Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Wise Men

Flea Markets and bad movies

"What the hell is this son? Where did you get this? Who gave it to you? Are you in some kind of cult?" - Dad

As a kid growing up in Nova Scotia, one of the best things to do on a Sunday morning was to shop at the ‘flea market’. We had a few places around town that offered up space so people could spread their second hand wares on old tables or blankets. It was always great fun searching for that hidden gem, like a switchblade knife (which you could never buy legally in any store), an army surplus gas mask, or some Archie comic books. I even found a Satanic Bible once, complete with spells and descriptions of animal sacrifice. I was too scared to read it, so I put it next to the Bible to counteract its negative energy and there it remained until my Dad found it and promptly destroyed it!

As I became older and outgrew my fascination with contraband weapons, smelly militaria, funny papers and heretical books, going to the market lost its appeal, but every so often I’ll drive by a ‘yard sale’ (a mini-version of the flea market) and stop to see what treasures might await.

Last spring I stumbled across a collection of VHS movies, each going for 25 cents a piece, or 5 for a dollar. I love movies and I still have an ancient but functioning VCR, so I picked up a few titles, one of which was ‘Flashback’ with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland. The movie sat on my shelf for 6 months and then landed in a box, where it stayed until last week, when I opened it up and decided to watch it.

The plot was silly but I thought Hopper’s character, an aging hippie fugitive, had some good exchanges with Sutherland, who played an uptight FBI lawman ordered to escort the hippie to jail. One of the best lines in the movie occurred at the end when the aging beatnik predicted, “The nineties are going to make the fifties look like the sixties”.

I though about that for a bit and I decided that he might have been off the mark by a few years, but I think he was on to something.

The Age of Aquarius

"It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to become a rebel". - Huey Walker

The “swinging sixties” conjures up images of long hair, tie-dye shirts, VW vans with peace symbols spray painted on the side and lots of dope smoking college kids protesting the war in Vietnam. It was a turbulent decade and I’m actually sad to have missed it. All I got out of my youth was a bad case of Reganomics and cold war hysteria (a war which ended as I started my military service - which quickly put an end to any career plans as the dark days of the 90’s destroyed morale and the Canadian Forces budget) and a collection of scratched up grunge CD’s no one listens to anymore.

Hey, I like “Bush”, okay? Who cares if they just copied Nirvana or Pearl Jam?

From what I hear of the sixties, any American who wasn’t killing farmers in Southeast Asia was stateside, making love, listening to Hendrix, getting high on pot (the healthy, pre-chemical kind), and protesting so they could stop the violence and change history.

Maybe that was true for some people, but probably not for the great majority of them, and a lot of the iconic images and classical representations of the sixties in the media leave out some important details.

While its true the protest movement helped end the war, the real reason why American forces pulled out when they did (it was inevitable at some point) lies buried beneath the heap of pop culture literature, movies and sound bytes, which has been reproduced ad nauseum and practically rammed down the throat of subsequent generations (that’s me, generation X, which was followed by Y, which is even more screwed up than we were).

I think the evidence, if one wants to dig deep enough, points to two overriding factors that ended the war in Vietnam.

First, the Vietcong, hunkered down in the deep jungle with only bowls of cold rice and rat meat for nourishment, lost most of the battles, along with their conventional counterparts in the NVA, but actually won the war by outlasting the Yankees through sheer toughness, resiliency and collective willpower. People tend to remember America lost that war but few, especially hippie types, remember that the Vietnamese actually won it.

Secondly, the elite members of American based business interests were supportive of the war until the Tet Offensive; after which the idea of absolute victory in Vietnam was called into question and the growing costs of the war in terms of overall economic health (it was great for the military industrial complex), strategic readiness and political stability due to domestic dissent, among other reasons, convinced corporate leaders that the war needed to be stopped.

The Wise Men

"We can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to take steps to disengage" - Dean Acheson, Wise Man

In March 1968, not long after the Tet Offensive, a group of influential power brokers descended on Washington at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The group, referred to as the “Wise Men”, counseled the American President to end the war in Vietnam and bring the troops home.

A little more than two months later, US Army Commander in Charge of Vietnam, General Westmoreland, was replaced and the gradual process of disengagement, which the new President, Richard Nixon, would oversee, had begun. Johnson decided not to run a second term and during Nixon’s presidential race to the White House, some scholars allege that Nixon actively discouraged Johnson's peace initiatives with Hanoi, which allowed Nixon to take credit for the subsequent peace process and lay the blame for the failed war on the Johnson administration.

