Could Amsterdam’s New Economic Theory Replace Capitalism?
Could Amsterdam’s New Economic Theory Replace Capitalism?
How America Overdosed on Capitalism
America is something like history’s greatest experiment in capitalism. In a sense, we’re lucky to have it — it’s rare that a society devotes itself furiously, single-mindedly, one-dimensionally to an ideology, rejects the world, and pursues its own course. Here we have something truly rare and unique, which doesn’t happen often in social thinking: a perfect experiment to test the hypothesis — what would happen if a society only ever chose capitalism?
Waves of capital began to corrupt the political system. In other words, capital was beginning to corrode democracy. The idea of the neutral, benevolent capitalist, in other words, was beginning to be revealed as a myth.
Or, one I like better: what would happen if capitalism were given total freedom to be itself? If it could unfold according to its own logic, rules, choices, destiny — what would it naturally become? What is its nature? Now we can answer that very question, not with theory, but with reality.
We Are All Greece
The cast of heroes and villains in Greece’s ongoing battle to save its economy varies depending on who’s telling the story.
One simplified narrative depicts the German people as rich and callous overlords inflicting hardship on the downtrodden Greeks.
The austerity measures they insist upon are essentially meant to punish the Greeks for spending too much on social programs for the sick and elderly.
In an opposing storyline, the Greeks have only themselves to blame: they lived beyond their means, evaded taxation, were generally corrupt, and irresponsibly piled up debts they simply could not repay. In this scenario the Germans are like parental figures administering discipline on the immature Greeks.
Neither of these narratives is accurate or helpful; rather than providing real insight, they merely serve to heighten nationalistic and xenophobic impulses in both countries. In order to make sense of what’s going on, we need to go behind the scenes to look more broadly at the underpinnings of the crisis.
It is widely assumed that the European Union was formed in order to prevent conflict. This notion can be traced to the aftermath of the Second World War, when well-intentioned statesmen promoted the notion that economic integration was a path to peace and harmony. And until this day many idealists support the EU for this reason. However, for many in my network – particularly in Scandinavia – it was clear from the beginning that the EU was primarily about big business.
In the end, the economic problem in Greece is the product of a global system that puts the needs of corporations and banks ahead of people and the planet.
Before countries were linked together into an economic union, Europe’s many regions were home to a great variety of cultures, languages and customs. But the Union erodes this rich diversity, which was born of human adaptation to different climates and ecological realities. The many borders, currencies, and differing regulations made trade difficult for big business, while the diversity of languages and cultural traditions put limits on mass marketing.
None of these were obstacles to businesses operating within their own countries – in fact, the borders and cultural diversity helped protect the markets of domestic producers from the predations of mobile capital, helping to ensure their survival. But for big corporations and financial institutions, diversity is an impediment, monoculture is ‘efficient’. For them, a single Europe-wide market of 500 million people was an essential step to further growth. Meeting that goal required a single currency, ‘harmonized’ regulations, the elimination of borders, and centralized management of the European economy.
The European Union is an extension of the Bretton Woods institutions – The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – founded at the end of World War II. Their stated purpose was global economic integration in order to avoid another depression and to avert war. But the result was a form of economic development – based on debt, global trade and consumerism – that systematically favored corporate interests while hollowing out local economies worldwide. Sadly, many people still idealistically embrace the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as the European Union.
Neither the media nor academia has focused on the role of transnational banks and corporations in promoting this economic path. Instead they continue to reinforce the notion that European “economic integration” is about peaceful coexistence among countries that would otherwise be at war with each other. The benefits to big business, meanwhile, are hardly mentioned at all. It is no wonder that the public continues to be beguiled by this message, and that many statesmen have internalized the notion that centralization is in the public interest.
However, Greece reveals clearly where a centralized economy dominated by corporations and banks leads. In country after country, TNCs have been able to evade taxes by ‘offshoring’ their activities, and to bargain for lower tax rates and higher subsidies by threatening to move where even less in taxes will be demanded, and even more in subsidies provided. At the same time, governments must pay from their depleted treasuries to provide support for the growing ranks of unemployed, to retrain displaced workers, to mend the unraveling social fabric, and to clean up the despoiled environments left behind by deregulated, mobile corporations. Forced to go hat-in-hand to banks – which can create money out of thin air by issuing loans – countries can easily find themselves on a downward spiral, with interest payments consuming an increasing proportion of national output. It’s no wonder that so many governments today are struggling to stay afloat, while global corporations and banks are flush with cash.
