Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Era of Xtreme Energy

Life After the Age of Oil

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By Michael T. Klare

The debate rages over whether we have already reached the point of peak world oil output or will not do so until at least the next decade. There can, however, be little doubt of one thing: we are moving from an era in which oil was the world's principal energy source to one in which petroleum alternatives -- especially renewable supplies derived from the sun, wind, and waves -- will provide an ever larger share of our total supply. But buckle your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride under Xtreme conditions.
It would, of course, be ideal if the shift from dwindling oil to its climate-friendly successors were to happen smoothly via a mammoth, well-coordinated, interlaced system of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewable energy installations. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur. Instead, we will surely first pass through an era characterized by excessive reliance on oil's final, least attractive reserves along with coal, heavily polluting "unconventional" hydrocarbons like Canadian oil sands, and other unappealing fuel choices.
There can be no question that Barack Obama and many members of Congress would like to accelerate a shift from oil dependency to non-polluting alternatives. As the president said in January, "We will commit ourselves to steady, focused, pragmatic pursuit of an America that is free from our [oil] dependence and empowered by a new energy economy that puts millions of our citizens to work." Indeed, the $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed in February provided $11 billion to modernize the nation's electrical grid, $14 billion in tax incentives to businesses to invest in renewable energy, $6 billion to states for energy efficiency initiatives, and billions more directed to research on renewable sources of energy. More of the same can be expected if a sweeping climate bill is passed by Congress. The version of the bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, for example, mandates that 20% of U.S. electrical production be supplied by renewable energy by 2020.
But here's the bad news: even if all these initiatives were to pass, and more like them many times over, it would still take decades for this country to substantially reduce its dependence on oil and other non-renewable, polluting fuels. So great is our demand for energy, and so well-entrenched the existing systems for delivering the fuels we consume, that (barring a staggering surprise) we will remain for years to come in a no-man's-land between the Petroleum Age and an age that will see the great flowering of renewable energy. Think of this interim period as -- to give it a label -- the Era of Xtreme Energy, and in just about every sense imaginable from pricing to climate change, it is bound to be an ugly time.
An Oil Field as Deep as Mt. Everest Is High
Don't be fooled by the fact that this grim new era will surely witness the arrival of many more wind turbines, solar arrays, and hybrid vehicles. Most new buildings will perhaps come equipped with solar panels, and more light-rail systems will be built. Despite all this, however, our civilization is likely to remain remarkably dependent on oil-fueled cars, trucks, ships, and planes for most transportation purposes, as well as on coal for electricity generation. Much of the existing infrastructure for producing and distributing our energy supply will also remain intact, even as many existing sources of oil, coal, and natural gas become exhausted, forcing us to rely on previously untouched, far more undesirable (and often far less accessible) sources of these fuels.
Some indication of the likely fuel mix in this new era can be seen in the most recent projections of the Department of Energy (DoE) on future U.S. energy consumption. According to the department's Annual Energy Outlook for 2009, the United States will consume an estimated 114 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy in 2030, of which 37% will be supplied by oil and other petroleum liquids, 23% by coal, 22% by natural gas, 8% by nuclear power, 3% by hydropower, and only 7% by wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable sources.
Clearly, this does not yet suggest a dramatic shift away from oil and other fossil fuels. On the basis of current trends, the DoE also predicts that even two decades from now, in 2030, oil, natural gas, and coal will still make up 82% of America's primary energy supply, only two percentage points less than in 2009. (It is of course conceivable that a dramatic shift in national and international priorities will lead to a greater increase in renewable energy in the next two decades, but at this point that remains a dim hope rather than a sure thing.)
While fossil fuels will remain dominant in 2030, the nature of these fuels, and the ways in which we acquire them, will undergo profound change. Today, most of our oil and natural gas come from "conventional" sources of supply: large underground reservoirs found mainly in relatively accessible sites on land or in shallow coastal areas. These are the reserves that can be easily exploited using familiar technology, most notably modern versions of the towering oil rigs made famous most recently in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood.
Ever more of these fields will, however, be depleted as global consumption soars, forcing the energy industry to increasingly rely on deep offshore oil and gas, Canadian oil sands, oil and gas from a climate-altered but still hard to reach and exploit Arctic, and gas extracted from shale rock using costly, environmentally threatening techniques. In 2030, says the DoE, such unconventional liquids will provide 13% of world oil supply (up from a mere 4% in 2007). A similar pattern holds for natural gas, especially in the United States where the share of energy supplied by unconventional but nonrenewable sources is expected to rise from 47% to 56% in the same two decades.
Just how important these supplies have become is evident to anyone who follows the oil industry's trade journals or simply regularly checks out the business pages of the Wall Street Journal. Absent from them have been announcements of major discoveries of giant new oil and gas reserves in any parts of the world accessible to familiar drilling techniques and connected to key markets by existing pipelines or trade routes (or located outside active war zones such as Iraq and the Niger Delta region of Nigeria). The announcements are there, but virtually all of them have been of reserves in the Arctic, Siberia, or the very deep waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
Recently the press has been abuzz with major discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico and far off Brazil's coast that might give the impression of adding time to the Age of Petroleum. On September 2nd, for example, BP (formerly British Petroleum) announced that it had found a giant oil field in the Gulf of Mexico about 250 miles southeast of Houston. Dubbed Tiber, it is expected to produce hundreds of thousands of barrels per day when production begins some years from now, giving a boost to BP's status as a major offshore producer. "This is big," commented Chris Ruppel, a senior energy analyst at Execution LLC, a London investment bank. "It says we're seeing that improved technology is unlocking resources that were before either undiscovered or too costly to exploit because of economics."
As it happens, though, anyone who jumped to the conclusion that this field could quickly or easily add to the nation's oil supply would be woefully mistaken. As a start, it's located at a depth of 35,000 feet -- greater than the height of Mount Everest, as a reporter from the New York Times noted -- and well below the Gulf's floor. To get to the oil, BP's engineers will have to drill through miles of rock, salt, and compressed sand using costly and sophisticated equipment. To make matters worse, Tiber is located smack in the middle of the area in the Gulf regularly hit by massive storms in hurricane season, so any drills operating there must be designed to withstand hurricane-strength waves and winds, as well as sit idle for weeks at a time when operating personnel are forced to evacuate.
A similar picture prevails in the case of Brazil's Tupi field, the other giant discovery of recent years. Located about 200 miles east of Rio de Janeiro in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Tupi has regularly been described as the biggest field to be found in 40 years. Thought to contain some five to eight billion barrels of recoverable oil, it will surely push Brazil into the front ranks of major oil producers once the Brazilians have overcome their own series of staggering hurdles: the Tupi field is located below one-and-a-half miles of ocean water and another two-and-a-half miles of rock, sand, and salt and so accessible only to cutting edge, super-sophisticated drilling technologies. It will cost an estimated $70-$120 billion to develop the field and require many years of dedicated effort.
Xtreme Acts of Energy Recovery
