Saturday, March 28, 2009


Harry Targ

March 28, 2009

I feel now like I did in 1961 when I enthusiastically welcomed the transfer of political power in Washington from a staid, conservative, anti-communist, old (reflecting the arrogance of my youth), and anti-intellectually driven Eisenhower administration to a new Kennedy Administration.

Early on, the new President Kennedy sent his Vice-President to Vietnam to assess the low-grade war and the corrupt, dictatorial, minority Catholic regime in South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, and a bit later, retired General Maxwell Taylor, Secretaries of State and Defense and Rusk and McNamara, recommended escalated US troop commitments in South Vietnam to save a friendly regime which was totally a geographic and political creation of the United States. The enemy was identified as communism. Even though South Vietnam existed only because of US money, advisors, and soldiers, when President Eisenhower left office there were just 1,000 US military troops there.

As the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s and opposition grew, it became clear to all that policymakers, media pundits, and those of us who joined a national anti-war movement knew little about the history of Vietnam and its political/economic/ cultural context. We did not know about the hundreds of years of struggle by the Vietnamese people to oust external oppressors from their land: Chinese, French, Japanese, and Americans. We surely did not know that President Diem, who led a regime which was imposed on the Buddhist South from 1954 to 1963, was a Catholic who sought to inflict his dictatorial will on a country of rural and communal people tied to the land of their ancestors. The world as it was presented to the American people about Vietnam, from Truman through Nixon, was not about the Vietnamese people but about the international struggle between “international communism” and the “free world.”

Once again, we are experiencing a new President who is the polar opposite of his predecessor. Obama is intelligent, grounded in grassroots experiences of working people and people of color, intellectually shaped by his education and extraordinary talents, and committed to economic reconstruction in the face of the deepest crisis since the 1930s (although Kennedy did face a modest recession when he came in office).

And, unfortunately, within two months of entering office, President Obama told the American people of his plans to send, not only an additional 17,000 troops to up the 34,000 US troops already in Afghanistan, but also an additional 4,000 advisors.

Some initial comparisons readily come to mind:

The Kennedy program of economic and military assistance to countries perceived as poor and politically unstable seemed at the time modest, selfless, and in the best interest of United States security. Most importantly, the Kennedy policy of globalizing what I later would regard as US imperialism was framed as far more modest and carefully conceived than the demonic “good guys-bad guys” vision of the world projected by the Eisenhower diplomatic team. Some naively superficial reactions to the Obama program for Afghanistan, and Pakistan, distinguish it from the dreaded Bush neo-conservatives who frankly advocated for US global domination.

As with collective ignorance of Vietnam in the 1960s, most Americans today have little or no sense of the history of Afghanistan. We need to know that virtually every world empire experienced defeat in efforts to conquer Afghanistan from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, to the British who lost two wars in Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century, to the former Soviet Union. Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires.”

In addition, what is left out of most commentaries concerning the troubled experiences of the Afghan people in recent years is the story of United States covert operations in that country which began in the Carter Administration. While the United States did not unilaterally launch a guerrilla war against the pro-Soviet regime that came to power in Kabul in 1978, it surely fueled the mobilization of a variety of virulent, militant, fundamentalist armies to fight a civil war against the beleaguered regime. Among the recipients of US military largesse was Osama Bin Laden. Ironically, so-called “political Islam” became a tool of US empire in the 1980s in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia.

Americans need to know that with the defeat and collapse of the regime in Kabul in 1992, a struggle for power among the various disparate fundamentalist armies ensued, each driven by its own brand of corruption and ideology. Out of this ideology a youthful army of religious fundamentalists, the Taliban, mobilized to seize power and purge the country of moral corruption. The Taliban came from the largest ethnic group in the country, the Pashtun. They ruled Afghanistan with a brutal and iron fist from the mid-1990s until after the US military invasion in October, 2001. An internal war ensued from that point until today. Apparently the Taliban continue to have a significant base of support in the countryside particularly among the largest ethnic group in the population, the Pashtuns. This support is broad based in the southern regions of Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

For Bush, the Taliban regime, with which the US had normal diplomatic relations, was hosting Al Qaeda, the terrorists, we were told were responsible for 9/11. The two, Al Qaeda and the Taliban were increasingly seen as the same. And with the initiation of war on Afghanistan in October, 2001, the global “war on terrorism” was launched. Ever since, the war on terrorism has been defined as a struggle against Al Qaeda, that shadowy organization with a presence in dozens of countries which is forever planning to initiate new acts of terrorism against the United States. Like “international communism” the consciousness of the American people has been shaped by this demonic force that we know very little about. We know even less about why it is planning criminal acts against US and other targets.

Most importantly, Americans are not told about the emergence of enormous opposition to US policy in countries from the Middle East to East Asia. We are not told about Muslim peoples who oppose violence and the use of terrorism as a tactic but abhor the pervasive presence of US military forces in their homelands. They are outraged that the United States stands in the way of achieving social and political justice for Palestinians in the Middle East. And, they demand the right to national sovereignty and the control of their own natural resources, particularly oil.