In the end, the economic problem in Greece is the product of a global system that puts the needs of corporations and banks ahead of people and the planet. The same system is responsible for the polluted rivers and air in China, for the sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh, for the economic refugees from Africa desperately seeking asylum in Europe, and for the collapsing economies of Puerto Rico, Greece, and beyond. The internal logic of this global system favors no nation – not Germany, not even the United States – but only the footloose corporations and banks that dominate the global economy.
There is an alternative to starving our own people to enrich foreign banks: it involves moving away from ever-more specialized production for export, towards prioritizing diversified production to meet people’s genuine needs; away from centralized, corporate control, towards diverse, localized economies that are more equitable and sustainable. This means encouraging greater regional self-reliance, and using our taxes, subsidies and regulations to support enterprises embedded in society, rather than transnational monopolies.
Although the localization path is not yet visible in the media, more and more economists, environmentalists and social activists are embracing it. Awareness is growing, as people around the world recognize this simple truth: “we are all Greece.” More
That Was Easy: In Just 60 Years, Neoliberal Capitalism Has Nearly Broken Planet Earth
A pair of new studies show how various forms of human activity, driven by a flawed economic system and vast consumption, is laying waste to Earth's natural systems
The conclusion that the world's dominant economic model—a globalized form of neoliberal capitalism, largely based on international trade and fueled by extracting and consuming natural resources—is the driving force behind planetary destruction will not come as a shock, but the model's detailed description of how this has worked since the middle of the 20th century makes a more substantial case than many previous attempts. (Photo: NASA)
Humanity's rapacious growth and accelerated energy needs over the last generation—particularly fed by an economic system that demands increasing levels of consumption and inputs of natural resources—are fast driving planetary systems towards their breaking point, according to a new pair of related studies.
“It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a geological force at the planetary-scale.” —Prof. Will Steffen
Prepared by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the first study looks specifically at how “four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity.” Published in the journal Nature on Thursday, the 18 researchers involved with compiling evidence for the report—titled 'Planetary Boundaries 2.0'—found that when it comes to climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss, deforestation and other land-system changes, and altered biogeochemical cycles (such as changes to how key organic compounds like phosphorus and nitrogen are operating in the environment), the degradation that has already take place is driving the Earth System, as a whole, into a new state of imbalance.
“Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well-being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries,” said Professor Will Steffen, a researcher at the Centre and the Australian National University, Canberra, who was lead author for both studies.
In addition to the four boundaries that have already been crossed, the study looked five other ways in which the planetary systems are under assault by human activity. They include: stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; freshwater use; atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms); and the introduction of novel entities into ecosystems (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
“I don't think we've broken the planet but we are creating a much more difficult world,” Sarah Cornell, another report author, told Reuters.
In this interview with Wired last year, Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, described the idea about planetary boundaries in details:
Related to the findings of the first study, the second report examines what it calls the “Great Acceleration” and is an assessment of the speed and influence that specific factors have had in damaging the planetary systems described in Planetary Boundaries 2.0. Using a series of indicators, the study compares the relationship, over time, between 12 'socio-economic factors'—including economic growth (GDP); population; foreign direct investment; energy consumption; and water use—on one side with 12 'Earth system trends'—like the carbon cycle; the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity—on the other.
Using what it calls a “planetary dashboard,” the research charts the spread and speed of human activity from the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 to 2010, and the subsequent changes in the Earth System – e.g. greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation and biodiversity deterioration. The analysis found that increased human activity—and “predominantly the global economic system”—has unseated all other factors as the primary driver of change in the Earth System, which the report describes as “the sum of our planet's interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes.” The most striking, i.e. “accelerated,” changes to that system have occurred in the last sixty years.
“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.” —Prof. Will Steffen”It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a geological force at the planetary-scale,” said Steffen, who also led the Acceleration study.
The conclusion that the world's dominant economic model—a globalized form of neoliberal capitalism, largely based on international trade and fueled by extracting and consuming natural resources—is the driving force behind planetary destruction will not come as a shock, but the model's detailed description of how this has worked since the middle of the 20th century makes a more substantial case than many previous attempts.
“When we first aggregated these datasets, we expected to see major changes but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that around 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration,” says Steffen. “After 1950 we can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet.”