Given the potentially soaring costs involved in recovering these last tough-oil reserves, it's no wonder that Canadian oil sands, also called tar sands, are the other big "play" in the oil business these days. Not oil as conventionally understood, the oil sands are a mixture of rock, sand, and bitumen (a very heavy, dense form of petroleum) that must be extracted from the ground using mining, rather than oil-drilling, techniques. They must also be extensively processed before being converted into a usable liquid fuel. Only because the big energy firms have themselves become convinced that we are running out of conventional oil of an easily accessible sort have they been tripping over each other in the race to buy up leases to mine bitumen in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta.
The mining of oil sands and their conversion into useful liquids is a costly and difficult process, and so the urge to do so tells us a great deal about our particular state of energy dependency. Deposits near the surface can be strip-mined, but those deeper underground can only be exploited by pumping in steam to separate the bitumen from the sand and then pumping the bitumen to the surface -- a process that consumes vast amounts of water and energy in the form of natural gas (to heat that water into steam). Much of the water used to produce steam is collected at the site and used over again, but some is returned to the local water supply in northern Alberta, causing environmentalists to worry about the risk of large-scale contamination.
The clearing of enormous tracts of virgin forest to allow strip-mining and the consumption of valuable natural gas to extract the bitumen are other sources of concern. Nevertheless, such is the need of our civilization for petroleum products that Canadian oil sands are expected to generate 4.2 million barrels of fuel per day in 2030 -- three times the amount being produced today -- even as they devastate huge parts of Alberta, consume staggering amounts of natural gas, cause potentially extensive pollution, and sabotage Canada's efforts to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions.
North of Alberta lies another source of Xtreme energy: Arctic oil and gas. Once largely neglected because of the difficulty of simply surviving, no less producing energy, in the region, the Arctic is now the site of a major "oil rush" as global warming makes it easier for energy firms to operate in northern latitudes. Norway's state-owned energy company, StatoilHydro, is now running the world's first natural gas facility above the Arctic Circle, and companies from around the world are making plans to develop oil and gas fields in the Artic territories of Canada, Greenland (administered by Denmark), Russia, and the United States, where offshore drilling in northern Alaskan waters may soon be the order of the day.
It will not, however, be easy to obtain oil and natural gas from the Arctic. Even if global warming raises average temperatures and reduces the extent of the polar ice cap, winter conditions will still make oil production extremely difficult and hazardous. Fierce storms and plunging temperatures will remain common, posing great risk to any humans not hunkered down in secure facilities and making the transport of energy a major undertaking.
Given fears of dwindling oil supplies, none of this has been enough to deter energy-craving companies from plunging into the icy waters. "Despite grueling conditions, interest in oil and gas reserves in the far north is heating up," Brian Baskin reported in the Wall Street Journal. "Virtually every major producer is looking to the Arctic sea floor as the next -- some say last -- great resource play."
What is true of oil generally is also true of natural gas and coal: most easy-to-reach conventional deposits are quickly being depleted. What remains are largely the "unconventional" supplies.
U.S. producers of natural gas, for example, are reporting a significant increase in domestic output, producing a dramatic reduction in prices. According to the DoE, U.S. gas production is projected to increase from about 20 trillion cubic feet in 2009 to 24 trillion in 2030, a real boon for U.S. consumers, who rely to a significant degree on natural gas for home heating and electricity generation. As noted by the Energy Department however, "Unconventional natural gas is the largest contributor to the growth in U.S. natural gas production, as rising prices and improvements in drilling technology provide the economic incentives necessary for exploitation of more costly resources."
Most of the unconventional gas in the United States is currently obtained from tight-sand formations (or sandstone), but a growing percentage is acquired from shale rock through a process known as hydraulic fracturing. In this method, water is forced into the underground shale formations to crack the rock open and release the gas. Huge amounts of water are employed in the process, and environmentalists fear that some of this water, laced with pollutants, will find its ways into the nation's drinking supply. In many areas, moreover, water itself is a scarce resource, and the diversion of crucial supplies to gas extraction may diminish the amounts available for farming, habitat preservation, and human consumption. Nonetheless, production of shale gas is projected to jump from two trillion cubic feet per year in 2009 to four trillion in 2030.
Coal presents a somewhat similar picture. Although many environmentalists object to the burning of coal because it releases far more climate-altering greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels for each BTU produced, the nation's electric-power industry continues to rely on coal because it remains relatively cheap and plentiful. Yet many of the country's most productive sources of anthracite and bituminous coal -- the types with the greatest energy potential -- have been depleted, leaving (as with oil) less productive sources of these types, along with large deposits of less desirable, more heavily polluting sub-bituminous coal, much of it located in Wyoming.
To get at what remains of the more valuable bituminous coal in Appalachia, mining companies increasingly rely on a technique known as mountaintop removal, described by John M. Broder of the New York Times as "blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams." Long opposed by environmentalists and residents of rural Kentucky and West Virginia, whose water supplies are endangered by the dumping of excess rock, dirt, and a variety of contaminants, mountaintop removal received a strong endorsement from the Bush administration, which in December 2008 approved a regulation allowing for a vast expansion of the practice. President Obama has vowed to reverse this regulation, but he favors the use of "clean coal" as part of a transitional energy strategy. It remains to be seen how far he will go in reining in the coal industry.
Xtreme Conflict
So let's be blunt: we are not (yet) entering the much-heralded Age of Renewables. That bright day will undoubtedly arrive eventually, but not until we have moved much closer to the middle of this century and potentially staggering amounts of damage has been done to this planet in a fevered search for older forms of energy.
In the meantime, the Era of Xtreme Energy will be characterized by an ever deepening reliance on the least accessible, least desirable sources of oil, coal, and natural gas. This period will surely involve an intense struggle over the environmental consequences of reliance on such unappealing sources of energy. In this way, Big Oil and Big Coal -- the major energy firms -- may grow even larger, while the relatively moderate fuel and energy prices of the present moment will be on the rise, especially given the high cost of extracting oil, gas, and coal from less accessible and more challenging locations.
One other thing is, unfortunately, guaranteed: the Era of Xtreme Energy will also involve intense geopolitical struggle as major energy consumers and producers like the United States, China, the European Union, Russia, India, and Japan vie with one another for control of the remaining supplies. Russia and Norway, for example, are already sparring over their maritime boundary in the Barents Sea, a promising source of natural gas in the far north, while China and Japan have tussled over a similar boundary dispute in the East China Sea, the site of another large gas field. All of the Arctic nations -- Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States -- have laid claim to large, sometimes overlapping, slices of the Arctic Ocean, generating fresh boundary disputes in these energy-rich areas.
None of these disputes has yet resulted in violent conflict, but warships and planes have been deployed on some occasions and the potential exists for future escalation as tensions rise and the perceived value of these assets grows. And while we're at it, don't forget today's energy hotspots like Nigeria, the Middle East, and the Caspian Basin. In the Xtreme era to come, they are no less likely to generate conflicts of every sort over the ever more precious supplies of more easily accessible energy.
For most of us, life in the Era of Xtreme Energy will not be easy. Energy prices will rise, environmental perils will multiply, ever more carbon dioxide will pour into the atmosphere, and the risk of conflict will grow. We possess just two options for shortening this difficult era and mitigating its impact. They are both perfectly obvious -- which, unfortunately, makes them no easier to bring about: drastically speed up the development of renewable sources of energy and greatly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by reorganizing our lives and our civilization so that we might consume less of them in everything we do.
That may sound easy enough, but tell that to governments around the world. Tell that to Big Energy. Hope for it, work for it, but in the meantime, keep your seatbelts buckled. This roller-coaster ride is about to begin.

