proper medical care.

And here’s the thing: The question isn’t hypothetical. Universal health care may happen one of these years, but the choice between A and B is playing out right now.

Program A is the proposal by Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative John Dingell to cover all children by expanding the highly successful State Children’s Health Insurance Program. To pay for that expansion, Democrats are talking about saving money by shutting down Program B, the huge subsidy to private insurance plans for Medicare recipients — so-called Medicare Advantage plans — created by the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act.

The numbers for that trade-off add up, with a little room to spare. Covering all children would cost about $50 billion over the next five years, while the Congressional Budget Office estimates that eliminating the Medicare Advantage subsidy would save $65 billion over the same period (and $160 billion over the next decade.)

Now, nobody is proposing that Medicare ban private plans — all that’s on the table is requiring that they compete with traditional Medicare, run directly by the government, on a fair basis. And that’s not what’s happening now. According to Medpac, the official nonpartisan commission that assesses Medicare payments, Medicare Advantage plans now cost taxpayers an average of 12 percent more per enrollee than traditional Medicare. Private fee-for-service plans, the fastest-growing type, cost 19 percent extra.

As I said, it’s hard to see how anyone can, in good conscience, think that preserving subsidies to insurance companies is more important than providing health care for children. But that is, of course, exactly the position taken by the Bush administration, which is adamantly opposed both to any attempt to expand the children’s health insurance program — in fact, the administration wants to cut its reach — and to any attempt to reduce Medicare Advantage payments.

The official reasons given for this position are evasive and dishonest.

Explaining the administration’s opposition to expanding the children’s program, Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, said the program “should not be the vehicle by which we insure every adult and every child in America.” But that isn’t what the Democrats are proposing.

As for why the administration wants to keep subsidizing insurance companies, Mr. Leavitt says, “The president and I are for competition.” But nobody is against competition — it’s subsidized competition that’s the problem. Mr. Leavitt added that “the marketplace beats the government at controlling costs and delivering value” — but he’s not willing to put that assertion to the test by requiring that private insurers compete on a level playing field.

Lately, both the insurance lobby and the administration have also started playing the race card, claiming that Medicare Advantage offers special benefits to the poor and to minority groups. (Remember how Social Security was supposed to be bad for black people?) But a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thoroughly debunks these claims: low-income and minority seniors are less likely than the average Medicare recipient to be enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan.

Clearly, the real reasons for the administration’s position have nothing to do with any of these supposed justifications. They are, instead, political, having to do with the long-term battle over the future of the welfare state.

But that’s a subject for another day. For now, the choice is between A and B — health care for children, or subsidies for insurance companies. Which will it be?

Cellphones, Maxi-Pads and Other Life-Changing Tools

The New York Times
April 6, 2007


For decades, the world has asked: How do we free Africa from its yoke of poverty, disease and misgovernance? In asking Kenyans that question, I’ve been struck at the simple, common-sense solutions they offer. Four in particular stand out: transparency, telephones, Tergat and Kotex.

Naisiae Tobiko is a 28-year-old dynamo who grew up in Kenya’s Masai region. She runs a public relations firm, but when we met all she wanted to talk about was Kenya’s shortage of sanitary napkins for girls. Here’s why, she explained: Her family could afford to send her to school, where she thrived. As she got older, though, she started to notice something about the less well-off girls — they missed four days of class every month, “and I could not understand why.” When she finally asked, they confided that they did not come to school when they were menstruating — because their parents could not afford sanitary napkins.

“They would say, ‘How can I come to a place when I am bleeding?’ ” she recalled. “Some were using rags or soil or mud.” Because of those lost school days, many eventually dropped out. So Ms. Tobiko recently teamed up with the Girl Child Network and other N.G.O.s here and started a project in the countryside to distribute free sanitary napkins. They have targeted 500,000 girls, and so far have reached 189,000. More school days means more educated women and better mothers.

“We’re keeping girls in school,” said Ms. Tobiko. If women get education, “we want nothing else,” she added. “We will fight our way into every field, but we need the main key — which is education.”

Kenya first began holding multiparty elections in 1992, and its next national election is slated for December. (By the way, Kenyans love the fact that Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is running for president of the U.S. since, they joke, someone from his Luo tribe could never get elected president of Kenya!) The field here is already crowded with presidential wannabes. But the most revealing conversation I had on this subject was with someone not running.

Vimal Shah owns an oil services company in Kenya, Bidco, and he was eager to tell me that with eight months until the election he had decided to make a big investment to expand his business. So what? I said. “People here never invest in the year before an election,” he explained. The fear is always that the new guy will change all the rules — often for his cronies. But Mr. Shah, like others here, believes Kenya’s evolution to democracy, with more transparent rules, has now reached a point where “even if the government changes, it won’t change the rules. The politicians can’t stop this.”

It is striking how just the little improvement in governance here can start a torrent of cash flowing in. But so could more cellphones.

Rose Lukalo Owino, a Kenyan author, told me this story: “I was recently in Ngutani, east of Nairobi. I was reporting for a book and interviewing these women who raised goats.” The women complained that for years they had been swindled by middlemen who would get them to sell their goats for a pittance, because the women didn’t know the price in the Nairobi markets. “But when I interviewed them, these women were holding so much money,” said Ms. Owino. Why? Fourteen villages got together and bought one cellphone, which they now share to check the market prices in Nairobi for goats before they sell. “They were talking to me about opening a microlending bank with their profits,” she said.

But Africa doesn’t just need more phone models. It needs more role models. I met one of the best here — Paul Tergat, the great Kenyan distance runner who’s earned five world cross country championships and two Olympic silver medals. Mr. Tergat recently won a contract from the government to promote anticorruption themes. For starters, he organized some of Kenya’s greatest distance runners to carry a torch from Mombasa to the Ugandan border. The torch represented a spotlight on corruption. Kenyans turned out to cheer them all along the route.

He used Kenya’s runners, Mr. Tergat said, because unlike politicians, when they win a medal it “is open, and genuine, and clean, and they practiced for 10 years to get it. The message is to say to young people, ‘Look here, you don’t have to be corrupt. You can do it if you are patient.’ ”

Add all this up and you have what impresses me most here: the way Kenya’s emerging democracy is unlocking Kenya’s best minds to find Kenyan solutions to Kenya’s problems.

Diagram of a Blog

[Click on image to enlarge.]

[Credit: Paula Scher.]

Scholars restudy Alger Hiss spy case

By RICHARD PYLE, Associated Press Writer

Scholars probing anew into the Cold War's most famous espionage case suggested Thursday that another U.S. diplomat, not Alger Hiss, was the Soviet agent code-named Ales.

