Archive for September, 2008

Chalmers Johnson published a scathing, dead-on column on TomDispatch regarding the Wall Street bailout and the massive military spending bill passed by Congress during the chaos. Some excerpts:

…This is pure waste. Our annual spending on “national security” — meaning the defense budget plus all military expenditures hidden in the budgets for the departments of Energy, State, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, the CIA, and numerous other places in the executive branch — already exceeds a trillion dollars, an amount larger than that of all other national defense budgets combined. Not only was there no significant media coverage of this latest appropriation, there have been no signs of even the slightest urge to inquire into the relationship between our bloated military, our staggering weapons expenditures, our extravagantly expensive failed wars abroad, and the financial catastrophe on Wall Street.

The only Congressional “commentary” on the size of our military outlay was the usual pompous drivel about how a failure to vote for the defense authorization bill would betray our troops. The aged Senator John Warner (R-Va), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, implored his Republican colleagues to vote for the bill “out of respect for military personnel.” He seems to be unaware that these troops are actually volunteers, not draftees, and that they joined the armed forces as a matter of career choice, rather than because the nation demanded such a sacrifice from them.

…In the past year, perhaps most disastrously, we have carried our Afghan war into Pakistan, a relatively wealthy and sophisticated nuclear power that has long cooperated with us militarily. Our recent bungling brutality along the Afghan-Pakistan border threatens to radicalize the Pashtuns in both countries and advance the interests of radical Islam throughout the region. The United States is now identified in each country mainly with Hellfire missiles, unmanned drones, special operations raids, and repeated incidents of the killing of innocent bystanders.

…Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on present and future wars that have nothing to do with our national security is simply obscene. And yet Congress has been corrupted by the military-industrial complex into believing that, by voting for more defense spending, they are supplying “jobs” for the economy. In fact, they are only diverting scarce resources from the desperately needed rebuilding of the American infrastructure and other crucial spending necessities into utterly wasteful munitions. If we cannot cut back our longstanding, ever increasing military spending in a major way, then the bankruptcy of the United States is inevitable. As the current Wall Street meltdown has demonstrated, that is no longer an abstract possibility but a growing likelihood. We do not have much time left.

I recommend reading the whole thing.

Now is a good time to rethink what the U.S. is up to in Afghanistan. “Winning” or “losing” are not the available choices in Afghanistan or Iraq, no matter how badly the major media outlets and political parties would like to frame these conflicts in this way. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple a regime which refused to extradite a group of mass murderers and capture/kill said mass murderers. (This represented an attempt by President Bush to radically redefine traditional definitions of jus ad bello, but I digress.) Or so we said. As it turns out, capturing or killing bin Laden was never the U.S.’s operational priority:

Had the Bush administration’s priority been to capture or kill the al-Qaeda leadership, it would have deployed the necessary ground troops and airlift resources in the theater over a period of months before the offensive in Afghanistan began.

“You could have moved American troops along the Pakistani border before you went into Afghanistan,” said Lamm. But that would have meant waiting until spring 2002 to take the offensive against the Taliban, according to Lamm.

The views of Bush’s key advisers, however, ruled out any such plan from the start. During the summer of 2001, Rumsfeld had refused to develop contingency plans for military action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan despite a National Security Presidential Directive adopted at the Deputies’ Committee level in July and by the Principles on Sept. 4 that called for such planning, according to the 9/11 Commission report.

Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz resisted such planning for Afghanistan because they were hoping that the White House would move quickly on military intervention in Iraq. According to the 9/11 Commission, at four deputies’ meetings on Iraq between May 31 and July 26, 2001, Wolfowitz pushed his idea to have U.S. troops seize all the oil fields in southern Iraq.

The “win” sold to the American people (or, more correctly, that the American people were clamoring for) was never possible, and in Afghanistan it is still not possible. All reports indicate that bin Laden is not in Afghanistan, but the United States’ forces are.

Will our current methods get us what we want? As Johnson noted above, and as I have argued before, the answer is no.

