Archive for July, 2013

Power Rangers

by Thomas Frank

Easy Chair

Harper’s Magazine (May 2013)

What, then, is the Washingtonian, this smug and satisfied man? Behold him as he ambles toward you on the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, phone clamped to his ear, talking loudly so that all might know his significance. Note well his blue suit, blue tie, the lapel pin announcing his patriotism or his lofty elected position or his allegiance to one trade association or another. What manner of man is he?

The makers of our TV shows think they know. In 1999, they gave us The West Wing, a beloved program about a culture-warring president and his gang of jaded aides who, though they harbor no illusions, try to do what is right for the country. The show was a fantasy of what liberals hoped the powerful were like – as Bill Clinton reportedly said in 2000, it was “renewing people’s faith in public service”.

Today TV knows something else about Washington. The trust of the American people in their leaders is now at a record low. In truth, it has been in the dumps for decades; it collapsed during the Vietnam War, and, despite fluctuations over the years, has never really recovered. Disgust hit a new high after the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011, when fully 86 percent of Americans told pollsters they felt “angry” or “frustrated” about the federal government – the worst result on record. And this is no doubt what accounts for the caustic new crop of Beltway soap operas, seemingly designed to dynamite faith in Washington rather than renew it.

Political cynicism as a form of entertainment is nothing new, of course. And viewers have long been able to choose from an extensive selection. There’s Sixties-style suspicion of the Pentagon, for example, or Seventies-style suspicion of busing and the EPA. But what distinguishes the current offerings is that they invite you to scoff for no reason at all. This new cynicism is largely unrelated to American politics – indeed, much of it is imported wholesale from other countries. It seems a thing not of populist rage but of focus groups and algorithms, and its distrust of government is almost completely abstract {1}.

From Scandal, the hit ABC series about a high-powered DC fixer, one expects better. After all, it is based on the real-life experiences of Judy Smith, who served George Bush the Elder as deputy press secretary and helped sell the country on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Unfortunately, Season One of Scandal turns out to deal pretty much exclusively with sex scandals – plus more sex scandals, followed by sex-related fallout. The main thread concerns a lowly White House staffer who has had an affair with the president, or at least claims she has. Should this dalliance become known to the public, we are assured, it would compel the president’s immediate resignation. No need for lies told to grand juries or any such complexities: You screws, you lose.

The show’s central character, who is herself having an intermittent affair with the president, is one Olivia Pope, principal of a crisis-management consultancy. Her associates include ace lawyers, a former CIA agent who can hack into anything, and various other vaguely brilliant people. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is supposed to be a phenomenal image wrangler and a healer of damaged souls.

Pope’s main superpower is her “gut”. This faculty, she informs us in the first episode, “tells me everything I need to know”. I had hoped that invocations of the intestinal infallibility of DC figures might cease forever after the gut-directed disasters of the George W Bush Administration. Perhaps Olivia Pope is allowed to revive the cliche because her other power steers her in the opposite direction, toward extreme rationalism. Which is to say, she can talk really rapidly, which makes whatever she is saying seem highly persuasive.

Olivia Pope’s firm is supposedly modeled after Judy Smith’s, but what it truly resembles is Jack Abramoff’s, which was once regarded as the one-stop shop for all your legislative and media-manipulating needs {2}. Pope has a superbly Abramoffian moment when she first terrifies the president’s rumored love interest – threatening to out the staffer for her multiple sexual partners, her mother’s mental illness, and “that ugly bout of gonorrhea” – and then, a little later, signs her up as a client.

Alas, the similarities end there. Scandal gives us scandal after scandal while scarcely mentioning, say, lobbyists or defense contractors. We never even see Pope get paid, let alone funnel checks through a steeplechase of shell corporations and phony think tanks. No, in standard TV fashion, she must wear the white overcoat of moral and political virtue.

And so things generally work out the way they should. The closeted gay man who is wrongly accused of murder is acquitted once he acknowledges his gayness; the prostitute turns out to have a heart of gold; the wife of the monstrous South American tyrant abandons him during a state visit to Washington. As it happens, the defection of this caudillo’s wife allows Pope to lay out her political philosophy in some detail. Surprise: it’s mostly about the liberating power of celebrity culture! “She seems weak now”, says Olivia to the dictator, speaking (very rapidly) of his asylum-seeking spouse:

But she is smart. She is powerful. And smart, powerful women like Carolina, they don’t curl up and hide when they’ve been wounded. They strike back by writing memoirs and appearing on talk shows and at benefits and on red carpets, talking about women’s rights in the developing world, and how babies were ripped from her arms by a ruthless dictator.

That’s how change happens – by way of famous people strutting down a red carpet while the cameras tape and the millions gape.

This will never do. Scandal may be a hit with the public, but the true connoisseur of misgovernment snickers at Olivia Pope and her team of lovable misfits, mounting their campaigns for truth and justice from their whimsically decorated loft office. Even the celebrated sequence in which a Pope employee tortures someone – just one of those things that happen in Washington, I guess – dwells on the sad life experiences of the torturer. This is light and fluffy nihilism, less Hunter S Thompson than Walt Disney.

Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president, does without the torture but nevertheless peers a little deeper into Washington’s dark heart. The show is a study in sycophancy (as was its model, the UK series The Thick of It). Veep is also a comedy, and the running joke goes like this: despite all the sucking up by her power-hungry, compulsively flattering associates, the vice president has no power herself. She is incompetent. Her schemes are without fruit. Her gambits always fail. Her boss speaks to her only through a contemptuous emissary, who always takes pains to remind her of her impotence.

What brings on the laffs is watching a cast of operators scream at one another in great swirling spouts of profanity. This is not actually how people in Washington do their business, or even their bad-mouthing. Still, the curses never cease. One legislator calls assistants “gay dwarves”, while another refers to an aide as “a gold-plated fucking shit-gibbon”.

Oh, it’s a rollicking good time. The powerful heap threats and abuse on the powerless, and the powerless do the same to one another. Everyone despises everyone else, and if someone shows an emotion other than hatred, he or she must surely be faking it. The only discernible point of this acid bath in pure misanthropy – other than the obvious industrial purpose of establishing HBO as a manufacturer of no-holds-barred “realism” – is to demonstrate the farcical ignobility of government.

Leave it to House of Cards, a series developed by Netflix, to deliver the hard stuff. It gives us Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, a Democrat working with a fractious Congress. In its structure, the show is so similar to Scandal that one suspects it was generated with the help of some DC-entertainment master template. Both programs dramatize an intricate conspiracy that persists all season while lesser scandals come and go. Both feature such stock characters as the cub reporter, the high-class prostitute, and the icy wife of a powerful man who knows about his affairs with younger women; both revolve around murders that the authorities have mistaken for suicides; and both conclude their first seasons with deep thoughts about childlessness and reproduction.

The main difference is that Frank Underwood (his initials are FU, get it?) doesn’t solve problems in the manner of Olivia Pope. He causes them, with a sort of Mephistophelian verve that makes Karl Rove look like a nickel-and-dime artist.

House of Cards begins with the election of a new president. Underwood campaigned for this man and expects to be rewarded with a high position in the administration. When the job is withheld, he embarks on a preposterously twisted course of revenge, backstabbing and betraying just about everybody he encounters. At one point, in the midst of a Byzantine plot to replace the vice president, he actually kills somebody.

The show’s eye for DC detail is sometimes sharp: a recurring subplot concerns one of those hypervirtuous nonprofits with which the capital is so well stocked; it seems to be philanthropic, but is in fact neck-deep in politics of the most sordid kind. And the program’s gloomy message is underscored by its setting. Almost everything here happens either at night or in some dimly lit interior. Walls are gray, or a dirty sallow color, and the same thing can be said of much of the clothing.

Less effective are the villainous asides Underwood delivers to the camera. Not only is the technique borrowed from Shakespeare, but the language he uses on these occasions is supposed to be high-end stuff, meaning that it usually sounds stilted. (“I have zero tolerance for betrayal, which they will soon indelibly learn”, he says at one point, in the manner of a summer-stock Richard III, thereby reminding us that House of Cards, too, is a direct adaptation of a British program.)

Along the way, we meet numerous petty tyrants and watch minor characters get fired or have their careers ruined. House of Cards, we begin to understand, is a show about bosses, the bossed, and the methods by which members of one group motivate and manipulate members of the other. The leadership techniques of the wicked Underwood boil down to one essential item: blackmail. The way you get people to deliver is by threatening to expose them – it’s foolproof, and it transforms the victims into your robots for life.

These shows agree that the human species is at its worst within the confines of the Beltway. They insist that America’s leaders are greedy and self-serving; that anything you hear from a person residing in Dupont Circle or Chevy Chase must be treated with the same skepticism you reserve for those desperate emails from dispossessed heirs to Angolan banking fortunes.

Misgovernment is epidemic, of course, and plenty of the episodes in these shows are based on actual events, like the Chandra Levy murder and the “DC Madam” prostitution scandal. Still, not one of them manages to diagnose what ails Washington, DC, or even to touch on the really quintessential scandals of our age. None of them, for example, tries to explain how our bank regulators bungled the financial crisis or how the political class came to believe that the federal deficit is so catastrophic as to require immediate, panic-stricken austerity.

This is not for any lack of cynicism, mind you. The makers of these shows have let their imaginations run in the fields of the Devil; they give us evil big-government characters doing evil big-government things and telling evil big-government lies. They are willing to believe the worst about nearly everyone. So why do they keep missing the real deal?

The answer is that the standard Hollywood vision of corruption has nothing to do with the reality of Washington. Start with the most basic question: Why do people in Washington do the awful things they do? What motivates them? In each of the shows under consideration here (and in many recent movies on the subject as well), this question is seldom addressed head-on. But in Scandal and Veep and House of Cards, the explanation is obvious: They do it for power. Power is its own reward.

By which I mean, power defined in relentlessly individual terms. Forget the grand themes of various real-life scandals – the Abramoff affair or Iran-Contra. The skulduggery on TV is always personal. This nifty worldview allows the TV producers to do neat things like avoid partisanship and import plots from abroad, and it also ensures that they will always get reality wrong.

In House of Cards, for example, Underwood spends episode after episode working on an education bill that eventually provokes the ire of Marty Spinella, a lobbyist for the teachers’ unions. To protest the bill, Spinella initiates a nationwide strike, and Underwood is pressured by the president himself to resolve the situation.

He does so by inviting the lobbyist to a private meeting and insulting him. “The most you’ll ever make of yourself is blowing men like me”, Underwood sneers, “men with real power”. At which point Spinella punches him and Underwood threatens to tell. Thus the huge strike is ended – not because of a vote by the union rank and file or anything, but because the union lobbyist got himself into an awkward situation. {3} In this theory of how Washington works, the cart drags the horse all over town.

