Thursday, April 9, 2015


Harry Targ

Candidate Barack Obama’s most appealing campaign promise in 2008 involved his pledge to transform United States foreign policy from one relying on the perpetual use of force to one based upon the skillful application of bargaining and negotiation, the traditional tools of diplomacy. However, most peace activists were clear-headed enough to know that an Obama foreign policy would not be anti-imperial but they hoped that the US would not blunder into additional wars that would cost the lives and treasure of people all across the globe.

Six years of Obama foreign policy have been mixed at best. US troops are still in Afghanistan. The United States, under cover of NATO, helped destroy the authoritarian but stable government of Libya, leaving a fractured dysfunctional civil war in its place. Military advisors remain in several countries. Drones have targeted alleged enemies in multiple countries. And the United States has continued efforts to destabilize governments, for example in Venezuela.

On the other hand President Obama has committed the United States to a dramatic and significant negotiation process with Iran in conjunction with nations in the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1. Iran has committed itself to a process of reducing nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for the end of economic sanctions. Nuclear scientists believe the tentative agreement as reported is feasible and desirable. Prominent voices from the foreign policy community regard the agreement as significant; some say as significant as President Nixon’s agreements with the former Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, both in 1972.

But Obama’s opening to Iran, potentially his most important foreign policy legacy, has generated outrage in the United States. For the more open-minded, a careful assessment of the impending Western/Iran agreement on the latter’s nuclear program needs to be examined referring to history, the contemporary Middle East/Persian Gulf context and the possibilities of tension reduction in the region that could come about because of the agreement. Finally, all of these factors need to be evaluated in the context of the domestic politics and the legacy of racism in the United States.

Historically the United States presence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region expanded with its establishment of a permanent relationship with the region’s premier dictatorship and sponsor of violence, Saudi Arabia, at the end of World War II. President Roosevelt agreed to provide that country with arms and military support permanently in exchange for perpetual access to oil. Since then the Saudi Arabian government, in conjunction with other Gulf States, has funded terrorist actors in the region and destabilized regimes regarded as threats to its regional hegemony.

In addition to US ties with the Saudi dynasty, the United States supported the secular and brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran. His power was solidified in a CIA backed military coup in 1953 that ousted radical nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, from power. The ousted leader had promoted the Iranian nationalization of its own oil industry. Subsequent to the U.S. coup, the Shah ruled his country with a heavy hand. By 1979, 70,000 political opponents were in Iranian jails and Iran had become the fifth largest military power in the world.

Then the catastrophe happened: Iranian workers and religious activists overthrew the Shah in 1979, thus threatening other regimes friendly to the US such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the flow of oil from the region to Europe, Japan, and the United States. US hostility to Iran escalated. The US hosted the ailing Shah for medical treatment and after Iranian students took US embassy personnel hostage, President Carter made it clear the United States would not return the Shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes nor would the United States apologize for its role in putting the Shah in full control of his nation. Also, after the Iranian revolution, the United States gave large military support to Saddam Hussein’s military attack on Iran, leading to the eight-year Iran/Iraq war that cost over a million lives.

Also the United States backed Israeli military adventures against Lebanon and the Gaza strip where allies of Iran reside. Once this history is included, the troubled US/Iranian relationship, stripped of the conventional and overly-simplified narrative of Iran as a global supporter of terrorism and driven by religious extremism, becomes more understandable.

Today’s context makes the story even clearer. The Syrian civil war includes conflicts between anti-government factions supported by the Saudis, the United States, the Israelis, and a government supported by Iran and Russia. The Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), while a threat to Saudi hegemony in the region, is also a movement in opposition to the Iranian-backed Iraqi government, the Syrian government, and the horrific role the United States has played in the region at least since the Iraq war. Violence in the region is fueled by religious differences and the struggle for power between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the United States, and Israel versus Iran, the Syrian regime, Shiite backed governments, supporters of the Palestinian people such as Hamas, and Russia.

Given the enormous complexity of the history and context of US/Iranian relations in a region plagued by colonialism, neo-colonialism, the sixty year war between Israel and the Palestinian people and the spread of violence between states and within states, any efforts to negotiate tension-reduction and arms control and/or disarmament agreements among key players is vitally important. Further, Israel already possesses nuclear weapons. The seething caldron of violence and advanced weapons justifies fears of escalating regional and worldwide nuclear war,

While Obama’s campaign and periodic rhetoric about a more “pragmatic” foreign policy--negotiate rather than make war--has not been fully realized, the negotiations begun between the P5+1 and Iran in 2006 and expanded during the Obama administration, constitute an effort to defuse escalation to war in the most volatile region of the world and most sensible policy analysts endorse the effort. However, there is a domestic campaign in the United States to derail the US/Iranian negotiations for at least four reasons.