Meanwhile, a stepson of Hiss said his chief accuser invented the spy allegations after his sexual advances were rejected.

The two claims, presented at the daylong symposium "Alger Hiss & History" at New York University, provided startling new information that, if true, could point toward a posthumous vindication of Hiss, who was accused of feeding U.S. secrets to Moscow and spent nearly five years in prison for perjury before his death in 1996 at age 92.

Kai Bird, an author who has done new research on the 60-year-old case, said that although Hiss was accused of feeding secrets to the Soviet military intelligence agency GRU under the code name Ales, there was new evidence to suggest the real spy was another U.S. official named Wilder Foote.

Bird said that he and co-researcher Svetlana A. Chervonnaya had identified nine possible suspects among U.S. State Department officials present at the U.S.-Soviet Yalta conference in 1945. A process of elimination based on their subsequent travels to Moscow and Mexico City excluded eight of them, including Hiss, he said.

"It left only one man standing: Wilder Foote," Bird said.

Foote, a member of a well-known Boston family, died in 1974 after a career as a diplomat and owner of a string of newspapers. During World War II he was involved with U.S. lend-lease operations supplying the Soviets.

The key, according to Bird, was that Ales' contact at the Soviet embassy in Washington would have known that Hiss, a top-tier diplomat who later played a key role in founding the United Nations, had returned from Mexico City, whereas Ales was known to have remained there.

That information was in a secret Soviet cable that was intercepted and decoded by U.S. intelligence agencies and is now part of the so-called Venona Papers, a collection of such documents made public several years ago.

In a telephone interview, Bird said that more research would be required to prove that Foote was Ales but that "he fits the itinerary in every way, and Hiss simply does not."

Telephone and e-mail queries by The Associated Press to Foote's son and grandson were not immediately returned Thursday. The grandson, a commercial pilot who lives in Belleville, Mich., was flying, according to his wife.

Bird quoted the elder Foote as saying earlier, "I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach."

Also Thursday, Timothy Hobson, an 80-year-old retired surgeon who was Hiss' stepson and grew up in the family home in Washington, D.C., said that Whittaker Chambers, whose bombshell allegations against Hiss broke the case open, had lied about his personal relationship with Hiss and had never visited the home as he claimed.

Hobson said that as a 10-year-old boy, he suffered a broken leg and was in a cast for months, during which time he met everybody who came calling.

Chambers was a former American communist party member who spied for the Soviets during the 1930s. He defected before World War II and accused others of being spies, but his claims did not attract FBI interest until after the war. He joined Time magazine in 1939 and as a writer and editor was a severe critic of communism. He died in 1961.

"It is my conviction that he was in love with Alger Hiss, that he was rejected by Alger Hiss and he took that rejection in a vindictive way," Hobson said.

Hobson said Chambers' sexual orientation had been mentioned in a book and was recorded in unreleased FBI files.

Hobson shared the platform with his younger half-brother, Tony Hiss, who has written two books that make the case their father was innocent. Hobson was close to tears as he said that he, as a gay man, was given an undesirable discharge from the U.S. Navy — and said that was what kept Hiss' defense lawyers from calling him as a witness in court.

"This puts it all on the record," Hobson said, to a partial standing ovation from the audience, including university faculty and students.

Among the speakers arguing that Hiss was guilty, author G. Edward White said Hiss supporters use a "thread strategy," seizing on any "inconsistency" to unravel a scenario aiming to vindicate him of the spy charges.

Whether Hiss was Ales need not rely on a single piece of evidence, White said. There is no reason that pieces of evidence must corroborate one another, and "we can't say that the absence of evidence is evidence," White said.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Our Crumbling Foundation

The New York Times
April 5, 2007

Fifty-nine years ago this week — on April 3, 1948 — President Truman signed the legislation establishing the Marshall Plan, which contributed so much to the rebuilding of postwar Europe. Now, more than half a century later, the U.S. can’t even rebuild New Orleans.

It doesn’t seem able to build much of anything, really. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. infrastructure is in sad shape, and it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars over a five-year period to bring it back to a reasonably adequate condition.

If there’s a less sexy story floating around, I can’t find it. It certainly can’t compete with the Sanjaya Malakar saga, or with the claim by Keith Richards that he snorted his dad’s ashes with “a little bit of blow.”

But, as we learned with New Orleans, there are consequences to neglecting the infrastructure. Just a little over a year ago, a dam in Hawaii gave way, unleashing a wave 70 feet high and 200 yards wide. It swept away virtually everything in its path, including cars, houses and trees. Seven people drowned.

On the day after Christmas in Portland, Ore., a sinkhole opened up like something from a science fiction movie and swallowed a 25-ton sewer- repair truck. Authorities blamed the sinkhole on the collapse of aging underground pipes.

Blackouts, school buildings in advanced states of disrepair, decrepit highway and railroad bridges — the American infrastructure is growing increasingly old and obsolete. In addition to being an invitation to tragedy, this is a problem that is putting Americans at a disadvantage in the ever more competitive global economy.

Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s, has been prominent among those trying to sound the infrastructure alarm. Along with former Senator Warren Rudman, he has been criticizing the government’s unwillingness to invest adequately in public transportation systems, water projects, dams, schools, the electrical grid, and so on.

He recently told a House committee that Congress should begin a major effort to rebuild the American infrastructure “before it is too late.”

“Since the beginning of the republic,” he said, “transportation, infrastructure and education have played a central role in advancing the American economy, whether it was the canals in upstate New York, or the railroads that linked our heartland to our industrial centers; whether it was the opening of education to average Americans by land grant colleges and the G.I. bill, making education basic to American life; or whether it was the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

“This did not happen by chance, but was the result of major investments financed by the federal and state governments over the last century and a half. ... We need to make similar investments now.”

Politics and ideology are the main reasons that government has turned away from public investment over the past several years. Zealots marching under the banner of small government have been remarkably effective in thwarting efforts to raise taxes or borrow substantial sums for the kind of public investment that has always been essential to a dynamic economy.

That this is counterproductive in a post-20th-century world should be as obvious as the sun rising in the morning. There is a reason why countries like China and India are racing like mad to develop their infrastructure and educational capacity.

“A modern economy needs a modern platform, and that’s the infrastructure,” Mr. Rohatyn said in an interview. “It has been shown that the productivity of an economy is related to the quality of its infrastructure. For example, if you don’t have enough schools to teach your kids, or your kids are taught in schools that have holes in the ceilings, that are dilapidated, they’re not going to be as educated and as competitive in a world economy as they need to be.”

Mr. Rohatyn and Mr. Rudman are co-chairmen of the Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They believe that failing to move quickly to address the nation’s infrastructure needs — through the establishment of a national trust fund, for example, or a federal capital budget — could lead to long-term disaster.