The reason that this kind of cynicism will always fail to comprehend the misgovernment of our time is that such misgovernment arises from this kind of cynicism in the first place. Why were so many essential operations in Iraq and New Orleans outsourced to fly-by-night contractors? Because we knew better than to let government do the job. Why weren’t our regulators more clued in when the financial crisis erupted? Because we had figured out that government supervision was little more than red tape, and so we turned regulation over to market actors themselves.

I object to such programs not because I think we should show more respect for Washington, but because cynicism is precious and powerful stuff, not something to be squandered indiscriminately by any ignoramus with an algorithm. Cynicism can be the wellspring of reality and reform. But done like this, it merely feeds the cycle of federal disaster.

On the other hand, there is a city in which all these fantasias of corruption ring perfectly true, a place where bosses are amoral despots who flaunt their power and abuse their underlings, and where people really do think, in their moments of peak idealism, that celebrity culture will save the world. It’s just a shame that Hollywood can talk about its problems only by projecting them onto others.


{1} Netflix, which produced one of the shows discussed here, actually chose its director and star by analyzing user data. “Through our algorithms”, declared one Netflix executive, “we can determine who might be interested in Kevin Spacey or political drama”.

{2} Along with coproducing Scandal, Smith runs a crisis-management firm in Washington whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. She is also the author of Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets (2012).

{3} Although a lobbyist could conceivably play some role in organizing a strike, the idea that he would single-handedly end such a walkout is ludicrous; the decision would be up to union presidents, local leaders, and individual members. Nor would a labor lobbyist’s smacking a guy like Underwood constitute blackmail material. On the contrary, it would almost certainly be a point of pride, as it was when John L Lewis punched the conservative head of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1935, and thereby began the process of forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

(c) 2012 Harper’s Magazine

Categories: Uncategorized

Is Snowden the Criminal?

Or is it the System?

by Russ Baker (July 22 2013)

The late, great scientist and author Carl Sagan once observed that

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Thus, after the highly disturbing revelations from Edward Snowden about the extent to which our government is totally out of control, monitoring us like right out of Orwell’s 1984, we get … an effort to shift news coverage away from the outrages themselves, to the messengers who warn us.

For example, watch ABC’s George Stephanopoulos {1} spend almost his entire time in this interview with Julian Assange and Jesselyn Radack trying to demonize whistleblowers – rather than focus on the things they’re blowing whistles about.

As Stephanopoulos might have said, who cares about tyranny when you have a great (and, frankly, easy) job, earn around $10 million dollars a year and live in a $6 million apartment? What sorts of complaints could you possibly have that would risk bringing the iron fist down on you?

Notwithstanding this, George Stephanopoulos gets credit for even allowing these alternative voices to be heard. The rest of the media is generally worse. They’re apparently happy to go to their creator having generated decades of inconsequential blather – rather than do the right thing and make the powerful (and their own bosses) uncomfortable.

Who’s the Traitor?

Around the mediascape, we hear a lot of talk about Edward Snowden being a criminal, and needing to return home to face “justice”. But what about the possibility that people like Snowden actually are the forces of justice, while the criminals are the ones in charge of the system?

Not criminals, you say? How about creating or exacerbating “security threats”, then cruelly panicking the public into approving increasingly intrusive measures to bolster security? Isn’t that something like mobsters who throw a brick through a store window, then offer to provide “protection” against future brick-throwers?

No one wants to be at ground zero for another 9/11. But if we are to believe that those who expose the mega-surveillance system are themselves creating harm, then why not ask the government to document just how all this spying on us is making us safer?

If we are to accept the declamations of various agitated senators and congressmembers about how they’re effectively monitoring the monitors and everything was just fine until Snowden came along – well, how about asking them to prove to us exactly how effective they have been at keeping the keepers of the secrets in line?

What about asking the government to tote up all the great successes from spying on Americans, but first to subtract all those “terrorism cases” where participants were FBI informants or CIA assets or had other connections to the state? What about asking them to show us, plain and simple, an accounting of what the civil-liberties sacrifices and billions upon billions spent on “security” get us.

What about an open discussion of this proposition: The protectors, having created a vast, self-perpetuating bureaucracy, are not really protecting us so much as they are protecting themselves, their paychecks, their own power.


Let’s consider some (shudder) facts:

* Long before Edward Snowden, others were warning us about surveillance state excesses, abuses, and crimes – from James Bamford, a prolific author of books on the NSA, to insider whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, who faced lengthy jail time for daring to tell us the truth.

* 1.4 million Americans hold Top Secret clearances – is that because there are so many things that need to be kept secret, or because it’s handy to have a huge chunk of your smartest people signing away their freedom to level with us about unconstitutional acts by our own government?

* Spying on us is big business. We’re so stupid that we actually pay our tax dollars to have the surveillance contracted out to private companies that are getting rich off of sticking their noses in our business. Fully sixty percent of “intelligence” work is now subcontracted to the “private sector”.  Do you have any idea where all that money goes or what it buys? I don’t. And neither, based on reports of massive waste, corruption and incompetence {2}, do the “insiders”.

* As many a DC journalist knows but does not say, key legislators we trust to “investigate” or provide “oversight” on the spy agencies have, over the years, historically been subject to blackmail on things that would destroyed their political careers. Others are compromised on a more banal basis – they and their spouses profit tremendously from the surveillance state and its ever-open wallet (as well as from all other manner of possibility). {3}

* Once the spook bureaus capture our information, we are counting on highly fallible computers and human beings to be able to analyze it all and identify meaningful connections. Oh brother! Or should I say Big Brother! I recall arriving at JFK airport, and being pulled into a room without explanation. After I sweated this out for a while, someone let me know that my name had triggered an alert. Maybe I was mistaken for Ras al-Bakr, sinister individual. Or maybe someone is just messing with me. Whatever, at least I didn’t end up at Guantanamo, held without charges in unspeakable isolation.

* Those who vilify the Edward Snowdens are often the same people re-enacting battles from the American Revolution or otherwise paying tribute to those who rocked the system. What constitutes a troublemaker? Don’t expect consistency on that.

* Bad things happen all the time in this country and we never get the real story. As we’ve shown here, there’s something wrong with that whole Boston Bombing story {4}; there is something wrong (obviously!) with the FBI hiding the fact of an operation to assassinate Occupy leaders {5}; there is something wrong with the current and recent harassment of cyber activists {6}; there is something wrong with covering up Saudi ties to the 9/11 hijackers {7} – and there are reasons to believe that even in this country, if you ask too many questions you may be venturing into dangerous territory (see the death of Michael Hastings) {8}.

There is … something wrong.

One thing that constantly amazes me is how almost nobody is talking about this. Things get worse and worse and what do we hear people discussing? They are making small talk. People are more upset about the prospects of their sports team not making it to the championships or about the gender of Kate and William’s unborn royal baby than they are about becoming slaves in some Orwellian society that may be just around the corner.

Perhaps we get what we deserve. But perhaps we can change that equation.

If people can get all worked up about fictional horror stories on Netflix, maybe they can be made to care about the Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue, Reality Version.

Maybe we can all demand the truth about what’s being done in our name. To the Edward Snowdens. And to the democracy we revere.


WhoWhatWhy plans to continue doing this kind of groundbreaking original reporting. You can count on it. But can we count on you? We cannot do our work without your support. Please click {9} to donate; it’s tax deductible. And it packs a punch.

Related posts:

RadioWHY – Russ Baker on NSA, Snowden, more, on KSFR Santa Fe {10}

“Civil Libertarian” Obama’s Options on Surveillance {11}

Why Obama Cannot Undo the Surveillance Society – But We Can {12}

Under Obama II, Five More Years…of Widespread Government Surveillance {13}

TVWHY: Russ Baker in Santa Fe, Excerpt 2 – Arab Spring {14}

URLs in this post:

{1} watch ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

{2} reports of massive waste, corruption and incompetence:

{3} all other manner of possibility:

{4} Boston Bombing story:

{5} assassinate Occupy leaders:

{6} harassment of cyber activists:

{7} Saudi ties to the 9/11 hijackers:

{8} see the death of Michael Hastings:

{9} click here:

{10} RadioWHY – Russ Baker on NSA, Snowden, more, on KSFR Santa Fe:

{11} “Civil Libertarian” Obama’s Options on Surveillance:

{12} Why Obama Cannot Undo the Surveillance Society – But We Can:

{13} Under Obama II, Five More Years…of Widespread Government Surveillance:

{14} TVWHY: Russ Baker in Santa Fe, Excerpt 2 – Arab Spring:

Copyright (c) 2009-2011 WhoWhatWhy. All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

Edward Snowden is not the story

The fate of the internet is

The press has lost the plot over the Snowden revelations. The fact is that the net is finished as a global network and that US firms’ cloud services cannot be trusted.

by John Naughton

The Observer (July 28 2013)

Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media, for reasons that escape me but would not have surprised Evelyn Waugh, whose contempt for journalists was one of his few endearing characteristics. The obvious explanations are: incorrigible ignorance; the imperative to personalise stories; or gullibility in swallowing US government spin, which brands Snowden as a spy rather than a whistleblower.

In a way, it doesn’t matter why the media lost the scent. What matters is that they did. So as a public service, let us summarise what Snowden has achieved thus far {1}.

Without him, we would not know how the National Security Agency (NSA) had been able to access the emails, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens across the world; or how it had secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to bend nine US internet companies to its demands for access to their users’ data {2}.

Similarly, without Snowden, we would not be debating whether the US government should have turned surveillance into a huge, privatised business, offering data-mining contracts to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and, in the process, high-level security clearance to thousands of people who shouldn’t have it. Nor would there be – finally – a serious debate between Europe (excluding the UK, which in these matters is just an overseas franchise of the US) and the United States about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.

These are pretty significant outcomes and they’re just the first-order consequences of Snowden’s activities. As far as most of our mass media are concerned, though, they have gone largely unremarked. Instead, we have been fed a constant stream of journalistic pap – speculation about Snowden’s travel plans, asylum requests, state of mind, physical appearance, et cetera. The “human interest” angle has trumped the real story, which is what the NSA revelations tell us about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is heading.

As an antidote, here are some of the things we should be thinking about as a result of what we have learned so far.

The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, that is, divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.

Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious. Given what we now know about how the US and its satraps have been abusing their privileged position in the global infrastructure, the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.

Third, as Evgeny Morozov has pointed out {3}, the Obama administration’s “internet freedom agenda” has been exposed as patronising cant. “Today”, he writes, “the rhetoric of the ‘internet freedom agenda’ looks as trustworthy as George Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ after Abu Ghraib”.

That’s all at nation-state level. But the Snowden revelations also have implications for you and me.

They tell us, for example, that no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you’re thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.