F.D.I.C. May Borrow Funds From Banks

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Tired of the government bailing out banks? Get ready for this: officials may soon ask banks to bail out the government.

Senior regulators say they are seriously considering a plan to have the nation’s healthy banks lend billions of dollars to rescue the insurance fund that protects bank depositors. That would enable the fund, which is rapidly running out of money because of a wave of bank failures, to continue to rescue the sickest banks.

The plan, strongly supported by bankers and their lobbyists, would be a major reversal of fortune.

A hallmark of the financial crisis has been the decision by successive administrations over the last year to lend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to large and small banks.

“It’s a nice irony,” said Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a consulting company. “Like so much of this crisis, this is an issue that involves the least worst options.”

Bankers and their lobbyists like the idea because it is more attractive than the alternatives: yet another across-the-board emergency assessment on them, or tapping an existing $100 billion credit line to the Treasury.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which oversees the fund, is said to be reluctant to use its authority to borrow from the Treasury.

Under the law, the F.D.I.C. would not need permission from the Treasury to tap into a credit line of up to $100 billion. But such a step is said to be unpalatable to Sheila C. Bair, the agency chairwoman whose relations with the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, have been strained.

“Sheila Bair would take bamboo shoots under her nails before going to Tim Geithner and the Treasury for help,” said Camden R. Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers. “She’d do just about anything before going there.”

Bankers worry that a special assessment of $5 billion to $10 billion over the next six months would crimp their profits and could push a handful of banks into deeper financial trouble or even receivership. And any new borrowing from the Treasury would be construed as a taxpayer bailout that could open the industry to a political reaction, resulting in a wave of restrictions like fresh limits on executive pay.

Any populist furor could be avoided, the thinking goes, if the government borrows instead from the banks.

“Borrowing from healthy banks, instead of the Treasury, has the advantage of keeping this in the family,” said Karen M. Thomas, executive vice president of government relations at the Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group representing about 5,000 banks. “It is much better for perceptions than having the fund borrow from somewhere else.”

Ultimately, officials say, the deposit insurance corporation could settle on a plan that replenishes the insurance fund by doing some of both: borrowing from healthy banks to shore up the shorter-term liquidity needs of the fund, and imposing a special fee on banks to increase the longer-term capital level of the fund.

Since January the F.D.I.C. has seized 94 failing banks, causing a rapid decline in the deposit insurance fund. Despite a special assessment imposed on banks a few months ago to keep the fund afloat, its cash balance now stands at about $10 billion, a third of its size at the start of the year. (Another $32 billion has been set aside for failures that officials expect to occur in the coming months.)

The fund, which stands behind $4.8 trillion in insured deposits, could be wiped out by the failure of a single large bank, although the deposit insurance corporation could always seek a taxpayer bailout by borrowing from the Treasury to stay afloat.

Officials say that the F.D.I.C. will issue a proposed plan next week to begin to restore the financial health of the ailing fund.

There is no consensus among the five board members, consisting of Ms. Bair, two other F.D.I.C. officials, and the heads of the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Others may propose novel ways to replenish the fund, for example, by asking the banks to prepay the premiums that they were planning to make next year.

Borrowing from the industry is allowed under an obscure provision of a 1991 law adopted during the savings and loan crisis. The lending banks would receive bonds from the government at an interest rate that would be set by the Treasury secretary and ultimately would be paid by the rest of the industry. The bonds would be listed as an asset on the books of the banks.

