American Troop Withdrawls: The end of America as the “World’s Policeman”?

President Obama announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq

In the past few days, we have had an announcement from President Obama that US troops will withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year. Well, time to celebrate certainly but what does this imply about the future role of the United States as “force for good” in the world?

In a depressingly upbeat speech, the Leader of the Free World delivered a homily worthy of the Lone Ranger. “Iraqis have taken full responsibility for security” he stated; in other words “my job here is done”. So, after after eight bloody years in which more than 4,000 American service personnel were killed and nearly 32,000 were wounded, the country is now deemed safe for democracy. The truth is however debatable, as during one week in August between 50 and 60 Iraqis were murdered and up to the end of September 2011, over 12,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed by suicide bombers.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/02/iraq-suicide-bomb-toll-revealed

Obama announcing troop withdrawals from Afghanistan

This comes only four months after President Obama announced that all US troops in Afghanistan would withdraw by the year end. That conflict has been America’s longest “war” and one that has that has been proved to be unwinnable as the continued presence of Taliban fighters and drug producers testifies. This was underlined in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/17/us-troop-withdrawal-pakistan-vulnerable showing how US troop withdrawals have left a “security vacuum” in Eastern Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan vulnerable to attacks by insurgents. So at the end of the day, what are the implications of the end of these two, costly adventures for the United States?

Firstly, we have to put them into both a financial and a political domestic context.

Total US debt

As of October 22, 2011, the gross debt of the US was $14.94 trillion, of which $10.20 trillion was held by the public and $4.74 trillion was intragovernmental holdings.[4] The annual gross domestic product (GDP) to the end of June 2011 was $15.003 trillion (July 29, 2011 estimate),[5] with total public debt outstanding at a ratio of 99.6% of GDP, and debt held by the public at 68% of GDP. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt

In addition, the war in Iraq is deeply unpopular with the American people, the majority of whom believe that going to war in the first place was a mistake.  http://www.gallup.com/poll/1633/Iraq.aspx

Senators Hutchinson and Tester

Now, a pair of U.S. senators are calling for full review of the costs of overseas military bases, saying that closing dozens of the foreign facilities could save billions in wasteful spending. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on Wednesday introduced legislation to create a new commission to “scrutinize the necessity of the United States’ current overseas basing structure” and do a cost-benefit analysis of closing multiple overseas bases. 

Earlier in the week, the pair sent a letter to the congressional supercommittee charged with trimming $1.2 trillion in government spending, urging them to make significant cuts in future overseas military construction projects. In particular, the letter called into question U.S. military projects in Europe and on Guam, saying the Defense Department has not justified the need for billions more in base spending there. In a statement, Hutchison called the commission an important step toward ending unnecessary military spending. “With today’s historic levels of debt, we need to move quickly to identify ways that we can bring our military training capabilities home, create American jobs in military construction and save taxpayer dollars without sacrificing the security needs of U.S. forces and the American people,” she said. http://www.g2mil.com/OBCL.htm

So, are we seeing an and to the sixty-odd years that the United States has attempted to keep the world in order by sending in its military every time it has felt threatened? My feeling is that it will continue to make its presence felt if it considers a person, a group or a state a “clear and present danger” to its security or national interests but those occasions when that happens will I believe, be far fewer and further between in the future than in recent decades. 

 

 

 

 

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Occupy Wall Street: Where do we go from here?

The American dream seems to have become the ‘American scream’. Wall Street brokers and insurance men may have started the ball rolling but we are all in trouble now. So, what next? More of the same or time to do something different?

Communism failed twenty years ago and now capitalism driven by huge corporations seems to be going likewise. Ask yourself what the similarities are between them and the answer is obvious. Greed on the part of an already powerful elite. You have much, you want more. That is the problem plain and simple.

It was the British historian, politician and writer John Dalberg-Acton who wrote, “all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” In other words, “I am right because I am powerful and I am powerful because I am right”. That sounds like the voice of many corporations and politicians right now…

The problem is that while I don’t believe in the notion of a Corporatocracy in the US, there are enough powerful people there to corrupt the democratic process and load the dice in their favour. The implications have fall-out for all of us, as we have seen since 2008 and it ain’t getting any better…

I am not a Libertarian in the American sense but they do say a few sensible things. In their Statement of Principles it says: “We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual.”

It seems to me that they are right to challenge the State that has allowed us to get into this position, assuming that market economics are the answer to everything. Clearly that is not true. Where I part company with the Libertarians is the charming belief that we are all good at heart and if left to our own devices, will solve all of these problems. That is as naive as communism’s belief that all you had to do was smash Capitalism to bring about the Communist Utopia!