And if you think that that sounds like the paranoid fantasising of a newspaper columnist, then consider what Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, had to say on the matter recently. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on”, she said,

they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out. Why would you pay someone else to hold your commercial or other secrets, if you suspect or know they are being shared against your wishes? Front or back door – it doesn’t matter – any smart person doesn’t want the information shared at all. Customers will act rationally and providers will miss out on a great opportunity. {4}

Spot on. So when your chief information officer proposes to use the Amazon or Google cloud as a data-store for your company’s confidential documents, tell him where to file the proposal. In the shredder.






John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University.

(c) 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

An Exercise in Political Stealth

Obama’s Master Class in Economic Demagogy 101

by Michael Hudson

CounterPunch (July 25 2013)

Yesterday President Obama chose Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois (originally founded by anti-slavery activists in the 1830s) to float the economic program he has been working out with Wall Street investment bankers. His aim is to wrap this program in a democratic rhetoric. The speech’s actual content boils down to: “I’m doing fine and housing prices are recovering. The way to heal the economy faster is to make a Public-Private Partnership (with Wall Street) to finance new infrastructure investment. The government will guarantee a return – and if there’s any loss, we (you taxpayers) will bear it.” His political genius was not to sugar-coat the shady parts of his proposals.

In a Clintonesque manner, he started his speech by saying, essentially,  “I feel your pain”.

“In the period after World War Two”, he started out, “a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity”. People had a sense that hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and, above all, to hand down a better life for your kids. But over time, that engine began to stall. That bargain began to fray. Technology made some jobs obsolete. Global competition sent others overseas. It became harder for unions to fight for the middle class. Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to the rich and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor. The link between higher productivity and people’s wages and salaries was severed – the income of the top one percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family’s barely budged.

All true enough. The idea is that if a President can spell out how unfair the economy is, voters will imagine that he will take the next step and do something about it.

But what is the “it” that needs to be addressed. There is a tendency to blame today’s unemployment and economic stagnation on technology. Last Monday, for instance, Paul Krugman blamed much of Detroit’s problem on changing technology of auto-making. He did not mention unionization’s role – and the decision by carmakers to shift production to non-unionized sites with much lower worker benefits than the UAW had won over the years. It was as if unionized labor were itself technologically obsolete.

Nor did Obama’s setting the economic stage by focusing on global competition and technology acknowledge the role of debt in raising the price of labor. How can American industry compete when some forty percent of the salaries it pays its employees must be paid for housing, ten percent more for credit-card and other bank debt, fifteen percent for FICA wage withholding for Social Security and Medicare, and fifteen percent more for income tax withholding and for sales taxes? Before employees can start buying the goods and services they produce, they must spend about three-quarters of their income on the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector and taxes that have been shifted onto their shoulders?

Meanwhile, the companies themselves have been managed by financial officers whose idea of making money has been to debt-leverage, so that more and more cash flow has been used to pay back bondholders and to buy up company stock (thereby increase the value of the stock options that the managers give themselves), instead of to reinvest in expanding the business at home?

Like any good politician, President Obama recognized that if he tells people that he knows how squeezed they, they will assume that he intends to solve the problem he has just described – not make it worth to reward his backers.

Without mentioning that he had promised to write down the legacy of consumer debt and real estate debt, he hoped to disarm audience resentment by acknowledging that over the past “three decades, a housing bubble, credit cards, and a churning financial sector kept the economy artificially juiced up. But by the time I took office in 2009, the bubble had burst.” So it’s not his fault; he just inherited the problem.

What’s wrong with this picture? He obviously did not expect his students to remember how Democratic Congressman Barney Frank’s got Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to agree to link the $700 billion TARP subsidy to the banks to a mortgage-debt writedown. Paulson agreed to this, if President-elect Obama would sign on. He didn’t, and the proposal sank.

President Obama also did not expect the Knox College liberal arts  students to have read FDIC Chairperson Sheila Bair’s Bull by the Horns (2012) or SIGTARP Neil Barofsky’s Bailout (2012) to remember how Obama’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner disabled any serious plan to write down mortgage debts, by explaining to Barofsky that the Home Affordable Mortgage Program (HAMP) was intended merely to “foam the runway” to slow foreclosures, not prevent them.

President Obama sought to get the debt problem behind him by acknowledging up front that it had cost “millions of Americans their jobs, their homes, and their savings. The decades-long erosion of middle-class security was laid bare for all to see and feel.” Not mentioned was how this “erosion” of security was what had produced the gains of the banks and Wall Street institutions that became his largest political campaign funders.

Now comes the hutzpah, trying to rewrite history while most people are still engulfed in it:


Together, we put in place tough new rules on big banks, and protections that cracked down on the worst practices of mortgage lenders and credit card companies. We changed a tax code too skewed in favor of the wealthiest at the expense of working families, locking in tax cuts for 98% of Americans, and asking those at the top to pay a little more.


The reality, of course, the FICA wage withholding has just increased. And the president has let the crooked mortgage lenders off without prosecuting them, levying only a few pennies on the dollar of fines.

“Add it all up”, he went on, “and over the past forty months, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs. This year, we are off to our strongest private-sector job growth since 1999.” Of course, job growth is not really “strong” when the jobs created are mainly in the service sector paying the minimum wage or barely above it. This is not growth. It is desperation: Wage trends do not keep with the rising cost of acquiring housing, health care and obtaining an education to get work.

The problem weighing down today’s economy is still the debt overhang. Households are “deleveraging”, that is, spending their income on paying down the debts they have inherited. This is what is stifling market demand, and hence new investment and employment. Obama’s speech seeks to gloss over this problem as if his failure to write down debts is no longer an issue:


Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American people, we’ve cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and begun to lay a new foundation for stronger, more durable economic growth. In our personal lives, we tightened our belts, shed debt and refocused on the things that really matter.


But “tightened our belts” means paying down debt and thus diverting spending away from goods and services. The debt has not been “shed”. It has been paid out of salaries, reducing what is left to spend on goods and services. When the media try to assure readers and viewers that the economy is on the way to recovery, it is as if the economy can afford to resume growth without writing down the debts that were run up by 2008.

The president acknowledged that “nearly all the income gains of the past ten years have continued to flow to the top one percent”. If he can’t deny it, best to come right out to say it. After all, is this not what he and other politicians have promised their campaign contributors? That’s what politics is all about today: making sure that the gains flow to the top one percent.

The problem is, what to do about it. All this description of the problem looks like preparing the ground for what threatens to be the government’s next big giveaway: a Public-Private Partnership, based on privatizing America’s infrastructure.


We’ve got ports that aren’t ready for the new supertankers that will begin passing through the new Panama Canal in two years’ time. We’ve got more than 100,000 bridges that are old enough to qualify for Medicare. Businesses depend on our transportation systems, our power grids, our communications networks – and rebuilding them creates good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. And yet, as a share of our economy, we invest less in our infrastructure than we did two decades ago.


The question is, how will infrastructure be financed? The danger that is looming is a giveaway to high finance, such as we have seen in Chicago, where Goldman Sachs and other hedge funds bought the right to install tollbooths on Chicago’s sidewalks with parking meters to squeeze out revenue at the cost of raising the price of driving and transportation in the city.

Most great fortunes in history have been carved out of the public domain. That was the case with America’s colonial land grants, and the railroad land grants after the Civil War. The great question facing Europe as well as America today is whether infrastructure will be provided at a low price – which can best be achieved by public investment – or at a high price as rent-extracting owners turn roads into toll roads, bridges into toll bridges, and so on throughout the economy. This is the looming Wall Street plan, using today’s downturn as an opportunity to cloak a vast new monopoly grab as a “solution” to the economic problem rather than looming as a new threat to price American labor and industry out of global markets.

The same thing is happening in Greece and other Eurozone countries obliged to pay bondholders by selling off infrastructure. In today’s world, privatization means financialization – funding the new construction with debt-financing, building interest and dividend charges into the price of services – and making this revenue tax-free as a result of the tax deductibility of interest.

I think that Obama’s speech yesterday is seeking to “foam the runway” for this plan. One need merely look at what the City of London’s Public-Private Partnership has done to that nation’s transportation system to see a peep into what would be a dysfunctional future for this country. The plan would be for the government to guarantee returns (against cost overruns or losses), passing all losses on to “taxpayers”.

This is essentially what the President proposes to do with mortgages that are still underwater. “I’ve asked Congress to pass a good, bipartisan idea – one that was championed by Mitt Romney’s economic advisor – to give every homeowner the chance to refinance their mortgage and save thousands of dollars a year”. Under this plan the government will absorb the loss – the writedown – that otherwise would be borne by the banks and other mortgage holders. Taxpayers will foot the bill to pay Wall Street. This is the basic model for Obama’s infrastructure plan to be unveiled in the next few weeks.

So what we have in the President’s Knox College speech is an exercise in political stealth. In essence, his message is: “I know how unfair society is. Trust me.” It was what Charles Keating said to his S&L depositors. It worked for Bill Clinton. The more clearly a candidate can vocalize peoples’ desires for prosperity, upward mobility and deterrence of wrongdoing, the better they seem likely to legislate a solution. As the famous quip attributed to George Burns, Groucho Marx and others puts it:


The secret of life is sincerity and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.


The basic script is the fairy tale that balancing the budget in the face of the $13 trillion in Wall Street bailouts requires cutting back spending elsewhere in the economy. The Federal Reserve and Treasury were able to create this money for the banks, but pretend to be unable to do the same for the projected $1 trillion in Social Security deficits that may or may not materialize a generation from now. New wars in Syria and elsewhere can be funded by money creation, but not social spending programs – to say nothing of financing public infrastructure cost with public money creation rather than by recourse to Wall Street. This is the great policy asymmetry of the Obama Administration’s plans to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to cut and ultimately privatize Social Security as the capstone of a financialized Public-Private Partnership.

Here’s the problem that President Obama did not address yesterday: Today’s debt deflation and economic shrinkage are pushing federal, state and local budgets into deficit. This is forcing public spending to be cut back proportionally. That cutting will push state, local and federal budgets even further into deficit. This is why we are hearing calls to start selling off public infrastructure – to buyers who will become new customers for Wall Street investment banks.

It is the same phenomenon we are seeing in Europe. The newest economic prize is the right to buy rent-extraction rights to turn public roads into toll roads and similar rentier tollbooth installations. All this increases the cost of living and doing business, making the economy high-cost even as it is being impoverished.

That is not a solution. It bears out the classic principle that the solution to every problem tends to create new, even larger problems. Often these are unforeseen. But today’s problems in the making are all too foreseeable. What is needed is to keep translating the President’s speeches into their subtext.