The paper makes a point to acknowledge that consumption patterns and the rise of what has become known as the Anthropocene Era does not fall equally on the human population and its examination of the economic system which is underpinning planetary destruction is one rife with inequality, in which certain populations consume at vastly higher levels than others.
According to the report, “The new study also concludes that the bulk of economic activity, and so too, for now, the lion's share of consumption, remain largely within the OECD countries, which in 2010 accounted for about 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. This points to the profound scale of global inequality, which distorts the distribution of the benefits of the Great Acceleration and confounds international efforts, for example climate agreements, to deal with its impacts on the Earth System.”
A worrying trend, notes the paper, is how a growing global middle class—exemplified by those in the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—is an increasing threat to the planet as the consumer mindset established in the OECD nations, particularly the U.S., spreads.
In an interview with the Guardian, Steffen spoke clearly about the overall impacts of the two new studies as he sounded the alarm over humanity's trajectory. “People say the world is robust and that’s true, there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us,” he said. “Some people say we can adapt due to technology, but that’s a belief system, it’s not based on fact. There is no convincing evidence that a large mammal, with a core body temperature of 37C, will be able to evolve that quickly. Insects can, but humans can’t and that’s a problem.”
“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”
What increasing amounts of strong evidence shows, he said, is that that there “tipping points” that the human race should simply not “want to cross.” More
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Dystopian Fiction’s Popularity Is a Warning Sign for the Future
Dystopian fiction is hot right now, with countless books and movies featuring decadent oligarchs, brutal police states, ecological collapse, and ordinary citizens biting and clawing just to survive. For bestselling author Naomi Klein, all this gloom is a worrying sign.
“I think what these films tell us is that we’re taking a future of environmental catastrophe for granted,” Klein says in Episode 129 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And that’s the hardest part of my work, actually convincing people that we’re capable of something other than this brutal response to disaster.”
Her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, argues that only dramatic policy shifts can avert climate catastrophe, and that ordinary people need to speak up and demand emissions caps, public transportation, and a transition to renewable energy. That’s a hard sell politically, which is why dubious measures like geoengineering and cap-and-trade have been proposed instead.
“It seems easier, more realistic, to dim the sun than to put up solar panels on every home in the United States,” says Klein. “And that says a lot about us, and what we think is possible, and what we think is realistic.”
But things are starting to change, with indigenous groups winning lawsuits to block drilling on their land, local communities coming together to ban fracking and establish solar energy grids, and a growing divestment campaign seeking to shame and isolate the fossil fuel industry. Many of these movements are being led by young activists like Anjali Appadurai, who gave a speech in 2010 pointing out that the United Nations has been fruitlessly debating climate change action since before she was born.
“Young people have a critical role to play because they’ll be dealing with the worst impacts of climate change,” says Klein. “And when young people find their moral voice in this crisis, it’s transformative.”
Listen to our complete interview with Naomi Klein in Episode 129 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Naomi Klein on how the wealthy are preparing for climate change:
“There are a lot of examples of ways that companies are preparing. The most insidious is the way that oil companies—who have been funding climate change denial—are simultaneously exploring all the wonderful extraction opportunities there are because the arctic ice is melting, so they obviously know it’s happening. … After Superstorm Sandy, there was a big uptick in the way that luxury developers in New York and elsewhere started to market themselves as being ‘disaster proof’—having their own generators, having their own ‘moats’ in a way, having their own storm barriers, and basically saying, ‘When the apocalypse comes, you’ll be safe.’ … In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was a company that was launched in Florida called HelpJet. … HelpJet was a private disaster rescue operation that literally had the slogan, ‘We’ll turn your disaster into a luxury vacation.’”
Naomi Klein on geoengineering:
“In general the geoengineering world is populated by very overconfident, overwhelmingly male figures who don’t make me feel at all reassured that they have learned the lessons of large-scale technological failure. When I went to this one conference that was hosted by the Royal Society in England, the Fukushima disaster had just started, and in fact a photographer I was working with—a videographer—had just come back from Fukushima and was completely shell-shocked. And I was surprised it didn’t come up the whole time we were meeting, because it seemed relevant to me. Yeah, we humans screw up. BP had been two years earlier. I have been profoundly shaped as a journalist by covering the BP disaster, the derivatives failure, seeing what’s happened in Fukushima. I’m sorry, but I think the smartest guys in the room screw up a lot. And the kind of hubris that I’ve seen expressed from the ‘geo-clique,’ as they’ve been called, makes me not want to scale up the risks that we’re taking.”