It’s pretty clear to me that the real power behind the peace was corporate and private influence, as evidenced in the case of the Wise Men (which has been documented and verified by credible sources, such as the Pentagon Papers for example), not fun loving kids waving placards and shouting slogans. The domestic dissent was significant and it played a role I admit, but I wonder how long the war would have continued without the Tet Offensive or the resulting reversal of support among the business community.

When the Fulda Gap was all we worried about

"When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of florida. Well, this thing could park a coupla hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it till it was all over." - Skip Tyler, speaking about the Red October.

The history books tells us that it became clear to everyone soon after Nixon took office that the war in Vietnam was unwinable. Large scale withdrawal of U.S. forces continued on for years (the death toll for civilians and combatants on both sides kept rising during this period) but the game was virtually up and that awareness set the stage for a major reshuffling of military and political priorities for American strategic planners. The next couple of decades would see much smaller scale actions around the world, many of them covert, involving intrigue and skullduggery, the very stuff that makes a great novel.

I might be crazy, but I think it can be said there was something attractive and reassuring about the cold war when I was young (I didn’t know about CIA sponsored Latin American death squads back then) .

I grew of age just at the tail end of it, long past the good parts, but I still remember reading Tom Clancy as a teenager while in the Sea Cadets and I would lay in bed at night dreaming about being in the navy or perhaps jumping from a helicopter into stormy seas, all so I could rendezvous with an attack sub, hijack a Russian Typhoon class boomer and save the world from nuclear Armageddon. I learned a lot about the world through Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Robert Ludlum or John le Carre and I guess it was tough for me to erase that mental map as the world marched into an uncertain future, filled with “terrorism” and “rogue states”.

"There is no such thing as a former KGB man" - Vladimir Putin

I think one of my favorite authors, Eric Margolis, said it best during a recent interview he gave for the Real News Network. He recounted how his Russian girlfriend once said, “Erik, I know that everyday u wake up an u miss col war!” and he replied,

“It’s true! I do miss the cold war, it was fun!, we had an honorable opponent, we had a great time with the cold war, today the fun has gone out of international relations”.

This from a man who covered many of the worlds hotspots as a correspondent and who also fought beside the Mujahideen when the Russian military and their Hind attack helicopters were no joke!

The Grand Chessboard

"In the long run, global politics are bound to become increasingly uncongenial to the concentration of hegemonic power in the hands of a single state. Hence, America is not only the first, as well as the only, truly global superpower, but it is also likely to be the very last." - Zbigniew Brzezinski

The funny part is, after two decades of unchallenged American dominance over world affairs and belligerence towards smaller nations or groups who’s military capacity resembled that of the Flintstones in comparison, I think the stage is being set for a new Cold War, with the old nemesis of Russia still relevant but increasingly eclipsed by the specter of Chinese military supremacy and a rising India, which is rapidly modernizing it's military and becoming a force to be reckoned with in terms of corporate/economic, political and military might.

President Obama’s recent efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation and nuclear conflict through the use of “conventional deterrence”, among other measures, brings to mind images of stuffy military parades in the old Soviet Union and ballooning defense budgets for the NATO countries.

Throw into the mix a new policy direction in Afghanistan and Iraq or the looming strategic implications of Climate Change, which has the potential to create a number of security challenges and possibly polarize the world into a north/south axis, then you have all the ingredients necessary for one hell of a cold war.

Of course, I’d rather see the NATO countries wage a war against poverty, which kills 24, 000 kids a day, or help stop global warming, which could kill us all, but you take what you can get.

The Fog of War

"The dangerous illusion of victory by the United States was therefore dead." - Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, speaking about the Vietnam war

Unlike in Robert McNamara’s day, the U.S. is not engaged in a quagmire that is anything like Vietnam was. I guess there is some obvious parallels between Afghanistan or Iraq and Vietnam, but I don’t think the Axis of Good crowd faces the kind of threat that the Tet Offensive proved to be and ISAF is not carpet bombing large swathes of populated territory like the U.S. Air Force did in Southeast Asia, so the resistance for this new imperialism is not as radical, widespread and effective in a domestic sense, simply because the carnage is on a much smaller scale and people are not being bombarded with bloody images of G.I.’s being put into body bags on the nightly news like they did back in the day.

When you shoot hellfire missiles from a predator drone and kill a few people here or a wedding party there, that doesn’t have the same mobilizing effect that dropping napalm on little girls did during the sixties. Neither, it would seem, does seeing the odd ramp ceremony or funeral procession at Arlington National Cemetery. You also do not see any monks setting themselves on fire.

"We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat" - General Stanley McChrystal, speaking about civilian casualties in AFPAK.

A recent video released by Wikileaks, showing an Apache gunship mowing down two Reuters reporters and a handful of other people, including children, may prove to be significant in this regard or the recent report that Special Forces soldiers covered up a massacre of civilians (the commandos allegedly removed bullets from the corpses) in Afghanistan might sway public sentiments but it will be a slow and muted response. Overall, today is a much different atmosphere than the sixties.