But words like trust fund and long-term and infrastructure find it very difficult to elbow their way into the nation’s consciousness. We may have to wait for another New Orleans before beginning to take this seriously.

In Our Messy, Reptilian Brains

By Sharon Begley
April 9, 2007

Let others rhapsodize about the elegant design and astounding complexity of the human brain—the most complicated, most sophisticated entity in the known universe, as they say. David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, doesn't see it that way. To him, the brain is a "cobbled-together mess." Impressive in function, sure. But in its design the brain is "quirky, inefficient and bizarre ... a weird agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have accumulated throughout millions of years of evolutionary history," he argues in his new book, "The Accidental Mind," from Harvard University Press. More than another salvo in the battle over whether biological structures are the products of supernatural design or biological evolution (though Linden has no doubt it's the latter), research on our brain's primitive foundation is cracking such puzzles as why we cannot tickle ourselves, why we are driven to spin narratives even in our dreams and why reptilian traits persist in our gray matter.

Just as the mouse brain is a lizard brain "with some extra stuff thrown on top," Linden writes, the human brain is essentially a mouse brain with extra toppings. That's how we wound up with two vision systems. In amphibians, signals from the eye are processed in a region called the midbrain, which, for instance, guides a frog's tongue to insects in midair and enables us to duck as an errant fastball bears down on us. Our kludgy brain retains this primitive visual structure even though most signals from the eye are processed in the visual cortex, a newer addition. If the latter is damaged, patients typically say they cannot see a thing. Yet if asked to reach for an object, many of them can grab it on the first try. And if asked to judge the emotional expression on a face, they get it right more often than chance would predict—especially if that expression is anger.

They're not lying about being unable to see. In such "blindsight," people who have lost what most of us think of as vision are seeing with the amphibian visual system. But because the midbrain is not connected to higher cognitive regions, they have no conscious awareness of an object's location or a face's expression. Consciously, the world looks inky black. But unconsciously, signals from the midbrain are merrily zipping along to the amygdala (which assesses emotion) and the motor cortex (which makes the arm reach out).

Primitive brains control movement with the cerebellum. Tucked in the back of the brain, this structure also predicts what a movement will feel like, and sends inhibitory signals to the somatosensory cortex, which processes the sense of touch, telling it not to pay attention to expected sensations (such as the feeling of clothes against your skin or the earth beneath your soles). This is why you can't tickle yourself: the reptilian cerebellum has kept the sensation from registering in the feeling part of the brain. Failing to register feelings caused by your own movements claims another victim: your sense of how hard you are hitting someone. Hence, "but Mom, he hit me harder!"

Neurons have hardly changed from those of prehistoric jellyfish. "Slow, leaky, unreliable," as Linden calls them, they tend to drop the ball: at connections between neurons, signals have a 70 percent chance of sputtering out. To make sure enough signals do get through, the brain needs to be massively interconnected, its 100 billion neurons forming an estimated 500 trillion synapses. This interconnectedness is far too great for our paltry 23,000 or so genes to specify. The developing brain therefore finishes its wiring out in the world (if they didn't, a baby's head wouldn't fit through the birth canal). Sensory feedback and experiences choreograph the dance of neurons during our long childhood, which is just another name for the period when the brain matures.

With modern parts atop old ones, the brain is like an iPod built around an eight-track cassette player. One reptilian legacy is that as our eyes sweep across the field of view, they make tiny jumps. At the points between where the eyes alight, what reaches the brain is blurry, so the visual cortex sees the neural equivalent of jump cuts. The brain nevertheless creates a coherent perception out of them, filling in the gaps of the jerky feed. What you see is continuous, smooth. But as often happens with kludges, the old components make their presence felt in newer systems, in this case taking a system that worked well in vision and enlisting it higher-order cognition. Determined to construct a seamless story from jumpy input, for instance, patients with amnesia will, when asked what they did yesterday, construct a story out of memory scraps.

It isn't only amnesiacs whose brains confabulate. There is no good reason why dreams, which consolidate memories, should take a narrative form. If they're filing away memories, we should just experience memory fragments as each is processed. The cortex's narrative drive, however, doesn't turn off during sleep. Like an iPod turning on that cassette player, the fill-in-the-gaps that works so well for jumpy eye movements takes the raw material of memory and weaves it into a coherent, if bizarre, story. The reptilian brain lives on.

[Acknowledgements to Julian.]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The African Connection

The New York Times
April 4, 2007


Was anybody out there checking out jobs with the U.S. post office in 2005? Do you remember when you called that 800 number to get details? Sure you do. Do you remember how the voice on the other end of the line helping you had this soft British accent with a slight African lilt? Do you know why? Because you were routed to a call center in Kenya.

So maybe you weren’t looking for a job, but you had just bought a new computer. And when you turned it on, you clicked the icon for one of America’s biggest Internet service providers to get broadband access. But you needed someone to talk you through getting it connected — so you called that 800 number. The techie who helped you was also a Kenyan at that same Nairobi call center.

It’s called KenCall. It is located in an abandoned avocado processing plant, and it is the largest of Kenya’s blooming outsourcing call centers, with almost 300 employees and annual revenues that have grown to $3.5 million since it opened three years ago. If you’re surprised it’s here, so are most of its customers.

“I was actually talking to someone in America who had just given birth and she was ordering high-speed D.S.L. for her new residence — three or four hours after the birth,” said Nina Nyongesa, a 25-year-old KenCall supervisor and I.T. graduate of Nairobi University. “She said to me, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘Nairobi.’ And she said, ‘Are you sure?’ And she was really happy — so she bought one for herself, one for her mother and one for her mother-in-law. So instead of making one sale I made three.”

KenCall is one small reason that Kenya’s economy grew 6 percent last year. Yes, Kenya still has all the ills of other African states — from AIDS to abject poverty. But Kenya also now has a democratically elected government that is learning to get out of the way of Kenya’s entrepreneurs and to get them the bandwidth they need to compete globally. It’s way too early to declare Kenya an economic “African Tiger,” but something is stirring here that bears watching — and KenCall is emblematic of it.

The company was started by the half-English, half-Kenyan Nicholas Nesbitt, his brother Eric and his brother-in-law Stephen Liggins. Nicholas Nesbitt and Liggins had made successful careers on Wall Street. But after Kenya’s democratic elections in 2002, they decided to come home and see if they could do good for their country and for themselves by taking advantage of Kenya’s large pool of educated, English-speaking talent to break into the outsourcing industry.