Landmark Decision: Massive Relief for Homeowners and Trouble for the Banks

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By Ellen Brown

A landmark ruling in a recent Kansas Supreme Court case may have given millions of distressed homeowners the legal wedge they need to avoid foreclosure. In Landmark National Bank v. Kesler, 2009 Kan. LEXIS 834, the Kansas Supreme Court held that a nominee company called MERS has no right or standing to bring an action for foreclosure. MERS is an acronym for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, a private company that registers mortgages electronically and tracks changes in ownership. The significance of the holding is that if MERS has no standing to foreclose, then nobody has standing to foreclose – on 60 million mortgages. That is the number of American mortgages currently reported to be held by MERS. Over half of all new U.S. residential mortgage loans are registered with MERS and recorded in its name. Holdings of the Kansas Supreme Court are not binding on the rest of the country, but they are dicta of which other courts take note; and the reasoning behind the decision is sound.
Eliminating the “Straw Man” Shielding Lenders and Investors from Liability
The development of “electronic” mortgages managed by MERS went hand in hand with the “securitization” of mortgage loans – chopping them into pieces and selling them off to investors. In the heyday of mortgage securitizations, before investors got wise to their risks, lenders would slice up loans, bundle them into “financial products” called “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs), ostensibly insure them against default by wrapping them in derivatives called “credit default swaps,” and sell them to pension funds, municipal funds, foreign investment funds, and so forth. There were many secured parties, and the pieces kept changing hands; but MERS supposedly kept track of all these changes electronically. MERS would register and record mortgage loans in its name, and it would bring foreclosure actions in its name. MERS not only facilitated the rapid turnover of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, but it has served as a sort of “corporate shield” that protects investors from claims by borrowers concerning predatory lending practices. California attorney Timothy McCandless describes the problem like this:
“[MERS] has reduced transparency in the mortgage market in two ways. First, consumers and their counsel can no longer turn to the public recording systems to learn the identity of the holder of their note. Today, county recording systems are increasingly full of one meaningless name, MERS, repeated over and over again. But more importantly, all across the country, MERS now brings foreclosure proceedings in its own name – even though it is not the financial party in interest. This is problematic because MERS is not prepared for or equipped to provide responses to consumers’ discovery requests with respect to predatory lending claims and defenses. In effect, the securitization conduit attempts to use a faceless and seemingly innocent proxy with no knowledge of predatory origination or servicing behavior to do the dirty work of seizing the consumer’s home. . . . So imposing is this opaque corporate wall, that in a “vast” number of foreclosures, MERS actually succeeds in foreclosing without producing the original note – the legal sine qua non of foreclosure – much less documentation that could support predatory lending defenses.”
The real parties in interest concealed behind MERS have been made so faceless, however, that there is now no party with standing to foreclose. The Kansas Supreme Court stated that MERS’ relationship “is more akin to that of a straw man than to a party possessing all the rights given a buyer.” The court opined:
“By statute, assignment of the mortgage carries with it the assignment of the debt. . . . Indeed, in the event that a mortgage loan somehow separates interests of the note and the deed of trust, with the deed of trust lying with some independent entity, the mortgage may become unenforceable. The practical effect of splitting the deed of trust from the promissory note is to make it impossible for the holder of the note to foreclose, unless the holder of the deed of trust is the agent of the holder of the note. Without the agency relationship, the person holding only the note lacks the power to foreclose in the event of default. The person holding only the deed of trust will never experience default because only the holder of the note is entitled to payment of the underlying obligation. The mortgage loan becomes ineffectual when the note holder did not also hold the deed of trust.” [Citations omitted; emphasis added.]
MERS as straw man lacks standing to foreclose, but so does original lender, although it was a signatory to the deal. The lender lacks standing because title had to pass to the secured parties for the arrangement to legally qualify as a “security.” The lender has been paid in full and has no further legal interest in the claim. Only the securities holders have skin in the game; but they have no standing to foreclose, because they were not signatories to the original agreement. They cannot satisfy the basic requirement of contract law that a plaintiff suing on a written contract must produce a signed contract proving he is entitled to relief.
The Potential Impact of 60 Million Fatally Flawed Mortgages
The banks arranging these mortgage-backed securities have typically served as trustees for the investors. When the trustees could not present timely written proof of ownership entitling them to foreclose, they would in the past file “lost-note affidavits” with the court; and judges usually let these foreclosures proceed without objection. But in October 2007, an intrepid federal judge in Cleveland put a halt to the practice. U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Boyko ruled that Deutsche Bank had not filed the proper paperwork to establish its right to foreclose on fourteen homes it was suing to repossess as trustee. Judges in many other states then came out with similar rulings.
Following the Boyko decision, in December 2007 attorney Sean Olender suggested in an article in The San Francisco Chronicle that the real reason for the bailout schemes being proposed by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was not to keep strapped borrowers in their homes so much as to stave off a spate of lawsuits against the banks. Olender wrote:
“The sole goal of the [bailout schemes] is to prevent owners of mortgage-backed securities, many of them foreigners, from suing U.S. banks and forcing them to buy back worthless mortgage securities at face value – right now almost 10 times their market worth. The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process.
“. . . The catastrophic consequences of bond investors forcing originators to buy back loans at face value are beyond the current media discussion. The loans at issue dwarf the capital available at the largest U.S. banks combined, and investor lawsuits would raise stunning liability sufficient to cause even the largest U.S. banks to fail, resulting in massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie, and even FDIC . . . .
“What would be prudent and logical is for the banks that sold this toxic waste to buy it back and for a lot of people to go to prison. If they knew about the fraud, they should have to buy the bonds back.”
Needless to say, however, the banks did not buy back their toxic waste, and no bank officials went to jail. As Olender predicted, in the fall of 2008, massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie were pushed through by Henry Paulson, whose former firm Goldman Sachs was an active player in creating CDOs when he was at its helm as CEO. Paulson also hastily engineered the $85 billion bailout of insurer American International Group (AIG), a major counterparty to Goldmans’ massive holdings of CDOs. The insolvency of AIG was a huge crisis for Goldman, a principal beneficiary of the AIG bailout.
In a December 2007 New York Times article titled “The Long and Short of It at Goldman Sachs,” Ben Stein wrote:
“For decades now, . . . I have been receiving letters [warning] me about the dangers of a secret government running the world . . . . [T]he closest I have recently seen to such a world-running body would have to be a certain large investment bank, whose alums are routinely Treasury secretaries, high advisers to presidents, and occasionally a governor or United States senator.”
The pirates seem to have captured the ship, and until now there has been no one to stop them. But 60 million mortgages with fatal defects in title could give aggrieved homeowners and securities holders the crowbar they need to exert some serious leverage on Congress – serious enough perhaps even to pry the legislature loose from the powerful banking lobbies that now hold it in thrall.

FCC Endorses Network Neutrality

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By Cecilia Kang

The government would play a far more aggressive role in policing the public's unfettered access to Internet services and content under a proposal offered Monday by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The agency would be the "smart cop on the beat," Genachowski said in a speech, outlining a plan to prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain technologies and content on their networks. The chairman proposed that firms be required to make public the steps they are taking to control Web traffic.

The proposal raised concerns among several providers, which said the regulation could hurt their business by limiting their ability to manage their networks.

Some of the loudest protests came from wireless service providers, including telecommunications giant AT&T. They argued that "net neutrality" rules should exclude the booming cellphone industry, where competition among carriers is healthy and resources are limited.

U.S. wireless networks are "facing incredible bandwidth strains . . . which require continued private investment at very high levels and pro-active network management to ensure service quality for 270 million customers," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

Others worried how the government would decide what offerings are acceptable.

"Should all product and service offerings be the same?" asked Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the wireless association CTIA.

Genachowski said the FCC would weigh such concerns as the agency goes about drawing up its regulatory principles.

"This is the announcement of the beginning of a process," said Colin Crowell, a senior adviser to Genachowski. "The chairman said two things with respect to mobile; first, that the principles ought to apply to all platforms, in order to be technologically neutral. The principals ideally apply in a technologically neutral way so that your expectations as a consumer and entrepreneur don't change as you choose different ways of reaching the Internet. Second, he indicated that how, to what extent, and when the principles will apply to different platforms is what the process will determine."

Genachowski said he suggested that the FCC should evaluate alleged net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis.

"This approach, within the framework I am proposing today, will allow the commission to make reasoned, fact-based determinations based on the Internet before it -- not based on the Internet of years past or guesses about how the Internet will evolve," Genachowski said in his speech, delivered at the Brookings Institution.

