Friday, April 30, 2010

Scene from another angle

The country of Vietnam marked thirty-five years since the end of war by staging a re-enactment of the fall of the Saigon. There, of course, it was viewed as the liberation of Saigon. Tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the former presidential palace residence to watch a play recounting the history of the country from ancient times to when the North's tanks smashed through the gates of the presidential palace, leading to the surrender of the southern government. This was probably not something much noticed by policymakers in the Obama administration, but perhaps it should have been.

The BBC noted in its coverage that the Vietnam War claimed the lives of three million Vietnamese and more than 60,000 US soldiers. This puts paid to all the ludicrous reports from Iraq and Afghanistan about the number of insurgents killed or captured. Read that again, the United States killed three million of theirs to losses of only 60,000 of its own troops, a ratio of more than 50 to 1. The lesson United States policymakers must draw: ultimately it was their country. Like the French before them, America's occupying troops were inevitably going to leave at some point. The Vietnamese knew this, they could simply outlast United States desires. Furthermore, they did not have anywhere else they could go.

This is just as true in Iraq and Afghanistan. Violent dissent can and will outlast American soldiers, because those soldiers will inevitably eventually leave. Afghanis already learned this lesson with the Soviets. The Iraqis learned it from the British. Nor do the Afghanis and Iraqis have anywhere else to go. Afghani refugees are being turned back from Australia. Iraqi refugees, even those who served the Armed Forces, are being denied the right to immigrate to America. If one knows their enemy will eventually leave, and one has no or very limited options to leave oneself, why submit to the external attempt to impose a way of life? By geographical fiat, the battle of wills is one-sided.

The BBC reports that Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet said in a speech at the ceremony, "The country's status in the international arena has been lifted while its people's lives increasingly improved." They note, "Vietnam remains under communist rule and the government keeps tight control over politics and the media. But its economy has improved dramatically since the war, and diplomatic relations have resumed with the United States."

This outcome and this lesson has already been absorbed by the leadership and the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. The key issue is whether or not it has been absorbed by the Obama administration. There is no amount of blood and treasure that is sufficient enough to win when the enemy knows that your norms inherently dictate that you will eventually leave. American can out kill them by 50-1 and it will not be enough. They live there and have nowhere else to go. It is not a question for Obama of being more resolute, the enemy already perceives, if not him, then somebody else, somebody must eventually withdraw the troops. They will out last America, they have outlasted much more despotic conquerors. And America is not pure enough to claim to have changed hearts and minds. There has been too much collateral damage.

As the irascible Molly Irvins once said, "Let's get out of Iraq before we kill more Iraqis than Saddam did." To the Clarion Content, that means asap. And please, oh pragmatist President Obama, cross-apply this lesson and let America make all due haste to withdraw from Afghanistan as well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fascinating Context

This fascinating pair of photos shows just how much the photographer frames the context of a scene. This is something that we, the public, the people, the other, should never forget. President Obama and his wife Michelle were hiking in the woods this weekend outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

The first photo was taken by the official White House photographer. The second by the Associated Press. Context makes all the difference. All credit to Lynn Sweet who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, we found this insightful post on her blog, which frequently has fascinating presidential tidbits.

Photo One

Just off for a hike in the woods...

Photo Two

With our support staff, security, press people, and other assorted friends...

Dems best hope

Senator Jim DeMint... and that famous Dick from Wyoming

It appears that the Democrats are set to get their proverbial tail feathers kicked in the next round of mid-term election. The polls indicate that the Republicans will make significant gains in both the House and the Senate. The most optimistic of their number believe that they may be able to grab a majority in one or both houses of Congress. Most Washington insiders believe the Republicans are likely to gain at least six seats in the Senate, which would leave them just shy of a majority.

The mainline view as to why is that the Democrats are set to get their ass kicked because of voter hostility to health care reform. The Clarion Content thinks that there is a modicum of that in the air, but much less than the punditry thinks. As the Clintonistas famously once said, "Its the economy, stupid." The American public continues to be, quite reasonably, nervous about the state of the overall economy. The President's focus on health care, despite his rhetorical efforts to paint the policy as fiscally responsible, did not respond to the people's concern about the health of the economy. Whether the health care bill helps or hurts the American economy remains to be seen. The point here is simply there is no sense in the country that it has any kind of immediate turnaround implications.