There was one big problem. Kenya, like the rest of East Africa, was not connected to any global undersea fiber-optic cable that would give it the cheap high-speed bandwidth of the scale needed by call centers. The Internet here all came via satellite, which is more expensive to begin with and was made even more so by the fact that the Kenyan state phone company had a monopoly.

In a rare move in Africa, the Kenyan government decided to give up that monopoly and open competition for satellite-provided bandwidth — even though it meant laying off 6,000 government workers. The competition made KenCall’s business possible. The Kenyan government is now working feverishly to get connected to the global fiber-optic network, via an undersea cable, which would make bandwidth here cheap and plentiful enough for all sorts of outsourcing.

KenCall opened in late 2004, taking orders for U.S. late-night TV commercials. Its Kenyan operators sold Yellow Page ads, security alarms and mortgages. But it has since grown its business to include data-entry for one of the premier Wall Street credit-rating firms and handling service calls for global banks and insurance companies. For an economy dependent on coffee, safaris and flowers, this is a real change of pace.

“The concept of connecting to the outside world and attracting investors from the outside — that has not been here before,” remarked Stephen Ogunde, another KenCall supervisor.

KenCall’s employees can make in a month what half of Kenya’s population makes in a year: around $350. They get health care and free transportation.

Don’t give up on Africa. KenCall is a reminder that with a little less government regulation, a little more democracy and a lot more bandwidth, African entrepreneurs can play this game too. “In the old days, ‘landlocked’ meant you didn’t have a harbor,” said Mr. Nesbitt. “In the new days, it means you don’t have fiber broadband to the rest of the world. This whole market here is just waiting for that.”

Marine Opposed to War Ordered Discharged

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- A Marine lance corporal who said he had an aversion to killing and participating in war must be released from the military as a conscientious objector, a federal judge ruled.

The Marine Corps Reserves must discharge Robert Zabala, 23, by mid-April, under the ruling.

Zabala said he was troubled during boot camp in 2003 when a fellow recruit committed suicide and a superior used profanities to belittle the recruit. Zabala said he was ''abhorred by the blood lust (the superior) seemed to possess,'' according to a 2006 court petition for conscientious-objector status.

Another boot camp instructor showed recruits a ''motivational clip'' showing Iraqi corpses, explosions, gun fights and rockets set to a heavy metal song that included the lyrics, ''Let the bodies hit the floor,'' the petition said. Zabala said he cried, while other recruits nodded their heads in time with the beat.

''The sanctity of life that formed the moral center of petitioner's life was being challenged,'' his attorney, Stephen Collier, wrote in a court filing.

In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Ware, who served 13 years in the Army Reserves, said he was convinced of Zabala's sincerity about his struggles to ''reconcile the demands of duty with the demands of conscience.''

Zabala, who followed some Buddhist-related traditions, was previously denied conscientious-objector status after applying in 2004, court records show.

On Capitalism, Europe, and the World Bank

by Noam Chomsky and Dennis Ott; April 02, 2007

Dennis Ott: In a recent interview you quoted Thorstein Veblen, who contrasted “substantial people” and “underlying population.”[1] At a shareholder’s meeting of Allianz AG, major shareholder Hans-Martin Buhlmannn expressed the view that there is only one limit to the increase of the dividend: “The inferiors must not be bled so much that they can no longer consume. They must survive as consumers.”[2] Is this the guiding principle of our economic system? And if so, is there any substance to the notion of a “social market economy”?

Noam Chomsky: Those are traditional questions in economics. It’s part of Marx’s reasoning about why there’s going to be a continuing crisis of capitalism: that owners are going to try to squeeze the work force as much as possible, but they can’t go too far, it’ll be nobody to purchase what they buy. And it’s been dealt with over and over again in one or another way during the history of capitalism; there’s an inherent problem.

So for example, Henry Ford famously tried to pay his workers a higher wage than the going wage, because partly on this reasoning – he was not a theoretical economist, but partly on the grounds that if he doesn’t pay his workers enough and other people won’t pay their workers enough, there’s going to be nobody around to buy his model-T Fords. Actually that issue came to court in the United States, around 1916 or so, and led to a fundamental principle of Anglo-American corporate law, which is part of the reason why the Anglo-American system is slightly different from the European social market system. There was a famous case called “Dodge v. Ford.” Some of the stockholders of the Ford motor company, the Dodge brothers, brought Henry Ford to court, claiming that by paying the workers a higher wage, and by making cars better than they had to be made, he was depriving them of their profits – because it’s true: dividends would be lower. They went to the courts, and they won.

The courts decided that the management of the corporation has the legal responsibility to maximize the yield of the profit to its stockholders, that’s its job. The corporations had already been granted the right of persons, and this basically says they have to be a certain type of pathological person, a person that does nothing except try to maximize his own gain – that’s the legal requirement on a corporation, and that’s a core principle of Anglo-American corporate law. So when, say, Milton Friedman points out that corporations just have to have one interest in life, maximizing profit and market share, he is legally correct, that is what the law says. The reason the Dodge brothers wanted it was because they wanted to start their own car company, and that ended up being Dodge, Chrysler, Daimler-Chrysler and so on. And that remains a core principle of corporate law.

Now, there were modifying traditional decisions, which said that a corporation is permitted legally – that means, the management is permitted legally – to carry out benevolent activities, like to join the Millennium Fund or something, but only if it improves their humanitarian image and therefore increases their profit. So a drug company can give away cheap drugs to the poor, but as long as the television cameras are on; then it’s still legal. And in fact, there’s an important decision by an American court, which is quite intriguing. It urges corporations to carry out benevolent activities; it says – and I’m quoting it now – or else “an aroused public” may figure out what corporations are up to, and take away their privileges – because after all, they’re just granted by the government, there’s nothing in the constitution, there’s no legal basis for them, it’s a radical violation of classical liberal principles and free market principles. They’re just granted by powerful institutions, and “an aroused public” might see through it and take it away. So you should have things like the Gleneagles conference once in a while, which is mostly fake, but looks good, and this is basically the court decision.

How does the social market system differ? There’s no principle of economics or anything else that says – first of all that even says that corporations should exist, but granting that they exist – that they should be concerned only with the maximization of gain for their stockholders instead of what’s sometimes called “stakeholders”: the community, the work force, everything else. As far as economics is concerned, it’s just another way of running things. And the European system to an extent has stakeholder interest. So, say, Germany has a theoretical form of co-determination – mostly theoretical, but some degree of worker participation in management, acceptance of unions, that’s been a partial move towards stakeholder interest. And the governmental social democratic programs are other examples of it.

The United States happens to be pretty much at the extreme of keeping to the principle that the corporate system must be pathological, and that the government is allowed to and glad to intervene to uphold that principle. The European system is somewhat different, the British system is somewhat in between, and they all vary.