But the real question is not about methods; it’s about desires. What do we want from our involvement in Afghanistan? How would those desires (and the methods, for that matter) fit within a world-view shaped by the Sermon on the Mount? By the Passion? By the Resurrection?

I want to put something out there for your consideration. I want us to stop and consider that we did not have grand hopes for the future of the Middle East, and that our motives were not the most noble. I’m not talking about the motives or ideologies of the Bush Administration; those are well-documented. I’m talking about Americans in general. I want us to face the uncomfortable facts that we wanted war on Afghanistan because we were enraged, hurt, and angry, and we wanted war on Iraq because the Afghan regime fell to easily and too quickly to satisfy our desire for a fight.

Our behavior after 9/11 and up to today has been a resounding rejection of the teachings and example of Jesus. We should seek forgiveness from our God and our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan and learn to take seriously the Way of the Cross.

*Hell’s Bottom is the name of the site where the Pentagon was constructed. Enjoy the symbolism.

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But Who’s Counting Anyway?

Posted: September 28, 2008 in Uncategorized
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The U.S. Congress continues to burnish its pro-militancy credentials.  They just passed a “record” budget for the Pentagon, which included a 6 percent increase from last year, according to the AP. This huge defense bill was, apparently, barely a blip on the Congressional radar:

Such a huge bill usually would dominate the end-of-session agenda on Capitol Hill. But it went below the radar screen because attention focused on the congressional bailout of Wall Street.

According to the AP, emphasis mine:

Even before passage, lawmakers had backed away from an election-season showdown with the administration over Iraq.

…The bill, which maps $612 billion in defense spending next year, shows how lawmakers would rather go home and campaign than wage a prolonged battle in Washington with Bush over Iraq policy.

In the end, House-Senate bargainers dropped several provisions he opposed. Eliminated was language barring private interrogators from U.S. military detention facilities and giving Congress a chance to block a security pact with Iraq.

The legislation also lacks a call for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq — something Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama long has called for and Republican nominee John McCain has opposed.

The bill envisions nearly $70 billion for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and requires more information on contractors with projects in Iraq. It also paves the way for Bush’s plan to build an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, a proposal strongly opposed by Russia.

The House approved the bill overwhelmingly on Wednesday. Bush is expected to sign the measure.

This is an authorizing bill, not an appropriations bill, which means that, for the most part, this bill does not actually provide money. This is an oversimplification, but think of an authorizing bill like a credit limit, and the appropriations bill as the actual credit card purchase. Authorization bills set policy; they generally do not actually spend the money.

That said, this is incredibly disappointing.

This is just another reminder that there is no anti-war party among the two major parties in Washington, D.C.

Wow, so…my bank failed yesterday! Ouch!  It won’t actually (I think/hope/hear) affect my finances in any concrete way, but the shockwaves from the economic meltdown are starting to rattle my windows, at least. What a mess.

Here’s a succinct description of the cause of the crisis:

Instead, we’re getting a Wall Street bailout not of the mortgages, but of the absurd, speculative, economy-wrecking derivatives based on those mortgages, derivatives that investors and banks ravenously sold each other at unsupportable and quite-probably-crooked prices. Those derivatives, generally speaking, are “bets” on the state of the underlying mortgages. And they didn’t just bet wrong — they bet irrationally, based on presumptions of near-zero risks to those underlying mortgages. And worse, the big banks even — bafflingly — got special permission to overleverage themselves 40 to 1, all but assuring collapse if those derivatives went south. Which they did.

Fine, then, but how is that self-induced bubble an unweatherable economic crisis for the rest of us? Yes, those banks may fail — as they should. It’d be a crime if they didn’t, given their mismanagement of their accounts. But the real problem is that those banks are, literally, too big to be allowed to fail. Their failure would present a liquidity problem for the rest of the market. They can do anything — they could even burn money on the street — and the strong preference of government would be to bail them out for it, because the alternative is financial chaos.

