Tomgram: Ann Jones, Changing the World One Shot at a Time

May 15, 2008

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Ann Jones spent several years as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan focusing on the lives of women and wrote a moving book, Kabul in Winter, about her experience. More recently, she took Tomdispatch readers to West Africa. There, she laid out the chilling nightmare of women’s lives in strife-torn lands in which the war against women doesn’t end just because grim wars between men finally do. Today’s dispatch from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place where war between men of an especially brutal sort remains an ongoing reality, highlights quite a different aspect of women’s lives in West Africa — the way in which some women are moving from victims to actors in their own life dramas. This is the second in a series of reports Jones will be writing for this site in the coming months, as she works with refugees in Africa and elsewhere. To check out an accompanying Tomdispatch video (filmed by site videographer Brett Story) in which Ann Jones discusses the camera project that is the subject of this dispatch, click here. Tom

“Me, I’m a Camera”

African Women Making Change
By Ann JonesBukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo — The last time I was back in the U.S.A., everyone was talking about “change.” Change seemed to mean electing Barack Obama president and thereby bringing all Americans together in blissful agreement. But real change isn’t like that. Didn’t the guy who’s got the job now promise to be a “uniter”? Real change has content and direction. It’s driven by courageous people unafraid to speak up, even — or perhaps especially — when it’s risky.

Anyway, there are plenty of Americans I’ll never agree with, so I’m in self-imposed exile in Africa where I work with women who teach me a lot about real change and the risks involved in going for it. The women I work with live in the aftermath of civil wars — in the midst of a continuing war on women that’s acted out in widespread sexual exploitation, rape, and wife beating. They’ve had enough.

As a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), I go from country to country, running a simple little project dreamed up by the IRC’s Gender-Based Violence unit. (GBV is the gender-neutral term for what I still call VAW: Violence Against Women.) The project — dubbed A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones — is meant to give women a chance to document their daily lives, their problems, their consolations and joys. It’s meant to give them time and space to talk together and come up with their own agenda for change.

Digital cameras are the tool. I arrive with them and lend them to women, most of whom have never seen a camera before. I teach them to point and shoot — only that — and then I turn them loose to snap what they will. I ask them to bring me some photos of their problems and their blessings. They work in teams, two or three women sharing a camera and very nervous at first. (Some women actually shake.) It takes the whole team to snap the first photos: one holds the camera, another points, another shoots. The teamwork they build is a step to solidarity.

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Tomgram: Bill McKibben, The Defining Moment for Climate Change

May 15, 2008

Already climate change — in the form of a changing pattern of global rainfall — seems to be affecting the planet in significant ways. Take the massive, almost decade-long drought in Australia’s wheat-growing heartland, which has been a significant factor in sending flour prices, and so bread prices, soaring globally, leading to desperation and food riots across the planet.

A report from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia makes clear that, despite recent heavy rains in the eastern Australian breadbasket, years of above normal rainfall would be needed “to remove the very long-term [water] deficits” in the region. The report then adds this ominous note: “The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to 10 years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, a result of climate change.”

Think a bit about that phrase — “without historical precedent.” Except when it comes to technological invention, it hasn’t been much part of our lives these last many centuries. Without historical precedent. Brace yourselves, it’s about to become a commonplace in our vocabulary. The southeastern United States, for instance, was, for the last couple of years, locked in a drought — which is finally easing — “without historical precedent.” In other words, there was nothing (repeat, nothing) in the historical record that provided a guide to what might happen next.

Now, it’s true that the industrial revolution, which led to the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at historically unprecedented rates, was also, in a sense, “without historical precedent”; but most natural events — unlike, say, the present staggering ice melt in the Arctic — have been precedented (if I can manufacture such a word). They have been part of the historical record. That era — the era of history — is now, however, threatening to give way to a period capable of outrunning history itself, of outrunning us.

The planet in its long existence may have experienced the extremes to come, but we haven’t. The planet, unlike much life on it, may not — given millions or tens of millions of years to recover — be in danger, but we are.

When you really think about it, history is humanity. It’s common enough to talk about some historical figure or failed experiment being swept into the “dustbin of history,” but what if all history and that dustbin, too, go… well, where? What are we, really, without our records? Once we pass beyond them, beyond all the experience we’ve collected, written down, and archived since those first scratches went on clay tablets in the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates — now being stripped of their cultural patrimony — at least two unanswerable questions arise. Once history has been left in the dust, where are we? — and, who are we?

Let the indefatigable environmentalist Bill McKibben, who has a powerful urge to stop us just short of the cliff of the post-historical era, take it from here. Tom

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, America Out of Gas

May 15, 2008

These days, the price of oil seems ever on the rise. A barrel of crude broke another barrier Wednesday — $123 — on international markets, and the talk is now of the sort of “superspike” in pricing (only yesterday unimaginable) that might break the $200 a barrel ceiling “within two years.” And that would be without a full-scale American air assault on Iran, after which all bets would be off.