Like during the New Deal period in the United States and during the 1960s, the United States veered somewhat towards a social market system. That’s why the Bush administration, who are of extreme reactionary sort, are trying to dismantle the few elements where the social market exists. Why are they trying to destroy social security, for example? I mean, there’s no serious economic problem, it’s all fraud. It’s in as good fiscal health as it’s ever been in its history, but it is a system which benefits the general population. It is of no use at all to the wealthy. Like, I get social security when I retire, but I’ve been a professor at MIT for fifty years, so I got a big pension and so on and so forth, I wouldn’t even notice if I didn’t get social security. But a very large part of the population, maybe 60% or something like that, actually survive on it. So therefore it’s a system that obviously has to be destroyed. It’s useless for the wealthy, it’s useless for privilege, it contributes nothing to profit. It has other bad features, like it’s based on the principle that you should care about somebody else, like you should care whether a disabled widow has food to eat. And that’s hopelessly immoral by the moral principles of power and privilege, so you’ve got to knock that idea out of people’s heads, and therefore you want to get rid of the system.

And in fact a lot of what’s called – ridiculously – “conservatism” is just pathological fanaticism, based on maximization of power and wealth in accord with principles that do have a legal basis.

But to get back to your original question, these are just choices. I mean, there are choices as to whether corporations should even exist, or why they’re even legitimate. They’re just tyrannies. Why should tyrannies exist? They are not supposed to exist in the political realm, there’s no reason why they should exist in the economic realm. But if they do, they could be imagined in all sorts of different ways, and there’s constant class struggle and pressures that lead to one or another outcome.

I mean the European system developed out of its complex historical background. I’m sure you know the original welfare states were basically Germany in the Bismarckian period – not because Bismarck was a big radical. And in fact to an extent, the European systems reflect the fact that they grew out of a feudal system. A feudal system is non-capitalist. In a feudal system everyone has a place – maybe a rotten place, but some place. So the serf has some place in the feudal system, they have some rights within that place in the system.

In a capitalist system, you don’t have any rights. And in fact when modern capitalism developed in the early 19th century – this is post-Adam Smith or anything like that, but Ricardo and Malthus and so on – their principle was pretty simple: you don’t have any rights. The only rights a person has are what they can gain in the labor market. And beyond that, you’ve no right to live, you’ve no right to survive. If you can’t make out on the labor market, go somewhere else. And in fact they could go somewhere else, they could come here and exterminate the population and settle here. But in Europe, you couldn’t do that, so some remnants of the whole feudal system and conservative structures and so on did lead to – after all, Europe had huge labor movements, the German social democratic party grew out of very powerful movements, and they just forced the development of what became social market systems.

After World War II, it was a very complex situation; the Second World War had a highly radicalizing effect, and the anti-fascist resistance had plenty of prestige. It was pretty radical; it was calling for quite radical democracy – it’s sometimes called communism, but it often had nothing to do with that. It’s just very radical democracy, worker’s control and so on and so forth, and it was so wide-spread, some kind of settlement had to be made with it.

If anyone were to write an honest history of post-WWII period, the first chapter would be devoted to how the British and American forces liberating Europe, one of the first things they did was to destroy the resistance, and to undermine the labor movement, and to try to beat back the efforts to create radical democratic programs. It varied in different countries but happened everywhere. Like in Italy, it started happening in 1943, since they moved in. By the time, the British and American forces reached Northern Italy, it had been pretty well liberated by the resistance, they had driven out the Germans mostly, and they had established their own institutions: worker-managed industrial systems, cooperatives, and so on. The British and Americans were totally appalled, they had to dismantle the whole thing and restore the rights of owners, meaning restore the traditional fascist system. An in fact, in the case of Italy, it’s particularly interesting. It continued at least into the 1970s. Italy was the main center of CIA subversion, well into the 1970s, but it happened everywhere else, too. In Greece, there was a war to destroy the resistance; they killed about a 150,000 people, and ended up restoring something like the traditional fascist structure.

Not long after the United States strongly supported the first restoration of actual fascism in Europe, and continued to support it, it was overthrown by the Greeks. And elsewhere it took different forms. In England and the United States, there were similar things happening. The population was also radicalized, and there had to be some adaptation to them, so you get the welfare state periods. But this is just the constant flux of struggle and conflict internal to hierarchic societies. There’s no right answer to it.

DO: In a commentary on ZNet, John Feffer praised the EU for being “more democratic, more economically fair-minded, more environmentally conscious, and more diplomatically sensitive” than the U.S.[3] However, many European dissidents criticize the project as an attack on democracy, and as pushing forward militarization and the dismantling of the welfare state in the member countries; in similar spirit, you described it as “a central banker system.”[4] What is your view – from the American perspective – on the emerging superpower Europe?

NC: There’s no particular American perspective… I mean, there is an American elite perspective, which is not mine. The general idea of European unity is a good idea. I think the world should be federalized in some sense, and the erosion of the nation-state system is a good thing. Nation-state systems basically arose in Europe in their modern sense, and they’re extremely unnatural social organizations. They had to be imposed on the populations by violence, extreme violence. Just look at the history of modern Europe, it’s a history of savage wars and destruction going back centuries. In the 17th century and the Thirty Years War, probably forty percent of the population of Germany was wiped out.

And the only reason it stopped in 1945 is because of a common realization that you just can’t do it anymore; the next war is going to destroy everything, we developed means of savagery that are too great to be employed. So therefore we have what’s called a democratic peace by political scientists. Probably the main factor in it is just that the means of destruction are so enormous that powerful states can’t go to war with each other, the war is the end.

And then you get steps towards integration. Some of it is healthy, some of it is unhealthy; it’s a mixture. So, the role of the Central Bank in Europe, which you mentioned, is very reactionary. In fact, even American conservatives criticize them, as granting far too much authority to a wholly undemocratic institution; it’s just not answerable to the public. That’s a form of autocracy that doesn’t exist in the United States; there’s the Federal Reserve, but it has nothing like the power of the European Central Bank. In principle at least, it’s under some form of democratic control – limited, for all sorts of reasons, but some form. And, in fact, it’s commonly argued by economists that part of the reason for the sluggishness – it’s exaggerated, but the partial sluggishness – of the European economy is just that the Central Bank decisions tend to discourage growth, and they’re not under public control.

Well, that’s a negative aspect. A positive aspect is that there’s some erosion of the extremely dangerous nation-state system. In fact, one of the consequences which – in my view at least – is a healthy one is a degree of regionalization throughout much of Europe. That is, a revival of a degree of local autonomy, of regional cultures, of regional languages, and so on. So like in Spain, there’s a fair amount of autonomy in the Catalan area, the Basque area, there’s similarly in others a revival of the languages… A lot of it is, I think, an extremely healthy development.