Michael Hudson’s book summarizing his economic theories, The Bubble and Beyond (2012), is available on Amazon. His latest book is Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents (2012).  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press (2012). He can be reached via his website,

Categories: Uncategorized

Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?

by Amitai Etzioni

Yale Journal (June 12 2013)

Abstract: The Pentagon has concluded that the time has come to prepare for war with China, and in a manner well beyond crafting the sort of contingency plans that are expected for wide a range of possible confrontations. It is a momentous conclusion that will shape the United States’ defense systems, force posture, and overall strategy for dealing with the economically and militarily resurgent China. Thus far, however, the military’s assessment of and preparations for the threat posed by China have not received the high level of review from elected civilian officials that such developments require. The start of a second Obama administration provides an opportunity for civilian authorities to live up to their obligations in this matter and to conduct a proper review of the United States’ China strategy and the military’s role in it.

The US Military /Civilian Relationships in Facing China

The United States is preparing for a war with China, a momentous decision that so far has failed to receive a thorough review from elected officials, namely the White House and Congress. This important change in the United States’ posture toward China has largely been driven by the Pentagon. There have been other occasions in which the Pentagon has framed key strategic decisions so as to elicit the preferred response from the Commander in Chief and elected representatives. A recent case in point was when the Pentagon led President Obama to order a high level surge in Afghanistan in 2009, against the advice of the Vice President and the US ambassador to Afghanistan. The decision at hand stands out even more prominently because (a) the change in military posture may well lead to an arms race with China, which could culminate in a nuclear war; and (b) the economic condition of the United States requires a reduction in military spending, not a new arms race. The start of a new term, and with it the appointment of new secretaries of State and Defense, provide an opportunity to review the United States’ China strategy and the military’s role in it. This review is particularly important before the new preparations for war move from an operational concept to a militarization program that includes ordering high-cost weapons systems and forced restructuring. History shows that once these thresholds are crossed, it is exceedingly difficult to change course.

In the following pages I first outline recent developments in the Pentagon’s approach to dealing with the rise of China; I then focus on the deliberations of the highest civilian authorities. These two sides seemed to operate in parallel universes, at least until November 2011 when the pivot to Asia was announced by the White House – though we shall see their paths hardly converged even after that date. I conclude with an outline of what the much-needed civilian review ought to cover.

I write about the “Pentagon” and the “highest civilian authori­ties” (or our political representatives) rather than contrast the view of the military and that of the civilian authorities, because the Pentagon includes civilians, who actively partici­pated in developing the plans under discussion. It is of course fully legitimate for the Pentagon to identify and prepare for new threats. The question that this article raises is whether the next level of government, which reviews such threats while taking into account the input of the intelligence com­munity and other agencies (especially the State Department), has adequately fulfilled its duties. Have the White House and Congress properly reviewed the Pentagon’s approach – and found its threat assessment of China convincing and ap­proved the chosen response? And if not, what are the United States’ overarching short- and long-term political strategies for dealing with an economically and militarily rising China?

In the Pentagon

Since the Second World War the United States has maintained a power-projection military, built upon forward deployed forces with uninhibited access to the global commons – air, sea, and space. For over six decades the maritime security of the Western Pacific has been underwritten by the unrivaled naval and air power of the United States. Starting in the early 1990s, however, Chinese investments in sophisticated, but low-cost, weapons – including anti-ship missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, stealth submarines, and cyber and space arms – began to challenge the military superiority of the United States, especially in China’s littoral waters. These “asymmetric arms” threaten two key elements of the United States’ force projection strategy: its fixed bases (such as those in Japan and Guam) and aircraft carriers. Often referred to as anti-access/anti-denial capabilities (A2/AD), these Chinese arms are viewed by some in the Pentagon as raising the human and economic cost of the United States’ military role in the region to prohibitive levels. To demonstrate what this new environment means for regional security, military officials point out that, in 1996, when China conducted a series of missile tests and military exercises in the Strait of Taiwan, the United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, a credible display of force that reminded all parties of its commitment to maintaining the status quo in the region. {1} However, these analysts point out, if in the near future China decided to forcefully integrate Taiwan, the same US aircraft carriers that are said to have once deterred Chinese aggression could be denied access to the sea by PLA anti-ship missiles. Thus, the US’s interests in the region, to the extent that they are undergirded by superior military force, are increasingly vulnerable.

Two influential American military strategists, Andrew Marshall and his protege Andrew Krepinevich, have been raising the alarm about China’s new capabilities and aggressive designs since the early 1990s. Building on hundreds of war games played out over the past two decades, they gained a renewed hearing for their concerns following Pacific Vision, a war game conducted by the US Air Force in October 2008. The game was financed in part by Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment, a division of the Pentagon focused on identifying emerging security threats to the United States. Air Force Magazine reported at the time that the simulation convinced others in the Pentagon of the need to face up to China, and “[w]hen it was over, the PACAF [Pacific Air Force Command] staff set about drawing up its conclusions and fashioning a framework for AirSea Battle” – a plan to develop the new weapons and operation capabilities needed to overcome the challenges posed by A2/AD. {2}

With Marshall’s guidance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates instructed the Chiefs of Staff to begin work on the AirSea Battle (ASB) project and, in September of 2009, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead signed a classified Memorandum of Agreement endorsing the plan. {3} ASB received Gates’ official imprimatur in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review which directed the US military to “develop a joint air-sea battle concept … [to] address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to US freedom of action”. {4} In late 2011 Gates’ successor, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, also signed off on the ASB and formed the new Multi-Service Office to Advance AirSea Battle. Thus, ASB was conceived, born, and began to grow.

AirSea Battle calls for “interoperable air and naval forces that can execute networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat enemy anti-access area denial capabilities”. {5} The hypothetical battle begins with a campaign to reestablish power projection capabilities by launching a “blinding attack” against Chinese anti-access facilities, including land and sea-based missile launchers, surveillance and communica­tion platforms, satellite and anti-satellite weapons, and command and control nodes. US forces could then enter contested zones and conclude the conflict by bringing to bear the full force of their material military advantage. One defense think tank report, “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept”, acknowledges that “[t]he scope and intensity of US stand-off and penetrating strikes against tar­gets in mainland China clearly has escalation implications”, because China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major direct attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal – including its stockpile of nuclear arms. {6} The authors make the critical assumption that mutual nuclear deterrence would hold in a war with China. However, after suggesting that the United States might benefit from an early attack on Chinese space systems, they concede in a footnote that “[a]ttacks on each side’s space early warning systems would have an immediate effect on strategic nuclear and escalation issues”. “However”, they continue, “this issue lies beyond the scope of this paper and is therefore not addressed here”. {7} Addressing the risk of nuclear war might be beyond the scope of that paper, but not of a proper review of ASB. Although the Chinese nuclear force is much smaller than that of the United States, China nonetheless has the capacity to destroy American cit­ies. According to leading Australian military strategist Hugh White, “We can be sure that China will place a very high priority indeed on maintaining its capacity to strike the United States, and that it will succeed in this”. {8} Given this, the United States’ development of ASB will likely accelerate China’s expansion of both its conventional forces and its nuclear, cyber, and space weapons programs. Joshua Rovner of the US Naval War College notes that deep inland strikes could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as preemptive at­tempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into “a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma”. That is, ASB is prone to lead to nuclear war. {9}

As current US technologies and force structures are unable to carry out this hypothetical campaign, its architects urge investments in penetrating, long-endurance ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities; aerial tankers; and forward base hardening. Strategists have also encouraged the Navy to “develop and field long-range/endurance UUVs [Unmanned Undersea Vehicles] for multiple missions germane to intelligence preparation of the undersea battle space” and recommended that the Air Force and Navy stockpile precision-guided munitions (PGM) “in sufficient quantities to execute an ASB campaign”. {10} ASB also involves a considerable shift of budgetary priorities from the Army and Marines to the Navy and Air Force. A review of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense budget finds that “[t]he new budget also shifts the balance of funding among the Services according to the new strategic guidance, which calls for a greater reliance on air and sea power as part of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region”. {11} While all branches face spending cuts, the Army will experience the steepest reduction (8.9 percent); the budgets of the Air Force and Navy/ Marines shrink by 5.8 and 4.3 percent respectively. Although this force restructuring initially led to strong protests from the Army, in late 2012 it began carving out its role in the ASB plan. {12}

AirSea Battle is already beginning to shape acquisition decisions. General Schwartz writes that, “The first steps to implement Air-Sea Battle are already underway here at the Pentagon. In our Fiscal Year 2012 and Fiscal Year 2013 budgets we increased investment in the systems and capabilities we need to defeat access threats.” {13} Admiral Greenert points to the investments in anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air and missile de­fense, and information sharing, that were included in the President’s 2012 budget as one aspect of ASB’s implementation and notes that the 2013 budget “sustains these investments and really provides more resilient C4ISR [Command, Control, Commu­nications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] investments”. {14} The New York Times reported that the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which is able to deftly navigate shallow coastal seas, is “central to President Obama’s strategy of projecting American power in the Pacific”. {15} So far, two of the planned fifty-five LCSs have been completed, and the first will be deployed in Singapore in 2013. A press report in August 2012 stated that “the Air-Sea Battle concept has prompted Navy officials to make significant shifts in the service’s Fiscal Year 2014 and Fiscal Year 2018 budget plan, including new investments in ASW, electronic attack and electronic warfare, cyber warfare, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle]”. {16} Some point out that many of these weapons would have been ordered even if there was no ASB, and that some purchases merely constitute technology updates. However, it is also true that a smaller defense budget means making choices about the allocation of resources, and evidence suggests that the Pentagon has made the hardware of ASB a high priority.

In addition, a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service on the implications of Chinese naval modernization disclosed that there has been a “redeployment of various advanced US nuclear submarines and Aegis SM-3-based missile defense vessels to the Pacific in close cruising distance to China and North Korea. Other vessels in the Pacific were recently moved to Guam and Hawaii to presumably cut transit time to areas of possible conflict. All of this would be helpful if AirSea concepts are employed.” {17}

Some argue that ASB is merely a limited ‘operational concept’. However, insofar as it is influencing the Pentagon’s ‘hardware’ purchases and is transforming force structure, ASB is moving beyond its conceptual stage. Moreover, even if it is merely a highly influential concept, it still merits high-level review.