Considering that, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, oil was still in the $20 a barrel price range, this is no small measure of what the Bush administration years have really accomplished. Today, it’s hard even to remember not 9/11, but 11/9 — November 9, 1989 — the day that the Berlin Wall fell, signaling that, soon enough, after its seventy-odd year life, that Reaganesque Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, was heading for the door. In 1991, it disappeared from the face of the Earth without a whimper. Until almost the last moment, top officials in Washington assumed it would go on forever; and, when it was gone, most of them couldn’t, at first, believe it. Soon enough, however, the event was hailed as the greatest of American triumphs — “victory” not just in the Cold War, but at a level never before seen. Finally, for the first time in history, there was but a single superpower on the planet.

At the dawn of a new century, the administration of George Bush the younger, packed with implacable former Cold Warriors, came to power still infused with that sense of global triumphalism and planning to rollback what was left of the old Soviet Union, an impoverished Russia, into an early grave.

Almost seven and a half years later, as Michael Klare so vividly indicates below, an observer might be pardoned for wondering whether there hadn’t been two super losers in the Cold War. Had the Soviet Union, the weaker of the two great powers of the second half of the last century, simply imploded first, while the U.S., enwreathed in a cloud of self-congratulation, was almost unbeknownst to itself also slowly making its way toward an exit? And, as a final irony, Klare — author of the not-to-be-missed new book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet — points out, energy has refloated Russia, even as it’s sinking us. Tom

Portrait of an Oil-Addicted Former Superpower

How Rising Oil Prices Are Obliterating America’s Superpower Status

By Michael T. Klare

Nineteen years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall effectively eliminated the Soviet Union as the world’s other superpower. Yes, the USSR as a political entity stumbled on for another two years, but it was clearly an ex-superpower from the moment it lost control over its satellites in Eastern Europe.

Less than a month ago, the United States similarly lost its claim to superpower status when a barrel crude oil roared past $110 on the international market, gasoline prices crossed the $3.50 threshold at American pumps, and diesel fuel topped $4.00. As was true of the USSR following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the USA will no doubt continue to stumble on like the superpower it once was; but as the nation’s economy continues to be eviscerated to pay for its daily oil fix, it, too, will be seen by increasing numbers of savvy observers as an ex-superpower-in-the-making.

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Tomgram: Endless War

May 15, 2008

The Last War and the Next One

Descending into Madness in Iraq — and Beyond


By Tom Engelhardt

The last war won’t end, but in the Pentagon they’re already arguing about the next one.

Let’s start with that “last war” and see if we can get things straight. Just over five years ago, American troops entered Baghdad in battle mode, felling the Sunni-dominated government of dictator Saddam Hussein and declaring Iraq “liberated.” In the wake of the city’s fall, after widespread looting, the new American administrators dismantled the remains of Saddam’s government in its hollowed out, trashed ministries; disassembled the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party which had ruled Iraq since the 1960s, sending its members home with news that there was no coming back; dismantled Saddam’s 400,000 man army; and began to denationalize the economy. Soon, an insurgency of outraged Sunnis was raging against the American occupation was raging.

After initially resisting democratic elections, American occupation administrators finally gave in to the will of the leading Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and agreed to sponsor them. In January 2005, these brought religious parties representing a long-oppressed Shiite majority to power, parties which had largely been in exile in neighboring Shiite Iran for years.

Now, skip a few years, and U.S. troops have once again entered Baghdad in battle mode. This time, they’ve been moving into the vast Sadr City Shiite slum “suburb” of eastern Baghdad, which houses perhaps two-and-a-half million closely packed inhabitants. If free-standing, Sadr City would be the second largest city in Iraq after the capital. This time, the forces facing American troops haven’t put down their weapons, packed up, and gone home. This time, no one is talking about “liberation,” or “freedom,” or “democracy.” In fact, no one is talking about much of anything.

And no longer is the U.S. attacking Sunnis. In the wake of the President’s 2007 surge, the U.S. military is now officially allied with 90,000 Sunnis of the so-called Awakening Movement, mainly former insurgents, many of them undoubtedly once linked to the Baathist government U.S. forces overthrew in 2003. Meanwhile, American troops are fighting the Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric who seems now to be living in Iran, but whose spokesman in Najaf recently bitterly denounced that country for “seeking to share with the U.S. in influence over Iraq.” And they are fighting the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia in the name of an Iraqi government dominated by another Shiite militia, the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose ties to Iran are even closer.

Ten thousand Badr Corps militia members were being inducted into the Iraqi army (just as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding that the Mahdi Army militia disarm). This week, an official delegation from that government, which only recently received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with high honors in Baghdad, took off for Tehran at American bidding to present “evidence” that the Iranians are arming their Sadrist enemies.

