So big it’s small

Digby has struggled to articulate America’s problems as a superpower. She links to a piece by James Fallows, who, in turn, posts a reader’s comment. Here is a salient point:

There is only one good reason to intervene in Syria: to prevent more innocent civilians from being burnt and gassed to death in their own homes – one can only imagine the true horror. And while that is a fine reason for wanting to intervene, it doesn’t change the essential fact: none of the options laid before us will likely be effective in achieving that long term.

Digby tells us:

The greatest advantage this nation really has is the mystery of its power. When it decides it must intervene and fails to accomplish its stated goals, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, that mystique is eroded and it’s very difficult to get it back. Demonstrating over and over again that it doesn’t have the agility to affect behavioral change with its mighty military force (and is sloppy, at best, with its intelligence capabilities) is a mistake. It emboldens foolish people to take chances they wouldn’t otherwise take and risks escalating into the major confrontation that the US doesn’t want to have to wage.

In today’s New York Times:

Pentagon officials have moved warships and other military assets closer to Syria in preparation for a possible attack, which would most likely involve the use of cruise missiles. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the military is ready to execute any decision by Mr. Obama.

No lessons learned in this White House.

Obama channels Clinton

Matthew Yglesias:

My impression is that Obama and his team know all this and agree with it all, just like they know this is a total parenting strawman. It’s just the faint echoes of Sister Souljah rattling around American racial politics. But it rankles.

What Obama presumably knows is that eradicating poverty, whether or not with the intention to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, requires lots of government funding and programs. But Obama told the Washington crowd something different. He said, as quoted by Yglesias:

And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support — as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

I must be getting cranky in my old age, but I find words increasingly empty. When do we (and Obama) act? That speeches reign supreme suggests later rather than sooner. Oh, and forget about the Republicans, who were conspicuously absent from the commemoration, just as they are from governance.

Media as business

A refreshing, if not altogether obvious essay on media as entertainment as profit-maximizers. I put the conditional in there because not everyone gets that what we see on television, especially, has everything to do with generating revenues for sponsors. Those who have read their Chomsky and Hermann need no such reminder.

…It’s useful to remember that if something is “free”, you’re what’s being sold. TV and internet news sites cost nothing to watch, and the companies that produce it have nothing to sell but your attention. This reality has far more of an influence on the news we see than anyone’s political agenda.

Here we go again?

Can you hear the drumbeats? They are getting louder as national leaders step up their propaganda for the next war. This time it’s Syria. The pretext is an ugly one: the alleged use of sarin gas by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, of which the Obama administration claims to have indisputable evidence.

I have problems with all of this, perhaps you do, too.

First, by what authority does the United States arrogate to itself the presumptuous responsibility to mete out justice? Is it because we’re the biggest bully on the block? Is it because we have the most guns? Is it because we possess the highest morals? Is it because we are the de facto empire carrying a mandate to maintain global order? Is it because the U.S. has a history of “humanitarian intervention” and why stop now? Or is it because we desperately need a distraction, with the world economy stuck in neutral?

I, for one, find it difficult to imagine that the Finns wake up to their morning papers with headlines announcing Helsinki itching for a declaration of war. Same for the inhabitants of Chile or South Korea. If there are headlines about the looming attack on Syria they are all about the U.S. and efforts to persuade the United Nations to give its blessing.

Second, and as Peter Jackson asks in this morning’s Everett Herald, what happens the day after we strike? He writes:

You can’t unscramble the egg, which is why the Obama administration needs to game-out all of the day-after questions. What happens after cruise missiles hamstring the regime’s command and control? Will the United States enforce a no-fly zone? After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are Americans willing to spill more blood and treasure in the Middle East?

It wasn’t all that long ago that we employed—as one of many pretexts for attack and invasion—Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons “on his own people.” At the time he gave the order, Hussein was our buddy. Then he had to go all unreliable on us, including his invading Kuwait. That we chose to bomb and occupy turned out very badly, with continuing adverse consequences.

I might suggest, then, that we not base foreign policy decisions on the nobility of rationales, though I’m not prepared to offer prescriptions for foreign interventions, save for two: Did someone cause us harm or threaten us with the same? Can we be certain that our actions improve matters? Acting against Syria fails on both accounts, if history is any guide to the latter.

Third, the messiness of the Middle East militates against any easy, clear-cut solutions, regardless of who is trying to do the solving and how. The many factions at play, both within and without Syria, nearly guarantee that actions taken against one will trigger reactions from others in ways that we cannot possibly anticipate.

Fourth, and to elaborate on the last point, I do not see the likelihood of developing any coherent “plan for the Middle East” that satisfies multiple criteria, including how actions against Syria would fit. Moreover, even if one could be devised, proper execution can hardly be assured.

My list does not begin to exhaust the challenges. One hopes that the Obama administration follows Peter Jackson’s advice before committing to any strategy involving the use of force. The time to question is before, not after the fact.

A poignant essay on MLK and economics

Joseph Stiglitz, who won a Nobel prize in economics, began his academic career hoping to become a theoretical physicist. Then he stood amongst tens of thousands in Washington, D.C., to witness Martin Luther King’s speech. Stiglitz was only 20 at the time, August of 1963, but “I have a dream” resonated deeply. He tells readers of the New York Times how Dr. King influenced his decision to enter the field of economics.

At the time, much of his eventual profession was all about models and rational expectations and the unlimited virtues of the free market. Few were talking about inequality, turning a blind eye to Dr. King’s message. Stiglitz quotes a fellow Nobel laureate, Robert Lucas:

“Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”

After citing troublesome statistics about persistent poverty and the economic divide, Stiglitz concludes:

I turned 70 earlier this year. Much of my scholarship and public service in recent decades — including my service at the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, and then at the World Bank — has been devoted to the reduction of poverty and inequality. I hope I’ve lived up to the call Dr. King issued a half-century ago.

He was right to recognize that these persistent divides are a cancer in our society, undermining our democracy and weakening our economy. His message was that the injustices of the past were not inevitable. But he knew, too, that dreaming was not enough.

RFK spied on MLK

From Bloomberg News:

Initially approved in October 1963 by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI’s wiretap and hidden-microphone campaign against King lasted until his assassination in April 1968. It was initially justified to probe King’s suspected, unproven links to the Communist Party, morphing into a crusade to “neutralize” and discredit the civil rights leader.

William Sullivan, the head of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King, wrote in a memo:

“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech” that “he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan said. “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

In light of recent revelations about the U.S. spying on its citizens, nothing has changed.