Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Death of Public Responsibility


        Those who value citizen participation in political theory – republicans – have since ancient times seen a citizen army as a great defender of equal liberty.  A standing army with a professional leadership often undermines that liberty.  Over and above the people – Marx’s phrase for what he named a parasite state - it can be a source of coups or an instrument of tyranny.  Growing out of revolution, the American regime initially emphasized an armed citizenry (what has sadly degenerated into the private mantra of gun fanatics).

        Under the Bush administration, now strengthened by Obama, a particularly disturbing trend has emerged.  Not a professional army (the kind that includes soldiers and officers like John Mearsheimer or Andrew Bacevich, who have become leading opponents of U.S. occupations), but a mercenary army is now what the U.S. mobilizes.  Under Obama, according to a new memo written by Senator Claire McCaskill (Missouri) and reported by Jeremy Scahill (below), 69% of all those employed by the Pentagon are contractors – more than 2/3.  In Afghanistan, for the first time, some 70% of American “troops” are private contractors  - mercenaries – not “volunteer” soldiers. The Imperial force in Afghanistan is overwhelming a contractor army, one that has eaten the actual military from within and left but a decaying husk.   See Scott Horton here.  

       In contrast, the real soldiers - the remaining third discussed by Obama in public - are in general forced by poverty to volunteer.  The army in this respect has heavy representation of minorities, particularly blacks, and rural whites.  They get to look on while others make perhaps 10 times the salary, doing the same military work.  Is military work – and potentially giving your life for your country – really a public matter any more? Think of Pat Tillman here.   Or has this too been privatized except for the poor?  Among the privileged, what is not for sale?

       It is a sign of the corruption or decadence of the United States – the defense by its government, as Aristotle might have put it, of a private interest, that of massive corporations like Ze (Blackwater) or Halliburton – that our military is no longer a standing army, with the danger of corruption, but is, instead,  a contract army, a paradigm of corruption.  The drowsy pols – including Obama who knows better – allow oversight of these private operations by other contractors.  The government, except for a rare report indicating its debilities as employer/supervisor, cannot be bothered to figure out how the money is spent.

      This was true of the Pentagon even in the era of the several thousand dollar toilet that some officer charged (about 30 years ago, this was a scandal).  Everyone knows that the Pentagon is unaccountable, that politicians and the mainstream media ride the wave of the military-industrial complex and never peer into the depths to see where the money goes, the corruption that characterizes this last main bastion of American industry and resourcefulness.  But what has happened is a whole new dimension of government serving big business.  It is not just that the health care bill has been sabotaged by Joseph Lieberman. married to the insurance companies, and Barack Obama.  That bill is now a plaything of those companies with no significant public dimension to compete with, no extension of medicare downward to 55 (promising further extensions in future until medicare for all), and 30 million people who will (hopefully with some government help) buy in.   It is not just that TARP threw public money at the big banks to make easy  profits at the expense of soaring unemployment  (17.5% according to David Leonhardt in the New York Times) and foreclosures of poor and often middle class people.  Even the army is now just contractees.  Obey the US government?  Have to see if my boss approves...

        Given a way out of the ghetto or rural hardship, the poor folks just stare at the massive profits of the “Christian” Xe organization (the one under Eric Prince that likes to murder Muslims as in Nissour Square in Baghdad), and the strutting immunities of the highly paid, including torturers.

       America today provides a novel dimension to normal capitalist dementia.  The tea-baggers mistakenly accuse Obama of a government take over to private corporations – their rallies are bankrolled themselves by these corporations – for doing anything in the public interest (trying to prevent people being removed from the insurance rolls by preexisting conditions, when they get sick - the still decent core of the healthcare reform).  Obama’s bill cleverly outflanks the rightwing.  Since he has accomodated the insurance companies, they will perhaps not attack him and probably send him money come the next Presidential election.  But again, this is the purest form of government serving only the private corporations, abandoning, under attack, all but a figleaf in words of a public or common good.  

       There is also news from Copenhagen today.  Instead of Bush the fool (a yoyo for corporations, particularly oil companies), we have Obama who knows the danger to humanity.  But lead the world to a reasonable agreement?  Barack and Hilary aren’t there.  American corporations will not submit to serious environmental regulation.  The one good proposal for saving the rain forests will accomplish some good.  Yet it has its own Joe Liebermans.  Apparently language has been removed from this agreement which would bar poor countries from cutting down forests and substituting large monoculture plantations.  The six big agriculture companies like Monsanto can feel good; their depredations or those of their contractees will now be rewarded with “climate credits” for destroying rain forests.  George Monbiot, the writer for the Guardian and environmental activist, was barred (as was every other representative from civil society) from the meetings.  He speaks of yesterday's shadow meetings and agreement as but 19th century diplomats, circling each other as if carving up Africa (they certainly did not listen to the pleas for survival of Africans).  He speaks of how states have opposed interests to those of their citizens and of humanity.  A decadent and futile imperial army of mercenaries combines with a massive failure - how serious Monbiot underlines - to deal with global warming as a threat to humanity.