Also note that Wall Street payed out $120 billion in bonuses alone from 2000 to 2006.

Okay now: stop. Breathe. Turn off the TV for a minute.

The world is not ending. Things may be about to get more difficult, but you are going to be okay.

Here, have some free advice from a pretty smart guy.

It’s going to be okay.

Now, if you had to guess which sector of our economy and which budget items would be protected by Congress during this debacle, which would you pick?  Let me give you a hint:

Next year’s Defense Department budget is the largest ever. But many analysts — even before the bailout — predicted that the gravy train was going to have to slow down, under the weight of the costs for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Pentagon spokesbot Geoff Morrell says not to worry. “The current financial conditions are not, as far as I can tell, impacting how business is being conducted within this building,” he tells reporters. “I would note, however, that in good times and in bad, when the market is up and when it is down, the Congress has been consistent in its support throughout history of our nation’s defense. And I don’t see any reason why that would change now.”

I think we’ve just hit on a good measure by which to judge the seriousness of the President’s assertions of a crisis.  If the answer to the question: “Is this serious enough to consider significant cuts to military spending?” is “No!” then we might want to keep that in mind when deciding whether and how to spend an off-budget amount that is fairly close to the total defense spending of our country every year.

I am not an economics expert. I have every reason to believe that there is a crisis and that if the U.S. government wants to avert it, they need to act quickly. But I would point out that this is a prime example of an “act now!” crisis that masks the overall corruption and institutional violence of the status quo before and after the crisis abates. There are slow-burning crises happening all the time (poverty, failing schools, etc.), and the fact that we’re willing to throw $700 billion at this one without considering a cut in our implements of mass violence shows that the U.S. has dropped, for the moment, our pretensions of being a “Christian” nation and that we have decided as a people to withdraw from serious engagement with reality. The economy is withering under our feet, and even then, we cannot let go of our desire for “full spectrum dominance” in order to try to stave off in a responsible way a crisis that may result in deepening poverty, hunger, and unemployment. As it stands, we will try to do both, resulting in a huge jump in U.S. national debt, which in turn will cause a rise in interest payments we must pay on that debt, meaning less and less of the federal budget will be available for future Congresses to appropriate for the purposes of funding public structures like roads, schools, hospitals, etc.

Right now the U.S. reminds me of a drug addict who finds out that if he buys his next bag of heroin, he won’t be able to pay his rent, and who buys the bag anyway. America by and large is addicted to military dominance of the planet, and we will happily mortgage away future generations’ ability to pay for better public structures in order to preserve it.

This economy is hurting people on the lower end of the income scale, it’s hopelessly dependent on and intertwined with military contractors, and the contractors and Wall Street CEO’s aren’t hurting with their billions of dollars in bonuses. The U.S. government will dump money in $700 billion chunks on the military/industrial complex and on Wall Street. And:

…despite what we’ve been told, then, we can only presume that the problem is in fact not all the bad, scary subprime mortgages…a lot of people are finding themselves upside-down on their houses right now, but Paulson isn’t proposing we…solve that — and even the “controversial” Democratic counterproposal, that we actually do at least a little something to help those people, after they’ve already gone bankrupt, is pathetically weak.

In other words, no direct help for those who fell for Wall Street’s debt marketing directly targeting people who could least afford it. All this leads me to believe along with Geoff Holsclaw that:

the event[s] of last week have revealed the true motivations of this administrations (as well as its faith in the Market before all else), as well as revealed that the essential orientation of politics is to ensure a smoothly running economy (rather than things like justice, goodness, peace, or even the commonwealth).