He said the proposed principles won't prevent broadband providers from "reasonably managing their networks." But defining what is reasonable management is where debate by carriers of all sizes and regulators will go forward, telecommunications specialists said.

David Young, vice president of regulatory affairs for Verizon Communications, questioned the need for new regulations because he said there hasn't been much proof that consumers or business have not been able to get the Web content and services they want.

"I'm pleased to hear that the chairman intends to do only as much as needed and no more . . . We need to see what are the problems that need to be fixed and what are the examples that require a dramatic change," Young said.

Genachowski said examples of discriminatory behavior -- such as Comcast's move to allegedly block peer-to-peer service BitTorrent on its network -- show that rules need to be in place to stop such practices and that there needs to be greater transparency by network operators for entrepreneurs and consumers of the Web to ensure that they are able to build Internet businesses and get the services they expect from their providers.

"This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We're seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet's fundamental architecture of openness," Genachowski said.

With Global Capitalism Exposed as a Sham, All the Global Elite Have Left Is Pure Force

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By Chris Hedges

The rage of the disposed is fracturing the country, dividing it into camps that are unmoored from the political mainstream. Movements are building on the ends of the political spectrum that have lost faith in the mechanisms of democratic change. You can't blame them. But unless we on the left move quickly this rage will be captured by a virulent and racist right wing, one that seeks a disturbing proto-fascism.
Every day counts. Every deferral of protest hurts. We should, if we have the time and the ability, make our way to Pittsburgh for the meeting of the G-20 this week rather than do what the power elite is hoping we will do-stay home. Complacency comes at a horrible price.
"The leaders of the G-20 are meeting to try and salvage their power and money after everything that has gone wrong," said Benedicto Martinez Orozco, co-president of the Mexican Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), who is in Pittsburgh for the protests. "This is what this meeting is about."
The draconian security measures put in place to silence dissent in Pittsburgh are disproportionate to any actual security concern. They are a response not to a real threat, but to the fear gripping the established centers of power. The power elite grasps, even if we do not, the massive fraud and theft being undertaken to save a criminal class on Wall Street and international speculators of the kinds who were executed in other periods of human history. They know the awful cost this plundering of state treasuries will impose on workers, who will become a permanent underclass. And they also know that once this is clear to the rest of us, rebellion will no longer be a foreign concept.
The delegates to the G-20, the gathering of the world's wealthiest nations, will consequently be protected by a National Guard combat battalion, recently returned from Iraq. The battalion will shut down the area around the city center, man checkpoints and patrol the streets in combat gear. Pittsburgh has augmented the city's police force of 1,000 with an additional 3,000 officers. Helicopters have begun to buzz gatherings in city parks, buses driven to Pittsburgh to provide food to protesters have been impounded, activists have been detained, and permits to camp in the city parks have been denied. Web sites belonging to resistance groups have been hacked and trashed, and many groups suspect that they have been infiltrated and that their phones and e-mail accounts are being monitored.
Larry Holmes, an organizer from New York City, stood outside a tent encampment on land owned by the Monumental Baptist Church in the city's Hill District. He is one of the leaders of the Bail Out the People Movement. Holmes, a longtime labor activist, on Sunday led a march on the convention center by unemployed people calling for jobs. He will coordinate more protests during the week.
"It is de facto martial law," he said, "and the real effort to subvert the work of those protesting has yet to begin. But voting only gets you so far. There are often not many choices in an election. When you build democratic movements around the war or unemployment you get a more authentic expression of democracy. It is more organic. It makes a difference. History has taught us this."
Our global economy, like our political system, has been hijacked by a tiny oligarchy, composed mostly of wealthy white men who serve corporations. They have pledged or raised a staggering $18 trillion, looted largely from state treasuries, to prop up banks and other financial institutions that engaged in suicidal acts of speculation and ruined the world economy. They have formulated trade deals so corporations can speculate across borders with currency, food and natural resources even as, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 1.02 billion people on the planet struggle with hunger. Globalization has obliterated the ability of many poor countries to protect food staples such as corn, rice, beans and wheat with subsidies or taxes on imported staples. The abolishment of these protections has permitted the giant mechanized farms to wipe out tens of millions of small farmers-2 million in Mexico alone-bankrupting many and driving them off their land. Those who could once feed themselves can no longer find enough food, and the wealthiest governments use institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization like pit bulls to establish economic supremacy. There is little that most governments seem able to do to fight back.
But the game is up. The utopian dreams of globalization have been exposed as a sham. Force is all the elite have left. We are living through one of civilization's great seismic reversals. The ideology of globalization, like all utopias that are sold as inevitable and irreversible, has become a farce. The power elite, perplexed and confused, cling to the disastrous principles of globalization and its outdated language to mask the political and economic vacuum before us. The absurd idea that the marketplace alone should determine economic and political constructs caused the crisis. It led the G-20 to sacrifice other areas of human importance-from working conditions, to taxation, to child labor, to hunger, to health and pollution-on the altar of free trade. It left the world's poor worse off and the United States with the largest deficits in human history. Globalization has become an excuse to ignore the mess. It has left a mediocre elite desperately trying to save a system that cannot be saved and, more important, trying to save itself. "Speculation," then-President Jacques Chirac of France once warned, "is the AIDS of our economies." We have reached the terminal stage.
"Each of Globalization's strengths has somehow turned out to have an opposing meaning," John Ralston Saul wrote in "The Collapse of Globalism." "The lowering of national residency requirements for corporations has morphed into a tool for massive tax evasion. The idea of a global economic system mysteriously made local poverty seem unreal, even normal. The decline of the middle class-the very basis of democracy-seemed to be just one of those things that happen, unfortunate but inevitable. That the working class and the lower middle class, even parts of the middle class, could only survive with more than one job per person seemed to be expected punishment for not keeping up. The contrast between unprecedented bonuses for mere managers at the top and the four-job families below them seemed inevitable in a globalized world. For two decades an elite consensus insisted that unsustainable third-world debts could not be put aside in a sort of bad debt reserve without betraying Globalism's essential principles and moral obligations, which included an unwavering respect for the sanctity of international contracts. It took the same people about two weeks to abandon sanctity and propose bad debt banks for their own far larger debts in 2009."
The institutions that once provided alternative sources of power, including the press, government, agencies of religion, universities and labor unions, have proved morally bankrupt. They no longer provide a space for voices of moral autonomy. No one will save us now but ourselves.
"The best thing that happened to the Establishment is the election of a black president," Holmes said. "It will contain people for a given period of time, but time is running out. Suppose something else happens? Suppose another straw breaks? What happens when there is a credit card crisis or a collapse in commercial real estate? The financial system is very, very fragile. The legs are being kicked out from underneath it."
"Obama is in trouble," Holmes went on. "The economic crisis is a structural crisis. The recovery is only a recovery for Wall Street. It can't be sustained, and Obama will be blamed for it. He is doing everything Wall Street demands. But this will be a dead end. It is a prescription for disaster, not only for Obama but the Democratic Party. It is only groups like ours that provide hope. If labor unions will get off their ass and stop focusing on narrow legislation for their members, if they will go back to being social unions that embrace broad causes, we have a chance of effecting change. If this does not happen it will be a right-wing disaster."