We have gone beyond the point where the vast majority of people in the developed world can go back to the land and live simple, agrarian lives but we should be doing things like:

* Suitably regulate all financial institutions
* Raise taxation on corporations
* Increase the level of energy from alternative and renewable sources
* Provide incentives to reduce the level of personal carbon footprints
* Disseminate political power to the lowest local level
* Fund national work schemes (a la FDR in the 1930’s)
* Withdraw US and allied forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan etc.
* End bailouts to corporations and manufacturers
* Invest more in education and health
* Cut back investment on the military
* Support the further development of high-value, high-tech industries

And how do we pay for this, at the same time as paying back the trillions of dollars currently owed by the governments of the world? I suggest we do for ourselves what the British government did for the debts of a dozen African countries a decade ago – write them off – or what Iceland did a year or so ago, declare bankruptcy and tell the creditors to “go hang”.

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Is America a “Corporatocracy”?

Some time ago, one of my correspondents asked me if I would mind writing on the topics of Capitalism, Communism and “Corporatocracy” in America. Well, that is a big order and not one I am comfortable writing about in a single entry. So in this long-overdue blog, I will try and put my thoughts in order regarding corporatocracy in America. Sallee, this one’s for you…

Corporatocracy or democracy? - Is this a true image of the US?

The concept behind the term corporatocracy is that giant corporations especially those in the United States, have access to massive power and as such can bypass democratic processes to benefit themselves. They are seen (and presumably see themselves) as “too big to fail”, even in the dire economic times we are living through at the moment. Their power is supposedly exercised through industrial scale lobbying, substantial campaign contributions to those seeking elected office, threats to leave particular business locations (ensuring that unemployment follows) unless their requirements are met and promises of future investment in areas of need.

The kind of benefits that accrue to such organisations and the wealthy individuals behind them are supposed in terms of tax breaks, government bailouts, undue influence over domestic and foreign policy and avoidance of legal action against them by individuals, groups and even the state itself.

You don’t have to look far to see examples of what believers see as the outward manifestation of this power; the substantial deregulation of the banking industry making it possible to sell dubious financial products to those unable to repay their debts, the Wall Street bailouts of 2008, the reluctance of the Obama administration to increase the debt burden on American’s wealthy etc. But do these examples demonstrate anything more than the fact that the United States is a liberal democracy empathetic to the needs of capitalism? Lets start by looking at America’s top three most powerful corporations.

The biggest and most powerful American company according to Forbes Fortune 500 isWal-Mart.  In 2010, it generated $15 billion in the U.S. from its grocery business. The company has been subject to criticism by various groups and individuals. Among these are some labour unions, community groups, grassroots organizations, religious organizations, environmental groups and even its own customers. Complains have ranged from issues as diverse as the suppression of  collective bargaining, the poor treatment of domestic and foreign suppliers and poor environmental practices at home and abroad. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Walmart

 

Exxon Mobil oil refinery

The oil giant Exxon Mobile is not as big as Wal-Mart in terms of employment but it is the biggest in terms of profits that topping $40 billion in 2010. ExxonMobil is the largest of the publicly owned oil and gas companies, with daily production in the region of  4 million barrels. In 2010 however, the company paid no tax to the US government thanks to twenty wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2010/04/06/90299/exxon-tax/

Chevron Oilfield

Chevron employs approximately 62,000 people worldwide (of which approximately 30,000 are employed in U.S. operations). Daily production in 2010 was 2.763 million net oil-equivalent barrels per day. The company has a worldwide marketing network in 84 countries with approximately 19,550 retail sites.  The company has been accused of illegal waste dumping, and been placed on a list of the “most wanted” corporate human rights violators by Global Exchange.  http://www.globalexchange.org/corporateHRviolators

If as many Americans believe, the country is actually run by its corporations, we should be identify cases where it has avoided prosecution under the law for otherwise illegal activities. Let us see if this is the case…

Wal-Mart is sued two to five times each day somewhere in the United States. These cases involve slip-and-falls, falling merchandise, and false imprisonment/malicious prosecution. They also involve suits brought by employees alleging various kinds of discrimination. Also, the company is sued on a wide range of matters such as pharmacy malpractice, defective products, broken contracts with vendors, and copyright violations. The Wal-Mart Litigation Project http://www.wal-martlitigation.com/99verdic.htm has documented many of these cases and has published a cross-section of “plaintiff-favorable” results against the nation’s largest retailer. These include include examples such as the following:

“Plaintiff, a 54-year-old heart surgeon, tripped over the tongue of a trailer hitch while carrying a bulk package of paper towels in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club (a company wholly owned by Wal-Mart). He suffered a spinal injury, which caused his hands to shake continually. The accident ended his career.

Plaintiff alleged that Sam’s Club should have marked the trailer hitch with a cone.