So for example, I happened to visit Barcelona, shortly after the Franco period, and then ten years later. And the differences were remarkable. For one thing, you heard Catalan in the streets, which you hadn’t heard before. And for another thing, there was just a revival of cultural practices and so on. You know, people flocking to the main cathedral on Sunday morning, with dancing and traditional singing and so on. That’s all fine, you know. It revives or gives some significance to life. And it has its negative aspects, too. It means harsh discrimination against Spanish workers who happen to be working in Catalonia. I mean, life’s a complicated affair.

But all of these things are happening, and some of them are healthy and should be encouraged, others not. I think, say, the French vote on the European constitution was basically a class vote. I mean, working people and peasants could see perfectly well that the constitution was an instrument of class warfare which is going to harm them by imposing neo-liberal conditions and undermining the social market from which they benefit.

There were also other elements; there were racist elements. The opposition in continental Europe to bring in Turkey – you can hide it in all sorts of nice terminology, but it’s fundamentally racist. I mean, Germans don’t want to have Turks lurking around in the streets. Europe has quite a tradition of racism, no need to talk about it.

So it’s a complex web of concerns. In general, I think that moves towards European integration are a good idea. Extending the Union to the East is again a complicated matter. US elites are strongly in favor of it. But that’s because they’ve always been concerned that Europe might move off into the wrong direction, out of US control. That’s been a big concern since the Second World War. Europe’s economy is at least on a par with the United States, it’s an educated population, a larger population. Except in the military dimension, it’s a counterpart or even superior to the United States, and so it could move off on its own. And bringing in the peripheral states, the former East European satellites, tends to dilute the strength of the core of the European commercial-industrial economic center, namely France and Germany, and to bring in countries that are more subject to US influence. So it might undermine moves towards European independence.

A lot of the things that are going on in the world are similar. Like, take the Iraq war. I’m sure that a large part of the purpose of the Iraq war is with an eye on Europe and North East Asia. I mean, if the United States can control the world’s energy resources, then it has what George Kennan 50 years ago called “veto power” over what competitors can do. And the more astute political analysts have pointed that out pretty openly, like Zbigniew Brzezinski. He wasn’t particularly in favor of the war, but he said that it will give the United States “critical leverage” over European and Asian competitors. That’s part of the things that happen in the world.

In fact, it’s not too well known, but the expansion of NATO to the East by Clinton was an explicit violation of promises, formal promises made to Gorbachev in, I think, 1990 by George Bush Nr. One. Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany on condition that NATO not expand to the East. For Russia to agree to German unification is a very hazardous step. I don’t have to run through it, but the history of the past century explains why. But they did agree on the condition that NATO not expand to the East. Clinton quickly backed off on that commitment and did expand NATO to the East, which is a tremendous strategic threat to the Soviet Union. And it caused the Russians to change their military doctrines. Russia had previously adopted the NATO doctrine of first strike with nuclear forces, even against non-nuclear states. But in the early nineties, they dropped it. But once NATO was expanded to the East, they reinstated it. So now we have superpowers facing each other with first-strike strategic options and missiles on hair-trigger alert – practically a recipe for global disaster.

So lots of things are involved in these decisions.

DO: Last year’s appointment of Paul Wolfowitz as President of the World Bank caused angry reactions all over the world, even some irritations in the Western countries. Is there any detectable change in the World Bank's policy since Wolfowitz has taken office, and what is the signal the Bush administration has sent to the world by appointing this controversial figure to the institution's head?

NC: Unlike most of my friends, I was in favor of that appointment. The reason is pretty simple: I think he can do much less damage in the World Bank than in the Pentagon. So getting him out of the Pentagon almost anywhere is a good decision. In the World Bank, I suppose he’ll be a bureaucrat, like other bureaucrats.

I mean, the only record he has that’s relevant is his record in Indonesia, which, in fact, his supporters bring up. They say, you know, he has an experience with development, look at his role in Indonesia, and so on…

What was his role in Indonesia? He was one of the strongest and most vocal supporters of one of the worst murderers and tyrants of the late 20th century. Human-rights activists in Indonesia can’t even remember a case where he said a word about human rights, or about democracy. He was just a strong supporter of the murderous, brutal tyrant and aggressor Suharto. And in fact he remained so, even after the Indonesians had finally thrown him out.

They claim that his task in the World Bank is supposed to be to root out corruption – that’s the prime task that’s been assigned to him. Suharto was the most corrupt dictator of the late 20th century. I mean, there is a monitor of corruption, Transparency International, a British-based institution. About two years ago, they ranked regimes in terms of corruption: Suharto was far in the lead, way beyond Mobutu and others way below. And that’s Wolfowitz’s favorite. So, based on those credentials – delight with corruption, concentration of wealth, tyranny, human-rights violations, destruction of democracy – he’s the candidate for the World Bank.

Will he do any worse than anyone else? My guess is: probably not; he’ll be a bureaucrat like other bureaucrats. So far, there’s no indication of any shift in World Bank policy that I’ve seen, and I wouldn’t particularly expect any.


[1] “Fight the Power,” Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ian Rappel, Socialist Review (online), July 2005.

[2] Quoted in Arne Daniels, Stefan Schmitz, and Marcus Vogel, “Wir alle sind Heuschrecken,” stern 20/2005, p. 24 (interviewer’s translation).

[3] John Feffer, “Europe as Number One?”, ZNet (online), May 26, 2005.

[4] Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Propaganda and the Public Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2001, p. 51.


Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His recent publications on political matters include Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, and Imperial Ambitions.

Dennis Ott is a graduate student of linguistics at Harvard University. He can be contacted at

Sanctuary for Sex Slaves

The New York Times
April 3, 2007

Meerwala, Pakistan

If the thought has ever flitted through your mind that your spouse isn’t 100 percent perfect, then just contemplate what Shakira Parveen is going through. And give your own husband or wife a hug.

When Ghulam Fareed proposed marriage to Ms. Parveen, he fingered prayer beads and seemed gentle and pious. Ms. Parveen didn’t know him well, but she and her family were impressed.

“The first month of marriage was O.K.,” Ms. Parveen recalled. “And then he said, you have to do whatever I tell you. If I tell you to sleep with other men, you have to do that.”

It turned out that Mr. Fareed was running a brothel and selling drugs, and he intended Ms. Parveen to be his newest prostitute. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to sleep with other men,’ ” she said, but he beat her unconscious with sticks, broke her bones and at one point set fire to her clothes. Finally, she broke and assented.