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Tomgram: Pepe Escobar, Iran under the Gun

May 15, 2008

It’s like old times in the Persian Gulf. As of this week, a second aircraft carrier battle task force is being sent in — not long after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen highlighted planning for “potential military courses of action” against Iran; just as the Bush administration’s catechism of charges against the Iranians in Iraq reaches something like a fever pitch; at the moment when rumors of, leaks about, and denials of Pentagon back-to-the-drawing-board planning for new ways to attack Iran are zipping around (“Targets would include everything from the plants where weapons are made to the headquarters of the organization known as the Quds Force which directs operations in Iraq…”); and only da! ys before the U.S. military in Iraq is supposed to conduct its latest media dog-and-pony show on Iranian support for Iraqi Shi’ite militias (“…including date stamps on newly found weapons caches showing that recently made Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq at a steadily increasing rate…”). On the dispatching of that second aircraft carrier, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered the following comment: “I don’t see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder.”

And, when you really think about it, it is indeed a “reminder” of sorts. After all, the name of that second carrier has a certain resonance. It’s the USS Abraham Lincoln, the very carrier on which, on May 1st exactly five years ago, President George W. Bush landed in that S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet, in what TV people call “magic hour light”, for his Top-Gun strut to a podium. There, against a White House-produced banner emblazoned with the phrase “Mission Accomplished,” he declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

Now, more than five years after Baghdad fell, with Saddam Hussein long executed, Osama bin Laden alive and kicking, and American soldiers fighting and dying in the vast Shi’ite slum suburb of Sadr City in Baghdad, the dangerous administration game of chicken with Iran in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere once again intensifies. It’s a dangerous moment. When you ratchet up the charges and send in the carriers, anything is possible.

We regularly read about all of this, of course, but almost never as seen through anything but American administration or journalistic eyes (and sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart). The author of Globalistan and also Red Zone Blues, Pepe Escobar, a continent-hopping super-journalist for the always fascinating Asia Times and now The Real News as well, has done a striking job of covering the Iraq War, the various oil wars and pipeline struggles of the Middle East and Central Asia, and, these last years, has regularly visited Iran. Today, in his first appearance at Tomdispatch, he offers something rare indeed, an assessment of Iran “under the gun” — without the American filter in place. Tom

The Iranian Chessboard

Five Ways to Think about Iran under the Gun

By Pepe Escobar

More than two years ago, Seymour Hersh disclosed in the New Yorker how George W. Bush was considering strategic nuclear strikes against Iran. Ever since, a campaign to demonize that country has proceeded in a relentless, Terminator-like way, applying the same techniques and semantic contortions that were so familiar in the period before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq.

The campaign’s greatest hits are widely known: “The ayatollahs” are building a Shi’ite nuclear bomb; Iranian weapons are killing American soldiers in Iraq; Iranian gunboats are provoking U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf — Iran, in short, is the new al-Qaeda, a terror state aimed at the heart of the United States. It’s idle to expect the American mainstream media to offer any tools that might put this orchestrated blitzkrieg in context.

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Tomgram: Petraeus, Falling Upwards

May 15, 2008

Selling the President’s General

The Petraeus Story


By Tom Engelhardt

You simply can’t pile up enough adjectives when it comes to the general, who, at a relatively young age, was already a runner-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007. His record is stellar. His tactical sense extraordinary. His strategic ability, when it comes to mounting a campaign, beyond compare.

I’m speaking, of course, of General David Petraeus, the President’s surge commander in Iraq and, as of last week, the newly nominated head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) for all of the Middle East and beyond — “King David” to those of his peers who haven’t exactly taken a shine to his reportedly “high self-regard.” And the campaign I have in mind has been his years’ long wooing and winning of the American media, in the process of which he sold himself as a true American hero, a Caesar of celebrity.

As far as can be told, there’s never been a seat in his helicopter that couldn’t be filled by a friendly (or adoring) reporter. This, after all, is the man who, in the summer of 2004, as a mere three-star general being sent back to Baghdad to train the Iraqi army, made Newsweek’s cover under the caption, “Can This Man Save Iraq?” (The article’s subtitle — with the “yes” practically etched into it — read: “Mission Impossible? David Petraeus Is Tasked with Rebuilding Iraq’s Security Forces. An Up-close Look at the Only Real Exit Plan the United States Has — the Man Himself”).

And, oh yes, as for his actual generalship on the battlefield of Iraq… Well, the verdict may still officially be out, but the record, the tactics, and the strategic ability look like they will not stand the test of time. But by then, if all goes well, he’ll once again be out of town and someone else will take the blame, while he continues to fall upwards. David Petraeus is the President’s anointed general, Bush’s commander of commanders, and (not surprisingly) he exhibits certain traits much admired by the Bush administration in its better days.

