Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Institutional Lock-in: a conversation with Michael Schwartz, part 1

My friend Mike Schwartz who has written brilliantly on Iraq – see here, for example - recently wrote me a letter. Mike was one of the teachers of Social Relations 148 (along with Jack Stauder), a radical course for 400 students at Harvard in 1968-69 during the anti-Vietnam war movement. I led one of the sections along with Sue Neiman (there were 20 sections). Mike has always been an outstanding activist and scholar (I have written about his book Radical Protest and Social Structure: the Southern Farmers Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-90, which strikingly captures the common interests in fighting racism of poor whites and blacks). So I reproduce two social theory questions from his letter to me, and supply the beginnings of answers. The first:

“great to discover your blog. Went there and read the commentary on Uyghurs and torture [here]. Measured, substantive, and insightful…One point about your argument there: I like the metaphor that Cheney (not Bush) "bent the stick very far to the Right, far from the rule of law" so that Obama might not be able to bend it back. It suggests an institutional "lock-in" effect in which certain decisions become congealed policy. Here, however, is my question: what are the institutionally congealed elements that made it so difficult to reverse? In the case of torture, rendition, etc, it appears that they were easy to unleash, so why not equally easy to releash? It's a puzzle I have worried over in any number of contexts; maybe you have a good sense of how this works.”

The question Mike raises about institutional lock-in is a profound one. One way I think about it is this. There is a rightwing or reactionary two-step in the kind of two party competition (both catering to oligarchy) that we have here. See here. So every decent thing taken away or eroded - what happens generally to reform under capitalism, absent mass movements from below - has no strong tendency to reappear when the Democrats come back into power. In the case of torture and the rule of law, this effect is heightened because the entire Bush-Cheney administration committed crimes. They can't go abroad (even the former Secretary of State Condi Rice). In response to Wikileaks’ heroic release of documents on Iraq, UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak (the leading German civil liberties specialist) called again Monday for Obama to live up to his legal obligations as a signer of the Convention against Torture and commission an investigation. Any independent legal proceeding will result in many indictments. Though Obama commendably stopped waterboarding for a while, he decided a) to become an accomplice to torture, leaving the door open for more as soon as Palin or Romney or Petraeus or Hillary comes in, and b) to try to appear tough on national security issues so as not to be outdone by the war complex and the Republican screamers. A yo-yo of the Bush administration, the New York Times, emblematic of the corporate press, routinely deteriorates words. Other regimes torture, the Times; "reporting" says, but American waterboarding, for example, is but a "harsh interrogation method."* Torture is thus locked in because the elite will not send all the leaders of the Bush administration, with the possible exception of Colin Powell into the dock…

This is no necessity in a parliamentary system (in a capitalist regime). Note the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has launched legal investigations of the crimes committed by MI-6 in cooperating with the CIA'a torture and extraordinary renditions. Perhaps the crimes in Britain were not as extensive (though Tony Blair and David Miliband, I am sad to say – I was a student of his father’s – have likely criminal responsibility). But the Prime Minister can do something to preserve the rule of law even without perhaps going to the top. In America, in contrast, the crimes were far more extensive, the dependence on the war complex far deeper and harder to undo. For instance, the weapons manufacturer GE owns NBC and MSNBC which got the Obama administration’s “scoop” on the mainly phony – 50,000 troops and 75,000 Xe/Blackwater mercenaries remaining – shift in the Iraq occupation away from fighting. Olbermann and Maddow are often critical of Republicans and more rarely Obama – except when it comes to impeialist war plans, when they become as corrupt as Michael Gordon of the New York Times.**

While more than 2 million people are in prison in the United States – some 25% of the world’s prison population for 5% of its population as Andrew Sullivan estimated it yesterday here - and Clinton was impeached for bad sex in the oval office, war crimes from the tyrannical Right - "commander in chief power" - are not investigated. Obama has now made them a bipartisan legal regime in Jack Balkin's apt phrase. Here some additional thinking about the way the war complex makes America today particularly vulnerable to authoritarianism compared to Europe would be especially in order. Even so, I am not sure the lock-in – real enough now – was a necessity. As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his talk in Denver – see here – Obama could have acted very differently when he came into to power, launched independent commissions as well as moved far more fiercely toward creating jobs and a green economy. He would have met fierce opposition – yes, but the current opposition (the birther movement, the propaganda that Obama is Muslim, the racist redbaiting that he is a “communist-socialist-national socialist – religious- foreign, not birth certificate holding other” – the inane Tea-Baggers spurred on by the Koch Brothers, BP and Fox news and Rove - is fierce…Of course Obama might have been shot like Kennedy, whose actions in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis saved us from nuclear extinction, but whom the military elite – Lyman Lemnitzer head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Curtis Lemay – also fiercely opposed. Lemnitzer even concocted a plan for Americans disguised as Cubans shooting other Americans in American cities to be a pretext for war. See "Operation Northwoods" here. That is a shadowy story – showing that the military is often way crazy, a fact that deserves to be taken in, but also that it doesn’t always, let alone of necessity, get its way in policy. Of course, this crazed opposition in the military elite escaped the Warren Commission in its prima facie bizarre report…***