First, a possible long-term agreement tying Iranian dismantling of technologies that could be used to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the end of harsh US economic sanctions against Iran puts diplomacy ahead of force or the threat of force as the primary instrument of United States foreign policy. This diplomacy first approach, called here pragmatism, is fundamentally at odds with the neoconservative program articulated by foreign policy influentials who have acquired undue influence in Washington DC since the Reagan years. These are the Project for a New American Century elites, the neoconservatives, the key decision-makers who launched the Iraq War. They still believe the United States should use its military power to remake the world in its image. The most extreme spokespersons from this point of view in recent weeks have called for war on Iran.

Second, the pro-Israeli lobby is driven by the idea that Israel must remain the regional hegemon and the United States has an obligation to support Israel in every way, irrespective of the violence and instability it creates. For them, United States foreign policy should be guided in all its conduct by what such policy means for the state of Israel.

Third, a possible US/Iranian agreement can establish a very “bad example” for the future of United States foreign policy. A shift from guns, bombs, and drones first, to a foreign policy based primarily on diplomatic activity might lead peace advocates to renew their call for cuts in military spending. Neoconservative pundits and military-industrial complex spokespersons often frame their analyses in terms of “planning for the next war.” Preparation for war, they believe, should be the number one priority of United States foreign policy.

Finally, negotiations between the United States and Iran from the vantage point of domestic politics, that is Congress and the electoral process, is only marginally about international relations. The first priority of the United States Congress, presidential candidates, most of the Republican Party, and a sizable number of Democrats is about opposing everything President Obama does.

What gives fuel to this opposition in contradistinction to the old foreign policy norm of “bipartisanship” has to do with race. In addition to all the other factors noted above, racism has motivated much of the politics of opposition since 2008. Candidate Obama campaigned around the world in 2008 to enormous plaudits. In the United States his global appeal challenged the whole history of racism that has conditioned and distorted American political life. That is an extra burden this president has had to face in his foreign policy practice beyond mere partisan disputes about policy.

In the end, President Obama’s ability (with P5+1) to pursue and achieve an agreement with Iran might determine whether the world will see a global war in the coming years or declining violence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region.

The mobilization of the peace movement in defense of a US/Iranian agreement, therefore, is a mobilization against the neoconservative agenda of perpetual war, Israeli hegemony, the military-industrial complex, and racism in the United States.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Harry Targ

“As Hoosiers continue to struggle to make ends meet, sadly Governor Pence and the Republican leaders of the Indiana General Assembly have worked to make things worse. Instead of focusing on improving the lives of all our citizens, they’ve spent their time attacking public education, blocking attempts to raise Indiana’s minimum wage and ramming through a law (House Bill 1019) designed to lower the wages of thousands of Indiana construction workers and undermine Indiana businesses.  And, now they stubbornly stand by a law that condones discrimination against our own citizens. (from Brett Voorhies, “President Voorhies: End the Legislative Attacks on All Hoosiers,” Indiana State AFL-CIO, News Release, March 30, 2015). 

All of a sudden Indiana has been thrust onto the national stage. Governor Mike Pence in a closed meeting signed the newly minted Restoration of Freedom of Religion Act (RFRA) passed by the state legislature. Despite efforts of Pence and supporters to deny that the new law allows state government support for discrimination, especially based on sexual orientation, the supporters of the law, its language, and the track record of the legislators and the governor all point to the real motivation of the law: to authorize the right to limit public accommodations to groups of Hoosiers.

The outrage from well-meaning people in the state and across the country is justified and should be encouraged. The exuberance of the protests--rallies, petitions, economic boycotts--is a cause for hope for those who are concerned about deepening economic, political, racist, sexist, and environmental threats to the country and its states. It also should be a time for reflection on how to frame organizing and protest and most importantly how to ground resistance to the latest example of discrimination in a broader program of progressive change.

For example, while many members of the legislature and the governor support a religious-fundamentalist ideology, powerful economic and political interests have supported policies derived from it because of the underlying economic changes that constitute their major agenda.

Indiana State AFL-CIO President Brett Voorhies captured this more subtle meaning of the controversy over the RFRA. No doubt it must be actively opposed by all progressive Hoosiers, he says. But Hoosiers must also understand that this latest transgression of workers’ rights constitute just the latest round in a sustained Indiana effort to undermine the entire working class, shift further wealth and power from the vast majority to the minority, and frankly to deepen the human misery that more and more Hoosiers experience; whether they are straight, gay, white, Black, Asian, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist.