      I have said before that Obama represents the best thing that could be hoped for – more than could be hoped for – in American politics.  His election thrilled the world.  That his policies have come to this is sad. He could be a leader.  Instead, he is just a way too clever for his own good, Imperial politician (he hopes to "nudge" corrupt policies to make them somewhat better, not to deal boldly, even in exceptional cases,  with the real problems).   It is also a darkening commentary on the likely fate of humanity.  Combine global warming and mad, privatized wars - they are shooting more and more drone missiles in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq (the insurgents get to listen in on drone reports, the newspapers mentioned yesterday; competence is not the Pentagon's or the CIA's strong point), and the human future on this planet looks increasingly grim.  In this sense, Heidegger’s foreboding  – or perhaps, more decently, Arendt’s – that capitalist liberalism is destroying the basis of life on earth  (originally, that Being-in-the-world is being threatened or uprooted by technology) seems an accurate adaptation of Marx’s indictment of capitalism to our circumstances.  A farmer, a citizen, a soldier, once defended a homeland against aggression (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Jefferson).  That was the ideal.  Today mercenaries provide the force for losing and foolish imperial occupations.  Diplomats and profiteeers circle as the planet and humanity - and they themselves - go under.  Perhaps they can escape in some space ship, as Arendt and Denise Levertov imagine. Homelessness, as Arendt says.  Rootlessness. 

        From below, ordinary people are pushing back on every issue.  But in the words of the Copenhagen slogan says, “Nature does not compromise”  (The Bella center has barred and arrested the civil society activists, previously invited by the UN to the meeting.   UN representative Deboer says this is okay.  To get a bad deal or no deal, keeping out the activists is the UN way.  There were no lines to get in yesterday because all the representatives of civil society have now turned their backs on the meeting).  And the future of American wars, even under the comparatively sensible and cautious Obama, is self-destructive and bleak.

Stunning Statistics About the War Every American Should Know

Contrary to popular belief, the US actually has 189,000 personnel on the ground in Afghanistan right now—and that number is quickly rising.

by Jeremy Scahill

A hearing in Sen. Claire McCaskill's Contract Oversight subcommittee on contracting in Afghanistan has highlighted some important statistics that provide a window into the extent to which the Obama administration has picked up the Bush-era war privatization baton and sprinted with it. Overall, contractors now comprise a whopping 69% of the Department of Defense's total workforce, "the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel in US history." That's not in one war zone-that's the Pentagon in its entirety.

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DynCorp instructor with police recruits in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, June 2008. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration blows the Bush administration out of the privatized water. (File image via TPM)

     In Afghanistan, the Obama administration blows the Bush administration out of the privatized water. According to a memo [PDF] released by McCaskill's staff, "From June 2009 to September 2009, there was a 40% increase in Defense Department contractors in Afghanistan.  During the same period, the number of armed private security contractors working for the Defense Department in Afghanistan doubled, increasing from approximately 5,000 to more than 10,000."

At present, there are 104,000 Department of Defense contractors in Afghanistan. According to a report this week from the Congressional Research Service, as a result of the coming surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, there may be up to 56,000 additional contractors deployed. But here is another group of contractors that often goes unmentioned: 3,600 State Department contractors and 14,000 USAID contractors. That means that the current total US force in Afghanistan is approximately 189,000 personnel (68,000 US troops and 121,000 contractors). And remember, that's right now. And that, according to McCaskill, is a conservative estimate. A year from now, we will likely see more than 220,000 US-funded personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.

The US has spent more than $23 billion on contracts in Afghanistan since 2002. By next year, the number of contractors will have doubled since 2008 when taxpayers funded over $8 billion in Afghanistan-related contracts.

Despite the massive number of contracts and contractors in Afghanistan, oversight is utterly lacking. "The increase in Afghanistan contracts has not seen a corresponding increase in contract management and oversight," according to McCaskill's briefing paper. "In May 2009, DCMA [Defense Contract Management Agency] Director Charlie Williams told the Commission on Wartime Contracting that as many as 362 positions for Contracting Officer's Representatives (CORs) in Afghanistan were currently vacant."

A former USAID official, Michael Walsh, the former director of USAID's Office of Acquisition and Assistance and Chief Acquisition Officer, told the Commission that many USAID staff are "administering huge awards with limited knowledge of or experience with the rules and regulations." According to one USAID official, the agency is "sending too much money, too fast with too few people looking over how it is spent." As a result, the agency does not "know ... where the money is going."

