Archive for January 2013
By Stephen Gowans
In the January 20th New York Times, Steven Erlanger justifies the French intervention in Mali on these grounds:
• It responds to “a direct request from a legitimate government.”
• It combats “the spread of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Erlanger uses the word “legitimate” to describe Mali’s government. “Democratic” carries more weight, but Mali is governed by a military dictatorship, a truth one suspects Erlanger would prefer not to draw attention to. Neither does Erlanger’s report mention that Human Rights Watch accuses the Malian military of killing civilian Tuareg and Arab minorities (1). Being every bit a salesman, Erlanger presses “legitimate” into use as an inferior, though still high-sounding, surrogate for “democratic” and ignores the civilian killings. A military operation to help a legitimate government must be legitimate, right? In any event, it sounds a whole lot better than the truth, namely, that the West has mounted a military operation to prop up a dictatorship that kills its own people.
The intervention, of course, is far from legitimate. How can a French military operation in a North African country be legitimate, when not too long ago France undertook what was then called a legitimate intervention in another North African country, Libya, with the opposite aims:
• Not to support, but to topple a legitimate government;
• Not to stop the spread of radical Islam, but to help radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, overthrow a legitimate government?
In other words, the Mali operation is the very antithesis of the Libyan one. Yet, according to state officials in France, the United States and Britain, along with their jingoist Western mass media cheerleaders, both interventions are legitimate. Where the Mali intervention protects a legitimate government, the Libyan intervention toppled one. Where the Mali operation opposes radical Islamists, the Libyan operation aided them.
It can’t possibly be true that Western governments are against radical Islamists as a matter of principle, when the principal financial and ideological backer of militant Sunni Islamism, Saudi Arabia, is a treasured ally.
Nor can it be true when Western powers backed radical Islamists against:
• The leftist Afghan government in the 1980s,
• Yugoslavia’s social democracy in the 1990s,
• Gaddafi’s economic nationalism in Libya,
• Assad’s secular nationalist government in Syria.
It can’t be true that Western powers are against despots, dictators, and absolutist monarchs, when they’ve backed so many of them in the past, and continue to back them in the present, from the potentates of the Gulf Cooperation Council to the military regime in Mali.
Neither are Western powers committed to backing struggles against tyrannies as struggles against tyrannies. On countless occasions, they’ve either stood idly by as tyrannies repressed democratic rebellions, or energetically aided their autocratic allies’ efforts to crush opposition. For a recent example, we need only turn to the crackdown on the rebellion in absolutist Bahrain, assisted by the same countries which supplied arms to misnamed “democrats” in Libya and equip the Muslim Brothers and foreign jihadists in Syria. Washington has done nothing to stop the crackdown in Bahrain, let alone vigorously protested it. The British, for their part, invited the offending tyrant to the royal wedding of Kate and William.
What then is the intervention all about? Profits. According to the New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon, the West needs to intervene militarily in northern Africa because the “region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended” (my emphasis) (2). That natural resources in northern Africa clearly represent Western interests defies both geography and democracy. It does, however, fit imperialist logic to a tee.
Erlanger notes that the Mali intervention “has been popular” and that it commands the support of three quarters of the French, according to one poll. This is a nod to the prowess of Erlanger’s cohorts in the trade of shaping public opinion, and the superficial attention most people pay to foreign affairs. It’s also an attempt to prop up his argument that the intervention is legitimate. After all, a military operation supported by a solid majority can hardly be a base affair, corrupted by hypocrisy and crass commercial interests, can it? And if you should happen to be against the French helping an ally defend itself against jihadists, Erlanger’s letting you know you’re on the wrong side of public opinion.
“The French people are ready to support a military operation as long as the objectives are clear and seem legitimate,” a French analyst told Erlanger. Well, no, the French people are willing to support a military operation so long as no one calls upon them to risk their lives and pay higher taxes, what “support for war” used to mean. No longer. Today, support means feeling good about France and nothing more.
The French will continue to feel good about their country so long as there are few French fatalities in Mali and so long as the connection between covering the costs of the war and higher taxes, is obscured. Payment for the war must be deferred, and then concealed, preferably in tax hikes on the poor and middle class to cover (wink-wink) skyrocketing social welfare expenditures.
