LIVING ON THE EDGE

By Nathan Paulsen
July, 2011

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #75

(En español)

July 2011

By Nathan Paulsen

To supply an army at great distance is to impoverish one’s people…  All your strength is spent on the battlefield and the families on the home front are left destitute.-- Sun Tzu, The Art of Warfare

Life flourishes on the margins.
Photo: http://wn.com

During some lively conversation on another sweltering evening in Minneapolis, I was introduced to the concept of the “edge” as a place of unusual creativity in the ecological world. The edge of bioregions, climate zones, and landscapes is the site of the most productive ecological action and a focus for sustainable agriculturalists. Whether it is where a forest meets a prairie, or sloping hills meet the plain, borders are where life in all its splendid diversity tends to congregate, exchange energy, and surprise us with new forms and relationships.   

Turn now to the social realm where masses of humanity live on the margins of the dominant order. In the shadow of K Street, corporate fiefdoms and an ascendant Right we suffer intimately the full cost of militarism, empire and all their related pathologies. On the edge of survival - emotional as well as physical - we are just removed enough from the everyday trappings of the colonizing culture(s) that we might develop a critical consciousness capable of imagining alternative worlds. In other words, borders in the political economic landscape are no less a place of uncertainty and creativity than they are in the biological.

The margins making headlines today can be found in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Western invaders cross borders with an endless stream of soldiers and drones; or in Egypt, where a surging popular movement has toppled a dictatorship. They also are right here on our own doorsteps.

I am thinking of the tens of millions of economically vulnerable citizens who are being cut loose from now-slashed social safety nets; and the millions of poor people and people of color who are afflicted by drug wars and racial profiling.

I refuse to ignore the latest case of domestic violence in the local news. I want to examine the conscience of a country that has sent some of our best men and women to fight overseas but will not lift a finger to care for those who return wounded in body and mind. I insist on attention to tipping points where climate change hurls tornadoes down on trailer parks, prized possessions wash away in relentless floods, droughts consume our food before it goes to harvest, and heat waves kill poor elders isolated in dilapidated apartments.

I feel a need to learn from justice-makers on all continents. Humanity-filled public squares in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where people resist despots and their imperial backers. Social movement/electoral party combinations in South America where left leaning governments search for new paths. Strikes and rebellions in Europe where hundreds of thousands fight for dignity and against austerity.

Below are a few of the multitude of stories that could be told this month. They illustrate the slow unraveling of the dominant order on the edge where policy meets ordinary people, war plans are upended and novel social structures arise from the struggle for life.    

IRAQ: EDGING TOWARD WITHDRAWAL?

US Bases in Iraq as of June 2010.
Graphic: http://www.americasnewsonline.com/

From a height of 169,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007, just 46,000 remain. U.S. military bases are down from 92 in January to 52 in July. The sun is setting on a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, agonized the family and friends of almost 4,500 dead U.S. soldiers, set back the Iraqi infrastructure decades, displaced some 4.5 million people, and left behind a generation of psychologically and physically wounded.

Still it is not over. The killing continues - June was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in three years - and U.S. tax dollars are still pouring in at a rate of $4 billion per month. Moreover, Washington is pushing hard for a deal to allow a U.S. military presence well beyond the previously agreed date of departure later this year.

The Associated Press reports the Obama administration has signaled its interest in leaving a force of 8,500-10,000 troops in Iraq through at least 2012. During a July 11 visit to Iraq, new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed his impatience with the al-Maliki government for not yet deciding to "request" the continued presence of U.S. troops. Panetta also blurted out the key reason Washington wants to stay: to counter Iranian influence within Iraq and regionally. 

Despite Panetta's complaints, the prospect of reaching an accord that extends the occupation is slim. Any agreement would need to win approval from the Iraqi parliament whose fractured political blocs have to pay attention to Iraqi public opinion, which is overwhelmingly opposed to keeping foreign troops on Iraqi soil. In the event there is some backroom proposal to extend the occupation, massive street protests would likely follow. These could destabilize the fragile governing coalition and might threaten a further uptick in attacks on U.S. troops, which have been increasing ever since Washington started floating trial balloons about staying past the end of this year.  

In essence, the White House and Pentagon have been reduced to bargaining, hardly the outcome they expected at the time of their "Mission Accomplished/On to Tehran" swagger seven years ago. We may face some hard fights yet before this war and occupation are over. But it's not too soon to note that the empire has been critically weakened in Iraq.  