One should note that several officials also maintain that ASB is not aimed at China. At a background briefing on ASB one Pentagon official stated, “It is not about a specific actor. It is not about a specific actor or regime.” {18} General Norton Schwartz has said that questions about China’s place in the concept are “unhelpful”. {19} However, the consensus of most observers is that “Air-Sea Battle is billed as the answer to growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities generically, but as everyone knows, specifically China”, as former Marine Corps officer J Noel Williams put it. {20} And according to a senior Navy official overseeing the forces modernization efforts, “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition”. {21}

Indeed, as far as one can determine, the Pentagon decided to embrace the ASB concept over alternative ways for sustaining US military power in the region that are far less likely to lead to escalation. One such is the “war-at-sea” option, a strategy proposed by Jeffrey Kline and Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School, which would deny China use of the sea within the first island chain (which stretches from Japan to Taiwan and through the Philippines) by means of a distant blockade, the use of submarine and flotilla attacks at sea, and the positioning of expeditionary forces to hold at-risk islands in the South China Sea. By foregoing a mainland attack, the authors argue that the war-at-sea strategy gives “opportunities for negotiation in which both sides can back away from escalation to a long-lasting, economically disastrous war involving full mobilization and commitment to some kind of decisive victory”. {22} In the same vein, the “Offshore Control Strategy” put forward by National Defense University’s T X Hammes, “seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict” by establishing a distant blockade and a maritime exclusion zone within the first island chain, while dominating the sur­rounding waters “to ensure the continued flow of trade to our allies while tightening the blockade against China”. {23} This would not bring a decisive victory, but would allow the United States to achieve its objectives of protecting its allies and maintaining free access to sea lanes, while giving China space to back down.

Several defense analysts in the United States and abroad, not least in China, see ASB as being highly provocative. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright stated in 2012 that,

AirSea Battle is demonizing China. That’s not in anybody’s interest. {24}

An internal assessment of ASB by the Marine Corps commandant cautions that “an Air-Sea Battle-focused Navy and Air Force would be preposterously expensive to build in peace time” and if used in a war against China would cause “in­calculable human and economic destruction”. {25}

Several critics point out that ASB is inherently escalatory and is likely to accelerate the arms race in the Asia-Pacific. China must be expected to respond to the imple­mentation of ASB by accelerating its own military buildup. Chinese Colonel Gauyue Fan stated that, “If the US military develops AirSea Battle to deal with the [People’s Liberation Army], the PLA will be forced to develop anti-AirSea Battle”. {26} Moreover, Raoul Heinrichs, from the Australian National University, points out that “by creating the need for a continued visible presence and more intrusive forms of surveillance in the Western Pacific, AirSea Battle will greatly increase the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and dangerous naval incidents”. {27}

Other critics argue that ASB operates in a strategic vacuum. Hammes maintains that “ASB is the antithesis of strategy. It focuses on the tactical employment of weapons systems with no theory of victory or concept linking the Air-Sea approach to favorable conflict resolution”. {28} Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institutes agrees that, “ASB is an operational concept detached from a strategy … As a result, the US is both making commitments to Asia that it may not be able to afford and articulating a high-risk operational doctrine that does not answer basic strategic questions”. {29}

As I see it, the implied strategy is clear: ASB planners aim to make the United States so clearly powerful that not only would China lose if it engaged militarily, but it would not consider engaging because the United States would be sure to win. Krepinevich holds that ASB achieves both deterrence through denial, “designed to convince a would-be aggressor that he cannot achieve his objective, so there is no point in trying”, as well as deterrence through punishing, “designed to persuade him that even though he may be able to achieve his objective, he will suffer so much as a result that his anticipated costs will outweigh his gains”. {30} The imagined result of ASB is the ability to end a conflict with China in much the same way the United States ended World War Two: The US military defeats China and dictates the surrender terms.

This military strategy, which involves threatening to defeat China as a military power, is a long cry from containment or any other strategies that were seriously considered in the context of confronting the USSR after it acquired nuclear arms. The essence of the Cold War was mutual deterrence, and the conflict was structured around red lines that not only the Warsaw Pact forces were not to cross (for example, by moving into the NATO controlled areas) but that the NATO forces were also committed to respect by not crossing into the Soviet realm that included Eastern Europe and East Germany. (This is the reason the United States did not help the freedom fighters who rose against the Communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.) First strike (nuclear) strategies were foresworn and steps were taken to avoid a war precipitated by miscommunications, accidents, or miscalculations. In contrast, ASB requires that the United States be able to take the war to the mainland with the goal of defeating China, which quite likely would require striking first. Such a strategy is nothing short of a hegemonic intervention.

When Andrew Krepinevich suggested that ASB is simply seeking to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific, he was asked if this “stability” really meant continued US hegemony in the area. He chuckled and responded, “well, the nations in the area have a choice: either we are number one or China [is] – and they prefer us”. {31} Actually, most of the nations in the area prefer playing the big powers against each other rather than joining a particular camp. They greatly benefit from trade and investment from China and, at the same time, most are quite keen to receive security backing from the United States. And they realize that in a case of conflict between the United States and China, they stand to lose a great deal. (A common saying in the area: “When the elephant and tiger rumble, the grass gets trampled”.) Most important, one must ask if there are other strategies that do not operate on the assumption that our dealings with China represent a zero-sum game. For instance, one should consider if there are strategies in which the superpower pursues its interests by accommodating a rising power – especially when this power is mainly a regional one – by allowing it an increased sphere of influence. This is the way Britain, once a superpower that relied greatly on naval power, accommodated a rising upstart – the United States.

The White House and Congress

To judge by several published reports which will be discussed in greater detail below, including those by government “insiders”, there is no indication – not a passing hint –  that the White House has ever considered earnestly preparing the nation for a war with China. Nor is there any evidence that the White House has compared such a strategy to alternatives, and – having concluded that the hegemonic intervention implied by ASB is the course the United States should follow – then instructed the Pentagon to prepare for such a military showdown. Indeed, as far as one can determine at this stage, the White House and State Department have engaged in largely ad hoc debates over particular tactical maneuvers, never giving much attention to the development of a clear underlying China strategy. True, some individuals in the State Department and White House pursued engagement and cooperation, and others advocated ‘tougher’ moves that seem to reflect a vague preference for containment. However, neither approach was embraced as an overarching strategy. The November 2011 presidential announcement that the United States was beginning a “pivot” from the Near to the Far East may at first seem to suggest that a coherent stance on China had coalesced within the administration. We will see shortly that this is not the case.

One major source of information regarding the development of China policy in the Obama White House is an insider’s report fully dedicated to the subject at hand, Obama and China’s Rise (2012) by Jeffrey A Bader. Having served as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council from January 2009 to April 2011, Bader reports in great detail on how the Obama administration approached China policy. When Obama was still a Senator campaigning in the 2008 election – the same time the Pentagon was launching the ASB mission – his philosophy was to engage the nations of the world rather than confront them; to rely on diplomacy rather than on aggressive, let alone coercive, measures; and to draw on multilateralism rather than on unilateral moves. Following his election, the President’s key staffers report that, with regard to China, containment was “not an option”, nor was the realpolitik of power balancing embraced. Instead, the administration pursued a vague three-pronged policy based on:

 (1) a welcoming approach to China’s emergence, influence, and legitimate expanded role; (2) a resolve that a coherent stance on China eventually coalesced to see that its rise is consistent with international norms and law; and (3) an endeavor to shape the Asia-Pacific environment to ensure that China’s rise is stabilizing rather than disruptive. {32}

Once in office, the administration’s main China-related policy questions involved economic concerns (especially the trade imbalance, currency manipulation, and the dependence on China for the financing of US debt), North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and missiles, sanctions on Iran, Tibet and human rights, and counterter­rorism. The fact that China was somewhat modernizing its very-backward military is barely mentioned in the book-length report. There is no reference to ASB or to the strategy it implies as being considered, questioned, embraced, or rejected – let alone how it fits into an overarching China strategy, which the Obama administration did not formulate in the first term. Moreover, Bader’s account leaves little doubt that neither the Obama White House nor State Department ever developed a coherent China strategy. In effect, key staff members scoffed at the very idea that such overarching conceptions were of merit or possible (as opposed to reactive responses to ongoing developments). The Obama team, Bader notes, “fine-tun[ed] an approach” that avoided the extremes of, on the one hand, relying “solely on military muscle, economic blandishments, and pressure and sanctions of human rights”, and on the other, pursuing “a policy of indulgence and accommodation of assertive Chinese conduct”. {33} Not too hot, not too cold makes for good porridge, but is not a clear guideline for foreign policy. In May 2013, The Economist summarized the administration’s China policy, or lack thereof, reporting,

First dubbed a ‘Pacific pivot’, the strategy was later rebranded as a ‘rebalancing’. Vague references in speeches by Mr Obama’s administration have not been fleshed out by any document (indeed [ … ] the Pentagon has more detail on China’s strategy than its own).

A closer reading of these lines, as well as similar statements issued by the administration that were often fashioned as strategic positions, reveals them to be vague and open to rather different interpretations. They seem more like public rationales than guidelines capable of coordinating policies across the various government agencies, let alone reigning in the Pentagon. The overarching ambiguity is captured by Bader, who first reports that, “[f]or China to directly challenge America’s security interest, it would have to acquire ambitions and habits that it does not at present display. The Unites States should not behave in a way that encourages the Chinese to move in that direction.” Then, just pages later, he concludes that “the United States needs to maintain its forward deployment, superior military forces and technological edge, its economic strength and engagement with the region, its alliances, and its enhanced relationships with other emerging powers. Chinese analysts are likely to consider all these traits to be hostile to China.” {34}

Another book describing the same period, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Refine American Power (2013), by James Mann, reveals that although President Obama sought to engage China, his administration was increasingly ‘irked’ by various Chinese moves, from its assertive declarations about the South China Sea to the cyber-attacks assumed to originate from within its borders. In response, the Obama Administration is reported to have ‘stiffened’ both its rhetoric and diplomatic stance towards China. For example, in response to Beijing’s pronouncement that the South China Sea represented one of China’s ‘core interests’, Secretary of State Clinton told an audience at the 2010 ASEAN meeting that freedom of navigation in the seas was a ‘national interest’ of the United States. She also delivered a speech criticizing China’s abuse of Internet freedom and argued that such nations “should face consequences and international condemnation”. It is reported that State Department officials, who generally sought to avoid conflict with China, “absolutely hated” the speech. {35} If such a speech caused tensions to flare up in the department, it is not hard to imagine the outcry that would have followed had the administration approved ASB – that is, if it was considered in the first place. Yet in Mann’s account of the period under study there is no reference to either ASB or the strategy it implies – or to what a former Pentagon official called a White House “buy in”. {36}

A third book covering the same era, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (2012), confirms with much nuance what the other two books report. It discusses the White House ‘toughening’, its reaction to what were viewed by many as assertive moves by the Chinese, such as its aggressive action in the South China Sea in 2010, and President Hu Jintao’s refusal to condemn North Korea’s torpedo attack on a South Korean warship. {37} Here again, it is reported that the White House and State Department reacted by chang­ing the tone of the speeches. For instance, in a thinly veiled criticism of China, Obama stated in 2011 that “prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”. {38} The administration also intensified the United States’ participation in ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS) and encouraged – but only indirectly and cautiously – countries in the region to deal with China on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis in resolving territorial disputes. The Obama administration also ramped up US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a free trade agreement that at least initially would exclude China, and is thought by many to be a counterbalance to China’s ex­tensive bilateral trade relationships in the region. Furthermore, the president paid of­ficial visits to both Burma and Cambodia – two nations that have distanced themselves from China in recent years. All these are typical diplomatic moves, some of which have economic implications, but not part of a preparation of the kinds of confrontational relationship ASB presumes.