The recovery, such as it is so far, at best is divided between the rich and the middle. Real unemployment remains at its highest point in generation. The stock market has rebounded. Goldman Sachs's profits have skyrocketed, but the average American family has seen only a minute uptick in their net wealth. Their home values are still dented, far below their highs, though for the fortunate majority, above water. While near a tipping point, the crisis of confidence, the fear of total collapse, has abated for the moment. The perception is Democrats have not done anything decisive for the economy. Because worry remains high and many believe the Democrats priority bill, health care, will actually hurt their pocketbooks, their political fortunes appear bleak.

The Clarion Content would argue that the best thing that could happen for the beleaguered Dems is what is happening in the state of Florida. The Republicans, including influential national voices, are pushing their mainstream Senatorial candidate aside to nominate an extreme right-winger. The same thing is underway in Colorado and California, and is being considered in Kentucky, Nevada and New Hampshire. The Republican leadership, especially certain myopic elements, like the Dick from Wyoming and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, cannot see the forest through the trees. They are being lured and deluded by extreme elements like the Tea Party activists. This small, but very vocal minority is leading the Republican party down the primrose path. The country does not trust anything perceived as Democratic or left-wing extremism. But they are worried about the economy, and ideologues from the far right, are not the answer they are seeking. The are looking for centrist compromisers, just like the candidates that the extreme right of the Republican party is casting aside. The shocking Senatorial election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts did not bring a Scalia/Gingrich-esque ideologue to power.

Again, it is the economy, stupid.

The Republicans are poised on a ledge. They have an opportunity to make historic inroads in these mid-term elections. It is not out of the question, if the economy continues to stagger along its present path until November, that they could recapture, one, or even both houses of Congress. However, putting up easily discreditable, far right fringe candidates is not the way to do it, indeed that is the Democrats best hope.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Iraq, tensions continue to burble

Iraq is still living with intense sectarian tensions as a slew of coordinated bombings in Baghdhad reiterated yesterday. Initial estimates say that sixty-nine people were killed in bombings, mostly in the predominately Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City, but also elsewhere including a Sunni part of the city. In recent months bombing frequency has started to rise again from one fatal incident every couple of weeks to one deadly incident per week. Iraqi elections await a recount and that result could refire the low intensity conflict that has reigned since King George the II decided fulfilling his father's unfinished mission was more important than the welfare of his country (let alone his empty promise to uphold and defend the American Constitution).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is America on the wrong side again?

Kyrgyzstan is located deep in Central Asia

Real change is possible on when there is change. It sounds obvious or even circular, but ultimately change cannot be only rhetorical, it has to be concrete, on the ground, present in the real world. The Clarion Content makes this statement looking from afar at the uprising that occurred in Kyrgyzstan.

Global watchers, news wonks that we are, this was not on our radar. We could have told whom the government of Kyrgyzstan was run by, but not that there was anything about to happen. When something did happen and the existing autocrat was overthrown, America, and the world took note, and here in Durham, the Clarion Content noticed too. We are not sure what everyone else saw, but when we examined what was had gone on in Kyrgyzstan (far more was available on what had gone than on what is going on) it appeared as though the Obama administration had merely continued the policies of King George the II.

Kyrgyzstan has had various autocratic rulers since September 11, 2001. The latest (until last week) had taken power in a period of turbulence during 2005. Shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan it established a forward air base in Kyrgyzstan. The President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had been widely presumed to be skimming huge chunks of revenue off of the fuel sales to the American air base. The Kyrgyzstanis sell cheap Russian jet fuel to the American government at world market prices. Additionally, The New York Times reports that the Kyrgyzstani government does not charge the normal 20% sales tax on fuel sales, likely because the companies associated with the fuel sales are(were?) controlled by President Bakiyev.

The Times also reports associations with United States base and fuel sales also helped sully the previous government, "In the haste of the buildup for the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, companies controlled by Aidar Akayev, son of Askar Akayev, who was then the president, had wound up with lucrative contracts to sell fuel to Manas (the United Sates base)."

President Obama, despite the accusations of the fringe that he is a left wing lunatic, appears to be hewing too closely to the course set by King George the II for our liking. The situation in Kyrgyzstan reeks of 'real politic' trumping the 'rights' of the oppressed citizenry.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The task is impossible

The United States leadership has asked its troops in Afghanistan to do the impossible. There is no way to win a fight in which no one is on your side. Suppression in a place that you do not intend to occupy forever is futile and ineffective. The Soviet Union with much less restrictive rules of engagement was unable to subdue the population of Afghanistan. The nature of War makes the task of winning hearts and minds just as impossible.

Witness this morning's tragic events near Kandahar. Young coalition soldiers, in an extremely violent area, that almost exclusively does not speak their language, nor share their cultural reference points, are going to be trigger happy. In a situation where the fear of kill or be killed is omnipresent, it is inevitable.

