Monday, March 29, 2010

Empire of Bases or Baseless Empire?

The US has the most impressive array of bases in the history of the world. Yet there is growing reason to question whether the US can actually exercise power--get others to do what they want--through the empire of bases.

It is striking that even in Iraq and Afghanistan,countries where the US maintains a giant military presence and the political leadership perhaps could be described as US puppets, the US is increasingly seen as just one of several countries to deal with, by actors including that leadership ("Karzai has coolly defied the President Barack Obama's do-or-die diplomatic campaign to "isolate" Iran in the region - not once but twice during the past fortnight"). Controlling foreign policy is, after all, practically the first directive of empire. Whether you have direct or indirect rule, whether you regard the ruled as citizens of the empire or something else, all that may vary. But if a state is part of your empire, you must be 'the decider' as to who they are allying themselves with worldwide. Otherwise the concept of empire--real or de facto--is meaningless. In the New Left Review, Tariq Ali commented that China may be building pipelines and importing oil and gas from Afghanistan, but it remains dependent on US troops for protection. The concept should be turned around. Why would China complain if the US is picking up the tab and doing the dirty work of policing these resource routes. And what exactly is the US accomplishing if the oil and gas are heading east?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Alternative Explanations for the US v. China currency confrontation

Could US bluster about the Chinese currency overvaluation be rooted in the frustrations of US multinationals? " A growing number of U.S. companies feel unwelcome in China, according to
a new survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China...Negative
sentiment among Amcham's members, which traditionally have been a ...strong
lobby in Washington arguing for more engagement with China, adds to
wider risks in U.S.-China relations...." (quote is from the Wall Street Journal). Mike Whitney explains "
The multinationals see a "deteriorating investment environment" because of "rules on indigenous innovation." In other words, China's leaders want to strengthen their own industries and keep more of the profits for themselves (which is what governments are supposed to do.) The proposed rules will affect "dozens of products sold by foreign companies, including servers, mobile base stations, security and finance software, and wind-power generators." So, naturally, the multinationals are angry."

And what if China devalues, rather than revalues, the remimbi? Again, from Whitney: "China's economy is dangerously off-kilter and headed for a reckoning. The current rate of investment is over 50 per cent and rising. That's clearly unsustainable. By focusing on real estate and exports, China has failed to create strong domestic demand; personal consumption needs to increase and investment needs to slow. But that will take time, and now the situation is dire. If exports collapse because of a stronger currency, China might do "the unthinkable" (as Auerback suggests) and devalue the remnimbi which would further widen the trade deficits, exacerbate global imbalances, and increase the present rate of inflation. That would force Obama to step in and take decisive action whether he wants to or not. Perhaps a full-blown trade war is not so far fetched, after all."

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Cheer for HRC

From her speech at AIPAC: "There is another path, a path that leads toward security and prosperity for Israel, the Palestinians, and all the people of the region. But it will require all parties, including Israel, to make difficult but necessary choices. Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests." I'd say two cheers, but this line kind of turned my stomach: "The United States has also led the fight in international institutions against anti-Semitisms and efforts to challenge Israel's legitimacy. We did lead the boycott of the Durban Conference and we repeatedly voted against the deeply flawed Goldstone Report. (Applause.)" Full transcript here.

Ahmadenijad bucks the religious establishment

"When addressing an Iranian university in November, (chief of staff) Mashaei took the attack on the mullahs' authority much further: "God does not unify humans . . . [because] each person's [notion of] God varies from the God of others based on individual understanding." His words, it was quickly noted by aghast ayatollahs, are blasphemous under Islamic law and therefore punishable by death. Rebukes by Shiite leaders fell on deaf ears in the executive branch... the government's cultural adviser, Javad Shamaghdari, is recommending that the hijab, or veil, not be mandatory..Recently Ahmadinejad has even begun rephrasing his oft-repeated statements about the end of the world -- in strictly religious terms. In an interview with U.S. news media in September, he commented: "The [Mahdi, or 12th] imam will come with logic, with culture, with science. . . The stories that have been disseminated around the world about extensive war, apocalyptic wars . . . are false."..Ahmadinejad separated himself further from the mullahs by nominating three women for cabinet portfolios. Ahmadinejad ridiculed his opponents, demanding to know: "Why shouldn't women be in the cabinet?""( via mrzine)