UPDATE: ThinkProgress connects some dots between American militarism and the economic crisis:

While the subject matter seems disconnected from the situation in financial markets, prescient economists predicted this fall-out from the Iraq war long ago. In 2002, Gerd Hausler, director of international capital markets at the IMF, said that “a serious conflict with Iraq would not be a very healthy development” for the financial markets. Robert Shapiro, undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration stated, “If the [Iraq] conflict wears on or, worse, spreads, the economic consequences become very serious.” The debt was $5.7 trillion when Bush took office; it will be $10.3 trillion by the time he leaves. While Congress hesitates to appropriate $700 billion for the financial crisis, the administration still is pouring $12 billion a month into Iraq, also raising the question of how the Iraq war funds could be spent better at home.

IRAQ RECESSION?: A significant reason for the current $9.6 trillion federal debt has been the Iraq war, which the U.S. largely financed through borrowing. This week, President Bush said that the crisis began after “a massive amount of money flowed into the United States from investors abroad because our country is an attractive and secure place to do business,” which led to easy credit and to the housing bust. But the problem isn’t simply one of excessive foreign investment because of businesses. “It’s that the U.S. had to borrow money from foreign nations at an alarming rate, after it dug itself into debt paying for the Iraq War while cutting taxes,” The Wonk Room observed. Thus, the United States had to turn to investment from abroad for financing. This, as well as lax regulation and oversight of Wall Street contributed to the credit troubles. Currently, 45 percent of Treasury securities are owned by foreign nations, with the most owned by China and Japan. Other nations owned less than 20 percent of these securities as recently as 1994. Bush left out of his assessment the fact that much of the foreign investment went to finance a war and his tax cuts.

UPDATE #2:  stuperb (who stopped by for comments earlier) points to a scary indicator of how well-thought-out the plan is:

From Forbes.com, regarding the $700 billion bailout proposed by President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson:

“In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

‘It’s not based on any particular data point,’ a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. ‘We just wanted to choose a really large number.'”

The aptly named Alliance Defense Fund (presumably concerned with defending the alliance of Republicans and conservative churches) convinced several pastors to risk serious financial consequences for their congregations by “speaking about politics” from the pulpit, meaning they will act as surrogates for the McCain campaign and use scripture to do it. Here’s a sample:

“I’m going to talk about the un-biblical stands that Barack Obama takes. Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for him,” said the Rev. Wiley S. Drake of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. “We may not be politically correct, but we are going to be biblically correct. We are going to vote for those who follow the Bible.”

Drake was the target of a recent IRS investigation into his endorsement last year of former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. In the end, Drake was cleared.

Readers of this blog and anyone who knows me personally will know that I believe Jesus’ teachings are inherently, intensely political, so if pastors want to talk about politics from the pulpit, they should, because in the end that forms the majority of what they should be talking about. What astounds me is the extent to which the church allows the kingdoms of the world to define for them what “political” means, and how we fall so quickly into the groves of the prevailing political ideologies that may or may not have anything to do with Christ in anything but cosmetic ways.

Politics can be defined as “the often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society.” Jesus had quite a lot to say about politics, including no small amount of material on violence and the proper responses to it. Jesus had quite a bit to say about how we are to manage the often conflicting relationships between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, with special emphasis on how we relate to the weak, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. So when I see pastors risking consequences to talk about “politics,” I feel like I should be encouraged.

But, I’m not.

All indications are that this will be a conservative-orchestrated campaign event, wherein pastors will push for support of McCain or at least for detraction of Obama. While the Alliance Defense Fund says the point of all of this is to push the feds into stripping the churches of their non-profit tax-exempt status and thus allowing for a lawsuit on free-speech grounds to establish a precedent, I suspect the true goal will be accomplished immediately: having a bunch of Christian leaders stand up and denounce a particular political candidate at a time politically advantageous to another candidate.

What bothers me most about this stunt is the narrow view of “biblical” being shouted out by the pastors involved. “Biblical” is often a euphemism for a certain perspective on the biblical texts that reflects a political / social ideology, not vice versa. In this case, “biblical” will mean that Obama is pro-choice, pro-inclusion, etc. etc. But will John McCain and Obama be equally criticized for their “unbiblical” stances on the use of violence in conflict? Jesus has something to say on that issue, something very, very forthright. And money, too…no, what I imagine will emerge will be a way of talking about liberalism or conservatism, Republicanism versus Democratic-ness, cloaked in a thin veneer of Christian language and symbolism.