US commander pushes for rapid escalation of Afghanistan war

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By Bill Van Auken

With the release of a declassified version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendations for a change of course in Afghanistan, the Pentagon command is pushing President Barack Obama to quickly approve another major escalation of the US-led war.

The report was first made public Monday on the Web site of the Washington Post, which was leaked the document and then reached an agreement with the Pentagon to post a version from which key passages on US strategy were redacted.

The thrust of the document, submitted by McChrystal to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month, is hardly a surprise. It is an argument for a more aggressive—and bloodier—war in Afghanistan with a substantial increase in the number of American troops occupying the country.

While McChrystal gives no numbers in relation to the additional soldiers and Marines he believes should be thrown into the Afghanistan “surge,” he is expected to submit his proposal to the White House shortly.

McChrystal’s 66-page report bluntly describes the situation in Afghanistan as “deteriorating.” The general acknowledges that a “resilient and growing” resistance to the occupation has seized the “initiative” from US-led forces, which—after nearly eight years of fighting—have antagonized the population by inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties and by propping up a corrupt and hated puppet regime.

Media reports on McChrystal’s proposed change in strategy invariably refer to a supposed shift from hunting down “insurgents” to “protecting” the Afghan population. This innocuous rhetoric disguises the real content of the proposal, which is the prosecution of a far more aggressive counterinsurgency campaign that would send American troops into hostile population centers, like Kandahar City, to systematically suppress and intimidate popular opposition to US aims.

The US commander repeatedly criticizes what he describes as a preoccupation on the part of US and NATO commanders with “force protection” and calls for the occupation troops to operate with “less armor and less distance from the population.”

McChrystal acknowledges that the result will be a further escalation in bloodshed. “It is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase,” he writes.

Given McChrystal’s background as the former chief of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command—tasked with hunting down and assassinating individuals deemed terrorists by the US government—the increasing use of similar methods in Afghanistan can be anticipated. This would likely involve death squads composed of Afghan security forces and US “advisors” killing suspected opponents of the occupation and intimidating the rest of the population.

The general’s report also includes a section on the detention of “insurgents,” which stresses that this should be an “Afghan-run system” that would guarantee US forces “access to detainees for interrogation.” No doubt, McChrystal is incorporating lessons learned in Iraq, when the unit he commanded became notorious for the torture of detainees at the prison facility it operated. Giving Afghan security forces formal responsibility for the detention system provides the US military with a buffer against similar torture charges.

There is one glaring contradiction in McChrystal’s report. It stresses repeatedly that the counterinsurgency operation can only succeed if the Afghan people support their government against the elements resisting occupation. At the same time, however, it acknowledges that “corruption and abuse of power by various officials…have given Afghans little reason to support their government.” The report was submitted just after the wholesale fraud in last month’s Afghan election stripped the regime of President Hamid Karzai of the last pretense of legitimacy.

While including various references to achieving an “improvement in governance,” there is no indication of how this aim is to be achieved. Some analysts have begun referring to Karzai as the Afghan Diem, Washington’s puppet in Vietnam, whose corruption and abuse of the population came to be seen as an impediment to US counterinsurgency efforts, leading to his overthrow and assassination in a 1963 US-backed military coup.

McChrystal’s repeated references in the report to inadequate military “resources” in Afghanistan leave no doubt that he will seek tens of thousands of more troops deployed there.

“Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support,” he writes. “Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure.”

He states further: “Our campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced and remains so today. Almost every aspect of our collective effort and associated resourcing has lagged a growing insurgency—historically a recipe for failure.”

The content of the report and its being leaked to the media are part of mounting pressure from within the Pentagon for the Obama White House to quickly approve the further escalation of the Afghanistan war.

As the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, “Although the assessment was classified, senior military officials said it was only at the ‘confidential’ level, and several had urged it be made public in order to better explain to political leaders and the American people the new campaign being undertaken by Gen. McChrystal.”

The Washington Post reported that Obama administration officials are complaining that “the military has been trying to push Obama into a corner with public statements such as those of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the situation in Afghanistan is ‘serious and deteriorating’ and ‘probably needs more forces.’”

Given Obama’s plummeting approval rating and the growing public controversy over his health care restructuring proposals, the White House doubtless has little appetite for announcing a major escalation of the Afghanistan war, which is deeply unpopular, particularly among those who voted the Democratic president into office. The military brass, however, appears unwilling to tolerate further delay.

The Post cited a Pentagon official as indicating that this delay “is a source of growing consternation within the military.” The official told the paper, “There is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Republicans have solidarized themselves with this campaign by the military brass, pressing for McChrystal to be recalled to Washington to testify before Congress. Under the Bush administration similar testimony two years ago by Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of US forces in Iraq, served to quell opposition from congressional Democrats to the surge in that country.

For his part, Obama has insisted that no decision has been made on increasing troop levels beyond the additional 21,000 that he ordered into Afghanistan last March, bringing US forces there to 68,000.

“We are not going to put the cart before the horse and just think that by sending more troops, we’re automatically going to make Americans safe,” he said in one of several television interviews he gave Sunday as part of a media campaign aimed at drumming up support for his health care program. “Right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?” he said in another.

The Wall Street Journal speculated that the remarks suggest that Obama “might not rubber-stamp military officials’ expected request” for more troops and that the “White House could be reassessing its strategy in Afghanistan.”

However, Obama’s statements do not directly contradict McChrystal’s report, in which the general writes, “New resources are not the crux. To succeed, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] requires a new approach”; and “without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.”

Moreover, there are indications that the Afghan surge is already under way. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that the CIA has dramatically increased the number of “spies, analysts and paramilitary operatives” deployed in Afghanistan, and that its “presence in the country is expected to rival the size of its massive stations in Iraq and Vietnam at the height of those wars.”

Obama also stated Sunday that once he has reviewed recommendations on troop levels in Afghanistan, “what I will say to the American public is not going to be driven by the politics of the moment.” Given poll after poll indicating that a growing majority of the American people opposes the Afghan war and, by even wider margins, any escalation, Obama’s remark appeared to echo the frequent assertions by George W. Bush that he was not influenced by such popular sentiments.