In his book Confront and Conceal (2012), David E Sanger confirms what these three accounts suggest: the Obama administration never formulated a coherent, consistent, proactive China strategy and its policies were primarily reactive. {39} And, this well-placed source also lacks any mention of a review of AirSea Battle and the military strategy it implies.

Congress held a considerable number of hearings about China in 2008 and in the years that followed. However, the main focus of these hearings was on economic issues such as trade, job losses due to com­panies moving them overseas, the US dependency on China for financing the debt, Chinese currency controls, and Chinese violations of intellectual prop­erty and human rights. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2012, Admiral Robert F Willard spoke of the potential challenges posed by China’s A2/AD capabilities, but made no sional [sic] China Caucus, wrote to Secretary of Defense Panetta in November 2011 that “[d]espite reports throughout 2011 AirSea Battle had been completed in an executive summary form, to my knowledge Members of Congress have yet to be briefed on its conclusions or in any way made a part of the process”. {40} In the same month, Senator Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) co-sponsored an amendment to the Fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that required a report on the implementation of and costs associated with the AirSea Battle Concept. It passed unanimously, but as of April 2013, such a report has yet to be released. {41}

In the public sphere there was no debate – led by either think tanks or public intellectuals – like that which is ongoing over whether or not to use the military option against Iran’s nuclear program, or the debate surrounding the 2009 surge of troops in Afghanistan. ASB did receive a modicum of critical examination from a small number of military analysts. However, most observers who can spell the ins-and-outs of using drones or bombing Iran – have no position on ASB or its implications for US-China relations and the world order, simply because they do not know about it. A December 11 2012 search of Google brings up 15,800,000 hits for “US drone strikes”; a search for “AirSea Battle”: less than 200,000. In Googlish, this amounts to being unknown, and suggests this significant military shift is simply not on the wider public’s radar.

The Pivot: An Exception that Proves the Rule

In November 2011, President Obama announced that, with the wars in the Middle East coming to a close, his national security team was to make the US “presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific a top priority”. {42} At first blush it might seem that this dramatic change in strategic focus was very much in line with the one the Pentagon has been developing intensely since 2008. In reality, this rebalancing can be interpreted in several ways – none of which support the conclusion that the pivot amounted to an endorsement of ASB.

One possible view of the pivot is that it was very much in line with the President’s long-standing view – one he expressed even before he was elected – that Asia, as the heart of the global economy, was of growing importance to the United States. Hence, as he was freeing the United States from its engagement in Iraq and from Afghanistan, the time had come to shift priorities. Moreover, immediately after declaring the Asia-Pacific a top priority, Obama assured that “reductions in US defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific … we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region”. {43} At the same time, the United States secured an agreement with Australia which provided for the rotation of 2,500 Marines through the northern port city of Darwin and announced that sixty percent of the Navy would be positioned in the Pacific by 2020 – up from fifty percent moves highlighting that there were indeed a few military accouterments to the pivot.

Critics attacked this take on the pivot from two vantage points. Some saw it as hollow, “all hat and no cattle” as one Texan military officer put it in a private conversation with the author. Sending some 2,500 Marines adds little to overall US forces in the area, which already amount to some 320,000 troops. Some of those Marines are actually being moved away from Okinawa to Australia – some 2,600 miles from China. The re-berthing of a few ships does not display a significant power shift. All the rest of the pivot was – to parrot a criticism often raised against Obama – eloquent talk with little follow-through.

Others see the pivot as merely political maneuvering during an intense election campaign, undertaken to fend off the GOP’s repeated charge that the Democrats are soft on defense. The Obama administration removed US troops from Iraq, but the unstable Iraqi regime – tilting toward Iran and refusing to allow the United States to keep bases in Iraq – made it difficult to present the withdrawal as a victory. The great difficulties the administration encountered in Afghanistan and Pakistan also did not make for a compelling election picture either. Furthermore, the Arab Awakening was looking more and more like a loss for the United States at least in the short run. Nations that used to be reliable allies, in particular Egypt, were (and continue to be) in a state of disarray, and the turmoil in Syria presented the war-weary United States with only poor options. In this context, shifting attention from the Near to the Far East, in which the United States could throw its weight around – at least in the short term – was a safe bet, as long as it involved only a few new outlays and mainly the repositioning of assets already in hand let alone the implementation of the AirSea Battle concept.

Moreover, in November 2012 during the only presidential election debate dedicated to foreign policy, no reference was made to preparations for a war with China. Governor Romney repeatedly stated that he was going to be tougher on China than President Obama by declaring it a currency manipulator on his first day in office – a hard line stance but one focused exclusively on economic matters. President Obama cited the increased trade sanctions bought against China by his administration and said that his “pivot” policy sent a “very clear signal” to China that the United States is and will remain a Pacific power. {44} But no more.

In short, however one interprets the “pivot” to Asia, it clearly does not constitute an endorsement, let alone the implementation of the AirSea Battle concept, and the strategy it implies.

In Conclusion

I am not arguing that the US military is seeking out war or intentionally usurping the role of the highest civilian authorities. Information about the rise of China as an economic and military power is open to a range of interpretations. And the Pentagon is discharging its duties when it identifies new threats and suggests ways to respond to them. Moreover, civilians – including two Secretaries of Defense – have endorsed ASB and arguably the strategy it implies. But while ASB should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is merely an attempt to secure a mission and funds for the military, there is room to question whether the threats have been overstated and to ask if the Pentagon-favored response is the right strategy. The time has come for the White House and Congress to reassess both the threat and the suggested response.

Four areas ought to be considered in such a review process:

(i) While the economy of China does not by itself determine its military strength, it does constrain its options. One would be wise to take into account that China’s per capita GDP is far below that of the United States, and that to maintain support, the Communist Party needs to house, feed, clothe, and otherwise serve four times more people than the United States – on top of dealing with major environmental strains, an aging population, a high level of corruption, and growing social unrest. {45}

(ii) The military modernization of China often provokes concerns that it is ‘catching up’. Although it is true that China has increased military spending, the budget for the PLA started well behind that of the US military and China’s defense spending is still dwarfed by that of the United States.

(iii) Moreover, whatever its capabilities, China’s intentions are rele­vant. China shows little interest in managing global affairs or imposing its ideology on other nations. Instead, China has shown a strong interest in secur­ing the flow of raw materials and energy on which is economy depends. However, the United States can accommodate this core interest without endan­gering its security by facilitating China’s efforts to secure energy deals in the global marketplace and pathways for the flow of resources (by constructing pipelines, railways, and new ports in places such as Pakistan) – rather than seeking to block them.

(iv) Finally, it is widely agreed that the United States can no longer afford to fight two major wars. Hence, one must note that the most urgent threats to US security are – almost all of which can be found in the Near and Middle – not Far – East. {46}

It is up to the serious media, think tanks, public intellectuals and leaders of social political movements to urge for such a comprehensive review, and to counter the gradual slide toward war that the Pentagon is effecting – even if its intention may well be to promote peace through strength.


1 Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, December 10, 2012, p. 3, available at sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf

2 Richard Halloran, “PACAF’S “Vision” Thing”, Air Force Magazine, January 2009, available at com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2009/January%202009/0109vision.aspx

3 Kyle D. Christensen, “Strategic Developments In The Western Pacific: Anti-Access/Area Denial And The Airsea Battle Concept”, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (2012), 10.

4 US Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, February 2010), 32.

5 General Norton A. Schwartz, “Air-Sea Battle Doctrine: A Discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Naval Operations”, speech, The Brookings Institution, May 16, 2012, transcript available at http://www.brookings. edu/~/media/events/2012/5/16%20air%20sea%20battle/20120516_air_sea_doctrine_corrected_transcript.pdf

6 Jan Van Tol et al., AirSea Battle: A Point-Departure Operational Concept, (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010), 66.

7 Van Tol et al., AirSea Battle, 34.

8 Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2012), 78.

9 Joshua Rovner, “Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China”, National Interest, July 19, 2012, available at http://

10 Van Tol et al., AirSea Battle, 90–91.

11 Todd Harrison, Analysis of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Budget and Sequestration (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012), 4.

12 Kristina Wong, “Foot soldiers march their way into new Air Sea Battle concept”, Washington Times, September 30, 2012, available at

13 Norton A. Schwartz and Jonathan W. Greenert, “Air-Sea Battle, Promoting Stability In An Era of Uncertainty”, The American Interest, February 20, 2012, available at

14 Admiral Jonathon Greenert, “Air-Sea Battle Doctrine: A Discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Naval Operations”, video, The Brookings Institution, May 16, 2012, transcript available at http://www.brookings. edu/~/media/events/2012/5/16%20air%20sea%20battle/20120516_air_sea_doctrine_corrected_transcript.pdf

15 Elizabeth Bumiller, “Smaller Navy Ship Has a Rocky Past and Key Support”, New York Times, April 5, 2012, available at html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

16 O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization”, 92.

17 Harry Kazianis, “AirSea Battle’s identity crisis”, The Geopolitical Conflict Report, September 13, 2011, available at http://

18 US Department of Defense, “Background Briefing on Air-Sea Battle by Defense Officials from the Pentagon”, (news brief) November 9, 2011, transcript available at

19 Philip Ewing, “The rise and fall of Air-Sea Battle”, DODBuzz, May 17, 2012, available at http://www.dodbuzz. com/2012/05/17/the-rise-and-fall-of-air-sea-battle/

20 J. Noel Williams, “Air-Sea Battle: An operational concept looking for a strategy”, Armed Forces Journal (September 2011), available at

21 Greg Jaffe, “US model for a future war fans tensions with China and inside Pentagon”, Washington Post, August 1, 2012, available at

22 Jeffrey Kline and Wayne Hughes, “Between Peace and Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy”, Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 4 (2012), 36.

23 T. X. Hammes, “Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict”, The Diplomat, July 27, 2012, available at http://thediplomat. com/flashpoints-blog/2012/07/27/military-strategy-for-an-unthinkable-conflict/

24 Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Cartwright Targets F-35, AirSea Battle; Warns of $250B More Cuts”, AOL Defense, May 15, 2012, available at

25 Jaffe, “US model for a future war.” (A reviewer of this paper from a military think tank commented that “incalculable” was an over statement, that such a war would be only “very destructive.” I stand corrected.)

26 “Pentagon to Weigh Sending Extra Subs, Bombers to Asia-Pacific”, Global Security Newswire, August 2, 2012, available at

27 Raoul Heinrichs, “America’s Dangerous Battle Plan”, The Diplomat, August 17, 2012, available at http://thediplomat. com/2011/08/17/america%E2%80%99s-dangerous-battle-plan/

28 T. X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict”, Strategic Forum No. 258 (National Defense University Institute for National and Strategic Studies, 2012), 2.