I’d suggest that good starting points for our standard of “biblical” politics would be here and here.

The Rubicon…

Posted: September 24, 2008 in Uncategorized
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…crossed.

Good for you, Pfc. Michael Barnes:

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army to grant conscientious objector status and an honorable discharge to Pfc. Michael Barnes, a Fort Richardson-based paratrooper who said he experienced a religious awakening in Iraq two years ago that left him opposed to war in any form.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John Sedwick supersedes the Army’s decision last year to deny Barnes’ request.

…In a statement released Monday by his lawyer, however, Barnes said he was thankful to the federal courts in Anchorage for finding that his request was based on “my sincere belief as a Christian…I have been trying to justify being a soldier and finding a way to do so while still being a Christian, because that is what I wanted to do since I was a kid,” Barnes wrote in his request for conscientious objector status in December 2006.

“But I can no longer justify spending my short time in this world participating in or supporting war. … I must try to save souls, not help take them. I fear not for my life, but for my soul.”

…While training in Anchorage and listening to the stories of soldiers returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Barnes said, he first began to question his beliefs and “whether or not I was living my life to serve the Lord.”

I am so proud of this man I have a hard time saying anything else about him. Well done, brother.

What I would like to discuss a bit further, though, is the reaction to this story in the comment section of the news organization’s website.  Here’s just a sample of the reaction:

  • …He joined for a free education and paycheck and when he realized he just might have to work for it…he ran away hiding behind religion like a lost puppy. What a waste. Good riddens…ps…Michael you owe the US Military two years of pay you collected while hiding behind a rock while your fellow soldiers were getting shot at and dying YOU PIECE OF S*$T. Be sure to tell your children your a coward.
  • This man made a choice. His fellow soldiers deserve better. He is using religion as an excuse to hide behind his own cowardice.
  • i am shocked. …If he earned his jump wings then they should be ripped from his blouse, his rank, and his buttons. Let the weakling go away and be something else, maybe an Obama supporter.
  • I mena come on he only has two years left. Let him push some papers in the AG office. To use words of General George S. Patton if I may, this can be all summed up in a couple words. “He is a guttless coward.” He is not sincere. He jsut does not want to man up and give the real reason.
  • I wonder where he will be in 5 years and will he still be as “christian” as he is today?
  • “conscientious objector status” Synonyms: [EDIT: the commentor uses the word for female genitalia as a pejorative…trying to keep it family friendly. –DC] status, cry baby, mommies boy/girl, whimp, wuss, Non Team Player. This is a slippery slope we have entered. Just watch ALL THE OTHERS who are suddenly going to use religion as an excuse to run away from their military responsibilities.
  • Isn’t it wonderful. This guy gets to reap the rewards given to him by all the men who died to give him this right. He just doesn’t have to contribute. How chicken is that?

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the courage that it takes to face this kind of venom. This is just the comments section of one news story; I cannot imagine the bile spewed in Michael’s direction within the service or what he’ll face in his home community (or church!). I imagine he probably fears for his safety (or should). Conscientious objectors are not taking the easy way out. The easy way out is to continue to kill people for your paycheck while the bulk of your nation cheers you on and welcomes you home with medals and ribbons.  This cuts right against the flow of society and “what is easy.”

Which is easier: killing Osama bin Laden for what he did to your fellow Americans if you were able to, or finding him and telling him that God loves him so much, and so do you, so you’d rather die than harm him?  Which is easier? Which is more brave?

The comments sampled above fail to take Jesus seriously. They fail to take matters of faith with proper weight. If you honestly believe that God cannot countenance violence and killing, you have an immediate and superseding obligation to cease violent action, regardless of whether you have to go to jail, give up your material assets, etc. Taking up the cross literally means being willing to die. That’s how serious Jesus calls us to be about self-sacrificing love of every person, friend or enemy.