So here we are. Gaddafi was sneered at when he said that the rebellion that erupted against him in Benghazi was the work of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He was just as contemptuously dismissed when he warned, “if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa.” Now that chaos and holy war threaten to overtake a Western client, Gaddafi’s words are being treated with new respect. In death, the man once ridiculed as a buffoon has become a sage.
1. Geoffrey York, “Ethnic violence flares in Mali”, The Globe and Mail, January 21, 2013
2. Michael R. Gordon, “North Africa is a new test”, The New York Times, January 20, 2013
By Stephen Gowans
New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, writing on January 16 about the “hazy threat from Mali militants,” note that, “The group most worrisome to American officials is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged out of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and originally was strictly focused on overthrowing Algeria’s government.”
US officials didn’t find AQIM so worrisome when the Islamist group was focused on overthrowing Libya’s government. At the time, Washington was happy to allow Islamist militants to destabilize a government that wasn’t wholly congenial to US business interests.
As the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese reported last year, Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi had “said the rebellion had been organized by AQIM and his old enemies the (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), who had vowed to overthrow the colonel and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law.”
AQIM’s goals for Libya raised no alarm in Washington, but according to Mazzetti and Schmitt, the organization’s vow to convert Mali to Sharia law is setting off alarm bells in Washington.
To assist AQIM and other Islamist rebels in Libya, the United States led NATO into an air war against the Gaddafi government. Acknowledging AQIM’s role in the Libyan rebellion, some of the Canadian pilots who participated in the NATO air campaign jokingly referred to themselves as part of “Al-Qaeda’s air force.”
Washington’s use of jihadists to topple leftist and nationalist governments stretches back to its 1980s alliance with Islamist rebels, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. Today, al Qaeda-linked militants play an important part in the US-backed effort to overthrow the Syrian government.
To mobilize public support for jihadist rebellions, US officials and news media sanitize Islamist militants as “freedom fighters” or part of a “popular movement for democracy.” Few people anymore believe that the Islamists seeking to overthrow the Syrian government represent a popular movement for democracy. They are, instead, a movement for Sunni religious domination.
After the AQIM triumph in Libya, the organization turned to attacking the US consular building in Benghazi. With its transition from US cat’s paw to US enemy, Washington changed its naming protocol. Now AQIM would go by the moniker Gaddafi favored–terrorists. Which is also how Western officials and news media prefer to describe the organization today, now that AQIM’s goals in Mali collide with the West’s goal of maintaining a puppet regime in the country.
Were the AQIM working in Mali to topple a leftist or economically nationalist government, Washington and Western news media would be hailing the jihadists as a force for democracy.
Reprinted from Mark Thomas, “The Syrian conflict is not about democracy”, October 22, 2012 http://www.extension.harvard.edu/hub/blog/extension-blog/syrian-conflict-not-about-democracy
By Mark Thomas
Many foreign policy advocates are dismayed by the lack of US leadership in establishing no-fly, no-drive zones along the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Along these lines army defectors and rebels could stage military operations to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.
The truth about US support of Syrian rebels
The Obama administration has thus far provided political support to the Syrian rebels. But it has limited military aid to intelligence, training, and logistics.
The administration is betting this kind of qualified support will help overturn the regime. And the United States will appear to be on the side of victors.
Its real motive is to weaken Iran’s regional influence by a proxy war that would destroy its ally.
The Syrian rebellion is more antigovernment than prodemocracy
US support for the rebels and those who call for an interventionist US policy are under the illusion that the antigovernment rebellion is a prodemocracy one. But the rebels have no conception of freedom and democracy in the Western tradition.
The spontaneous rebellion that aimed to topple the Syrian regime soon mutated into a sectarian civil war between two sects: Sunnis and Alawis.
The Sunnis are represented by local fighters, international jihadists, and regional Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
The Alawis control the army and have grassroots support from secularists, heterodox Muslim sects, Christians, leftists, nationalists, and feminists.
Classified intelligence briefings have made Congress aware of this. Yet the administration, the republican presidential candidate, and the mainstream media still present a misleading picture to the US public.
The conflict in Syria is not simply between a tyrant and his people. If that were the case, Assad would have been overthrown in a few weeks, like Ben Ali of Tunis and Mubarak of Egypt.
The sectarian character of the conflict
The advocates for military intervention underplay the sectarian character of the conflict. They claim that the Assad family fomented sectarian strife to convince members of their sect, the Alawis, that the fall of the regime would be catastrophic for Alawis.