The Obama administration is continuing the Bush-era policy of hiring contractors to oversee contractors. According to the McCaskill memo:

In Afghanistan, USAID is relying on contractors to provide oversight of its large reconstruction and development projects.  According to information provided to the Subcommittee, International Relief and Development (IRD) was awarded a five-year contract in 2006 to oversee the $1.4 billion infrastructure contract awarded to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group and Black and Veatch Special Projects.  USAID has also awarded a contract Checci and Company to provide support for contracts in Afghanistan.

The private security industry and the US government have pointed to the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker(SPOT) as evidence of greater government oversight of contractor activities. But McCaskill's subcommittee found that system utterly lacking, stating: "The Subcommittee obtained current SPOT data showing that there are currently 1,123 State Department contractors and no USAID contractors working in Afghanistan." Remember, there are officially 14,000 USAID contractors and the official monitoring and tracking system found none of these people and less than half of the State Department contractors.

As for waste and abuse, the subcommittee says that the Defense Contract Audit Agency identified more than $950 million in questioned and unsupported costs submitted by Defense Department contracts for work in Afghanistan. That's 16% of the total contract dollars reviewed.


Copenhagen Negotiators Bicker and Filibuster While the Biosphere Burns

George Monbiot despairs at the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous climate summit

by George Monbiot

First they put the planet in square brackets, now they have deleted it from the text. This is no longer about saving the biosphere: now it's just a matter of saving face. As the talks melt down, everything that might have made a new treaty worthwhile is being scratched out. Any deal will do, as long as the negotiators can pretend they have achieved something. A clearer and less destructive treaty than the texts currently being discussed would be a sheaf of blank paper, which every negotiating party solemnly sits down to sign.

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A journalist reads the latest draft of the Copenhagen Accord at the climate summit. (Photograph: Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

This is the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous summit. The event has been attended by historic levels of incompetence. Delegates arriving from the tropics spent 10 hours queueing in sub-zero temperatures without shelter, food or drink, let alone any explanation or announcement, before being turned away. Some people fainted from exposure; it's surprising that no one died. The process of negotiation is just as obtuse: there's no evidence here of the innovative methods of dispute resolution developed recently by mediators and coaches, just the same old pig-headed wrestling.

Watching this stupid summit via webcam (I wasn't allowed in either), it strikes me that the treaty-making system has scarcely changed in 130 years. There's a wider range of faces, fewer handlebar moustaches, frock coats or pickelhaubes, but otherwise, as the world's governments try to decide how to carve up the atmosphere, they might have been attending the conference of Berlin in 1884. It's as if democratisation and the flowering of civil society, advocacy and self-determination had never happened. Governments, whether elected or not, without reference to their own citizens let alone those of other nations, assert their right to draw lines across the global commons and decide who gets what. This is a scramble for the atmosphere comparable in style and intent to the scramble for Africa.

At no point has the injustice at the heart of multilateralism been addressed or even acknowledged: the interests of states and the interests of the world's people are not the same. Often they are diametrically opposed. In this case, most rich and rapidly developing states have sought through these talks to seize as great a chunk of the atmosphere for themselves as they can - to grab bigger rights to pollute than their competitors. The process couldn't have been better designed to produce the wrong results.

I have spent most of my time at the Klimaforum, the alternative conference set up by just four paid staff, which 50,000 people attended without a hitch. (I know which team I would put in charge of saving the planet.) There the barrister Polly Higgins laid out a different approach. Her declaration of planetary rights invests ecosystems with similar legal safeguards to those won by humans after the second world war. It changes the legal relationship between humans, the atmosphere and the biosphere from ownership to stewardship. It creates a global framework for negotiation which gives nation states less discretion to dispose of ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Even before this new farce began it was beginning to look as if it might be too late to prevent two or more degrees of global warming. The nation states, pursuing their own interests, have each been passing the parcel of responsibility since they decided to take action in 1992. We have now lost 17 precious years, possibly the only years in which climate breakdown could have been prevented. This has not happened by accident: it is the result of a systematic campaign of sabotage by certain states, driven and promoted by the energy industries. This idiocy has been aided and abetted by the nations characterised, until now, as the good guys: those that have made firm commitments, only to invalidate them with loopholes, false accounting and outsourcing. In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind. Corporate profits and political expediency have proved more urgent considerations than either the natural world or human civilisation. Our political systems are incapable of discharging the main function of government: to protect us from each other.

       Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea, ice, coral reefs and rainforst.  It was nice knowing you.  Not that we really cared.  The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.

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