29 Dan Blumenthal, “The US Response to China’s Military Modernization”, in Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challenge, ed. Ashley Tellis and Travis Tanner (Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2013).

30 Andrew F. Krepinevich, “Strategy in a Time of Austerity: Why the Pentagon Should Focus on Assuring Access”, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 1, 2012, available at

31 Andrew F. Krepinevich, interview with author, December 3, 2012.

32 Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2012), 7.

33 Bader, Obama and China’s Rise, 3.

34 Bader, Obama and China’s Rise, 147–150.

35 James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 245.

36 Andrew F. Krepinevich, interview with author, December 3, 2012.

37 Martin S. Indyk, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (Wasingtonton, DC, The Brookings Institution, 2012), 38–41.

38 “President Obama Speaks at the University of Indonesia”, DipNote: US State Department Official Blog, November 10, 2010, available at

39 David E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (New York: Random House, 2012).

40 J. Randy Forbes, Letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, November 7, 2011, available at uploadedfiles/panetta_asb.pdf

41 None of this prevented the two hawkish senators from championing ASB. See J. Randy Forbes, “AirSea Office Must Battle Through, Or Fail”, AOL Defense, September 13, 2012, available at and Joseph Lieberman, “Peace through Strength American Leadership in Asia Pacific”, speech, The Heritage Foundation’s Annual B.C. Lee Lecture on US Policy in the Asia-Pacific, November 2, 2012, transcript available at

42 “Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament”, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Canberra Australia, November 17, 2011, available at

43 Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament.”

44 “Transcript: Presidential debate on foreign policy at Lynn University”, Fox News, October 22, 2012, available at http://

45 For more discussion, see Amitai Etzioni, “Accommodating China”, Survival, vol. 55, no. 2 (2013).

46 For more discussion, see Amitai Etzioni, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012).


Bader, Jeffrey, A. Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2012.

Blumenthal, Dan. “The US Response to China’s Military Modernization.” Strategic Asia 2012–13: China’s Military Challenge (2013).

Etzioni, Amitai. Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012.

Forbes, Randy, J. Randy J. Forbes to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, November 7, 2011, Letter. uploadedfiles/panetta_asb.pdf

Greenert, Jonathan. “Air-Sea Battle Doctrine: A Discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Naval Operations”, lecture presented at The Brookings Institution, May 16, 2012.

Hammes, T.X. “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict.” Strategic Forum, No. 258 (2012): 2.

Harrison, Todd. “Analysis of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Budget and Sequestration.” Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, (2012).

Indyk, Martin S. Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. Washington, DC : The Brookings Institution, 2012.

Jan Van Tol et al., AirSea Battle: A Point-Departure Operational Concept. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010.

Kazianis, Harry. “AirSea Battle’s identity crisis”, The Geopolitical Conflict Report. ( 2011) analysis/194-airsea-battles-identity-crisis

Kline, Jeffrey , Hughes, Wayne. “Between Peace and Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy.” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 4 (2012): 36.

Mann, James. The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. New York: Penguin Group, 2012.

Obama, President Barack. “Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament.” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Canberra, Australia, November 17, 2011. remarks-president-obama-australian-parliament

O’Rourke, Ronald “China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2008).

Shwartz, Norton. “Air-Sea Battle Doctrine: A Discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Naval Operations.” Lecture presented at The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, May 16, 2012. events/2012/5/16%20air%20sea%20battle/20120516_air_sea_doctrine_corrected_transcript.pdf

US Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (2010).

US Department of Defense. “Background Briefing on Air-Sea Battle by Defense Officials from the Pentagon.” http://www. (2011).

White, Hugh. The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. Melbourne: Black Inc (2012).

Williams, Noel J. “Air-Sea Battle: An operational concept looking for a strategy.” Armed Forces Journal (2011). http://www.


Daniel Tam Claiborne served as Lead Editor for this article.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World (2012), Security First (2007), and From Empire to Community (2004). He has served as a Senior Advisor to the White House and as President of the American Sociological Association. He has taught at Columbia, Harvard and Berkeley.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Two Faux Democracies Threaten Life On Earth

by Paul Craig Roberts

Institute for Political Economy (July 24 2013)

Quarterly Call For Donations

This is your site. This site will continue as long as you support it:

There is nothing on this site except information and explanations that the media
does not provide.

There is no political, social, economic, or ideological agenda associated with this site. For the most part, readers who come to this site are capable of independent thought. They are aware that the media is agenda-driven and full of disinformation. They realize that voters do not control the government through the ballot box. Readers come to this site, because they are seeking explanations that are closer to the truth or more plausible than the self-serving ones they are given by the media, corporations, politicians, think tanks, academics, and government officials.

I listen to readers. Several years ago when I resigned my syndicated column and signed off there were so many protests that I started this site. My articles appear here first and in unedited and uncensored version.

This site is a lot of work, and every column I write isolates me further from many of my lifetime associates. There is a tendency for people to become corrupted by necessities imposed by their careers. Truth can be unpalatable and harmful to professional self-interest.

A number of readers donate to this site on their own initiative without request. Others have committed to monthly donations. This kind of support is very encouraging. If more readers who use this site responded in this way, there would be no need of quarterly notices.

If you utilize this site because you find truth here, you should support the site:


The Two Faux Democracies Threaten Life On Earth

Amitai Etzioni has raised an important question: “Who authorized preparations for war with China?”

Etzioni says that the war plan is not the sort of contingency plan that might be on hand for an improbable event. Etzioni also reports that the Pentagon’s war plan was not ordered by, and has not been reviewed by, US civilian authorities. We are confronted with a neoconized US military out of control endangering Americans and the rest of the world.

Etzioni is correct that this is a momentous decision made by a neoconized military. China is obviously aware that Washington is preparing for war with China. If the Yale Journal knows it, China knows it. If the Chinese government is realistic, the government is aware that Washington is planning a pre-emptive nuclear attack against China. No other kind of war makes any sense from Washington’s standpoint. The “superpower” was never able to occupy Baghdad, and after eleven years of war has been defeated in Afghanistan by a few thousand lightly armed Taliban. It would be curtains for Washington to get into a conventional war with China.

When China was a primitive third world country, it fought the US military to a stalemate in Korea. Today China has the world’s second largest economy and is rapidly overtaking the failing US economy destroyed by jobs offshoring, bankster fraud, and corporate and congressional treason.

The Pentagon’s war plan for China is called “AirSea Battle”. The plan describes itself as “interoperable air and naval forces that can execute networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat enemy anti-access area denial capabilities”.

Yes, what does that mean? It means many billions of dollars of more profits for the military/security complex while the 99 percent are ground under the boot. It is also clear that this nonsensical jargon cannot defeat a Chinese army. But this kind of saber-rattling can lead to war, and if the Washington morons get a war going, the only way Washington can prevail is with nuclear weapons. The radiation, of course, will kill Americans as well.

Nuclear war is on Washington’s agenda. The rise of the Neocon Nazis has negated the nuclear disarmament agreements that Reagan and Gorbachev made. The extraordinary, mainly truthful 2012 book, The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, describes the post-Reagan breakout of preemptive nuclear attack as Washington’s first option.

During the Cold War nuclear weapons had a defensive purpose. The purpose was to prevent nuclear war by the US and USSR each having sufficient retaliatory power to ensure “mutually assured destruction”. MAD, as it was known, meant that nuclear weapons had no offensive advantage for either side.

The Soviet collapse and China’s focus on its economy instead of its military have resulted in Washington’s advantage in nuclear weaponry that, according to two US Dr Strangeglove characters, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, gives Washington first-strike capability. Lieber and Press write that the “precipitous decline of Russia’s arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China’s nuclear forces”, have created a situation in which neither Russia nor China could retaliate to Washington’s first strike.

The Pentagon’s “AirSea Battle” and Lieber and Press’ article in Foreign Affairs have informed China and Russia that Washington is contemplating pre-emptive nuclear attack on both countries. To ensure Russia’s inability to retaliate, Washington is placing anti-ballistic missiles on Russia’s borders in violation of the US-USSR agreement.

Because the American press is a corrupt government propaganda ministry, the American people have no idea that neoconized Washington is planning nuclear war. Americans are no more aware of this than they are of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent statement, reported only in Germany, that the United States no longer has a functioning democracy.

The possibility that the United States would initiate nuclear war was given reality eleven years ago when President George W Bush, at the urging of Dick Cheney and the neocons that dominated his regime, signed off on the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review.

This neocon document, signed off on by America’s most moronic president, resulted in consternation and condemnation from the rest of the world and launched a new arms race. Russian President Putin immediately announced that Russia would spend all necessary sums to maintain Russia’s retaliatory nuclear capability. The Chinese displayed their prowess by knocking a satellite out of space with a missile. The mayor of Hiroshima, recipient city of a vast American war crime, stated:

The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the central international agreement guiding the elimination of nuclear weapons, is on the verge of collapse. The chief cause is US nuclear policy that, by openly declaring the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear first strike and calling for resumed research into mini-nukes and other so-called ‘useable nuclear weapons’, appears to worship nuclear weapons as God.

Polls from all over the world consistently show that Israel and the US are regarded as the two greatest threats to peace and to life on earth. Yet, these two utterly lawless governments prance around pretending to be the “world’s greatest democracies”. Neither government accepts any accountability whatsoever to international law, to human rights, to the Geneva Conventions, or to their own statutory law. The US and Israel are rogue governments, throwbacks to the Hitler and Stalin era.

The post World War Two wars originate in Washington and Israel. No other country has imperial expansionary ambitions. The Chinese government has not seized Taiwan, which China could do at will. The Russian government has not seized former constituent parts of Russia, such as Georgia, which, provoked by Washington to launch an attack, was instantly overwhelmed by the Russian Army. Putin could have hung Washington’s Georgian puppet and reincorporated Georgia into Russia, where it resided for several centuries and where many believe it belongs.

For the past 68 years, most military aggression can be sourced to the US and Israel. Yet, these two originators of wars pretend to be the victims of aggression. It is Israel that has a nuclear arsenal that is illegal, unacknowledged, and unaccountable. It is Washington that has drafted a war plan based on nuclear first strike. The rest of the world is correct to view these two rogue unaccountable governments as direct threats to life on earth.


Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following. His latest book, The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West (2013) is now available. An ebook version of How The Economy Was Lost (2010) is available from CounterPunch.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Quest for a Common Language

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (July 24 2013)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

It was probably inevitable that my comment last week about the pseudoconservative crusade against Darwinian evolution in today’s America would attract more attention, and generate more heat, than anything else in the post. Some of my readers abroad expressed their surprise that the subject was even worth mentioning any more, and it’s true that most religious people elsewhere on the planet, even those who revere the same Bible our American creationists insist on treating as a geology textbook, got over the misunderstandings that drive the creationist crusade a long time ago.