Early this morning unidentified western troops fired on a passenger bus outside the city of Kandahar killing four civilians aboard and injuring eighteen others. The bus rapidly approached a military convoy from behind. Many of these soldiers serving in Afghanistan have lost friends and comrades to suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. When the Afghani bus to did not respond to their Western gestures by which they meant stop; flares, flashlights and hand signals, the soldiers opened fire with deadly effect.

Just hours later three would-be suicide bombers launched an abortive attack on an intelligence-services compound in the city. No wonder coalition troops are so edgy. Two of the bombers died with out causing harm, the third was wounded and is being interrogated. Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times reports that following the deadly civilian bus incident more hearts and minds were lost, "As word of the shootings spread, protests erupted on the city's outskirts. Witnesses said demonstrators burned tires on the main road out of Kandahar and shouted slogans condemning both the United States and President Hamid Karzai."

There is no such thing as a winnable war. Obama should own up to this reality and withdraw from Afghanistan posthaste.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The U.S. Man in Afghanistan

See this map full size here.

The foolish continue to insist that there is some possibility of winning a war in Afghanistan. Leaving aside for the moment Sting's objection, that there is no such thing as a winnable war, one still has to question the foundations of this belief. The Clarion Content has been reminding folks for going on fifteen years that there is no Afghanistan, it is simply a Western conceit layered over an array of ethnic and tribal areas. Most Afghanis have no more national consciousness than America's Indians thought of themselves as from a place called Oklahoma. Their consciousness in both cases was simply to resist externally imposed authority over their lives.1

The Afghanis, they live on this land. They will continue to live on this land long after American soldiers have left (much the way the Soviet Union's soldiers eventually left). The American policy makers continue to insist there is an internal consciousness to Afghanistan, that democratic elections and institutions will take root there.2 They continue to pin their hopes on Afghan President Hamad Karzai. The BBC reports today about another example that shows just how futile this is.

A leading Taliban commander who was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for kidnapping three UN aid workers in the capital of Kabul in 2004 was released from prison late last year. He was pardoned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Of course, an unnamed presidential spokesman when questioned by the BBC said that Karzai could not recall the matter. (How Reagan-esque of him.) No need to worry that the released commander was the leader of Jaish-ul-Muslimeen or The Army of Muslims. Karzai has America's back. For sure...

1Western policymakers have long ignored that not everyone else has the same spatial demarcation of land and boundaries that they do. More nomadic existences are judged prima facie to be less sophisticated ways.

2There Clarion Content in no way believes it is impossible for democracy to take root in Afghanistan. Worldwide people yearn for freedom. However, it is rarely if ever a bigger priority in their lives than sustenance. When humans are forced to choose between freedom and food, almost everyone eats. Gandhi and the saintly are exceptions that prove the rule. What does this mean for American policymakers vis a vis Afghanistan? Widespread, sustained, economic growth must precede or at least accompany the transition to democracy, or democracy will be a crumbling facade from the moment it is erected.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Iraq: Still no peace

map from

Despite the claims of the United States military's propaganda machine, Iraq still simmers. This week saw two major spasms of violence. Their differences underlined the multifaceted nature of the on-going conflict. As the Clarion Content has warned many times previously, Iraq is riven in multiple ways. It has fissures and cracks beyond the most discussed; Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurd. In addition to religion and ethnicity, sectarian, tribal, economic and class tensions among others pressure Iraq.

The first outbreak of horrifying violence was a series of nighttime raids that saw twenty-five people killed. The Los Angeles Times reports gunmen methodically made their way through four homes and killed 25 people in the rural, farming Hawr Rajab district south of Baghdad. They say that, "Many of the victims had been part of the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, Sunni Arab paramilitary groups..." This is the sort of violence that was an epidemic at the height of the Iraqi civil war. In the wake of last months disputed elections this type of assault and intimidation is especially troubling.

The Awakening program was ended when it was co-opted into the Iraqi government's security forces. The surviving Sunni villagers fear that the Shi'ite dominated security forces won't protect them. They tell the Times that many Sunnis Awakening members have been shuffled out of the government's security apparatus and into the bureaucracy. The current government has also arrested the former leader of the Awakening in the area and barred him from running for parliament, accusing him of being a high-ranking member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, despite the fact that the old regime executed some of his immediate relatives.

The Clarion Content has always believed that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. We mean, score settling never ends things, it only leaves the other side thirsting for revenge. This is why the cycle of violence has to be transcended to be ended.