The jury returned a $5.28 million verdict, but reduced the award by 25 percent for comparative negligence.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when the oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck Bligh Reef and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels (41,000 to 119,000 m3) of crude oil. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters. In the case of Baker v. Exxon, an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for Punative damages. The punitive damages amount was equal to a single year’s profit by Exxon at that time. Exxon recovered a significant portion of clean-up and legal expenses through insurance claims associated with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.

In June 2011, a federal judge denied Exxon Mobil Corp.’s request to dismiss a lawsuit by two environmental groups over emissions at the oil giant’s Baytown complex.

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter say that the company has illegally released more than 10 million pounds of toxic chemicals over the past five years at the complex, which includes two chemical plants and the largest refinery in the nation.

The groups said they filed the suit to enforce the federal Clean Air Act in the absence of government action.

In its motion to dismiss the case, Exxon Mobil argued that “there is no room for private attorney general action in light of the exhaustive regulatory and enforcement actions” of the state and federal government.

The company faces civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act alleged in the lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner’s ruling allows the case to go to trial. http://fuelfix.com/blog/2011/06/08/federal-court-wont-dismiss-lawsuit-against-exxon-2/

 

In March 2011, Chevron was found guilty of environmental infringement for unlawful dumping in Ecuador and ordered to pay $8.2 billion in compensation. The case was filed by various groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the lawsuit was intended to “stand up for the native citizens whose rights had been trampled”. http://www.renewable-energy-news.info/chevron-ordered-to-pay-for-illegal-dumping-violations-in-ecuador/

 

So, do I believe that America is a corporatocracy? No I don’t, but I do think financial services, extraction, refining, manufacturing and service industries all need appropriate regulation. That companies like Walmart and Tyson should operate on Fair-Trade principles, (see: http://www.fairtradeprinciples.org/) and companies like Exxon Mobile and Chevron should be more environmentally aware put more effort into the research and development of renewable energy sources.

As readers will find out in time, I am a believer in “cock-up” rather than the “conspiracy” but I am concerned at the disproportionate power held by American corporations. Maybe the US should re-invent the Antitrust Laws set up to protect consumers from monopolistic enterprises…

Unregulated industrial grown in the US gave you this. It's not a pretty sight.

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9/11 Remembered: A World Turned Upside Down

The author in New York, 1995

Once in a while something happens that changes the way we see the world. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, was one such event.

I am old enough to remember the Cuba missile crisis in October 1962 and J.F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Although I was a child at the time, both incidents loom large in my memory. I remember my parent’s nervousness when they were putting me to bed and anxious kisses before I was left to sleep for perhaps my last night of rest. I remember watching open jawed when the news came on the television that President Kennedy had been shot, then a little while later a clearly upset BBC newsreader announcing his death. Surely, these things didn’t happen in the real, grown up world around me? But they did and continue to do so.

I had just returned to my office from lunch (I was in the UK, where we were a few hours ahead of US Eastern-time) and found my office manager hunched over her transistor radio. Her boyfriend was a DJ at the local BBC radio station and he had phoned her to say that something had just happened and she should turn on her receiver. We heard sketchy news stories that there had been a terrible accident in New York and an airliner had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers on Manhattan Island.

Several months earlier, I had been in New York where my ex-wife was visiting her mother. I had spent a splendid morning walking around the wonderful Guggenheim Museum then I decided to see the city from a different perspective. I would go to the top of one of the astonishing city sky-scrapers. The Twin Towers was my first thought, it was after all the tallest vantage point to see the city from. Then there was the most stylish of all these blocks, the Chrysler Building. In the end, I decided to spurn both of these choices and headed for the Empire State Building. After all, this was the place King Kong chose to escape to in the classic 1933 movie produced by David O. Selsnick.

From this vantage point, I had a magnificent view across Central Park, the Hudson River, Liberty Island and towering above all the other buildings the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center. This was not my first visit to New York, but the sight of the city, laid out beneath me took my breath away…

These thoughts were in my mind as we sat listening to the first reports. We had no news about those killed or injured yet but there were constant reassurances that all was well and there was no chance of the building collapsing. After all, there had been an attack several years earlier and it has survived unscathed. Then the second plane struck. My heart missed a beat and it was clear that this was no accident.

Seated in my office some three-thousand miles away from the action and not being an American citizen, my perspective was different from those directly involved. As the minutes passed however, and the enormity of the events became clearer, I realised that this was another of those points in history when everything changes and the world becomes a different place.

A couple of hours after the first plane struck, we still had no idea of the scale of the human suffering that had taken place. But by then, video footage of crashing planes and collapsing buildings was starting to emerge and being played endlessly on the television, as more and more witnesses came forward to describe what they saw.