For example, with little fanfare, last November Governor Pence announced that Indiana would no longer request a waiver of the federal work requirement that allows poor Hoosiers to receive food stamps even though they were unable to secure 20 hours of work. In other words, Hoosiers who could not find work would not be eligible for food stamp assistance. Explaining his decision to a Fox News audience, the governor said: “You know, it’s the old story. Give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. I think this is an idea whose time has come here in the state of Indiana.” (David Edwards, ‘Indiana Gov. Mike Pence: We’re ‘Ennobling’ Poor People by Cutting Off Food Stamps,” Raw Story, November 18, 2014,

The callousness of the Governor’s decision is reinforced by the data in “The Status of Working Families in Indiana, 2015 Report” which indicates that Hoosier families “have steadily lost ground” (Indiana Institute for Working Families). In other words a high percentage of job gains in the state since the official end to the recession have been low wage jobs, what the Institute names the “job swap,” or the shift from high-wage, family-sustaining employment to low-wage marginalizing work. According to the 2015 report: “Hoosier families and communities need quality jobs that pay well enough to meet a family’s most basic needs, such as childcare, housing, food and transportation.”

In a recently released study of households in the state of Indiana (United Way, ALICE, Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed: Study of Financial Hardship, 2014) researchers determined that 37 percent of Indiana households earned less than what the researchers defined as a “household survival budget.” Some households earned less than the official poverty line (about 16 percent) and others (21 percent) earn income above the poverty line but less than a sustainable family income. The United Way report indicates that households living below the ALICE threshold are found in all municipalities around the state, affect all age groups, and disproportionately affect people of color and female-headed households.

When we return to the justifiable anger generated by RFRA, this latest law occurs in a legislative session that has rejected calls for an increased minimum wage, is approving sizable shifts in the state budget from public to charter schools, and now is deliberating on a bill to abolish the “common wage,” a law that has its historic roots in the 1930s that guaranteed a basic living wage to building trades workers; carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and others who have gone through extensive apprenticeship training to provide skilled labor to construct our buildings, roads, and virtually the entire economic infrastructure of our state and nation.

Therefore, Indiana progressive politics is at a crossroad. Do we see the connectedness between our fellow citizens who oppose discrimination of all kinds and those who want jobs and wages to live healthy and sustainable lives? Do we want to “connect the dots” politically so that we can work together on our common projects? Are we going to channel our justified outrage only in singular causes or are we ready to join together to fight for economic and social justice for all?

Reverend William Barber, who has inspired the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina has spoken to this broader vision of bringing our issue groups together. He calls his vision: fusion politics. Activists in the state of Indiana have been organizing around the fusion politics model as well: bringing issues together and thinking about the ways the issues are connected. Fusion politics is built upon showing respect for and advancing the cause of workers, people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and environmental activists. It calls for one movement that says as the old African American spiritual proclaimed:

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin, keep on a-talkin
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Harry Targ

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels testified March 17, 2015 before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce on what he calls higher education reform. He also spoke during that week to the American Council on Education and the Brookings Institute. A centerpiece of his recommendations was “income share agreements” whereby students partner with investors, particularly alumni, who would provide funds for their education in exchange “for a small share of the student’s future income.” 

Daniels was touting this idea in addition to new cost-saving policies at Purdue University, such as offering three-year degree programs, using different metrics rather than course hours to measure student preparation, and tuition freezes. He has also urged a reduction in costly federal regulations.

Although some of Daniels’ proposals and programs at his home university have merit, the conversation he and other administrators around the country are having about rising tuition and the accumulation of years of debt ignore the major reason why costs and tuition are rising. In addition to the cost of higher education attributable to increased faculty salaries; layers of new administrators; the creation of new luxury amenities to attract students (housing, food, and recreational facilities), tuition has risen because state government financing of higher education has not kept pace with expenditures.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report on May 1, 2014 (“States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels”) which provides data to show that higher education funding remains below 2007-2008 pre-recession levels in 48 of 50 states. This means, according to CBPP: “the large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students at a time when a highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future.”