AF-PAK TEETERS ON THE BRINK

With a new U.S. general and ambassador taking the reins, there was a changing of the guard this month in Afghanistan. But much else remains the same. The vast majority of Afghans continue to live in grinding poverty without access to basic services.  A recently released report indicated more civilians were killed in the first 6 months of 2011 than any other year of the war. The U.S. drawdown of 33,000 soldiers will begin "slowly" according to U.S. officials, but the idea that Washington's Afghan clients will "step up" as the U.S. "steps back" remains a fantasy. The Karzai regime is still steeped in corruption and can barely project its power outside the capital of Kabul. The assassinations of multiple high-level Karzai officials  this month has put the U.S. strategy on shakier ground than ever.

Across the border, Pakistani officials are looking to China for support and asserting independence from Washington. After the unilateral assassination of Osama bin Laden - not to mention firing hundreds of drone missiles onto remote Pakistani villages - the public row between Washington and Islamabad grew increasingly discordant. When Pakistan began denying visas to US officials and kicking out military personnel, the Obama administration cut $800 million of military aid. To date, Pakistan has said farewell. 

ISRAEL LURCHES TO THE RIGHT-WING EDGE

As the Palestinian struggle gains in momentum on the ground and solidarity across the globe, Israeli politics have taken a big lurch rightward.

A new phase of mass nonviolent Palestinian action has begun in Jerusalem, within the West Bank and on Israel's borders. The Fatah-Hamas agreement is holding and the Palestinian Authority is pressing for UN recognition.  The Arab Spring shaking the region shows signs of more explicitly backing the Palestinian cause: the latest figure to back Palestinian statehood (via twitter) is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who played such a big role in the Egyptian Revolution.  

So Israel, instead of even pretending to address Palestinian grievances, passes a boycott law. The legislation subjects anybody who even vaguely hints at supporting boycott action against "Israel or any area under its control" to stiff penalty. It is not only an attack on freedom of speech but an attempt to annex the West Bank via legal sleight of hand. The language of the legislation - driven by the demands of the right-wing settler movement - erases any distinction between Israel within the 1967 borders and all territories outside those borders under Israeli occupation.

The law will be tested in Israel's Supreme Court and has drawn together an unusually wide range of Israeli (and U.S. Jewish) groups in opposition. These divisions have opened up new opportunities for discussion about the Israel/Palestine conflict and its roots. But so far the conversation among Israeli Jews has focused almost exclusively on the question of democratic rights. The brutal condition of Palestinian life under apartheid that drives international calls for boycott is not prominent on the agenda. And even among the Israeli peace activists who support boycotting the settlements - often at great risk - most are opposed to the Palestinian Civil Society call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) which has been integral to the new momentum for Palestinian non-violent mass resistance.  

Nowhere are BDS efforts more needed than in the U.S., which remains Israel's main international backer. On July 20 the US House Foreign Affairs Committee approved another $3 billion in military aid for Israel.    

COMPETING POWER PLAYS IN EGYPT

On July 8, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians with grievances aimed at the ruling military generals protested across the nation. The breadth of the demonstrations spoke to the deep frustration among Egyptians at the slow pace of change. The central rallying cries included justice for some 900 martyrs of the revolution killed by Mubarak’s police force; purging of Mubarak loyalists from government; ending military trials of civilians; and relief from growing economic hardship. Thousands have spent the remainder of the month in make-shift camps vowing to stay – and perform disobediences - until democratic reforms are instituted. 

The continued momentum of public protest more than five months after Mubarak's ouster has shaken the military council. In a disingenuous attempt to quiet dissent, the interim rulers undertook a series of largely symbolic gestures that did not diminish their ability to drive policy or protect their vast economic interests. Cabinet members have been reshuffled and the final date of elections were pushed back a month (a minor concession for secular forces who want more time to prepare). Some 600 senior police officers were sacked and the power of military tribunals was narrowed.  

At the same time it conceded some limited ground, the council has banned labor strikes, censored the media, conducted “virginity tests” on dissenting women, and violently broken up protests. It is also considering a constitutional rule to protect - and even expand - its authority.