On the American aggression in Afghanistan (one that had more seeming justification among Americans than the plainly immoral invasion of Iraq), a kind of lock in has occurred with escalation despite Obama’s intention. Even Obama's back-up plan to escalate for a year and then pivot looks as if it will fail; the military wants to keep troops fighting through 2014 or longer. Obama had also intended to use drones to escalate in Pakistan – he has thus escalated the murder of civilians, see here – and downphase in Afghanistan. The cause of the escalation in Afghanistan is the power of the war complex - the military-industrial-commercial media-think tank– political-intelligence/covert operations complex and - this is a specific part of it - the reactionary two-step. Of course, this power also occasions Obama's murderousness via drones in Pakistan, recently blocked to some extent by the resistance of the Pakistan government. See here). The right wing criticism is always; though Obama is waging five occupations – the US is no longer overtly fighting in Iraq, but still has 125,000 troops there - and aggressions by drone in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, he's not tough, he's not one of us...The pressure moves always to the right. As a result: Petraeus, not Obama, has enormous power to decide whether the US stays fighting in Afghanistan for the next few years.

But Petraeus has no idea of what victory would consist in. To waste trillions of dollars on ultra-expensive mercenaries (Xe/Blackwater mercenaries get 10 times the pay of ordinary soldiers) for nothing is the war complex’s idea of utopia at the moment. Now Petraeus, too, has run up against reality: Pakistan closed one of the two border crossings for convoys to resupply American troops in Afghanistan and allowed the Pakistani Taliban to blow up trucks lined all the way back to Karachi. As a result, Obama had to scale back drone attacks and crossborder helicopter murders of Pakistani soldiers located supposedly near the Taliban.

As Obama has emphasized, Pakistan is the location of Al-Qaida. But Obama has sadly used moving out of Afghanistan to legitimize to himself murder by drones in Pakistan (the "only thing the US can do," according to Democratic “experts”). But some phasing down may be possible because even the military leadership knows that it can not engage in and lose so many wars and occupations at once. Note that the US is currently trying to encourage a deal between Afghan President and American-client Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. Nonetheless, only popular discontent - widespread already, but needing to rise up - will get US troops and missiles out of these places – make Americans more safe – and begin to bend the war complex “into plowshares.” See here.

Mike writes eloquently on TomDispatch which I highly recommend as do Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson (I link to Tom Dispatch on this website). Mike offered the following thought about Bacevich's and Johnson's evolution which also applies to Ray McGovern (the Presidential daily briefer for the CIA for four presidents over 27 years) or to Ann Wright, a longstanding diplomat who resigned over the Iraq aggression (one of three) and now works with Cindy Sheehan and was on the Mavi Marmara (an act of great courage):

“And, speaking of Bacevich and Johnson, who are both TomDispatch authors and friends of Engelhardt, who is my constant intellectual companion, the irony of their political migrations never fails to reach me, especially when they are speaking from their life experiences. I ask him about it quite frequently without getting satisfactory answers. He seems to think it is a natural progression. But I wonder how these migrations are animated and whether they are far more general than we know, among those who leave military/intelligence service and simply do not articulate their viewpoints.”

When one is in the military, the CIA or the State Department, I suspect one really sees the unvarnished reality of the Empire, and the murderousness – often for no reason - and self-destructiveness of much of what it does. For me, it was living in Pakistan as a teenager, seeing the oppressiveness of the military elite toward what became Bangla Desh – see here - the immense suffering, the hundreds of children at the Indian Ocean beaches near Karachi begging for Baksheeh sahib – give me some money – and not having the rupees, there were not enough drops in the Indian ocean – to help them. And I saw the Americans, my father, a New Dealer trying to help, but the others, officers, businessmen, embassy people, some very honorable ones, but most cynical... There were no American workers – just Pakistani servants and the vast body of the poor, the refugees from India at Partition still in the camps. The class nature of American foreign policy stood out before me in emblematic form. I learned also later from protesting the Vietnam war and being in the civil rights movement. One is there; one sees. And then one can act on it. Other people abroad saw, and I had acquaintances often in SDS, or in anti-war activities subsequently, for instance Peter Linebaugh, Beth Harvey and Boj Kibbee, who were children of State Department people with affection for democracy (David Linebaugh, as I have mentioned, hated, for example, US aid to the Pakistani dictator and his words are still with me*****).