In other words, Americans in the main do not receive information to help understand why peoples around the world might sympathize with the politics of “the terrorists” even if they oppose their tactics. In comparison, in the 1960s, there was little discussion of the Vietnamese people’s passion for national independence. So, in the end, the escalating war in Afghanistan is presented to the American people as a necessity borne of some ill-defined threat to national security and world stability.

Assuming that opposition to the United States exists and that for whatever reasons Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are now experiencing internal war, what kind of policies should the Obama administration adopt, as an alternative to the slow, steady, dangerous escalation of war on the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

First, the new administration should call for an international peace conference on the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia (or parallel meetings addressing each area with an overarching structure to shape a comprehensive peace plan). All parties to conflicts in these regions should be invited to attend, irrespective of their ideologies and official proclamations. The international peace conference should have as its agenda the achievement of political stability, violence reduction, and the expansion of economic and social justice. The initiation of the movement for this peace conference and its structure should be organized by the General Assembly of the United Nations. A premium should be placed on the comprehensiveness of participation.

Second, the United States, NATO countries, and others involved in the conflict in Afghanistan today should create an economic development fund, to be administered by appropriate committees of the United Nations.

Third, the initiation of the peace conference and dialogue concerning economic development in the region should be met by a phased withdrawal of all US and other NATO military forces from Afghanistan.

And what about the terrorists? This proposal is based on the proposition that violence and hatred are borne in the soil of military domination and economic misery and as these twin plagues are eliminated terrorist threats will decline.

While this proposal may seem impractical, it is clear that a US program of increasing diplomatic initiatives and economic development projects while drawing down US militarism in the region constitutes the only path to avoid the quagmire that the Vietnam War became in the 1960s.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"The People United Will Never Be Defeated"

Harry Targ

“It could be that the change we wanted for so long is possible this time” said a joyous Salvadoran woman after the election Sunday, March 15 of the FMLN (FarabundoMarti Liberation Movement) candidate for president. Mauricio Funes was the first FMLN candidate to defeat the rightwing Arena party in Salvadoran elections since the civil war in that country came to an end in a UN brokered ceasefire in 1992.

The most bloody face of the Salvadoran began in 1979, when a so-called reform coup was carried out by junior grade military officers to stop brutal violence against the people. But, in short order, reformers were forced out by hard line military dictators who launched a campaign of slaughter, targeting domestic and foreign “subversives” for assassination.Progressive reformers from some 80 mass organizations, the Democratic Revolutionary Front(FDR), joined forces with a coalition of revolutionaries, the FMLN, to defend the masses of landless peasants, factory workers, students, teachers, and health care workers from assassination, imprisonment, and dictatorship.

Over the decade of the 1980s, the FMLN gained control of regions of the country, establishing “zones of popular control,” where peoples’ assemblies could build rudimentary political institutions. But the FMLN never assembled sufficient forces to defeat the Salvadoran military, treasury police, death squads and other instrumentalities of the 2 percent of the population that controlled 60 percent of the land, the so-called “14 families.”

Throughout the eighties, sympathetic church people were slaughtered, from US nuns in 1979, to Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, to six Salvadoran Jesuit priests in 1989.

Perhaps the most egregious omission in recent stories in the mainstream US press concerning last Sunday’s elections was the fact that the decade of violence, killing 70,000 Salvadorans and causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country, was fully encouraged and supported by United States foreign policy. Nearly $2 billion of military aid flowed from the US treasury to El Salvador, about 100 US militaryadvisors were in country to direct the war effort against the people, and US soldiers and airmen provided logistical, radar and other support to the Salvadoran military in their war from neighboring Honduras. If the US had not taken sides and given its full resources to the dictators, and their “elected” officials from the Christian Democratic and then Arena parties, the FMLN and the mass organizations who had joined with them would have been victorious by 1984, saving thousands of lives.

Back in the United States CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, created a national organization with over 100 chapters in cities and towns. CISPES members marched, rallied, lobbied Congress, raised money for sister city projects in the zones of popular control, and in other ways tried to show the people of El Salvador that there were Americans who opposed military dictatorship andgrotesque economic inequality in their country. CISPES stood against US imperialism in Central America.

When CISPES members marched to the chant of “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” they did not realize how long the struggle might take. The election of Mauricio Funes, however, does confirm that what was being chanted may in fact be coming true.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Misconceptions of the Middle East
A Panel Discussion
March 3, 2009

Comments by Harry Targ


We are all gripped by the growing economic crisis. Americans see that crisis as originating in the United States in the recent past and resonating around the world; first us, then Europe, then the countries of the Global South. This frame on the global economic crisis has even begun to extend to public discussion of issues of national security and political/military stability.

For example, Dennis C. Blair, president Obama’s new Director of National Intelligence, testified before Congress on Thursday, February 12 warning that global economic turmoil and possible political instability brought about by it could surpass terrorism as the number one threat to the United States. In addition, Blair said, the economic crisis would threaten the reputation of the United States’ “stewardship of the global economy.” Finally, the New York Times quoted Blair as suggesting that the economic downturn was “the primary near term security concern” and that if it continued it would imperil some governments (New York Times, February 13, 2009).