May I add that most of the flower child crowd have now retired after a life of corporate servitude and now want a quiet, peaceful life, far from the turbulence of politics or protests, so they won’t be of any help.

Aside from a few well armed right winger’s, who actually do pose a physical threat, or a handful of leftist window smashers who largely don’t, I don’t see any big time domestic U.S. revolts occurring at the moment. In the future maybe, as the Tea Party, Oath Keepers or some other militant group gains steam, but it won't happen next week at any rate.

In terms of how the rest of the world, in particular muslims, continue to react to American policy and the threat they might pose to U.S. interests; well that is another matter entirely and a significant one when you consider the U.S. is the worlds reigning power, which entails a defacto relationship of mutual influence with the global population.

The recent protests in Greece, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan could foreshadow a future wave of global unrest among disenchanted poor people against capitalism and corrupt governments supported by Washington, especially if another global economic crisis occurs or the effects of climate change continue to worsen.

The Puppet Show

"Palestinian terrorism has to be rejected and condemned, yes. But it should not be translated de facto into a policy of support for a really increasingly brutal repression, colonial settlements a new wall." - Zbigniew Brzezinski

The booby prize for the biggest problem facing the U.S. today (the front runners being nukes, Iran wanting them, NK having them, climate change, a dangerously flawed economic system, and the present war in AFPAK and the occupation of Iraq) is the conflict in the western edge of the middle east between Israel and her neighbors.

I won’t go deeper into that thorny issue on this post, as that issue deserves more space than I can allow for it here, but I believe that American Foreign Policy in the region has always included four angles of attack:

One, the U.S. must at all times appear to be striving for peace, while always running afoul of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab intransigence, squabbling and occasional warfare, and therefore prevented from ever accomplishing anything at all. I think that is the standard narrative we need to believe and it’s been going on for decades.

Two, the U.S. must at all times support Israel’s war machine, which is a defacto arm of the American war machine pre-positioned throughout the region, while secretly giving the green light for Israel to do as it pleases in the occupied territories and elsewhere. They must also appease the domestic Israeli lobby, which may not call all the shots and 'completely' control Congress, as some believe, but is still the most powerful lobby on the 'Hill'. Another Jewish power block is forming, J Street, but they are not on equal terms with AIPAC...yet.

Three, the U.S. must at all times keep her Arab client states and corporate masters in tow with large treasure chests filled with aid money, with the placid assurance that the dictators of said states will keep their domestic populations in check.

Four, the U.S. must at all times hide the tried and true colonial “divide and rule” strategy they are using to maintain hegemony over the region’s resources and military staging areas. Transnational military, corporate and political rivalries, coupled with domestic infighting among factions, has effectively kept the natives in check, like it did for the British Raj and other empires before it, thereby killing any chance for a regional partnership that would have allowed for true economic and political independence from Washington (or Moscow during their foray into the Middle East).

That has been the story until now.

The Wise Men Return

"Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of it's neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [ in the region ]." General Petraeus, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee

I have a pet theory that suggests military and corporate interests have turned their back on the worst elements of this strategy and much like Johnson before him, Obama has been advised by his own “council of wise men”. The message they have sent is loud and clear: The conflict in the middle east is no longer strategically useful or viable for American interests and Israel must bury the hatchet with the Palestinians once and for all.

For perhaps the first time since General Douglas MacArther requested nukes in order to bomb North Korea during the fifties, a serving U.S. Commander, General David H. Petraeus, has spoken out of turn and informed his political masters that the current foreign policy with Israel is leading to American deaths on the battlefield and undermining the militaries attempt to win the war on terror. That report sent shock waves throughout the State Department, but Petreauses was right and I think Obama and his advisors are acting in accordance with the General’s advice (Obama’s team may have been heading in that direction anyway, as I have implied in ‘The Grassy Mole’ ).

I’m not sure what the rationale is for this radical change of approach or how they will deal with Israel, her neighbors, Hamas vs Fatah and Iran for example, but the state of geopolitics and global power is shifting and this is one indicator, among many, that points to this conclusion.

I’ll put my credibility as an imaginary pundit on the line here and predict that Obama, baring his assassination or some other “Black Swan” event that I have no way of foreseeing, will force all sides to ratify and implement a lasting peace settlement before his term in office is over. I’m sure this will follow on the heels of some further political theatrics and/or last ditch military action by the IDF (such as another brief incursion into the occupied territories, another try at invading Lebanon or an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities - which the U.S. may or may not welcome) but in the end, it’s a done deal.

The Wise Men have spoken.

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