Naomi Klein on our relationship with nature:
“If you go back and look at the way fossil fuels were marketed in the 1700s, when coal was first commercialized with the Watt steam engine, the great promise of coal was that it liberated humans from nature, that you no longer had to worry about when the wind blew to sail your ship, and you no longer had to build your factory next to a waterfall or rushing rapids in order to power your water wheel. You were in charge, that was the promise of coal. It was the promise of man transcending the natural world. And that was, it turns out, a lie. We never transcended nature, and that I think is what is so challenging about climate change, not just to capitalism but to our core civilizational myth. Because this is nature going, ‘You thought you were in charge? Actually all that coal you’ve been burning all these years has been building up in the atmosphere and trapping heat, and now comes the response.’ … Renewable energy puts us back in dialog with nature. We have to think about when the wind blows, we have to think about where the sun shines, we cannot pretend that place and space don’t matter. We are back in the world.”
Naomi Klein on science fiction:
“This boom in cli-fi literature is exciting, but I think it can become dangerous if it isn’t seen as a warning, but just seen as inevitable. I think Margaret Atwood—not to be too Canadian about it—but I think Margaret Atwood’s In the Year of the Flood and that whole trilogy, that whole climate trilogy, is an example of the kind of narrative that really does serve as clarion warning, as opposed to just sort of hopeless ‘we’re on this road, we can’t get off.’ And it’s hard to define what makes something more of a warning than just affirming that sense of the inevitable. I loved Ursula Le Guin‘s acceptance speech at the Booker awards this year. I’m a huge Ursula Le Guin fan, and I think she’s one of the few science fiction writers that has pulled off utopian fiction well. She’s done both. But when she accepted the award she sort of accepted on behalf of the genre, and talked about how important it is to have and nurture voices from people who can imagine different worlds.”
Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’
“Every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable.” Thus spoke President Kennedy in a 1961 address to the United Nations.
The threat he warned of was not climate chaos — barely a blip on anybody’s radar at the time — but the hydrogen bomb. The nuclear threat had a volatile urgency and visual clarity that the sprawling, hydra-headed menace of today’s climate calamity cannot match. How can we rouse citizens and governments to act for concerted change? Will it take, as Naomi Klein insists, nothing less than a Marshall Plan for Earth?
“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” is a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable. Klein’s fans will recognize her method from her prior books, “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” (1999) and “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” (2007), which, with her latest, form an antiglobalization trilogy. Her strategy is to take a scourge — brand-driven hyperconsumption, corporate exploitation of disaster-struck communities, or “the fiction of perpetual growth on a finite planet” — trace its origins, then chart a course of liberation. In each book she arrives at some semihopeful place, where activists are reaffirming embattled civic values.
To call “This Changes Everything” environmental is to limit Klein’s considerable agenda. “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming,” she contends, “but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.” On the green left, many share Klein’s sentiments. George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, recently lamented that even though “the claims of market fundamentalism have been disproven as dramatically as those of state communism, somehow this zombie ideology staggers on.” Klein, Monbiot and Bill McKibben all insist that we cannot avert the ecological disaster that confronts us without loosening the grip of that superannuated zombie ideology.
That philosophy — neoliberalism — promotes a high-consumption, carbon-hungry system. Neoliberalism has encouraged mega-mergers, trade agreements hostile to environmental and labor regulations, and global hypermobility, enabling a corporation like Exxon to make, as McKibben has noted, “more money last year than any company in the history of money.” Their outsize power mangles the democratic process. Yet the carbon giants continue to reap $600 billion in annual subsidies from public coffers, not to speak of a greater subsidy: the right, in Klein’s words, to treat the atmosphere as a “waste dump.”
So much for the invisible hand. As the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson observed, when it comes to the environment, the invisible hand never picks up the check.
Klein diagnoses impressively what hasn’t worked. No more claptrap about fracked gas as a bridge to renewables. Enough already of the international summit meetings that produce sirocco-quality hot air, and nonbinding agreements that bind us all to more emissions. Klein dismantles the boondoggle that is cap and trade. She skewers grandiose command-and-control schemes to re-engineer the planet’s climate. No point, when a hubristic mind-set has gotten us into this mess, to pile on further hubris. She reserves a special scorn for the partnerships between Big Green organizations and Immense Carbon, peddled as win-win for everyone, but which haven’t slowed emissions. Such partnerships remind us that when the lamb and the lion lie down together, only one of them gets eaten.