Her “husband” locked her up in one room, she said, and the only people she saw were customers. “For two years, I never left the house,” she said.

This kind of neo-slavery is the plight of millions of girls and young women (and smaller numbers of boys) around the world, particularly in Asia. A major difference from 19th-century slavery is that these victims are dead of AIDS by their 20s.

Finally, Ms. Parveen was able to escape and return to her family, but Mr. Fareed was furious and began to torment her family, saying he would let up only if she returned to the brothel as his prostitute. Then Mr. Fareed’s gang pressured Ms. Parveen by kidnapping her younger brother, Uzman, who was in the fifth grade. Uzman says that his hands and feet were shackled, and he was raped daily by many different men, apparently pimped to paying customers.

The gang members explained that they would release the boy if Ms. Parveen returned to the brothel, and she contemplated suicide.

After six weeks, Uzman escaped while his captors became drunk and left him unshackled. But when Ms. Parveen and her parents went to the police, the officers just laughed at them. Mr. Fareed and other gang members worked hand in glove with the police, the family says.

Indeed, the police even arrested Ms. Parveen’s father, who is one-legged because of a train accident (that is one reason for the family’s poverty). Apparently on the gang’s orders, the police held him for two weeks, in which time he says he was beaten mercilessly. The police are also searching for Ms. Parveen’s brothers, who have gone into hiding.

Mr. Fareed also threatened to kidnap and prostitute Ms. Parveen’s younger sister, Naima, a 10th-grader who was ranked first in her class of 40 girls. Panic-stricken, the parents pulled Naima out of school and sent her to relatives far away. So her dreams of becoming a doctor have been dashed. (For readers who want to help, I’ve posted some suggestions on my blog:

This nexus of sex trafficking and police corruption is common in developing countries. The problem is typically not so much that laws are inadequate; it is that brothel owners buy the police and the courts.

But Ms. Parveen’s tale arises not only from corruption, but also from poverty.

“If I had money, this wouldn’t be happening,” said Ms. Parveen’s mother, Akbari Begum. “It’s all about money. In the police station, nobody listens to me. The police listen to those who sell narcotics.”

“God should never grant daughters to poor people,” she added. “God should not give sisters to poor brothers. Because we’re poor, we can’t fight for them. It’s very hard for poor people, because they take our daughters and dishonor them. There’s nothing we can do.”

Yet in a land where poor women and girls are victimized equally by pimps and by the police, they do have one savior — Mukhtar Mai. She is the woman I’ve visited and written about often (she also uses the name Mukhtaran Bibi).

After being sentenced to be gang-raped by a tribal council for a supposed offense of her brother, Mukhtar refused to commit suicide and instead prosecuted her attackers. And then she used compensation money (and donations from Times readers) to run schools and an aid organization for Pakistani women.

It was in Mukhtar’s extraordinary sanctuary that I met Ms. Parveen. In my Sunday column, I’ll tell more about Mukhtar today.

My Life in the Army

The New York Times
April 3, 2007

In one sense, I was well positioned to enjoy the summer of love. In 1969, I was living in San Francisco, epicenter of hippiedom, antiwar fervor and utopian hope for perpetual peace.

Circumstances kept me from sharing the spirit. The part of San Francisco I lived in was the Presidio, which was then a military base. I was 12, and my father was an Army officer. I remember my family once driving toward the Presidio’s Lombard Street gate past tens of thousands of protesters who seemed to think my father was part of a very bad outfit.

I was sure they were wrong, and I still am. In fact, the whole, larger stereotype — that the military is a right-wing institution, best viewed with skepticism if not cynicism by the left — is way off. Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.

People think of the Army as hierarchical, but compared with the private sector it’s a bastion of egalitarianism.

Yes, the Army’s “blue-collar workers” — privates, corporals, sergeants — defer to its “white-collar workers,” the officers. That happens in corporations, too. But on an Army base you don’t send the white-collar kids to good public schools and the blue-collar kids to bad public schools.

We all went to school together — either on the base or at a public school near it. My claim to fame is having played basketball at the same high school, on Fort Sam Houston, where Shaquille O’Neal, son of a sergeant, later played. (I encountered O’Neal in a hotel lobby a few years ago, and it turns out he’s less fascinated than I am by our intertwined histories. Puzzling.)

I had friends from the Army’s biggest minority constituencies, blacks and Hispanics. Among soldiers, too, exposure to diversity, along with the practical need to live with it, could be benign. My father grew up in Texas in the 1920s, amid common use of the n-word, and I never heard him use it.

Which brings us to social mobility. My father was the son of a sharecropper, and he dropped out of high school after both of his parents and most of his siblings had died of various diseases. He lacked the polish to impress, say, a Morgan Stanley recruiter, but during World War II, the Army gave him a chance.

That meant better health care than his parents had gotten, thanks to socialized medicine. My “blue collar” friends and I went to the same doctors. The doctors weren’t all great, but I’m still alive, and we avoided one creepy thing about inequality in America today: people like me get arthroscopic surgery lest stray cartilage impede our golf swings, while low-income people, in unseen ways, die for lack of good health care.

My father said Army people were as fine a group as you would ever meet, and the evidence was on his side. They were conscientious and unpretentious. And they can be surprisingly soft. Good commanders have a commitment to their troops that borders on love, a feeling that in the corporate world doesn’t generally emanate from the executive suite downward. (I said love, not lust.)

That’s partly because in the Army, the stakes are so high. Sending people into battle isn’t something a good person does with detachment. Before the Iraq war, when the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, testified that the postwar occupation would require hundreds of thousands of troops, he was showing not just prudence but devotion. He didn’t want his soldiers needlessly imperiled.

As a reward for his devotion, General Shinseki was disparaged by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld wanted to show how cheap war can be, and now our soldiers are paying the price. I wish some people on the left had a deeper respect for the military, but lately the left isn’t where the most consequential disrespect has come from.

The crowning indignity was Abu Ghraib, an outrage that was initiated by civilians high in the Bush administration and has stained the U.S. military’s hard-earned honor, strengthening stereotypes that I know are wrong.

My father, Col. Raymond J. Wright, retired several years after that summer in San Francisco, having given three decades to an institution he loved. He died in 1987. There are lots of things I wish he had lived to see, but the way the Army’s been treated recently isn’t one of them.


Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site . He is a guest columnist this month.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Our National Debt

The New York Times
April 2, 2007


The actor Gary Sinise, who was talented enough to play both Harry Truman and George Wallace convincingly, has for many years been the prototype of the person who believes that supporting American troops requires more than simply waving the flag or plastering a bumper sticker on your S.U.V.