But the Alawis needed no convincing. Their nonliteral reading of Islamic scriptures makes them susceptible to secular ideology. They are apostates in the eyes of the dominant Sunni orthodoxy. And apostasy in Islam is a capital offense.
Throughout history, the Alawis were subjected to campaigns of mass murder. The first religious judgment was issued against them in 1305 by a Damascus based Sunni religious scholar. The Sunni Ottoman state issued similar decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property.
When the Alawis were not being pursued, they were boycotted and ostracized. They lived for centuries in appalling conditions, often forced to give up their children into servitude to escape starvation.
After Syria’s independence from France, Alawis filled the ranks of the army and the emerging secular Baath party, whose ethos suited them as much as it did the rest of the persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians who sought equality.
Democracy would mean majority rule, not constitutional democracy
The Alawis, rich and poor alike, understand that democracy in the Middle East implies majority rule rather than a constitutional democracy. They understand that under the pretense of democracy, Syria would gradually become like Saudi Arabia.
For them, giving up power implies the tyranny of the Sunni majority. Sunni religious authorities have shown for the past millennium that there is no place for freedom of thought and religious heterodoxy within Islam.
Indeed, the religious orthodoxy that emerged by the end of the Crusades was only sidelined after the 1966 Alawi officers’ coup that endorsed the more enlightened Sufi clerics among Sunni religious scholars. The latter focused on the universal values of Islam. They sought reconciliation with other sects and religions.
The Alawis have two options
For those of us who grew up in the Middle East, the sectarian divide is a reality. Those who claim that Assad stirred up sectarianism either are ill-informed outsiders, who formed their image of Syria by reading politically correct discourse, or are in denial.
Bear in mind that this secular authoritarian and arguably brutal Alawi regime granted religious freedom to all sects. It appointed the first woman vice president in the entire Muslim world.
Convinced that the present rebellion is not a prodemocracy one, the Alawis have two options. They can continue to rule Syria to guarantee their security and thereby continue their repression of the rebellious Sunnis. Or they can rule their own territories in the Alawi Mountains and the Syrian coast, thereby provoking painful sectarian cleansing.
The second option would leave the rest of Syria in chaos, fighting to host the armed groups the West dreads (much like the Syrian regions currently under rebel control).
A recommended US policy
A wise US policy toward the Syrian crisis would persuade its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies to stop arming and recruiting international jihadists to fight a war that would further destabilize a volatile region.
Moreover, the United States should encourage the domestic opposition to negotiate a settlement with the regime that ensures a reasonable transition to a pluralistic and secular political system and saves what is left from pre-Abrahamic civilizations from imminent destruction.
Most importantly, it should cease emboldening the rebels by continuing to predict the demise of the regime, thereby causing more unnecessary bloodshed.
The $1 trillion-plus Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first US wars since the American Revolution to have been fought without a general tax increase to cover them. Without tax increases to pay for the Pentagon’s ballooning budget, the country’s debt as a percentage of GDP has grown. Since a rise in debt relative to income can’t continue indefinitely, politicians are looking for ways to arrest the trend. It’s very likely that the burden of covering the costs of run-away US military spending will fall upon poor and middle-income Americans. High-profile economists like N. Gregory Mankiw are preparing public opinion for eventual rate hikes, concealing the role played by US war spending in driving up the percentage of debt to GDP, and blaming growing entitlement spending on the need to raise taxes.
By Stephen Gowans
Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, economic policy adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, and author of a widely used introductory economics textbook, weighed in this Sunday in The New York Times on the growing ratio of US debt to gross domestic product and what to do about it.  Forget about raising taxes on the wealthy, counselled Mankiw. Instead, stick it to everyone else. Here’s Mankiw’s reasoning:
• Debt as a proportion of national income is growing “thanks largely to growth in entitlement spending.”
• If debt to GDP continues to grow, investors will eventually refuse to lend at manageable rates, tipping the United States into a Greek-style financial crisis.
• The crisis can’t be averted simply by raising taxes on the rich. There just aren’t enough wealthy taxpayers around to make much of a difference. Nor would tax increases on the wealthy be fair. “The current tax system looks plenty progressive,” says Mankiw. “The rich are not…shirking their responsibilities.”
• Instead, entitlements need to be scaled back and taxes hiked on the vast majority of Americans.
