Obama’s Quiet War

June 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Jeremy Scahill

2009-06-19T075405Z_01_AAL103_RTRMDNP_3_PAKISTAN-VIOLENCE

An internally displaced woman, who fled a military offensive in the Swat valley region, walks the grounds of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Jalozai camp, about 140 km (87 miles) north west of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, June 19, 2009.   

REUTERS/Ali Imam

In a new interview, Obama said he has “no intention” of sending US troops into Pakistan. But US troops are already in the country and US drones attack Pakistan regularly.

Three days after his inauguration, on January 23, 2009, President Barack Obama ordered US predator drones to attack sites inside of Pakistan, reportedly killing 15 people. It was the first documented attack ordered by the new US Commander in Chief inside of Pakistan. Since that first Obama-authorized attack, the US has regularly bombed Pakistan, killing scores of civilians. The New York Times reported that the attacks were clear evidence Obama “is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy.” In the first 99 days of 2009, more than 150 people were reportedly killed in these drone attacks. The most recent documented attack was reportedly last Thursday in Waziristan. Since 2006, the US drone strikes have killed 687 people (as of April). That amounts to about 38 deaths a month just from drone attacks.

The use of these attack drones by Obama should not come as a surprise to anyone who followed his presidential campaign closely. As a candidate, Obama made clear that Pakistan’s sovereignty was subservient to US interests, saying he would attack with or without the approval of the Pakistani government. Obama said if the US had “actionable intelligence” that “high value” targets were in Pakistan, the US would attack. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, echoed those sentiments on the campaign trail and “did not rule out U.S. attacks inside Pakistan, citing the missile attacks her husband, then- President Bill Clinton, ordered against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. ‘If we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured,’ she said.”

Last weekend, Obama granted his first extended interview with a Pakistani media outlet, the newspaper Dawn:

Responding to a question about drone attacks inside Pakistan’s tribal zone, Mr Obama said he did not comment on specific operations.

‘But I will tell you that we have no intention of sending US troops into Pakistan. Pakistan and its military are dealing with their security issues.’

There are a number of issues raised by this brief response offered by Obama. First, the only difference between using these attack drones and using actual US soldiers on the ground is that the soldiers are living beings. These drones sanitize war and reduce the US death toll while still unleashing military hell disproportionately on civilians. The bottom line is that the use of drones inside the borders of Pakistan amounts to the same violation of sovereignty that would result from sending US soldiers inside the country. Obama defended the attacks in the Dawn interview, saying:

“Our primary goal is to be a partner and a friend to Pakistan and to allow Pakistan to thrive on its own terms, respecting its own traditions, respecting its own culture. We simply want to make sure that our common enemies, which are extremists who would kill innocent civilians, that that kind of activity is stopped, and we believe that it has to be stopped whether it’s in the United States or in Pakistan or anywhere in the world.”

Despite Obama’s comments about respecting Pakistan “on its own terms,” this is how Reuters recently described the arrangement between Pakistan and the US regarding drone attacks:

U.S. ally Pakistan objects to the U.S. missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and undermine efforts to deal with militancy because they inflame public anger and bolster support for the militants.

Washington says the missile strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to publicly criticise the attacks. Pakistan denies any such agreement.

Pakistan is now one of the biggest recipients of US aid with the House of Representatives recently approving a tripling of money to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for five years. Moreover, US special forces are already operating inside of Pakistan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Baluchistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, US Special Forces are:

training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force responsible for battling the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, who cross freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said. The U.S. trainers aren’t meant to fight alongside the Pakistanis or accompany them into battle, in part because there will be so few Special Forces personnel in the two training camps.

A senior American military officer said he hoped Islamabad would gradually allow the U.S. to expand its training footprint inside Pakistan’s borders.

In February, The New York Times reported that US forces are also engaged in other activities inside of Pakistan:

American Special Operations troops based in Afghanistan have also carried out a number of operations into Pakistan’s tribal areas since early September, when a commando raid that killed a number of militants was publicly condemned by Pakistani officials. According to a senior American military official, the commando missions since September have been primarily to gather intelligence.

It is clear-and has been for a long time- that the Obama administration is radically expanding the US war in Afghanistan deeply into Pakistan. Whether it is through US military trainers (that’s what they were called in Vietnam too), drone attacks or commando raids inside the country, the US is militarily entrenched in Pakistan. It makes Obama’s comment that “[W]e have no intention of sending US troops into Pakistan” simply unbelievable.

For a sense of how significant US operations are and will continue to be for years and years to come, just look at the US plan to build an almost $1 billion massive US “embassy” in Islamabad, which is reportedly modeled after the imperial city they call a US embassy in Baghdad. As we know very clearly from Iraq, such a complex will result in an immediate surge in the deployment of US soldiers, mercenaries and other contractors.

11-27

The Big Hate

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Paul Krugman

Back in April, there was a huge fuss over an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security warning that current conditions resemble those in the early 1990s — a time marked by an upsurge of right-wing extremism that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Conservatives were outraged. The chairman of the Republican National Committee denounced the report as an attempt to “segment out conservatives in this country who have a different philosophy or view from this administration” and label them as terrorists.

