Figuring out our fortnight

Sam Smith

It seemed like truly a fortunate fortnight when the leaders of Russia, the United States, Iran and Syria, as well as the Pope, all acted more rationally than we had come to expect.

To be sure the GOP Confederacy continued on its cruel, dumb and ultimately self-destructive course. And the conventional media and Israel continued to be driven by macho skepticism of any good news that interfered with their preferred dismal story lines

But the truth was, unclear as the long term import may be, that something unusual had happened, something that might be summarized as an unexpected mutual retreat from the stubbornly belligerent and pathological.

Because our politicians and their embedded media are taught to regard all mitigation of dangerous situations as a testosteronal  threat, there was little coverage or public appreciation of what happened.

On the right, it remained a given that there can be no peace without surrender. The ever foolish William Kristol put it this way: “Syria is merely Act One. Next week Act Two opens at the United Nations. There, we’ll see a charm offensive worthy of Richard III by the new Iranian president and veteran deceiver of the West, Hassan Rouhani. In response the Obama administration will move on from punting in Syria to appeasing Iran.”

In truth, positive change rarely comes from great strokes of mindless machismo. Rather it is often best achieved by little mutual steps away from the cliff.

One can not, of course, judge Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s full plans by one twitter, but for him to post “As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah” is at least a hint that there are other matters that might be discussed.

Whatever happens next, it leaves open the question: how come this striking change in rhetoric and approach occurred?

The specific answers are to be found behind closed doors and in locked files but in general terms, this more civil approach may hint at some generally unconsidered trends”

One is that, as we have noted,  war just isn’t what it used to be. There has been a remarkable decline in battlefield casualties since the end of World War II. The biggest exception was the Vietnam War but overall the trend has been down.

This doesn’t mean a decline in the number of wars, but militarists have increasingly become less interested in invasions, occupations and conquests and more inclined to oversized guerrilla battles or gargantuan police actions, most recently symbolized by the rise of drone weaponry.

Part of the usefulness of this approach to our leaders is that you don’t really have to justify your policy like with a real invasion and conquest. And you can hang out in a country like Afghanistan for a decade without anyone really knowing what you’re doing there.

Besides, our leaders have discovered that traditional wars are a lousy way to get things done. Beyond this is the fact that you don’t need real wars to keep the defense budget rolling. Find a sufficient number of terrorists and you can get away with spending about 40% of what the world spends on arms, 6-7 times as much as China does, and more than the next twenty military spenders combined. And you end up with nearly 500 troops for every Al Qaeda warrior.

In some ways, therefore, it is fair to say that the American military is primarily the largest welfare program in the world, only its beneficiaries are not the poor but defense contractors to whom little and prolonged wars that avoid Vietnam-like protests are particularly good.

For example, the Pakistani paper, The News, reports:

The decade-long American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would end up costing as much as $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household, calculates the prestigious Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Remember that when President George Bush’s National Economic Council Director, Lawrence Lindsey, had told the The Wall Street Journal that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion, he had found himself under intense fire from his colleagues in the administration who claimed that this was a gross overestimation.

Consequently, Lindsey was forced to resign. It is also imperative to recall that the Bush administration had claimed at the very outset that the Iraq war would finance itself out of Iraqi oil revenues, but Washington DC had instead ended up borrowing some $2 trillion to finance the two wars, the bulk of it from foreign lenders.According to the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government 2013 report, this accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the total amount added to the US national debt between 2001 and 2012.

Not only do defense contractors no longer need big wars to get their cut, there has been another major change: countries  – the places we used to invade – just aren’t what they used to be.

In fact, a lot of them are smaller than American corporations. For example, Global Trends reported:

Wal-Mart Stores had revenues exceeding the respective GDPs of 174 countries  including Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and employed over 2 million people, more than the entire population of Qatar. If it was a country, it would be the 22nd largest in the world.

Shell has bigger revenues than the combined GDPs of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the sixth and seventh most populous nations in the world, together home to 350 million people. Sinopec, China’s leading energy and chemical company, is bigger than Singapore. The insurer AXA is bigger than Nigeria. Even with the troubles of the automotive industry, Ford is bigger than New Zealand.

Together, the 44 companies in our top 100 list generated revenues of US$ 6.4 trillion in 2009, equivalent to over 11% of global GDP. These combined revenues are larger than the combined economies of 155 countries.

But it’s not just size; it’s also location. Last year, Rick Newman in US News described it well:

Big U.S. firms—often called “multinationals,” for good reason—have increasingly followed global growth, with about 40 percent of profit for firms listed in the S&P 500 stock index now coming from overseas. Foreign exposure allows U.S.-based companies to capitalize on rapid growth in emerging markets like China, India, and Latin America, and earn much stronger profits than if they were totally dependent on the struggling U.S. economy.

… “The S&P 500 is not U.S. GDP,” says David Bianco, head of U.S. equity strategy for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The S&P 500 continues to outgrow the U.S. economy. Earnings power is decoupled from U.S. GDP.” That decoupling is why he and many other analysts expect the S&P 500 to resume its upward momentum later this year, despite a slowdown in the U.S. and European economies.

… The data show that for most big U.S. firms, foreign sales are a significant portion of total revenues, while firms with little or no foreign revenue are the exception.