The responsiveness of the military council to popular pressure is a real change from the posture of the Mubarak regime. But the Egyptian military is not a democratic institution. That the military council has not been able to follow its traditional inclination to rule with an iron fist is testimony to the tremendous shift in the balance of power that has taken place since the revolution began. 

WASHINGTON AUSTERITY MEETS THE MASSES   

The dismal jobs report released on July 8 indicated U.S. employers added a mere 18,000 jobs in June. Yet there need to be at least 150,000 jobs created every month just to keep up with natural growth in the workforce. There are now more than 25 million people - disproportionately youth and people of color - underemployed or unemployed in the US.

While today's Great Recession ravages what remains of our collective standard of living, corporate profits have hit record highs and almost all of the limited growth of the past two years only has benefitted the richest citizens.

Meanwhile, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have left a gaping $1.3 trillion hole in the public treasury that grows deeper every day. The military spends $20.2 billion a year on air conditioning alone in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more than NASA’s entire budget or BP has paid out for its negligence in the Gulf.

The main - if unspoken - question looming over deficit reduction schemes offered by high-ranking Democrats and Republicans is to what degree the costs of militarism and the economic crisis can be placed onto the most vulnerable sections of the population. If public budgets reflect priorities and values, then it is clear whose are setting the agenda in Washington: the CEOs of multinational corporations, the military brass, hedge-fund managers, and the Wall Street elite. The rest of us are left to tighten our belts; we are forced to labor for wages that do not pay the bills, forego life-saving medicine, cut back on groceries, hold off retirement, and spend our prime years searching for jobs that do not exist.

While progressive Democrats crafted a reasonable proposal to eliminate the deficit in a short ten years by taxing the rich and cutting the military budget (see The People’s Budget), you will not see their proposal debated in major national media. Nor will you find the Democratic leadership advocating for a budget that calls to account the economic elite for their reckless pursuit of profit over human values.

Instead of sensible cuts to military spending and implementing a fair tax code that does not give advantage to people who are so affluent most of their income does not come from actual work, Washington intends to push tens of millions over an economic precipice by putting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of other social programs on the chopping block. (The international character of the assault on the welfare state was underscored this month when Hillary Clinton traveled to Greece put the full support of the U.S. government behind Greek austerity measures.)    

SURPRISES WAITING IN THE WINGS?

With minor caveats, the Obama administration has capitulated to the line of Republican extremists that it is "too much government spending" that is responsible for the country's economic woes. But the rollback juggernaut heading right for us has nothing to do with the insolvency of social programs hard won by our grandparents and great grandparents; much less is it the result of regular folk living beyond our meager means. It is a logical consequence of war funding, too much wealth concentrated in too few hands, and a dangerous right-wing populism whose economic ideas are fueled more by racism and "America-Is-Number-One-ism" than by tangible facts.

The energized right is absolutely dedicated to their fight to safeguard the wealth of the ultra rich. In Minnesota, Republicans shut down state government for 20 days in July to prevent a small fraction of the $5 billion deficit from being closed with a slight tax on the 7,700 Minnesotans who earn more than $1 million per year. 

To gain support for a political program that is so clearly not in the interests of the vast majority, Republicans utilize divide-and-conquer tactics. In particular, they color-code economic anxieties to win reactionary cultural votes from whites fearful of emerging demographic shifts that put people of color in the majority. Republican presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann uses this technique all the time. Most recently in addressing white Iowan farmers who were victims of massive flooding, she suggesting federal disaster relief funds were not sufficient because they were bogged down paying discrimination settlements to Black farmers. 

In fact, there is more than enough to go around . Even beyond unnecessary military spending and private fortunes, as of this writing corporations are hoarding almost $2 trillion in cash reserve.

Painfully, the fractured state and reduced clout of left-leaning social movement means there is no counterweight to the incentives for Democratic leadership to join with Republican right-wingers and corporate donors in imposing austerity.

But in class war as in all war, war-makers have to deal with the law of unintended consequences. Besides deepening the heartache of the poor, working and unemployed, the outcome of today's austerity crusade is unknowable. Perhaps we are on the edge of rebuilding progressive clout based on the momentum and lessons of the Wisconsin upsurge, via new efforts like the Rebuild the Dream, or through a revitalization of the labor, immigrant rights or Black Freedom Movements - or some combination of them all?  That is the nature of an edge or transition - there is always a surprise or two waiting in the wings.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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