Obama, Bagram and Bush

Why exactly did we all hate George Bush? And what is the change Barack Obama brings? "That the option of detaining suspects captured outside Afghanistan at
Bagram is being contemplated reflects a recognition by the Obama
administration that it has few other places to hold and interrogate
foreign prisoners without giving... them access to the U.S. court system,
the officials said.

Without a location outside the United States
for sending prisoners, the administration must resort to turning the
suspects over to foreign governments, bringing them to the U.S. or even
killing them."LA Times [the location outside the US, turning them over to foreign governments, and killing them being the options that we were all so horrified about when George W. Bush employed them].

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Texas School Board Controversy: The Center Cannot Hold

At first I thought this was absurd (obliterated from the article is the way the board overrode all sorts of recommendations from professional educators--also note that he hauls out a lecture from 1964 to demonstrate how reasonable claims are about the Christian origins of the US), but Tanenhaus has a point. The center is not holding in US history. Pining for the good old days of Daniel Borstin won't help much. Does it matter that the scholarship on the left is massive, while quite modest on the right? On the other hand, the right seems to understand the fight they are in, unlike the forces on the left (sigh).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cockburn is Wrong

I've enjoyed Alexander Cockburn a great deal over the years, but lately he has come off crotchety and depressed. In his latest column, he suggests anxious establishment opinion that Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are bungling foreign policy is misplaced:
"Obama has smoothed off the rough edges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and, indeed, widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945. ...All of this is scarcely a catalogue of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm."

There are two issues here. The first is whether Obama marks a significant departure for US foreign policy. Here Cockburn is correct. So far, he does not. Although a few early signals--his forthright discussion of the US role in the Iranian coup of 1954 in his Cairo speech, shaking hands with Hugo Chavez--raised hopes, so far, everything else he has done has dampened those same hopes. Most significant have been the Obama administrations backing for the coup in Honduras, the continued martial drumbeat in Iran, and the troop surge in Afghanistan, along with the extension of that war into Pakistan. But Cockburn seems to overrate the prospects for continued US power when he quotes Peter Lee:
"Peter Lee hits the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that“the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach … heft in the global financial markets.""
The problem is that, because of its ideological isolation, all the other mechanisms of US power are misfiring. Lula well captured an element of the international mood when he testily told Clinton to lighten up on the drive for sanctions against Iran. However much the European Union, and maybe (maybe) Russia can be dragooned into this cause, there is widespread suspicion of the largest nuclear power in the world declaring Iran can't have weapons while winking at Israel (or more recently India). Much of the left wishes China, or perhaps the EU, would directly stand up to the US and engage in some sort of hegemonic showdown. The Soviet Union tried this, and it bankrupted itself with endless commitments and an inability to set effective priorities. These days, the strategy of many of the rising 'semiperipheral' states is to speak softly while reaching out in many directions. This is true not only of Brazil and China (and Russia) but many other states, such as Turkey or South Africa. the goal is not to provoke the US, but loosen its centrality. Much of the establishment in the US senses that less and less attention is paid to the US. And so they lash out at the 'bungling' of Clinton or Obama. But there is little that could be done. Perhaps some elements of US power could be prolonged with a new strategy in which the US listened to Latin America, shifted its friendship in the Middle East towards Iran, etc. But this is inconceivable. Instead, expect more charges of 'bungling' as US power drifts downwards, and the search for the scapegoat intensifies.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 10

Granny D, Presente!

Quote can't be right: “If you’re serious, as the Obama administration is, about being a leader in the multinational system, you can’t provide leadership in the international trade arena,” said Robert Z. Lawrence, a professor of international trade and investment at the Harvard Kennedy School.

How not to build 'soft power'.

Don't expect a big union turnout for the Fall elections.

Does The Hurt Locker actually suck?