The other more widely reported awful incident of violence in Iraq was seven massive bombs that hit apartment buildings across the Iraqi capital, Baghdhad, killing at least 35 people and wounding more than 140 on Tuesday. The targeted areas are heavily populated by Shiites; some neighborhoods that were bombed had seen fierce sectarian cleansing of Sunnis who used to live there.

The Christian Science Monitor reports American and Iraqi officials blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq, the mostly homegrown Sunni Muslim extremist group, for the attacks. The Monitor notes that residents who live near the sites of the explosions said that they thought that the recent violence was a result of Iraq's post-election political wrangling.

One local resident was quoted, "Why is Iraqi blood being used as a means of political pressure? Those innocent people were working for their families, and the politicians are using us for their political interests. I'm sure the situation will get even worse. We can feel it from the statements from the politicians on TV."

This coordinated bombing is an attack on the social order. It is not targeted, vengeance killing as the night time raids in the Hawr Rajab were. Its victims are more random, broader. It is an effort to destabilize the government and demonstrate its lack of control. This type of violence attempts to undermine the belief of the average Iraqi that civil society is functioning and can function in Iraq.

Both of these incidents demonstrate the likelihood of on-going conflict in Iraq because they show there are so very many rifts and rents in the fabric of what the West calls Iraq. This is of course without even mentioning the unresolved issue of Kurdish independence, which has been dealt with neither by American policymakers nor the Iraqi state.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Chinese threat

The Clarion Content reads over and over of the imminent Chinese threat to American hegemony. Even setting aside the massive distention of the reverse population pyramid, we don't buy it. Mostly because far too often we read stories like these two.

The first is from our friends over at the MEP Report. It is tragic but indicative. There is a psychological malaise from which China has yet to free itself that limits its ability to resource its potential power. There is too much gone wrong for it to harness all of its kinetic energy. An irony, insofar as this story is about the eviction of a family from their pig farm and their home. Local authorities hiding behind the rubric of the central government had ordered the family to sell their home and farm for a bargain basement price or face eviction. The ninety-two year old farmer and son refused to leave, even in the face of bulldozers and a crew of more than 100 people. In the end, they immolated themselves, lit themselves on fire, in protest. The bulldozers were delayed by no more than two hours, tearing the farm and home down with the bodies still smoldering nearby. Some reports suggest that officials there wanted to have the demolition completed before April 1, when a new relocation law would make forced relocation more difficult.

The other story is less repugnant, but no less indicative. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has been investigating drywall supplied by China, after thousands of health complaints have been filed.1 Tests show the sulfuric gases being emitted by Chinese drywall are more than 100 times normal in some cases. In addition to the variety of health maladies being reported, this is causing all kinds of damage essentially to anything metal; air conditioner coils, electrical wires and outlets, as well as appliances. The CPSC says replacement is required, not just of all the drywall, but also the electrical components and wiring, outlets, switches and circuit breakers, and all gas piping and all fire alarm systems that came in contact with the drywall.

"Made in China" is not sounding so great after that paragraph.

Both of these stories are tiny examples that emblemize the massive changes that have to occur in Chinese culture before anything remotely resembling worldwide hegemony might be attained. In our view, they are a by-product of years of autocracy. The lack of consistent, real property rights in China promotes a political instability that is like building a skyscraper directly on a fault line. The lack of consumer products safety and inspection is a fundamental underminer of Chinese credibility. We have great respect for China's promise, but fears of its imminent rise to world domination are wildly overblown. Unfortunately, to this point, its implosion is equally likely.

1Just in case one had any doubts about the insurance companies fucking one over, we would like to point out that the San Jose Mercury News reports, "Many homeowners in Florida who've sought help from their insurance companies to deal with the damage [from the drywall] say the companies not only deny their claims but also drop their policies."

The passing of a notable computer scientist

Dr. Roberts's machine

A potentially quite significant historical figure passed away quietly last week in Macon, Georgia. Dr. H. Edward Roberts was an inventor that Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen held in high regard. He was their boss and their inspiration. Many credit Dr. Roberts as the creator of the first personal computer. He had long shunned the spotlight. He left the computer industry in 1977, moved from New Mexico to Georgia, and over time became a country doctor, a general practitioner in a little town called Cochran.

Gates and Allen issued a joint statement saying that they were saddened by the death of their "friend and early mentor." Gates and Allen both followed Roberts to Albuquerque; Gates dropping out of Harvard and Allen leaving his job at Honeywell. Roberts' personal computer, the MITS Altair, appeared on the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics. Gates and Allen wrote Microsoft Basic to run on this machine. The rest as they say is history.

Read the whole New York Times Obituary here.