CBPP reports that since 2007-2008 state spending on higher education is down 23 percent, or $2,026 per student. Tuition increases have been substantial in public colleges and universities from fiscal year 2008 to 2014 ranging from $253 in Montana to $4,493 in Arizona.  In Indiana tuition increased by $1,191 during this period. CBPP notes that in 1988 colleges and universities received 3.2 times more of their revenue from state and local governments than from students. That ratio declined to about 1.1 times more from government supports than tuition in 2013. Put another way the report states:

“Nearly every state has shifted costs to students over the last 25 years--with the most drastic shift occurring since the onset of the recession…Today, tuition revenue now outweighs government funding for higher education in 23 states…”

Not surprisingly Daniels’ idea that students find a rich supporter in exchange for future student earnings came from proposals made by free market advocate Milton Friedman in the 1980s. Friedman, the University of Chicago economist, was the most significant descendent of so-called “free market” economists who believe as did President Reagan that “government was not the solution; government was the problem.” From the vantage point of 2015, the privatization of all education, including higher education, is on the agenda of wealthy conservatives such as the Koch Brothers and the powerful state legislative lobbying organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC funds state politicians who support the elimination of public institutions, such as education.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that during periods of economic or political crisis, changes have been introduced to weaken government and the maintenance of public services. The CBPP data suggests that the deep recession of 2008-2011 was an occasion for ALEC and the politicians and educators they support to reduce resources available for higher education. Despite the long history of government support for higher education, public schools from kindergarten through high school, libraries, roads, and police and fire-fighting services, the recession offered the occasion for influential and wealthy elites to pressure for policies that reduced state financial support for public services and a shift toward their privatization. In addition universities became even more dependent on big corporations, banks, and the military.  Finally, tuition increased and students had to pay a higher share of the cost of their education.

Throughout much of U.S. history public education, including higher education, has been seen as a public good. The land grant system of public higher education was instituted in 1862. From then until the recent recession, public colleges and universities educated large percentages of the young and generated much of the scientific and technical knowledge that stimulated the U.S. economy, based on substantial public support and low student tuition.  

After World War II, returning veterans became eligible for free higher education under the GI Bill. The program led to the training and credentialing of a whole generation of young people who went on to become educators and researchers, and also consumers of products manufactured after the war. The so-called economic “golden age,” from 1945 until the 1970s, was driven by research and development initiated by GI Bill recipients. These college graduates became members of the largest middle class in American history. 

As Bob Samuels author of Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free put it:

“I actually believe that we should and could make all public higher education completely free. We’re currently spending around $185 billion on higher education annually—which includes spending on for-profit schools, which have very low graduation rates and high debt rates, as well as on merit aid for wealthy students. Given current enrollment, I estimate that it would cost about $155 billion to fund public colleges and four-year institutions completely. My argument is instead of funding the individuals, we should just fund the institutions directly” (quoted in Rebecca Burns, “Why Can’t College Be Free?” In These Times, June 13, 2014,

However, advocates of “higher education reform” at least those collaborating with economic and political elites who advocate policies depriving government of financial resources, sometimes called “starving the beast,” envision a day when all public institutions are privatized. There is much evidence that the privatization of education will increase gaps between rich and poor and may leave the latter with inferior educations. The Daniels plan will rely on wealthy benefactors to support students while tuition costs continue to rise and those who still seek a college education will continue to accumulate a lifetime of debt. 

Without a return to affordable publicly supported higher education, large proportions of young, intellectually curious, and talented students may be deterred from pursuing higher education which will have negative consequences for the entire society.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


(Reposted from Diary of a Heartland Radical, November 1, 2014, in memory of the 50 year anniversary of the launching of “Operation Rolling Thunder” on March 2, 1965, a program of massive bombing of targets in South and North Vietnam. As Pete Seeger sang:Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”)