But with the murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion fanatic, closely followed by a shooting by a white supremacist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the analysis looks prescient.

There is, however, one important thing that the D.H.S. report didn’t say: Today, as in the early years of the Clinton administration but to an even greater extent, right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.

Now, for the most part, the likes of Fox News and the R.N.C. haven’t directly incited violence, despite Bill O’Reilly’s declarations that “some” called Dr. Tiller “Tiller the Baby Killer,” that he had “blood on his hands,” and that he was a “guy operating a death mill.” But they have gone out of their way to provide a platform for conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric, just as they did the last time a Democrat held the White House.

And at this point, whatever dividing line there was between mainstream conservatism and the black-helicopter crowd seems to have been virtually erased.

Exhibit A for the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism is Fox News’s new star, Glenn Beck. Here we have a network where, like it or not, millions of Americans get their news — and it gives daily airtime to a commentator who, among other things, warned viewers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps as part of the Obama administration’s “totalitarian” agenda (although he eventually conceded that nothing of the kind was happening).

But let’s not neglect the print news media. In the Bush years, The Washington Times became an important media player because it was widely regarded as the Bush administration’s house organ. Earlier this week, the newspaper saw fit to run an opinion piece declaring that President Obama “not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself,” and that in any case he has “aligned himself” with the radical Muslim Brotherhood.

And then there’s Rush Limbaugh. His rants today aren’t very different from his rants in 1993. But he occupies a different position in the scheme of things. Remember, during the Bush years Mr. Limbaugh became very much a political insider. Indeed, according to a recent Gallup survey, 10 percent of Republicans now consider him the “main person who speaks for the Republican Party today,” putting him in a three-way tie with Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich. So when Mr. Limbaugh peddles conspiracy theories — suggesting, for example, that fears over swine flu were being hyped “to get people to respond to government orders” — that’s a case of the conservative media establishment joining hands with the lunatic fringe.

It s not surprising, then, that politicians are doing the same thing. The R.N.C. says that “the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals.” And when Jon Voight, the actor, told the audience at a Republican fund-raiser this week that the president is a “false prophet” and that “we and we alone are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, thanked him, saying that he “really enjoyed” the remarks.

Credit where credit is due. Some figures in the conservative media have refused to go along with the big hate — people like Fox’s Shepard Smith and Catherine Herridge, who debunked the attacks on that Homeland Security report two months ago. But this doesn’t change the broad picture, which is that supposedly respectable news organizations and political figures are giving aid and comfort to dangerous extremism.

What will the consequences be? Nobody knows, of course, although the analysts at Homeland Security fretted that things may turn out even worse than in the 1990s — that thanks, in part, to the election of an African-American president, “the threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years.”

And that’s a threat to take seriously. Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.

11-26

The Dubious ‘Popular Vote’

May 4, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Larry J Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, takes a close look at Hillary Clinton’s arguments that she deserves the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Courtesy Prof. Larry Sabato, UVA

Give Hillary Clinton credit. She has shown toughness, stamina, and persistence in one of the longest presidential campaigns in American history.

If super-delegates back Hillary Clinton, will they alienate loyal black voters?

She has fought hard and come back time and again in the 2008 primary season, defying the pundits who insisted on writing her political obituary prematurely. She has held the charismatic phenomenon named Barack Obama almost to a draw in the fight for votes and delegates in the Democratic party’s nominating battle.

As some of Obama’s weaknesses become more apparent, her arguments are drawing new attention, and at least a few Democratic leaders are considering them.

No-one is likely to agree on exactly what the popular vote is, or how it should be counted – the notion ought to be shelved

All that being true, it’s still very unlikely she will overcome Obama’s lead. With just seven states (plus Puerto Rico and Guam) remaining on the primary schedule, Obama is ahead by close to 160 elected (or pledged) delegates and, overall, by about 130 delegates, once the super-delegates are included.

This may not sound like many in a convention that will host more than 4,000 delegates, but party rules make it difficult to gain a sizeable number of delegates quickly. (Incredibly, you can win a big state and net a mere handful of delegates. The Democrats have developed a system so fair it is unfair.)

Changing the math

Here’s the basic dilemma for Hillary Clinton: How can she convince senior Democrats to turn their backs on the most loyal party constituency, African-Americans, who regularly give 90% of their votes to party candidates?

For the first time, one of their own has a real chance to become the presidential nominee and the occupant of the White House. The anger in the black community would be palpable and long-lasting if Obama is sent packing.

Democratic women appear unlikely to respond in the same fashion if the first serious woman candidate is turned aside.

Worry among super-delegates about Obama’s viability in the fall is not enough. The only conceivable scenarios that might change the present nominating math are:

a.. a campaign-ending scandal or gaffe by Obama
b.. a highly improbable series of victories by Hillary Clinton in primaries she is expected to lose (such as North Carolina and Oregon)
c.. a raft of polls showing Clinton defeating McCain handily while Obama is losing to McCain decisively (most current polls show relatively little difference in the Obama-McCain and Clinton-McCain national match-ups, though the prospective contests in individual states vary considerably)

How can it be that Clinton is so unlikely to prevail, especially close on the heels of her solid, impressive 9.2% victory in Pennsylvania on 22 April?