Even inside the apparatus, one can see. Many Catholics in particular have a profound moral sense – being invited to be in the CIA or the military ostensibly to defend democacy against “commies” or terrorists, and then being forced to pursue reaction and see just what the Empire does, or even participate in crimes. Probably, it often gets to be too much. One CIA man Robert McGahee talks in the film “Hearts and Minds” about dreaming of climbing up to a roof top of a hotel in Vietnam with a sign "America Lies" and jumping off. Both Johnson’s Blowback and Bacevich’s Washington Rules, introduction, tell stories one might learn a great deal from and admire. The difference between ideology or partisanship and seeing and speaking the truth or doing philosophy is precisely that one has a stopping point. One will not deny what is before one’s eyes. There are some things one will not do or tolerate. One might even draw an analogy with Percival (Parzival) and the quest for the grail. There are, even in this wasteland of Empire, people who are genuine, who will not do monstrous things just because of "higher orders" or sleepwalk as "good Germans." Daniel Ellsberg, for example, or Private Bradley Manning or Julian Assange are notable examples (if Manning, who had been fiercely attacked and not spoken to the mainstream media, is not being framed). It is that which is so far lacking in Condi Rice who has done great crimes, though not in Jack Goldsmith and Jim Comey in the Bush administration. That the latter have not gone that far is, given their starting point – reactionaries who nonetheless believed in the rule of law – unsurprising. What is admirable about humans is not that we are noble and get it right all the time – no one comes close - but that finally and with great effort and suffering, some of us do sometimes see the truth, and against the odds, stand up for it.

*Ezra Pound once made much from the Right about the deterioration of words as a sign of the decline of Confucian "order." But a major sign of American decadence is also debasing of the legal and moral meaning of words. One might also think of Thucydides' description of Corcyra...

**Gordon co-counterfeited with Judith Miller the front-page stories on putative Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, provided by Cheney's informant Chalabi. Unlike the rest of the world which ran stories on American torture and official prevention of investigation of Iraqi torture last weekend, Gordon took the Wikileaks' release of 400,000 pages of army documents as a demonstration that Iran was connected to Iraqi murders of American soldiers - a seeming casus belli. This was what the Times took as the main story from the release.

***I never took the controversies about the assassination in deeply, but also did not know of Lemnitzer’s proposal which was only released in 1997 by a commission reviewing the Kennedy assassination and in 2001 by the Pentagon [h/tRobert Cohen], It makes the context in the elite rather different from what has made it into the New York Times or official statements. James Bamford summarized Operation Northwoods in his 2001 book Body of Secrets:

"Operation Northwoods, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war."

The words of the Appendix to the document, commissioned by Brigadier Geneal Edward Lansdale, Chief of Operations of the Cuba Project, are below (see also here):

"Since it would seem desirable to use legitimate provocation as the basis for US military intervention in Cuba a cover and deception plan, to include requisite preliminary actions such as has been developed in response to Task 33 c, could be executed as an initial effort to provoke Cuban reactions. Harassment plus deceptive actions to convince the Cubans of imminent invasion would be emphasized. Our military posture throughout execution of the plan will allow a rapid change from exercise to intervention if Cuban response justifies.

A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.
a. Incidents to establish a credible attack (not in chronological order):
Start rumors (many). Use clandestine radio.
Land friendly Cubans in uniform "over-the-fence" to stage attack on base.
Capture Cuban (friendly) saboteurs inside the base.
Start riots near the base main gate (friendly Cubans).[13]
Blow up ammunition inside the base; start fires.
Burn aircraft on air base (sabotage).
Lob mortar shells from outside of base into base. Some damage to installations.
Capture assault teams approaching from the sea or vicinity of Guantanamo City.
Capture militia group which storms the base.
Sabotage ship in harbor; large fires—napthalene.
Sink ship near harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock-victims (may be in lieu of (10)).
b. United States would respond by executing offensive operations to secure water and power supplies, destroying artillery and mortar emplacements which threaten the base.
c. Commence large scale United States military operations.

A "Remember the Maine" incident could be arranged in several forms:
a. We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.
b. We could blow up a drone (unmanned) vessel anywhere in the Cuban waters. We could arrange to cause such incident in the vicinity of Havana or Santiago as a spectacular result of Cuban attack from the air or sea, or both. The presence of Cuban planes or ships merely investigating the intent of the vessel could be fairly compelling evidence that the ship was taken under attack. The nearness to Havana or Santiago would add credibility especially to those people that might have heard the blast or have seen the fire. The US could follow up with an air/sea rescue operation covered by US fighters to "evacuate" remaining members of the non-existent crew. Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.
We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington.[14]
The terror campaign could be pointed at refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement, also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government.