Quiet and unassuming in an era when entertainers seem more desperate than ever to draw any kind of attention to themselves (think of Tom Cruise using Oprah’s sofa as a trampoline), Mr. Sinise has been quietly entertaining the troops, supporting veterans organizations, recruiting veterans for theatrical projects and doing whatever else he could think of over the past quarter century to help the men and women who have served in the armed forces.

(Believe it or not, the low-keyed Mr. Sinise can rock. He plays bass in the Lt. Dan Band, a group named after a movie character, Lt. Dan Taylor, a disabled Vietnam veteran played by Mr. Sinise in “Forrest Gump.”)

Mr. Sinise’s latest campaign is to bring severely wounded American veterans out of the shadows and into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness to help ensure that they get the care and the level of honor and respect that they deserve. He is the national spokesman for a project called the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which will be the nation’s first public tribute to the legions of men and women who are living with, and often still suffering from, wounds that they sustained while fighting in the nation’s wars.

It’s interesting that an actor is one of the leaders of a campaign that will evoke the terrible hardships and real sacrifices of war as opposed to the glorified, sanitized rough and tumble that so often passes for warfare in Hollywood and on TV.

During a recent conversation with Mr. Sinise, I kept thinking of the many wounded soldiers and marines I’ve interviewed since the war in Iraq began — courageous individuals like Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr., a former athlete from Dale City, Va., who was paralyzed when his spinal cord was severed in a roadside bombing; and Sgt. Tyler Hall, a baby-faced 23-year-old tough guy from Wasilla, Alaska, who made wisecracks about the bomb attack that shattered part of his face, broke his arm and three bones in his back, and caused him to lose his left leg below the knee.

“We need to remember,” Mr. Sinise said, “that of the 26 million veterans living today, more than 3 million are permanently disabled from injuries suffered in our nation’s defense.”

The disabled veterans memorial will cost $65 million, all to be raised from private sources, and will be built on a two-acre site in the heart of the nation’s capital, across from the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The memorial grew out of conversations that began more than a decade ago between the philanthropist Lois B. Pope and officials at Disabled American Veterans, an indispensable advocacy group that is headquartered in Washington.

Whether a particular war is popular or not, wise or not, should have no bearing on how the country treats those who volunteer to serve in the armed forces, are ordered into combat and then come home wounded.

The memorial will be a reminder of their continuing sacrifice, and a reminder as well of how unconscionable it is when politicians and bureaucrats cut corners on the care we give to veterans.

Last Friday, during a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, President Bush apologized to outpatient troops who had been housed in rundown quarters and forced to run a bureaucratic gantlet to get services to which they were entitled.

The foul-ups and the neglect mentioned by the president are symptomatic of widespread problems faced by wounded troops returning from combat. Most of those problems are never brought to the attention of the public. The troops, for the most part, suffer in silence.

The problems faced by some of the wounded troops after they come home would be more difficult to overlook if the country paid more attention to all of the troops who are wounded in the nation’s wars.

“We honor our fallen, those who have given their lives,” said Mr. Sinise. “But what about the ones who have sacrificed an arm or a leg, or their entire body to burns? Or the ones who can’t see anymore? Or can’t hear anymore?

“They go through their lives constantly reminded of what they have sacrificed for their country. We need to let them know that the nation is grateful for their sacrifice.”

Distract and Disenfranchise

The New York Times
April 2, 2007

I have a theory about the Bush administration abuses of power that are now, finally, coming to light. Ultimately, I believe, they were driven by rising income inequality.

Let me explain.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House, conservative ideas appealed to many, even most, Americans. At the time, we were truly a middle-class nation. To white voters, at least, the vast inequalities and social injustices of the past, which were what originally gave liberalism its appeal, seemed like ancient history. It was easy, in that nation, to convince many voters that Big Government was their enemy, that they were being taxed to provide social programs for other people.

Since then, however, we have once again become a deeply unequal society. Median income has risen only 17 percent since 1980, while the income of the richest 0.1 percent of the population has quadrupled. The gap between the rich and the middle class is as wide now as it was in the 1920s, when the political coalition that would eventually become the New Deal was taking shape.

And voters realize that society has changed. They may not pore over income distribution tables, but they do know that today’s rich are building themselves mansions bigger than those of the robber barons. They may not read labor statistics, but they know that wages aren’t going anywhere: according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of workers believe that it’s harder to earn a decent living today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

You know that perceptions of rising inequality have become a political issue when even President Bush admits, as he did in January, that “some of our citizens worry about the fact that our dynamic economy is leaving working people behind.”

But today’s Republicans can’t respond in any meaningful way to rising inequality, because their activists won’t let them. You could see the dilemma just this past Friday and Saturday, when almost all the G.O.P. presidential hopefuls traveled to Palm Beach to make obeisance to the Club for Growth, a supply-side pressure group dedicated to tax cuts and privatization.

The Republican Party’s adherence to an outdated ideology leaves it with big problems. It can’t offer domestic policies that respond to the public’s real needs. So how can it win elections?

The answer, for a while, was a combination of distraction and disenfranchisement.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were themselves a massive, providential distraction; until then the public, realizing that Mr. Bush wasn’t the moderate he played in the 2000 election, was growing increasingly unhappy with his administration. And they offered many opportunities for further distractions. Rather than debating Democrats on the issues, the G.O.P. could denounce them as soft on terror. And do you remember the terror alert, based on old and questionable information, that was declared right after the 2004 Democratic National Convention?

But distraction can only go so far. So the other tool was disenfranchisement: finding ways to keep poor people, who tend to vote for the party that might actually do something about inequality, out of the voting booth.

Remember that disenfranchisement in the form of the 2000 Florida “felon purge,” which struck many legitimate voters from the rolls, put Mr. Bush in the White House in the first place. And disenfranchisement seems to be what much of the politicization of the Justice Department was about.

Several of the fired U.S. attorneys were under pressure to pursue allegations of voter fraud — a phrase that has become almost synonymous with “voting while black.” Former staff members of the Justice Department’s civil rights division say that they were repeatedly overruled when they objected to Republican actions, ranging from Georgia’s voter ID law to Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting, that they believed would effectively disenfranchise African-American voters.

The good news is that all the G.O.P.’s abuses of power weren’t enough to win the 2006 elections. And 2008 may be even harder for the Republicans, because the Democrats — who spent most of the Clinton years trying to reassure rich people and corporations that they weren’t really populists — seem to be realizing that times have changed.

A week before the Republican candidates trooped to Palm Beach to declare their allegiance to tax cuts, the Democrats met to declare their commitment to universal health care. And it’s hard to see what the G.O.P. can offer in response.

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