Why wouldn’t that victory generate significant momentum for Clinton, just at the moment when the remaining super-delegates prepare to make their decisive choice? Didn’t her 214,000-vote plurality in the Keystone State vault her into the popular-vote lead nationally, as she claimed?

The size and breadth of Clinton’s triumph in Pennsylvania certainly demonstrated the emerging limitations of Obama’s appeal, not least the disaffection of many whites, blue-collar workers, and low-income Democrats.

But it almost certainly will be Obama, not Clinton, who is on the November ballot under the Democratic label.

Michigan and Florida

Take Clinton’s claim about the popular vote. On the morning after Pennsylvania, she insisted that she had taken a narrow popular-vote lead, about 15.12 million to nearly 15 million for Obama. But this is classic “new math”, where the numerical answer obtained is often less important than the agile mental gymnastics used to get there.

Clinton’s total relies on two very dubious assumptions. First, one must incorporate the primary results from Florida and Michigan, two January contests excluded by the Democratic National Committee for violating the scheduling rules set by the party. This is no minor sum of votes – 2,344,318, to be exact.

Barack Obama has regularly done better than Hillary Clinton in caucuses

But no even-handed person would contend that Michigan, whose primary occurred on 15 January, should be part of the equation. Barack Obama’s name was not even on the ballot.

The vote total cited by Clinton conveniently excludes three caucus states won by Obama, in Iowa, Maine, and Washington. (Nevada, won by Clinton, is also left out of the tally.) No-one knows the exact number of votes cast for each candidate in these four states since the state parties, by tradition, refuse to release the data.

Eliminating Michigan, the Obama-Clinton match-up shows an Obama edge of a couple hundred thousand votes. Striking Florida brings it to about a half-million-vote Obama plurality. And the unknown caucus results would add at least 100,000 to his lead.

Comparing like with unlike

This discussion of caucus states raises another interesting subject. How can one compare primary and caucus states at all? By their very nature, primaries attract a large electorate in most states. A caucus is a very different political animal, requiring hours of commitment from each participating individual.

The concept of the national popular vote is borrowed from the general election, when it makes more sense

The caucus also is inflexible, beginning at a set, mandatory time. There are no absentee ballots and no excuses for troops abroad, medical personnel who must attend to the sick, or elderly individuals who cannot brave a lengthy, stressful outing. Caucus participation is usually just a fraction of the turnout that would have occurred had the state held a primary.

Therefore, the national vote total is heavily skewed to the states holding primaries, and this total mixes primary apples and caucus oranges in an unenlightening way.

The concept of the national popular vote is borrowed from the general election, when it makes more sense. However, in the nominating season the idea is dubious, and it is not a particularly useful measure for the undecided super-delegates. Nevertheless, it has been bandied about so much by the campaigns and news media that it has now become an inescapable yardstick of electoral validity for Clinton and Obama.

Key states

Other questions about the vote mathematics are also compelling. Should the voting results in November’s likely competitive states-the ones we often call purple – a mixture of Republican red and Democratic blue – be given special weight in the popular-vote formula? After all, the purpose of the nominating contest is to pick a candidate who can win the general election.

Both Clinton and Obama have won states critically important to a Democratic majority in November

Hillary Clinton has pushed this interpretation, but only up to a point. She wants her wins in competitive, significant states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania to be determinants for the super-delegates, yet she ignores Barack Obama’s victories in medium-sized toss-up states such as Colorado and Virginia.

With apologies to George Orwell, all states are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Overall, though, this game is pointless since both Clinton and Obama have won states critically important to a Democratic electoral college majority in November.

Different voters

The flaw in the state-based argument is also fundamental. Party primary electorates do not resemble the November electorates in the vast majority of states, so primary results tell us surprisingly little in most states about how a party presidential nominee will fare in the general election.
Think of it this way – perhaps 35 million Americans will have voted in all the Democratic primaries and caucuses by June, but the November voter turnout could reach 135 million people-and those extra 100 million voters are different, both in ideological and partisan terms, than the 35 million early-birds.

US territories

An ancillary issue is whether the U.S. territories, none of which has electoral college votes in November, should even be included in the party nominating system.

In an extremely close race, their delegates could decide the outcome of a presidential nomination, and potentially the Presidency itself. Should Puerto Rico, voting on 1 June, have more delegates than half the American states, as the Democrats have assigned?

Neither Clinton nor Obama will raise this concern, of course, but unbiased observers ought to do so. In most conventions, the territorial votes are a harmless matter, but every now and then, the unintended consequences of their inclusion could become enormous.

The long and short of the debate over the popular vote is this – no-one is likely to agree on exactly what it is, or how it should be counted.

There are considerable flaws inherent in the concept. The popular-vote notion ought to be shelved – but naturally, in this endlessly contentious campaign season, it will not be.

Professor Larry J. Sabato is director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of A More Perfect Constitution.

10-19

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