I was initially fearful that the Bush administration would make some immediate retaliation on one or other Middle-Eastern country, precipitating an even bigger crisis and was surprised and grateful for their restraint. This was not a time for action. The country was in shock. Americans needed time to mourn, to reflect and then to act. This they did in due course.

On that day in September 2001, ordinary citizens of the United States of America received a rude wakeup call from the rest of the world. Suddenly, issues related to foreign policy were no longer just of interest to the business community and the intellectual elite. Foreign policy became the most important issue for the Bush Administration between that time and the 2008 world financial crisis. Even now, the repercussions of what we have learnt to call 9/11 are reverberating around the world in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently in Pakistan at the beginning of May this year.

On the anniversary of the event, I spent a minute in silence at another desk, in Azerbaijan, thinking about the tragedy, the loss of life and the aftermath. I also thought about the future and the sort of world we want our children to inherit.

Even in this age of globalisation and international travel, the world is still a diverse place.  We live in a global village and as I am fond of saying, (misquoting one of my favourite writers Edward Lorenz) a butterfly beats its wings in the Whitehouse Rose Garden and on the other side of the world a hurricane ensues.

Global terrorism is still a real threat. In Mexico at the end of August, a terrorist attack relating to drug crime that took place in city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Government sources revealed that fifty-two ordinary citizens were killed, but local reviews mention that sixty-one bodies were eventually found after a few days. This terrorist attack left over a dozen injured, and over thirty-five trapped for several hours before Mexican forces arrived at the place to release them.

There is room in our global village for diversity and difference but at the end of the day, we owe it to those who come after us to find a way of living together in peace and harmony. My hope is that this will be the true legacy of the events of September 11th 2001.

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US Debt Crisis: Will Obama Invoke the 14th Amendment?

“You’ve got to take it seriously, guys!”

With only a couple of days to go before the US officially runs out of money to pay debt interest to the rest of the world, the international financial markets are rattled and investors are buying gold in unprecedented numbers. If President Obama can not come to some accommodation with the Republican party by Tuesday 2nd August, he is faced with only two options; allow the United states to default on debt repayment or ignore Congress and make a Presidential decision to borrow and allow the US to go into even more debt. Neither is a very pleasant option for Barak Obama who is stuck between a very hard rock and an even harder place…

The United States Constitution is an astonishing document, full of worthy sentiments and subtle meanings that have been augmented over the years by numerous “amendments”. Non Americans [like me], are acquainted with only a couple. The notorious Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to possess a firearm and the Fifth Amendment [“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury”], used by unfortunate American citizens, accused of Communism and hauled before The House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950′s. Now we are learning more about another Constitutional Amendment that could have a profound effect on everyone, both within and outside of the United States.

Sarah Palin: The voice of reason [sic]

The 14th Amendment dates from 1866 and states amongst many other things that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” Some people [including ex-President Bill Clinton] consider that the clause means it is unconstitutional for Congress to refuse to raise the debt ceiling – the amount the nation is legally permitted to borrow. Furthermore, that the President is constitutionally permitted to borrow money on his own authority.

This interpretation of the Amendment has never been tested in law and it remains to be seen if, as a last desperate measure, Obama will quote Shakespeare and say “a curse on both your houses” and continue to wrack up new debt to pay for the old ones…

George W. Bush

I have some sympathy for the man who came into the Presidency after George W. Bush managed to overheat the US economy by deregulating everything in sight and allowing a financial environment to develop where false-profits could be made for a few Wall Street brokers, through the development of such financial tools as sub-prime mortgages and the purchase or sale of residual debt. Since 2008, the rest of the world has been picking up the pieces and trying to re-float the world economy.

If President Obama does the unthinkable, the notional “Triple A” credit-rating of the United States will be preserved for a while but at what cost?

“One day, all this will be yours”

You can guarantee that the Republican Party will vote to impeach the President and they will be able to do it as well, for all it needs is a majority vote by the House of Representatives. A House where they already hold a majority of seats. The Senate would of course refuse to convict him but that wouldn’t be the point. It would be an added pressure and embarrassment to the President in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election.

Personally, I am not convinced that raising US debt indefinitely will do anything more than make it more difficult for the US to pay back its loans but I do believe that a run on the dollar will cause many more financial institutions to collapse and create more unsustainable debt. If that happens, there will be a massive loss of confidence in the dollar , plunging us all down a further step, in what is already the greatest financial crisis there has been since the Black Death.

So, my advice to both the right-wing of the Republican party [who are playing pre-election games with all of our futures] and the Democrats [who today rejected U.S. Speaker John Boehner’s plan to raise the debt ceiling and slash government spending] is, sit yourselves down and come to some sort of agreement balancing increases in the debt limit with some cuts to US services, otherwise we will all suffer the consequences…

 

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