A "Cuban-based, Castro-supported" filibuster could be simulated against a neighboring Caribbean nation (in the vein of the 14th of June invasion of the Dominican Republic). We know that Castro is backing subversive efforts clandestinely against Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Nicaragua at present and possible others. These efforts can be magnified and additional ones contrived for exposure. For example, advantage can be taken of the sensitivity of the Dominican Air Force to intrusions within their national air space. "Cuban" B-26 or C-46 type aircraft could make cane-burning raids at night. Soviet Bloc incendiaries could be found. This could be coupled with "Cuban" messages to the Communist underground in the Dominican Republic and "Cuban" shipments of arm which would be found, or intercepted, on the beach.

Use of MIG type aircraft by US pilots could provide additional provocation. Harassment of civil air, attacks on surface shipping and destruction of US military drone aircraft by MIG type planes would be useful as complementary actions. An F-86 properly painted would convince air passengers that they saw a Cuban MIG, especially if the pilot of the transport were to announce such fact. The primary drawback to this suggestion appears to be the security risk inherent in obtaining or modifying an aircraft. However, reasonable copies of the MIG could be produced from US resources in about three months.[15]

Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft should appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the government of Cuba. Concurrently, genuine defections of Cuban civil and military air and surface craft should be encouraged.

It is possible to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flight plan route to cross Cuba. The passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday or any grouping of persons with a common interest to support chartering a non-scheduled flight.

a. An aircraft at Eglin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for a civil registered aircraft belonging to a CIA proprietary organization in the Miami area. At a designated time the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft and would be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases. The actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone.
b. Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of Florida. From the rendezvous point the passenger-carrying aircraft will descend to minimum altitude and go directly into an auxiliary field at Eglin AFB where arrangements will have been made to evacuate the passengers and return the aircraft to its original status. The drone aircraft meanwhile will continue to fly the filed flight plan. When over Cuba the drone will begin transmitting on the international distress frequency a "MAY DAY" message stating he is under attack by Cuban MIG aircraft. The transmission will be interrupted by destruction of the aircraft which will be triggered by radio signal. This will allow ICAO radio[16] stations in the Western Hemisphere to tell the US what has happened to the aircraft instead of the US trying to "sell" the incident.

It is possible to create an incident which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack.

a. Approximately 4 or 5 F-101 aircraft will be dispatched in trail from Homestead AFB, Florida, to the vicinity of Cuba. Their mission will be to reverse course and simulate fakir aircraft for an air defense exercise in southern Florida. These aircraft would conduct variations of these flights at frequent Intervals. Crews would be briefed to remain at least 12 miles off the Cuban coast; however, they would be required to carry live ammunition in the event that hostile actions were taken by the Cuban MIGs.
b. On one such flight, a pre-briefed pilot would fly tail-end Charley at considerable interval between aircraft. While near the Cuban Island this pilot would broadcast that he had been jumped by MIGs and was going down. No other calls would be made. The pilot would then fly directly west at extremely low altitude and land at a secure base, an Eglin auxiliary. The aircraft would be met by the proper people, quickly stored and given a new tail number. The pilot who had performed the mission under an alias, would resume his proper identity and return to his normal place of business. The pilot and aircraft would then have disappeared.
c. At precisely the same time that the aircraft was presumably shot down, a submarine or small surface craft would disburse F-101 parts, parachute, etc., at approximately 15 to 20 miles off the Cuban coast and depart. The pilots returning to Homestead would have a true story as far as they knew. Search ships and aircraft could be dispatched and parts of aircraft found."

Source: "Pentagon Proposed Pretexts for Cuba Invasion in 1962," National Security Archive, April 30, 2001, "Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A: Pretexts to Justify US Military Intervention in Cuba," p11,

President Kennedy admirably rejected this proposal and removed Lemnitzer. That he was duped into the Bay of Pigs, developed by the CIA and army under Eisenhower, barely headed off nuclear exchange in the Cuban missile crisis, and finally deposed Lemnitzer demonstrates the dangers of lock-in. Given this evidence, sadly, no report of depraved conduct, by the US military or government, can be dismissed out of hand.

****I also have a wonderful friend and student Brenda Horrigan, who had been raised in an Evangelical family – followers of Pat Robertson, gone to a religious college in Virginia, joined the CIA, ultimately resigned when a friend in the State Department referred to one of her writings as "a good piece of rightwing propaganda," came to Colorado, saw the anti-democratic character of CIA covert operations, and worked hard to sever my school from CIA recruitment. The then Graduate School of International Studies barred CIA recruitment for 15 years, until after that organization became “dangerous enemy territory” for the Pentagon and Cheney.

*****I fortuituously received a letter from Peter this morning, indicating David's protests to Dulles about the role of US provocations in the post-World War II division of Berlin.

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