While it’s primarily an American issue, though, I’d like to ask the indulgence of my readers elsewhere in the world, and  also of American readers who habitually duck under the nearest couch whenever creationists and evolutionists start shouting past each other.  As a major hot-button issue in the tangled relationship between science and religion, the quarrel over evolution highlights the way that this relationship has gotten messed up, and thus will have to be sorted out as the civil religion of progress comes unraveled and its believers have to find some new basis for their lives.

Mind you, I also have a personal stake in it. It so happens that I’m a religious person who accepts the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s not despite my religion – quite the contrary, it’s part of my religion – and so I’m going to break one of my own rules and talk a little bit about Druidry here.

The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:


Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?

A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.

Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?

A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.


Like most 18th-century rituals, this one goes on for a good long while, but the passage just cited is enough to give the flavor and some of the core ideas. Abred is the realm of incarnate existence, and includes “every form capable of a body and life”, from what used to be called “infusoria” (single-celled organisms, nowadays) all the way up the scale of biological complexity and diversity, through every kind of plant and animal, including you and me. What the dialogue is saying is that we all, every one of us, embody all these experiences in ourselves. When Taliesin in his great song of triumph said “I have been all things previously”, this is what we believe he was talking about.

There are at least two ways in which all this can be taken. It might be referring to the long biological process that gave rise to each of us, and left our bodies and minds full of traces of our kinship with all other living things. It might also be referring to the transmigration of souls, which was a teaching of the ancient Druids and is fairly common in the modern tradition as well: the belief that there is a center of consciousness that survives the death of one body to be reborn in another, and that each such center of consciousness, by the time it first inhabits a human body, has been through all these other forms, slowly developing the complexity that will make it capable of reflective thought and wisdom. You’ll find plenty of Druids on either side of this divide; what you won’t find – at least I’ve yet to encounter one – are Druids who insist that the existence of a soul is somehow contradicted by the evolution of the body.

Yet you can’t bring up the idea of evolution in today’s America without being beseiged by claims that Darwinian evolution is inherently atheistic. Creationists insist on this notion just as loudly as atheists do, which is really rather odd, considering that it’s nonsense. By this I don’t simply mean that an eccentric minority faith such as Druidry manages to combine belief in evolution with belief in gods; I mean that the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.

Let’s cover some basics first. First of all, Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be a theory, but evolution is a fact. Living things change over time to adapt to changing environments; we’ve got a billion years of fossil evidence to show that, and the thing is happening right now – in the emergence of the Eastern coyote, the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in East Africa, and many other examples. The theory attempts to explain why this observed reality happens. A great deal of creationist rhetoric garbles this distinction, and tries to insist that uncertainties in the explanation are proof that the thing being explained doesn’t exist, which is bad logic. The theory, furthermore, has proven itself solidly in practice – it does a solid job of explaining things for which competing theories have to resort to ad hoc handwaving – and it forms the beating heart of today’s life sciences, very much including ecology.

Second, the narratives of the Book of Genesis, if taken literally, fail to match known facts about the origins and history of the Earth and the living things on it. Creationists have argued that the narratives are true anyway, but their attempts to prove this convince only themselves.  It’s been shown beyond reasonable doubt, for example, that the Earth came into being long before 4004 BCE, that animals and plants didn’t evolve in the order given in the first chapter of Genesis, that no flood large enough to put an ark on Mount Ararat happened during the chronological window the Bible allows for the Noah story, and so on.  It was worth suggesting back in the day that the narratives of the Book of Genesis might be  literally true, but that hypothesis failed to fit the data, and insisting that the facts must be wrong if they contradict a cherished theory is not a useful habit.

Third, the value of the Bible – or of any other scripture – does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.

What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game. They’ve put an immense amount of energy into something that does their religion no good, and plays straight into the hands of their opponents.

It’s a mug’s game, to begin with, because the central strategy that creationists have been using since well before Darwin’s time guarantees that they will always lose. It’s what historians of science call the “God of the gaps” strategy – the attempt to find breaks in the evolutionary process that scientists haven’t yet filled with an explanation, and then to insist that only God can fill them. Back in Darwin’s own time, the usual argument was that there weren’t any transitional forms between one species and another; in response to the resulting talk about “missing links”, paleontologists spent the next century and a half digging up transitional forms, so that nowadays there are plenty of evolutionary lineages – horses, whales, and human beings among them – where every species is an obvious transition between the one before it and the one after. As those gaps got filled in, critics of evolution retreated to another set, and another, and another; these days, they’ve retreated all the way to fine details of protein structure, and when that gap gets filled in, it’ll be on to the next defeat. The process is reliable enough that I’ve come to suspect that biologists keep an eye on the latest creationist claims when deciding what corner of evolutionary theory gets intensively researched next.

Still, there’s a much deeper sense in which it’s a mug’s game, and explaining that deeper sense is going to require attention to some of the basic presuppositions of religious thought. To keep things in suitably general terms, we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being. (There’s more to classical theism than that – you can find the details in any good survey of philosophy of religion – but these are the details that matter for our present purposes.) I’ve argued elsewhere that classical theism isn’t the best explanation of human religious experience, but we’ll let that go for now; it corresponds closely to the beliefs of most American creationists, and it so happens that arguments that apply to classical theism here can be applied equally well to nearly all other theist beliefs.

Of the terms in the definition just given, the one that gets misused most often these days is “eternal”. That word doesn’t mean “lasting for a very long time”, as when we say that a bad movie lasts for an eternity; it doesn’t even mean “lasting for all of time”. What it means instead is “existing outside of time”. (Connoisseurs of exact diction will want to know that something that lasts for a very long time is diuturnal, and something that lasts for all of time is sempiternal.) Eternal beings, if such there be, would experience any two moments in time the way you and I experience two points on a tabletop – distinct but simultaneously present. It’s only beings who exist in time who have to encounter those two moments sequentially, or as we like to say, “one at a time”.

That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future – they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future.  An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.

Now of course believers in classical theism and its equivalents don’t just believe in eternal beings in general.  They believe in one, unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. Set aside for the moment whether you are or aren’t one of those believers, and think through the consequences of the belief.  If it’s true, then everything in the universe without exception is there either because that being deliberately put it there, or because he created beings with free will in the full knowledge that they would put it there. Everything that wasn’t done by one of those created beings, in turn, is a direct manifestation of the divine will.  Gravity and genetics,  photosynthesis and continental drift, the origin of life from complex carbon compounds and the long evolutionary journey since then: grant the presuppositions of classical theism, and these are, and can only be, how beings in time perceive the workings of the eternally creative will of God.

Thus it’s a waste of time to go scrambling around the machinery of the cosmos, looking for scratches left by a divine monkeywrench on the gears and shafts. That’s what the “God of the gaps” strategy does in practice; without ever quite noticing it, it accepts the purely mechanistic vision of the universe that’s promoted by atheists, and then tries to prove that God tinkers with the machinery from time to time. Accept the principles of classical theism and you’ve given up any imaginable excuse for doing that, since a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent deity leaves no scratches and doesn’t need to tinker. It’s not even a matter of winding up the gears of the cosmos and letting them run from there, in the fashion of the “clockmaker God” of the 18th century Deists; to an eternal divine being, all of time is present simultaneously, every atom is doing exactly and only what it was put there to do, and what looks like machinery to the atheist can only be, to the believer in classical theism or its equivalents, the action of the divine will in eternity acting upon the world in time.

Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way, and this is as it should be. The universe of matter and energy is what it is, and modern science is the best toolkit our species has yet discovered for figuring out how it works. The purpose of theology isn’t to bicker with science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern – of value, meaning and purpose – which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion. To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts {1}, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust.

Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith – a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god, the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on, since none of these basic presuppositions about the cosmos can be proven or disproven.  How do people decide between these competing visions, then?  As noted in the post just mentioned, when that choice is made honestly, it’s made on the basis of values. Values are always individual, and always relative to a particular person in a particular context.  They are not a function of the intellect, but of the heart and will – or to use a old and highly unfashionable word, of character. Different sets of presuppositions about the cosmos speak to different senses of what values matter; which is to say that they speak to different people, in different situations.

This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. To accept any such vision of the nature of existence is to define one’s identity and relationship to the whole cosmos; to refuse to accept any such vision is also to define these things, in a different way; and in a certain sense, you don’t make that choice – you are that choice.  Rephrase what I’ve just said in the language of salvation and grace, and you’ve got one of the core concepts of Christianity; phrase it in other terms, and you’ve got an important element of many other religions, Druidry among them.

It’s important not to ignore the sweeping differences among these different visions of the nature of existence – these different faiths, to use a far from meaningless idiom. Still, there’s a common theme shared by many of them, which is the insight that human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order, an order that we didn’t make or choose, and one that imposes firm limits on what we can and should do with our lives.  Different faiths understand that experience of universal order in radically different ways – call it dharma or the Tao, the will of God or the laws of Great Nature, or what have you – but the choice is the same in every case:  you can apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe, and accept your place in it, even when that conflicts with the cravings of your ego, or you can put your ego and its cravings at the center of your world and insist that the order of the cosmos doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of what you think you want.  It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?

What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive. It’s a teaching of Druidry that this manifestation of the order of things is of the highest importance to humanity, and not just because human beings have messed with that order in remarkably brainless ways over the last three hundred years or so. Your individual actions toward the biosphere are an expression of the divide just sketched out. Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?

Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other – most commonly the civil religion of progress.)  Science can tell us how fast we’re depleting the world’s finite oil supplies, and how quickly the signs of unwelcome ecological change are showing up around us; it can predict how soon this or that or the other resource is going to run short, and how rapidly the global climate will start to cost us in blood; it can even tell us what actions might help make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, and which ones will add to the misery – but it can’t motivate people to choose the better of these, to decide to change their lives for the benefit of the living Earth rather than saying with a shrug, “I’m sure they’ll think of something” or “I’ll be dead before it happens” or “We’re all going to be extinct soon, so it doesn’t matter”, and walking away.

That’s why I’ve been talking at such length about the end of the civil religion of progress here, and why I’ll be going into more detail about the religious landscape of the deindustrial world as we proceed.  Religion is the dimension of human culture that deals most directly with values, and values are the ultimate source of all human motivation. It’s for this reason that I feel it’s crucial to find a common language that will bridge the gap between religions and the environmental sciences, to get science and religion both to settle down on their own sides of the border that should properly separate them – and to show that there’s a path beyond the misguided struggle between them. We’ll talk more about that path next week.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {2} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star’s Reach {3}, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future. Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow.

And please consider putting a tip in the Archdruid’s tip jar. Many thanks!





Categories: Uncategorized