Mankiw presents this as a corrective to too much wishful thinking on middle-class tax rates. But his argument is more snow job than corrective.
Wasteful Military Spending
Mankiw misses the elephant in the room on federal spending: the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to World Bank figures, from 1999 US military expenditures have steadily increased as a share of national income, rising from 3.0 percent of GDP to 4.7 percent by 2011.  New York Times’ reporters Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller reported last year that the US military budget “has doubled to $700 billion a year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”  Yes, doubled. If anything is growing, the military is. The Pentagon’s budget is now “the highest in absolute and in inflation-adjusted, constant (for any year) dollars since 1946, the year after the Second World War ended. Adding non-Pentagon defense-related spending, the total may exceed $1 trillion.” 
The US defense budget exceeds the combined expenditures of the next 14 highest spenders—China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey. All but two of these countries are US allies.  China and Russia are not part of a US-led military alliance. But their combined military expenditures are less than one-third of the Pentagon’s budget. It’s difficult to fathom why soi disant hard-headed deficit hawks aren’t scolding Washington for wasteful overspending on defense, unless the professed deficit hawks are using debt as a pretext to argue for cut-backs in programs for poor and middle-income Americans.
The Pentagon’s obesity is largely due to the United States starting two completely unnecessary and extremely expensive wars: one on Iraq, based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and one on Afghanistan, to topple the Taliban who will likely return to power in a negotiated settlement.
Bumiller reported in 2010 that both wars had “cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents.”  With the war in Afghanistan dragging on at a cost of “about $2 billion a week”  another $200 billion has come due since Bumiller tallied up the original $1 trillion price tag. Genuine concern about managing US finances would have long ago led to an end to both wars (not just one), if not complete avoidance of either to begin with.
Taxes were not raised to pay for either war. These are the first wars since the American Revolution for which Washington hasn’t called upon taxpayers to ante up.  The reason is clear. Neither war was likely to galvanize Americans to accept sacrifices. So, the only way to get Americans behind them was to fight the wars in a way that allowed the country to avoid “breaking a sweat,” as historian David Kennedy put it. 
Many Americans are willing to acknowledge that the wars should never have been fought, but rationalize them by pointing to the supposed good they’ve done (the toppling of Saddam Hussein, improved conditions for women in Afghanistan.) But how accepting will they be when they’re presented with the bill, as they most assuredly will be? Someone will have to pay eventually. The trick for politicians will be to blame the bill on something else. Entitlements come to mind.
The Flat Tax System
If Mankiw ignores the obvious links among rising military expenditures, absent tax increases, and a climbing debt to GDP ratio, he also ignores property, state, excise, and sales taxes, to argue that the wealthy are already paying their fair share, and that “the current tax system looks pretty progressive.” Well, yes, the current federal income tax system does look progressive, and Mankiw would be on target if the federal income tax was the only tax Americans pay. But they also pay sales taxes, property taxes and more. Factor in all other taxes and the tax system isn’t quite as progressive as Mankiw would have us believe. As Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein noted in September, “Confining the discussion to the federal income tax…makes the tax code look much more progressive than it actually is.” 
So, just how unprogressive is the tax system? According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, total taxes in 2011 as a percentage of income were:
• Top 1% of income earners, 29.0%
• Bottom 99%, 27.5% .
In other words, taking into account all the taxes Americans pay and not just the one Mankiw wants to confine the discussion to, the real tax system is essentially flat. The super-wealthy are paying about the same rate as everyone else. And yes, while the poor pay little if anything in federal taxes, they make up for it in state, local and other levies. Which means that were federal income taxes hiked on the bottom 99 percent, as Mankiw urges, the real tax system would go from flat to regressive.
It’s widely believed that taxes on the wealthy are redistributed to the poor. It’s true that some redistribution of tax revenue from the wealthy to the poor does occur, but what’s less widely known, and rarely talked about, is that federal tax revenue flows mainly from the bottom 99 percent to the top one percent. This is clear if we recognize that:
• The bulk of taxes are paid by the bottom 99 percent (which is why defenders of the current flat tax system, like Mankiw, keep reminding us that hiking taxes on the rich will make little difference to government finances. The heavy lifting is done by poor and middle-income Americans.)
• A large fraction of tax revenue is used to fund activities the wealthy disproportionately benefit from.