In democracies driven by lobbyists, donors and plutocrats, the giant polluters are going to win while the rest of us, in various degrees of passivity and complicity, will watch the planet die. “Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews,” Klein writes. “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”
Klein reminds us that neoliberalism was once an upstart counterrevolution. Through an epic case of bad timing, the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, the rise of the anti-regulatory World Trade Organization, and the cult of privatizing and globalizing everything coincided with the rising public authority of climate science. In 1988, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, delivered historic testimony at Congressional hearings, declaring that the science was 99 percent unequivocal: The world was warming and we needed to act collectively to reduce emissions. Just one year earlier, Margaret Thatcher famously declared: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” In the battle since, between a collective strategy for forging an inhabitable long-term future and the antisocial, hyper-corporatized, hyper-carbonized pursuit of short-term growth at any cost, well, there has been only one clear winner.
But counterrevolutions are reversible. Klein devotes much of her book to propitious signs that this can happen — indeed is happening. The global climate justice movement is spreading. Since the mid-1990s, environmental protests have been growing in China at 29 percent per year. Where national leaders have faltered, local governments are forging ahead. Hundreds of German cities and towns have voted to buy back their energy grids from corporations. About two-thirds of Britons favor renationalizing energy and rail.
The divestment movement against Big Carbon is gathering force. While it will never bankrupt the mega-corporations, it can reveal unethical practices while triggering a debate about values that recognizes that such practices are nested in economic systems that encourage, inhibit or even prohibit them.
The voices Klein gathers from across the world achieve a choral force. We hear a Montana goat rancher describe how an improbable alliance against Big Coal between local Native American tribes and settler descendants awakened in the latter a different worldview of time and change and possibility. We hear participants in Idle No More, the First Nations movement that has swept across Canada and beyond, contrast the “extractivist mind-set” with systems “designed to promote more life.”
One quibble: What’s with the subtitle? “Capitalism vs. the Climate” sounds like a P.R. person’s idea of a marquee cage fight, but it belies the sophistication and hopefulness of Klein’s argument. As is sometimes said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Klein’s adversary is neoliberalism — the extreme capitalism that has birthed our era of extreme extraction. Klein is smart and pragmatic enough to shun the never-never land of capitalism’s global overthrow. What she does, brilliantly, is provide a historically refined exposé of “capitalism’s drift toward monopoly,” of “corporate interests intent on capturing and radically shrinking the public sphere,” and of “the disaster capitalists who use crises to end-run around democracy.”
To change economic norms and ethical perceptions in tandem is even more formidable than the technological battle to adapt to the heavy weather coming down the tubes. Yet “This Changes Everything” is, improbably, Klein’s most optimistic book. She braids together the science, psychology, geopolitics, economics, ethics and activism that shape the climate question. The result is the most momentous and contentious environmental book since “Silent Spring.” More
The Future Corporation – Paul Polak
TEDxMileh-ligh – Paul Polak – The Future Corporation
Uploaded on May 26, 201 1 • What is the future of the corporation? Paul Polak’s vision will likely transform your view of what’s possible through capitalism and may change the way current organizations view their business models. His talk details the tremendous shared value that lies within product and system designs for the bottom 90% of the income pyramid.
In the spirit of “ideas worth spreading,” TED has created TEDx. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. Our event is called TEDxMileHigh, where x = independently organized TED event. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x=independently organized
TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events, including ours, are self-organized.
Peter Van Buren, Back to the Future in Iraq
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it, he went after the war of that moment and the money that the U.S. was pouring into it as symptoms of a societal disaster.
President Lyndon Johnson’s poverty program was being “broken and eviscerated,” King said from the pulpit of that church, “as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war… We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.” Twice more in that ringing speech he spoke of “the madness of Vietnam” and called for it to cease.
Don’t think of that as just a preacher’s metaphor. There was a genuine madness on the loose — and not just in the “free-fire zones” of Vietnam but in policy circles here in the United States, in the frustration of top military and civilian officials who felt gripped by an eerie helplessness as they widened a terrible war on the ground and in the air. They were, it seemed, incapable of imagining any other path than escalation in the face of disaster and possible defeat. Even in the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when there was a brief attempt to paint that lost war in a more heroic hue (“a noble cause,” the president called it), that sense of madness, or at least of resulting mental illness, lingered. It remained embedded in a phrase then regularly applied to Americans who were less than willing to once again head aggressively into the world. They were suffering from, it was said, “Vietnam syndrome.”