Some examples he gives of the portion of revenue from overseas:

·       Walmart: 26%

·       Exxon-Mobil: 45%

·       General Electric: 54%

·       Ford: 51%

·       IBM: 64%

·       Boeing: 41%

·       Dow Chemical: 67%

·       Intel: 85%

·       Amazon; 45%

·       McDonalds: 66%

·       Nike: 51%

Now, it  isn’t fair to call these corporations disloyal, but not unreasonable to call them non-loyal or aloyal to the United States and its interests, and it is astounding that two of the above are also on the list of the top 25 American defense contractors: Boeing (#2) and General Electric (#12).

And that the Washington Post is now owned by a guy who does nearly half his business overseas.

And that McDonald’s has 1500 outlets in China, 374 in Russia and 700 in the Mid East.

One way to think about it is that countries are fading and markets are growing. And the effect this has on what we still call “foreign policy” has become more complex and less obvious.

At this point, we don’t have the faintest idea what role these corporations play in decisions such as whether we bomb Syria and how other countries reacted to the threat, but it is reasonable to assume that if corporations like General Electric – thanks to the anti-constitutional decision of the Supreme Court –can play happily, freely and deeply in American politics, then it is logical that this is true wherever their business lies.

For some time I have argued that the best way to solve the Mid East crisis would be to open a Walmart at the Western Wall of Jerusalem because Walmart destroys local culture and so we would no longer have Jews and Arabs fighting with each other, just a bunch of Wamart customers.

I’ve gotten a fair share of laughs, but under the joke lies a truth: the multinational corporatization of the globe is redefining what we think of as foreign affairs and corporations prefer business to wars.

Meanwhile the macho former American masters of the universe have something else to worry about: their own people.

As the First American Republic has collapsed, the American elite has become increasingly paranoiac about those they rule, reflected in the hyperbolic war on terror, which is really in part a search for protection against the anger of those it meant to be serving.

And this paranoia began spreading well before 9/11. In 1995 I described what was happening this way:

Bill Clinton, who has rarely seen a civil liberty worth standing up for, even submitted legislation last year that would have virtually overturned the Posse Comitatus Act. His bill would have allowed the military to provide “technical assistance” to civilian law enforcement, a term Clinton himself defined as including “conducting searches, taking evidence, and disarming and disabling individuals.” So awful was this measure that even Casper Weinberger and Sam Nunn objected.

…Browsing DOD literature makes this clear. For example, there is the Manual for Civil Emergencies that says it applies not only to the various branches of the military services but

“serves as a reference for other Federal, State and local agencies on how the Department of Defense supports civil authorities and DOD assets can be used to support civilian leadership priorities in returning their communities to a state of “normalcy.”

Those are DOD’s quote marks around the last word — a reminder that what may be normal to a general may not seem normal to an ordinary citizen. You have to watch the language carefully. For example, the manual defines hazards as “natural or man caused events, including, without limitation, civil disturbances, that may result in major disasters or emergencies.”

And what are civil disturbances?: “Riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages, group acts of violence and disorder prejudicial to public law and order. . .”

In short, words are so broadly defined as to mean almost anything the Pentagon wants them to mean — right down to a noisy crowd at the street corner. As Mort Sahl once pointed out, a federal conspiracy is now defined as “whenever two or three are gathered together.”

… Of particular concern to anyone wishing to retain a democracy in the US are the oblique references to concentration camps for drug offenders. To be sure, the manual prefers Maoist phraseology — “rehabilitation-oriented training camps” — but it means the same thing. This idea may have been launched some years back by a former high US drug official named Robert Dupont, who proposed in the Washington Post that there be mandatory drugs tests for those attending school or getting a driver’s license. Those who failed drug tests repeatedly would be incarcerated in “large temporary health shelters.” There would be some invasion of privacy and civil rights, the doctor admitted, but “this is a price we would need to pay for life in a modern, interdependent community.”

The concentration camps, the manual notes, could also be used to provide “temporary overflow facilities . . . for incarceration of those convicted of drug crimes” at the request of “appropriate” officials.

…. And last July, Charles Swett, who works for the Pentagon office handling “special operations and low intensity conflict” wrote an internal memo titled: Strategic Assessment: The Internet. The report, uncovered by the Federation of American Scientists, provides an overview of the Internet, particularly its usefulness for spying on both Americans and foreigners and for spreading disinformation during psychological operations.

Of course, Swett didn’t use those words, so to be absolutely fair let’s quote the man:

The Internet could also be used offensively as an additional medium in psychological operations campaigns and to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives. Used creatively as an integral asset, the Internet can facilitate many DOD operations and activities. . .

The Internet is a potentially lucrative source of intelligence useful to DOD. The intelligence can include . . . information about the plans and operations of politically active groups.

…. It would be possible to employ the Internet as an additional medium for Psychological Operations (Psyops) campaigns. E-mail conveying the US perspective on issues and events could be efficiently and rapidly disseminated to a very wide audience. DOD intelligence agencies should investigate the role of the Internet in helping coordinate the operations of political activists and paramilitary groups in regions of interest.

The Internet should be incorporated in our Psyops planning as an additional medium.

Means of employing the Internet offensively in support of our unconventional warfare objectives should be employed.

This mind you was written in 1995, when the Internet had less than 30,000 sites worldwide.

And how does this help us analyze what happened over the last fortnight? It doesn’t except to help perhaps understand better how much may be gong on out of sight and hearing. As foreign countries are reduced to markets, as the number of domestic law enforcement officers nears the number of troops we have to protect us from the whole rest of the world, and as American citizens are reduced to potential rioters and terrorists, we have to change the way we think about such events and not assume that they are proceeding under rules now long gone.

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