What do federal income taxes pay for?
The US war machine, for one. A large part of federal income tax is paid to defense contractors, companies like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics. The top executives and shareholders of these companies make off like bandits in regular times, but have benefited even more handsomely ever since post 9/11 military expenditures doubled. The profits of the top five defense contractors “rose from $2.4 billion in 2002, adjusted for inflation, to $13.4 billion in 2011,” a 450 percent increase. 
US federal income tax also helps finance US wars. And US wars almost invariably create profit-making opportunities for banks and corporations. For example, then US ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz was positively rhapsodic about the business opportunities that were opened by the US-led (from behind) Nato assault that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, not just petroleum-related but infrastructure contracts too.  In the charmed circle of US capitalism, defense contractors reap a bonanza of profits by supplying the Pentagon with arms, which the Pentagon use to destroy infrastructure that US engineering giants, like Bechtel, rebuild.
Military and non-military aid to other countries is also underwritten by federal income tax revenue. The bottom 99 percent, who contribute the bulk of funds to these programs, benefit only indirectly, if at all. Instead, their tax dollars are converted into credits, which are doled out to other countries to purchase goods and service from US corporations, the direct beneficiaries. For example, the $3 billion in annual military aid Israel receives travels from taxpayers’ pockets to US defense contractors’ coffers. The arms industry sends military equipment to Israel, with payment for the purchase never leaving the United States. The same kind of arrangement is used to provide economic aid to poor countries. These countries don’t get cash to spend as they see fit. They get credits to spend on American goods and services. There may be benefits to poor and middle-income Americans in job opportunities, but the benefits are disproportionately enjoyed by the top executives and shareholders of the companies on which the credits are spent.
Another sizeable part of US federal income tax revenue goes to purchasers of US debt—the debt that piled up to pay for the wars Washington didn’t want to raise taxes to pay for. Needless to say, it is the super-rich, not poor and middle-income Americans, who are the major holders of US debt. And super-wealthy bondholders are often the same people who own shares in companies that supply the Pentagon and benefit from the new foreign business opportunities that US military interventions secure.
So, no, the tax system doesn’t work against the wealthy, as Mankiw and others would have us believe. Instead, a large part of the tax system’s function is to transfer tax revenues from the bottom 99 percent to foreign aid, military appropriations, wars, and interest on debt that the top one percent disproportionately benefit from.
The United States has doubled military spending since 9/11, outspending its peer competitors, China and Russia, by more than a factor of three. It has squandered more than $1 trillion on wars that never should have been fought, and continues to waste $2 billion a week on war in Afghanistan. This excess has been paid for by borrowing rather than taxes, presumably to avoid hurting Americans in their pocketbooks, a pain that would likely provoke anti-war opposition. But the bills are coming due. Mankiw, and other prizefighters for the super-wealthy, are drawing attention away from outsize military spending—a significant contributor to burgeoning debt—and directing it instead to entitlements. They’re also deceptively ignoring payroll, property, sales and other taxes, to argue that the US tax system is progressive and that the wealthy already pay their fair share. In other words, Mankiw is arguing for higher taxes on poor and middle-income Americans, misdirecting attention to entitlement spending to conceal what the bill is really for: military spending that the super-rich have used to fatten their bank accounts.
A. Nothing comes free. Military spending can’t be doubled—and $1 trillion-plus wars fought— without someone eventually being handed the bill. And in the United States, the bill is always paid by the bottom 99 percent. This bill will be paid in entitlement cutbacks and tax increases.
B. The job of establishment economists is to make robbing poor and middle-income Americans seem both necessary and desirable. Feudal lords relied on priests to justify the exploitation of working people. Bankers, top executives and investors have economists.
1. N. Gregory Mankiw, “Wishful thinking and middle-class taxes”, The New York Times, December 29, 2012.
2. The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS
3. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
4. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012
6. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
7. David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Steeper pullout is raised as option for Afghanistan”, The New York Times, June 5, 2011.
8. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
10. Ezra Klein, “The one tax graph you really need to know”, The Washington Post, September 19, 2012.
12. Study co-written by Lawrence J. Korb for the Center for American Progress, cited by Walter Pincus in “Excess-profits tax on defense contractors during wartime is long overdue”, The Washington Post, December 31, 2012.
13. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011. Cretz said, “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources, but even in Qaddafi’s time they were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.”