Obama administration shields CIA torturers

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In response to a public campaign by the CIA, the Obama administration has decided to further scale back an already narrow investigation of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture during the Bush years that was announced last month by Attorney General Eric Holder.

In announcing the probe, Holder had made clear that it would be limited to CIA agents whose torture of alleged terrorists went beyond the bounds laid down by Bush administration directives. It would target neither the Justice Department lawyers who drew up findings providing a pseudo-legal justification for waterboarding, hanging prisoners from walls, placing them in boxes for hours on end, and similar crimes, nor the top Bush administration officials who ordered and oversaw such practices.

The CIA—including the current director and Obama appointee, Leon Panetta—and former Bush administration officials, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, have denounced Holder’s token probe, claiming that it will hamstring US intelligence operations and give aid and comfort to the terrorists.

On Friday, seven former CIA directors sent a letter to President Obama demanding that he quash the Holder inquiry. Signing the letter were directors under both Democratic and Republican administrations: Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet, John Deutch, R. James Woolsey, William Webster and James R. Schlesinger.

The next day, the Washington Post, in an article headlined “Inquiry into CIA Practices Narrows,” cited two unnamed sources as saying Holder’s investigation will “focus on a very small number of cases…” The Post went on to report that only “two or three” cases would be investigated out of dozens of examples of torture cited in a declassified Bush-era CIA inspector general’s report, which the Obama administration released last month on court order and in heavily redacted form.

Under consideration for investigation, according to the Post, are three cases in which prisoners were murdered while in US custody: the suffocation of Iraqi General Abed Hamed Mowhoush in November 2003; the killing the same month of Manadel al Jamadi, who was beaten by Navy Seals and died after a CIA agent ordered him hung from bars by his arms; and the murder seven years ago of a young man at a secret Afghanistan prison known as the “Salt Pit.” The youth, who had been abducted from Pakistan, was beaten and then chained to a concrete floor without blankets, where he froze to death.

The letter sent by the former CIA directors is an unabashed defense of torture and a public warning to the Obama administration. “Attorney General Holder’s decision to re-open the criminal investigations creates an atmosphere of continuous jeopardy for those whose cases the Department of Justice had previously declined to prosecute,” the letter declares.

It continues: “Those men and women who undertake difficult intelligence assignments in the aftermath of an attack such as September 11 must believe there is permanence in the legal rules that govern their actions. They must be free, as the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Senator Lieberman, has put it: ‘to do their dangerous and critical jobs without worrying that years from now a future attorney general will authorize a criminal investigation of them for behavior that a previous attorney general concluded was authorized and legal.’”

In fact, Holder has already announced an amnesty for those “men and women” who inflicted torture on detainees in line with Bush administration guidelines, citing similar grounds for shielding these torturers as those propounded by the former CIA directors and other defenders of torture as an instrument of US policy. In announcing the appointment of special prosecutor John Durham, Holder indicated he would limit the investigation to about a dozen so-called “rogue agents” who superseded the Bush administration’s written guidelines allowing torture.

If Obama refuses to give assurances against criminal investigations, the CIA directors’ letter continues, he “will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country. The administration must be mindful that public disclosure about past intelligence operations can only help Al Qaeda elude US intelligence and plan future operations.”

Since the end of 2001,the US has imprisoned tens of thousands of people at such infamous prisons as Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantánamo, in addition to an unknown number of secret CIA jails in Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. These prisoners have been denied legal recourse to challenge their detention, as the Bush and Obama administrations have asserted that “the war on terror” is governed neither by domestic US laws nor by the Geneva Conventions and other international laws banning torture.

Among the documented forms of torture carried out by US agents are murder, rape and other forms of sexual abuse and humiliation; threats to murder and rape family members of prisoners; beatings, waterboarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, high-pain “stress” positions, forced nudity, deprivation of food, extreme isolation and mock executions.

From the outset, Holder’s investigation was designed to protect the operations of the CIA and military in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere while, for public relations purposes, providing a show of opposition to torture.

To date, not a single CIA agent has been convicted of a crime relating to the abuse of prisoners. The CIA agent who oversaw the freezing death of the young detainee at the Salt Pit in Afghanistan—it was “one of his first big assignments” the Post notes—was later promoted by the CIA.

The defense of basic democratic rights requires that there be a thorough and public criminal investigation of the torture regime built up during the Bush administration, including the role of Vice President Cheney and President Bush himself.

Obama is opposed to any such investigation. In response to a question from CBS’s Bob Schieffer during his appearance on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” program, Obama reiterated his stock formula for opposing a serious investigation, saying, “I want to look forward and not backward when it comes to some of the problems that occurred under the previous administration, or when it came to interrogations.”

“I don’t want witch-hunts taking place,” he added.

The Obama administration’s protection of Bush administration torturers demonstrates that it is an accomplice to the crime after the fact. It is one more example of the continuity of Obama’s policies, notwithstanding his election campaign rhetoric about “change,” with those of his predecessor. It must be taken as a warning that the CIA and the military under Obama are carrying out similar crimes as those which took place under Bush.

The power of the military-intelligence apparatus has grown continually since World War II, to the point where it constitutes a virtual “state-within-a-state” largely unaccountable to and independent of elected civilian officials. The public campaign of the CIA to block a criminal investigation ordered by the government demonstrates the growing assertiveness of this apparatus. The cowering of the Obama administration and Congress before it underscores the decay of American democracy and the growing threat to the democratic rights of the American people.