Today, almost 25 years into what someday might simply be called America’s Iraq War (whose third iteration we’ve recently entered), you can feel that a similar “madness” has Washington by the throat. Just as King noted of the Vietnam era, since 9/11 American domestic programs and agencies have been starved while money poured into the coffers of the Pentagon and an increasingly bloated national security state. The results have been obvious. In the face of the spreading Ebola virus in West Africa, for instance, the president can no longer turn to civilian agencies or organizations for help, but has to call on the U.S. military in an “Ebola surge” — even our language has been militarized — although its forces are not known for their skills, successes, or spendthrift ways when it comes to civilian “humanitarian” or nation-building operations.
We’ve already entered the period when strategy, such as it is, falls away, and our leaders feel strangely helpless before the drip, drip, drip of failure and the unbearable urge for further escalation. At this point, in fact, the hysteria in Washington over the Islamic State seems a pitch or two higher than anything experienced in the Vietnam years. A fiercely sectarian force in the Middle East has captured the moment and riveted attention, even though its limits in a region full of potential enemies seem obvious and its “existential threat” to the U.S. consists of the possibility that some stray American jihadi might indeed try to harm a few of us. Call it emotional escalation in a Washington that seems remarkably unhinged.
It took Osama bin Laden $400,000 to $500,000, 19 hijackers, and much planning to produce the fallen towers of 9/11 and the ensuing hysteria in this country that launched the disastrous, never-ending Global War on Terror. It took the leaders of the Islamic State maybe a few hundred bucks and two grim videos, featuring three men on a featureless plain in Syria, to create utter, blind hysteria here. Think of this as confirmation of Karl Marx’s famous comment that the first time is tragedy, but the second is farce.
One clear sign of the farcical nature of our moment is the inability to use almost any common word or phrase in an uncontested way if you put “Iraq” or “Islamic State” or “Syria” in the same sentence. Remember when the worst Washington could come up with in contested words was the meaning of “is” in Bill Clinton’s infamous statement about his relationship with a White House intern? Linguistically speaking, those were the glory days, the utopian days of official Washington.
Just consider three commonplace terms of the moment: “war,” “boots on the ground,” and “combat.” A single question links them all: Are we or aren’t we? And to that, in each case, Washington has no acceptable answer. On war, the secretary of state said no, we weren’t; the White House and Pentagon press offices announced that yes, we were; and the president fudged. He called it “targeted action” and spoke of America’s “unique capability to mobilize against an organization like ISIL,” but God save us, what it wasn't and wouldn't be was a “ground war.”
Only with Congress did a certain clarity prevail. Nothing it did really mattered. Whatever Congress decided or refused to decide when it came to going to war would be fine and dandy, because the White House was going to do “it” anyway. “It,” of course, was the Clintonesque “is” of present-day Middle Eastern policy. Who knew what it was, but here was what it wasn’t and would never be: “boots on the ground.” Admittedly, the president has already dispatched 1,600 booted troops to Iraq’s ground (with more to come), but they evidently didn’t qualify as boots on the ground because, whatever they were doing, they would not be going into “combat” (which is evidently the only place where military boots officially hit the ground). The president has been utterly clear on this. There would be no American “combat mission” in Iraq. Unfortunately, “combat” turns out to be another of those dicey terms, since those non-boots had barely landed in Iraq when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey started to raise the possibility that some of them, armed, might one day be forward deployed with Iraqi troops as advisers and spotters for U.S. air power in future battles for Iraq’s northern cities. This, the White House now seems intent on defining as not being a “combat mission.”
And we’re only weeks into an ongoing operation that could last years. Imagine the pretzeling of the language by then. Perhaps it might be easiest if everyone — Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and Washington’s pundits — simply agreed that the United States is at “war-ish” in Iraq, with boots on the ground-ish in potentially combat-ish situations. Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren spent his own time in Iraq and wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about it. Now, he considers the mind-boggling strangeness of Washington doing it all over again, this time as the grimmest of farces. Tom
Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition
Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over
By Peter Van Buren
I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you're gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”
I couldn't do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assuredAmericans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?
The Sons of Iraq
Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I'd been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women's empowerment,” “democracy building.”)
We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.
In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.
I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they'd been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.
False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers' struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.
When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.
U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.
The Grandsons of Iraq
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today's front pages. More