The comments above reflect precisely what Jesus meant when he said:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This is the strife and division and the hostility that one can expect to find from the world when one embraces Christ’s gospel.  Thank God for the courage of people like Maximilianus and Michael Barnes, who would rather face the fangs of the Empire rather than serve as their sword-bearers.

If you are in the military and are convinced that your work conflicts with the teachings and life and call of Jesus, there are people who can help you get out:

A while back I wrote a post on the liabilities inherent in the use of violence in our conflict with terrorist networks. One of the sources cited warned the parties involved that the worst strategic mistake the U.S. and NATO could make would be to give Pakistani groups a reason to unite with terrorists and/or insurgents.

Whoops:

Pashtuns in Peshawar, hitherto regarded as secular liberals, told the BBC only last week that they had lost all faith in the west. The decision to violate the country’s sovereignty at will had sent them in the direction of the insurgents.

Those who live by the sword die by the sword, but in an era of cheap explosives and “smart” bombs, they tend to take people with them:

The attack on one of the hotels in the chain of the US Marriott group was one of the worst in Pakistan’s history and involved the sophisticated use of over 600 kilograms of TNT explosive blended with RDX and phosphorous, detonated when a truck rammed into a security barricade in front of the hotel

Among the dead were the Czech ambassador to Pakistan, two US Marines, members of the US embassy staff, Saudi nationals and other European diplomats. More than 250 people were injured and dozens of parked cars were destroyed.

Why attack this particular hotel? Tariq Ali explains further, emphasis mine:

The deadly blast in Islamabad was a revenge attack for what has been going on over the past few weeks in the badlands of the North-West Frontier. It highlighted the crisis confronting the new government in the wake of intensified US strikes in the tribal areas on the Afghan border.

Hellfire missiles, drones, special operation raids inside Pakistan and the resulting deaths of innocents have fuelled Pashtun nationalism. It is this spillage from the war in Afghanistan that is now destabilising Pakistan.

…It is the consequence of a supposedly “good war” in Afghanistan that has now gone badly wrong.

…The majority of Pakistanis are opposed to the US presence in the region, viewing it as the most serious threat to peace.

…When in doubt, escalate the war, is an old imperial motto. The strikes against Pakistan represent – like the decisions of President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, to bomb and then invade Cambodia – a desperate bid to salvage a war that was never good, but has now gone badly wrong.

As mentioned in several previous posts, both major U.S. presidential candidates campaign on an expanded, intensified war in Afghanistan. Both Republican and Democratic policymakers have urged over-the-border attacks in Pakistan to kill terrorists; the current U.S. activity in Pakistan is not the culpability of any particular party. This is, after all, the logical outworking of the frame of mind we’ve built, in a perversely bipartisan way, around the Global War on Terror ™: we reserve the right to strike anywhere, anytime against “terrorists” that threaten us. Both of the largest political parties scramble to show they see the world in this way, and neither can consistenly point the finger at the other as the war in Afghanistan creeps into Pakistan.

Change is the golden fleece for political candidates this year: the candidate that can drape “change” around their shoulders to the greatest degree will likely walk into the White House in January. But the change we need (and we do need it!) is far more than a change in administrations or political parties in control of the government. We Christians need to change the way we view conflict, and just as importantly, we need to change the means by which we want our political candidates to participate in conflict should they be elected. Candidates push for expanding militarism and war because that’s what they think you want them to do.

The floundering U.S. effort to provide security and democracy through the barrell of a gun, combined with the graveyard quiet that has fallen over Iraq following unimpeded ethnic cleansing, should be a testament to the bankruptness of violence as a means of participating in conflict, any conflict. Surely a nation with more than 159 million self-described “Christians” is capable of pulling itself back from this exercise in murderous futility, of looking with fresh eyes and finally, finally some seriousness of mind at the answer given by Christ to the problem of evil and violence: self-sacrificing love of enemies.