Our war-loving Foreign Policy Community hasn't gone anywhere

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By Glenn Greenwald

Advocates of escalation in Afghanistan chose Bob Woodward to "reprise his role as warmonger hagiographer" by publishing Gen. Stanley McChrystal's "confidential" memo to the President arguing for increased troops. As Digby notes, the vague case for continuing to occupy that country is virtually identical to every instance where America's war-loving Foreign Policy Community advocates the need for new and continued wars. It's nothing more than America's standard, generic "war-is-necessary" rationale. That is not at all surprising, given that, as Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch notes:
The "strategic review" brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.
The link he provides is to this list of think tank "experts" who worked on McChrystal's review, including the standard group of America's war-justifying theorists: the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc. What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war? It's what they do. You wind them up and they spout theories to justify war. That's the function of America's Foreign Policy Community. As one of their leading members -- Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations -- recently wrote in re-examining the causes of his enthusiastic support for the attack on Iraq:
Coming from Gelb, of all people, that observation speaks volumes. As I wrote in 2007:
The Foreign Policy Community -- a term which excludes those in primarily academic positions -- is not some apolitical pool of dispassionate experts examining objective evidence and engaging in academic debates. Rather, it is a highly ideological and politicized establishment, and its dominant bipartisan ideology is defined by extreme hawkishness, the casual use of military force as a foreign policy tool, the belief that war is justified not only in self-defense but for any "good result," and most of all, the view that the U.S. is inherently good and therefore ought to rule the world through superior military force.
That "experts" from the "Foreign Policy Community" endorse more war is about as surprising -- and as relevant -- as former CIA Directors banding together to decide that they oppose the prosecution of CIA agents. The only event that would be news is if a group of people drawn from that "community" ever did anything other than endorse more war [and in the few instances where one hears war hesitation from them, it's always on strategic grounds ("we may not be able to achieve our mission") and never on legal, moral or humanitarian grounds ("it's really not morally or legally justifiable to slaughter enormous numbers of innocent human beings under these circumstances, or to bomb, invade and occupy a country that isn't attacking us or even able to attack us").
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We're not even out of Iraq yet -- not really close -- and there is already an intense competition underway to determine where we should wage war next. Escalation in Afghanistan is just one option on the menu. Iran, of course, is the other (although Venezuela has replaced Syria as a nice dark horse contestant). In October, 2008, The Washington Post published an Op-Ed from former Senators Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Dan Coats (R-In.) urging the next President "to begin building up military assets in the region from day one" towards "launching a devastating strike on Iran's nuclear and military infrastructure." That October, 2008 Op-Ed was based on a new report they co-authored for the so-called (and aptly named) "Bipartisan Policy Center," which I analyzed here.
Today, they have a new Post Op-Ed breathlessly warning that "we have little time left to expend on Iranian stalling tactics" because "Iran will be able to produce a nuclear weapon by 2010" and therefore, if there is no quick diplomatic resolution, "in early 2010, the White House should elevate consideration of the military option." Today's Op-Ed is based an updated report they issued which shrieks in its title that "Time is Running Out" (a phrase melodramatically super-imposed on the cover over an Iranian flag and an almost-expired hourglass: be afraid, for time is running out on all of us). The report itself (.pdf) repeatedly demands that the U.S. threaten Iran with severe military action, beginning with a naval blockade (the Report's advocacy for that action begins by noting, with a dismissive yawn: "Although technically an act of war . . . ." - what we're advocating is "technically an act of war": whatever). It then proceeds to lay out the more advanced stages of what our attack on Iran would entail.
The arguments for attacking Iran are so similar to the ones used for Iraq that it's striking how little effort they make to pretend it's different (Iran will get nukes, give them to Terrorists, we'll lose a city, etc.) The Bipartisan Policy Center Report never takes note of the irony that it "justifies" a threat of attack against Iran by pointing to that country's violations of U.N. Resolutions, even as Article 2 of the U.N. Charter explicitly provides that "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" -- a prohibition which Sens. Robb and Coats demand the U.S. violate over and over. As always, we're exempt from everything. Just imagine what our elite class would say if Iran's leading newspapers routinely published articles from leaders of its two largest political parties explicitly advocating a detailed plan to attack, invade, blockade and bomb the U.S.
Also today in The Post, Fred Hiatt's Deputy Editor, Jackson Diehl, argues that Israel's so-called "success" in its attack on Gaza and the lack of bad outcomes from that attack may/should create the view that "even a partial and short-term reversal of the Iranian nuclear program may look to Israelis like a reasonable benefit." When examining the costs and benefits, Diehl does not weigh or even mention the more than 700 civilians killed in Gaza (252 of them children, according to an Israeli human rights group), nor the fact that, according to a U.N. Report, Israelis (and Hamas) engaged in war crimes so serious that they may constitute "crimes against humanity" warranting a war crimes tribunal. When I interviewed one of the "expert consultants" on the Robb/Coats Attack-Iran report last October (Kenneth Katzman), he explicitly acknowledged that, when formulating its recommendations for attacking Iran, the "Bipartisan Policy Center" never considered the number of Iranian civilians we would slaughter if the plan were implemented (you remember Iranian Civilians: the ones whom Bomb-Iran cheerleaders recently pretended to care so much about). "Number of civilian deaths" never enters the war-justifying equation because the people doing the weighing aren't the ones who will be killed.
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It's hard to overstate how aberrational -- one might say "rogue" -- the U.S. is when it comes to war. No other country sits around debating, as a routine and permanent feature of its political discussions, whether this country or that one should be bombed next, or for how many more years conquered targets should be occupied. And none use war as a casual and continuous tool for advancing foreign policy interests, at least nowhere close to the way we do (the demand that Iran not possess nuclear weapons is clearly part of an overall, stated strategy of ensuring that other countries remain incapable of deterring us from attacking them whenever we want to). Committing to a withdrawal from Iraq appears to be acceptable, but only as long as have our escalations and new wars lined up to replace it (and that's to say nothing of the virtually invisible wars we're fighting). For the U.S., war is the opposite of a "last resort": it's the more or less permanent state of affairs, and few people who matter want it to be any different.
The factions that exert the most dominant influence on our foreign policy have only one principle: a state of permanent warfare is necessary (the public and private military industry embraces that view because wars are what bestow them with purpose, power and profits, and the Foreign Policy Community does so because -- as Gelb says -- it bestows "political and professional credibility"). In his 1790 Political Observation, James Madison warned: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded. . . . No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Can anyone doubt that "continual warfare" is exactly what the U.S. does and, by all appearances, will continue to do for the foreseeable future (at least until we not only run out of money to pay for these wars -- as we already have -- but also the ability to finance these wars with more debt)? That proposition is indisputable; it's true by definition. Doesn't turning ourselves into a permanent war-fighting state have some rather serious repercussions that ought to be weighed when deciding if that's something we really want to keep doing?
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On an unrelated note: Tomorrow at roughly 10:30 a.m., I'll be on NPR's On Point with the ACORN-obsessed John Fund of The Wall St. Journal to talk about the ACORN "scandal." I have many things to say to/about John Fund (some based on this post); along those lines, note this amazing report that 25 of the GOP Senators who just voted to cut off funding to ACORN opposed, in 2006, legislation to curb abuse and fraud by federal contractors, including the ones eating up billions upon billions of dollars in taxpayer funds in Iraq. Local listings and live audio feed for On Point are here.
UPDATE: It's worth noting that, almost invariably, the people who beat the drum for endless, debt-creating wars and a bankruptcy-inducing imperial foreign policy love to parade around as "fiscal conservatives" and "deficit hawks" when it comes to providing actual services to Americans. They support constant war and occupation which burns trillions of dollars and turns us into a debtor nation, and then run around lecturing everyone on the need to restrain spending.