Harry Targ

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg recently reported on the Pentagon’s development of public educational materials concerning the history of the Vietnam War. In addition to preparations for a 50th year commemoration of President Johnson’s escalation of the war in 1965, DOD has been posting a war “timeline” on their website. The project was initiated by Congress in 2008 and will cost some $15 million (“Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” New York Times, October 9, 2014).    
Perusing the timeline, a discerning reader would discover an oversimplified, distorted, and ahistorical narrative about the role of the United States in Vietnam. What is being presented as official history reduces the possibility that future generations of Americans will be able to learn from the mistakes of the past (
For starters, the narrative needs to develop eight elements of the United States/Vietnam story that are either missing from the timeline entirely or are grossly oversimplified.
First, it is critical to remember that the Indochinese peninsula, what became North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, was a colony of France from the 1850s until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. After the war, the French sought to reestablish their Southeast Asian empire. They refused to negotiate with the Vietnamese, who demanded independence. What ensued was the bloody French/Indochinese War from 1946 until 1954. The French, defeated in 1954, were forced to withdraw. From 1950 until 1954, the United States funded 80 per cent of the French war effort while fighting in Korea, negotiating to construct a military alliance in Southeast Asia, and building an anti-communist network of states elsewhere in Asia.
Second, an agreement to end the French/Indochina War was achieved at the Geneva Conference of May, 1954. The Geneva Accords granted the three Indochinese states independence, required the withdrawal of all outside military forces from Vietnam, and temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Within two years there were to be all-Vietnamese elections to establish one government. Despite the fact that the United States did not sign the Geneva Accords, a statement was issued promising support for them if all parties acted as agreed. The United States, in violation of Geneva, created a new government in the South and picked an autocrat, Ngo Dinh Diem, to lead a new government there. Diem announced that the South would not participate in the expected elections. Thus, what was to be a temporary administrative division of Vietnam became permanent by fiat.
Third, it must be concluded that every president from World War II through Gerald Ford, engaged in policies to oppose the wishes of the Vietnam people. The United States played a central and negative role in Indochina; from supporting the French effort to reestablish its colony, to imposing the Diem family on South Vietnam, to covertly attacking targets in the North, to fighting in the South, and to massively bombing all across the peninsula in Laos and Cambodia as well as North and South Vietnam.
Fourth, United States military operations, which began with President Eisenhower sending 1,000 “advisors” to South Vietnam, expanded to 540,000 troops in combat operations by 1968. In addition, United States covert agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, engaged in policies of assassinations, moving populations, and in other ways undermining South Vietnamese society. Intervention was economic and cultural as well as military as major United States corporations established projects in Saigon with wealthy South Vietnamese investors.
Fifth, the Johnson and Nixon Administrations launched horrific bombing campaigns, hitting targets in the South and later the North. After an attack on a U.S. military base at Pleiku in South Vietnam during February, 1965, the Johnson Administration initiated Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a three-year non-stop bombing campaign with large areas of South Vietnam and parts of North Vietnam declared “free fire zones.” Between 1965 and 1971, 142 pounds of explosives per acre had been dropped on Vietnam equal to 584 pounds per person. One hundred eighteen pounds of explosives were detonated per second. The total magnitude of bombing equaled  450 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The rural landscape was destroyed, devastating key rural industries such as rubber and timber production, and disease and death spread. The bombing increased migration to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Corruption,  prostitution, and drug trafficking expanded in the over-populated city. By the end of 1967 more bombs had been unleashed on Vietnam than during the entire European phase of World War II.
Sixth, the Vietnamese and United States troops were victimized by massive amounts of Agent Orange released on people and the rural landscape; twenty-one million gallons of herbicides  between 1961 and 1971. One-quarter of South Vietnam had been sprayed to destroy crops. Thirty-six percent of rice-growing swamps were made unfit for cultivation by 1974 and 30,000 Vietnamese hamlets, five million villagers, were victims of direct spraying. Dioxin, a deadly element of Agent Orange produced by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, created a broad range of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Genetic abnormalities still exist today as children are born with gruesome physical deformities and twenty-eight “hotspots” still exist in South and Central Vietnam that endanger local populations.
Seventh, the Vietnam policy was built on twenty-five years of lies. The Vietnamese who fought the Japanese occupation during World War II and sought a free Vietnam after the war were authentic nationalists, committed to establishing an independent country free of colonial control. Each president lied about their escalation of the United States role by claiming that the Vietnamese fighting the United States and the Saigon government were mere puppets of Chinese or Soviet communism. Eisenhower lied when he claimed that if Vietnam “fell,” the rest of the region would as well, the simplistic domino theory. Kennedy lied when he claimed that the Diem family running the South Vietnamese government, the police, the military and those who controlled the land constituted democratic tendencies in South East Asia. Johnson lied when he claimed that the North Vietnamese engaged in an unprovoked attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. And Richard Nixon lied when his advisor declared that “peace is at hand” just before the 1972 election. After that election Nixon launched the most massive lethal bombing campaign against targets all across North and South Vietnam, the so-called “Christmas bombing.”
Finally, contrary to media distortions, most anti-war activists regretted that young men and women were drafted to fight in an unjust and immoral war. The peace movement knew that most of those who fought in Vietnam were drafted or enlisted because of their economic disadvantage and/or racism at home. American soldiers, like their Vietnamese comrades, were victims of a murderous war that cost millions killed and maimed.
There were no heroes and heroines during these troubled times but any accurate timeline must celebrate both the soldiers and the anti-war activists who sacrificed their privilege, their educational opportunities, even their citizenship to say “no” to war. The only way America can avoid becoming “waist deep in the big muddy” again and again is to clearly understand its history. That is what the official timeline is designed to resist. Without a clear understanding of the past “the big fool,” whoever he or she might be, will successfully convince the American people “to push on.”
(For more of the history of the United States war in Vietnam and how that country has developed since the end of the war see Duncan McFarland, Paul Krehbiel, and Harry Targ editors, Vietnam, From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, Committees of Correspondence Education Fund, Changemaker Publications,,  2013).