Launching Brand Petraeus

Recently, in an almost 8,000 word report in the New York Times, David Barstow offered an unparalleled look inside a sophisticated Pentagon campaign, spearheaded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which at least 75 retired generals and other high military officers, almost all closely tied to Pentagon contractors, were recruited as “surrogates.” They were to take Pentagon “talking points” (aka “themes and messages”) about the President’s War on Terror and war in Iraq into every part of the media — cable news, the television and radio networks, the major newspapers — as their own expert “opinions.” These “analysts” made “tens of thousands of media appearances” and also wrote copiously for op-ed pages (often with the aid of the Pentagon) as part of an unparalleled, five-plus year covert propaganda onslaught on the! American people that lasted from 2002 until, essentially, late last night. Think of it, like a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, as the Pentagon’s equivalent of a surge of generals.

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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, The Two Gilded Ages

May 15, 2008

Think of it as gilding the pain. Last year, hedge fund manager John Paulson of Paulson & Co. hauled in a nifty $3.7 billion. (Yes, you read that right.) Mainly, he did so, according to the Wall Street Journal, “by shorting, or betting against, subprime mortgage securities and collateralized debt obligations.” And he wasn’t alone. Hedge fund money-maker Philip Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners raked in a comparatively measly $1.7 billion in 2007, also by shorting subprime mortgages. These are fortunes beyond imagining, made in no time at all by betting on the pure misery of others. Think of them as Las Vegas with a mean streak a mile wide.

In a week in which Citibank released news of quarterly losses of $5.1 billion and sweeping job cuts, food riots dotted the planet, oil hit $117 a barrel, and regular gas prices averaged $3.47 a gallon at the pump (with another 30 cents likely to be tacked on in the next month), Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine released its list of the 50 top hedge fund managers. In 2007, they “made” a cumulative $29 billion. (Even to slip in among the top 25, you had to take in at least $360 million.) To put this in perspective, Paulson alone made $1.6 billion dollars more than it is going to cost J.P. Morgan Chase to pick up the tanking Bear Stearns; in one hour, he made 30 times what the median American family earned all last year. And here’s a little tidbit to go with that: Income inequality in 2007 was, according to the Associated Press, “at the highest level since 1928, the year before the Great Depression began.”

And still, a New York Times piece on the gains of Paulson and crew described the hedge fund managers with genuine awe as “those masters of a secretive, sometimes volatile financial universe.” Master of the Universe (a label originally attached to an over-muscled action figure of the 1980s by the name of He-Man) — such descriptions have been with us since the beginning of our new Gilded Age and no one knows this better than Steve Fraser. His book on our financial “masters of the universe” from the eighteenth century to the present, Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, has just been published. As he writes, “Beginning with the merger and acquisition mania of the mid-1980s, the media were overrun with depictions of Wall Street ‘gunslingers,’ ‘white knights’ and ‘black knights,’ ‘killer bees,’ ‘hired guns,’… and ‘barbarians at the gates,! ‘ warrior appellations borrowed helter-skelter from antiquity, the Middle Ages, and America’s mythologized West.” The language brought to bear always had that requisite edge of awe, part of an ethos that added up to a cult of the Titan. Fraser, whose book is simply superb (and, in this age of information onslaught, mercifully short), offers a brief history of key images of Wall Street movers and shakers — the aristocrat, the confidence man, the hero, and the immoralist — taking you on a concise tour of America’s love/hate relationship with Wall Street from the founding of the republic to late last night.

Now, as the gilding on our present age begins to peel and flake, Fraser turns back to the last Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century, to ask a few questions germane to our moment, especially why, today, unlike in the late nineteenth century, the protests over the Paulsons of our world aren’t rising to the heavens. Tom

The Great Silence

Our Gilded Age and Theirs
By Steve Fraser

Google “second Gilded Age” and you will get ferried to 7,000 possible sites where you can learn more about what you already instinctively know. That we are living through a gilded age has become a journalistic commonplace. The unmistakable drift of all the talk about it is a Yogi Berra-ism: it’s a matter of déjà vu all over again. But is it? Is turn-of-the-century America a replica of the world Mark Twain first christened “gilded” in his debut bestseller back in the 1870s?

Certainly, Twain would feel right at home today. Crony capitalism, the main object of his satirical wit in The Gilded Age, is thriving. Incestuous plots as outsized as the one in which the Union Pacific Railroad’s chief investors conspired with a wagon-load of government officials, including Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president, to loot the federal treasury once again lubricate the machinery of public policy-making. A cronyism that would have been familiar to Twain has made the wheels go round in these terminal years of the Bush administration. Even the invasion and decimation of Iraq was conceived and carried out as an exercise in grand-strategic cronyism; call it cronyism with a vengeance. All of this has been going on since Ronald Reagan brought back morning to America.

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