What I found constructive about this statement was that, for the first time in a long time, a US security spokesperson recognized a connection between economic wellbeing and political stability. By implication, if a bit of a stretch, it suggested that peoples around the world, as well as at home, had deep-seated and legitimate economic concerns.

What was less constructive was the suggestion that the economic crisis at home was recent; that economic crisis around the globe is a byproduct of the recent crisis at home; and that ordinarily there had been “US stewardship of the global economy.”

Recent Global Economic Context

I would like to suggest that, with some significant exceptions, most of the peoples of the globe have been living in economic crisis for at least thirty years and this long-term economic crisis has to be factored into any discussion of conflicts as seemingly intractable as that of the Middle East.

Looking at the last third of the twentieth century, Canadian economist James Davies, wrote in a study prepared by the World Institute for Development Economics Research released in 2006 that “income inequality has been rising for the past 20 to 25 years and we think that is true for inequality in the distribution of wealth.” In 2,000 the study showed, the top 1 percent of the world’s population accounted for 40 percent of the world’s total net worth, with the bottom half owning 1.1 percent. Edward Wolff, another economist participating in the study wrote that “”With the notable exception of China and India, the third world has drifted behind.” (New York Times, December 6, 2006).

The starkest interpretation of this kind of data was reflected in a 2003 article by Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, who claimed that the global economy is creating what he called “the precarious classes,” both in agriculture and manufacturing, who cannot count on day-to-day remunerative activity to survive. He estimates that 2/ 3 to ¾ of humankind are among the “precarious classes.”

Relevance to the Middle East

A financial publication called “Arab Banker” printed a summary of a World Bank study called “Two Years After London: Restarting Palestinian Economic Recovery” in 2007. The World Bank, the Arab Banker, and other sources indicated the following alarming data:

-the percentage of Gazans living in poverty has been steadily increasing from 1998 (21.6%) to 2006 (35%).
-Israeli policies isolating Gaza from the Israeli and global economy-work, imports, exports- made matters worse.
-without remittances and food aid the poverty rate in Gaza has risen to 67% since Israeli and US policies were put in place to punish the Hamas regime.
-restrictions on Gaza’s access to the global economy has led since 2006 to 90% decline of Gaza’s industrial operations.
-In 2007 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations were suspended due to an Israeli import-export ban
-industrial employment declined from 35,000 in 2005 to 4,200 in 2007

In addition, economic data on Israel and the occupied territories suggests that West Bank and Gaza gross national product per capita has been about 10 percent of that of Israel. In sum, the global distribution of wealth and income referred to above has been replicated in Israel and Palestine.

Let me just add two pieces of information about the United States to this condition of pain and suffering. First, as a recent Amnesty International report suggests, the United States has been Israel’s predominant military supplier for years. AI noted that under a current 10-year agreement, the US will provide $30 billion in military aid over the next 10 years. (AI has called for an arms embargo of weapons supplied to both Israel and Palestinian armed groups, who receive aid from Russia, Iran, China, and various underground sources).

Finally, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes recently reported some findings of an attitude study that they carried out in seven predominantly Muslim countries and the Palestinian territories. Majorities in all these countries supported the US removing its bases and military forces from Islamic countries. In addition, they approved of attacks on US troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf and Afghanistan. However, only very small minorities approved attacks on American civilians and generally respondents opposed the use of violence to achieve religious or political goals. The authors say the respondents agree with al Qaeda’s goal of forcing the US to withdraw from the region but they disagree with their methods. And large percentages see the US as wanting to expand Israeli borders in the region even though 59% of Palestinians said the US wants to create a Palestinian state.

What Does This Mean?

First, I would argue that Intelligence Director Blair is largely correct. Violence and political instability in the world is intimately connected with economic wellbeing. What he does not mention is that the economic crisis we face today in the United States and the industrial capitalist world, is a crisis that countries of the Global South have experienced at least since the 1970s. He, and most pundits, refuse to articulate the view that violence in a multitude of forms is connected to the lack of economic justice.

Second, data suggests clearly that in the occupied territories the notion of “precariousness” is an apt way to describe the condition and daily consciousness of Palestinian peoples. Shifting currents in Palestinian politics, I hypothesize, are also connected to patterns of economic growth and decay. In the 1950s and 1960s, secular leaders in the Arab world, including Palestinians, offered a vision of economic change for their people that was processed in Washington, and European capitals as threatening to dominant economic interests. Paradoxically, the US began to support alternative political currents in the region with a religious agenda, such as the followers of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Hamas in Palestine. Subsequently, these groups, in their words and, to some extent, in their deeds more effectively respond to the sense of economic injustice that peoples like the Palestinians experience.

There is no easy solution but the United States and other wealthy countries must participant in a disinterested economic reconstruction of the occupied territories. Only that will break the back of anger, mutual hatred, and the kind of political instability Dennis Blair was talking about.

In addition, Israel must be prevailed upon to share the land and resources of the region. Economic development must be coupled with economic justice for all.