Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BOMB POWER: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

In his 2010 book, writer and historian Garry Wills narrates the fascinating history, from the secret (and unauthorized) creation of the Manhattan Project and development of the first atom bomb to the present day, of the relentless consolidation of power into what is now referred to as the "unitary executive" of the American Presidency.

The following are excerpts.

P. 25

The Target Commission convened by General Groves made a list of Japanese cities for use of the Bomb, deliberately choosing ones not yet damaged by the firebomb raids (which would make it hard to see the extent of the Bomb’s own devastation) and ones with dense populations. (Secretary of War) Stimson wrote in his diary how he explained the choice of previously unbombed cities to President Truman: “[I said] I was a little fearful that before we could get ready, the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength. He laughed and said he understood.”

P. 35

The military Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course, never turn down an addition to their tools, They told the President that it was “necessary to have within the arsenal of the United States a weapon of the greatest capability, in this case the super bomb.” (This refers to the hydrogen bomb, 1,000 times more powerful than that used on Hiroshima.) Reflecting the charge that would be leveled against Oppenheimer – that opposition to the Super was a (possibly treasonous) gift to the Soviets – they claimed that refusal to build the Bomb “might be interpreted as the first step in unilateral renunciation of the use of all atomic weapons.”

P. 42

Between 1953 and 1955, the U.S. strategic stockpile doubled, from 878 weapons to 1,756, whiles its total yield increased almost forty times, from seventy-three megatons (4,867 Hiroshimas) to 2,880 megatons (192,000 Hiroshimas).

P. 99

In the 1950s American foreign policy called on the American government to do things no American government had ever tried to do before. The new American approach to world affairs, nurtured in the sense of omnipresent crisis, set new political objectives, developed new military capabilities, devised new diplomatic techniques, invented new instruments of foreign operations and instituted a new hierarchy of values. Every one of these innovations encouraged the displacement of power, both practical and constitutional, from an increasingly acquiescent Congress into an increasingly imperial Presidency.

P. 99

Accountability is the essence of democracy. If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing. But the National Security State assumes that government’s secrets are too important to be shared, that only those in the know can see classified information, that only the President has all the facts, that we must simply trust that our rulers are acting in our interest.

P. 100-101

(According to the Constitution,) Congress is the supreme judge of national security, not the President. It alone can declare war. It alone can fund war. It alone can call militias into national service. It alone can decide what needs to be kept secret. Not the President.

P. 101

Article II (of the Constitution), begins:
(The President) shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
P. 101

It is a sign of the inflation of the presidency in modern times that the “State of the Union” address is now treated as a presidential prerogative, not as a duty, as his power to set a legislative agenda (far from the “recommending” duty of the clause itself.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Advice from Noam Chomsky

The following is from a Chris Hedges interview with Chomsky, posted on truthdig.
“I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions,” Chomsky said when asked about his goals. “Don’t take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself. There is plenty of information. You have got to learn how to judge, evaluate and compare it with other things. You have to take some things on trust or you can’t survive. But if there is something significant and important don’t take it on trust. As soon as you read anything that is anonymous you should immediately distrust it. If you read in the newspapers that Iran is defying the international community, ask who is the international community? India is opposed to sanctions. China is opposed to sanctions. Brazil is opposed to sanctions. The Non-Aligned Movement is vigorously opposed to sanctions and has been for years. Who is the international community? It is Washington and anyone who happens to agree with it. You can figure that out, but you have to do work. It is the same on issue after issue.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Deafening Silence

The mainstream media has all but ignored the "World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change" that has taken place this week in Bolivia. In this final Democracy Now broadcast from Cochabamba, Bolivia, Amy Goodman interviews President Evo Morales. Morales represents one voice speaking out for the vast majority of the world's people who have been subject to centuries of exploitation, primarily from northern countries.

His idealistic message naively paints capitalism as the root of all evil. Hearing Morales speaking his truth may be uncomfortable for most Americans, but it is clearly also uncomfortable for President Morales, who must balance this idealism with his own nation's pursuit of riches through the extraction of Bolivia's vast mineral resources.

In the course of the interview, Goodman confronts him on many of the internal issues facing Bolivia. Such a candid discussion would be unlikely with an American President. It is refreshing to see the reporter and politician spar.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

It appears that Bolivian President Evo Morales has been able to stir up more interest and excitement about meeting the challenge of Global Warming (and the related issues of indigenous peoples' rights) than his relatively impotent, spineless northern counterparts were able to do at Copenhagen.

The first World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth has kicked off in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

This week, Democracy Now is broadcasting from the site of the conference near in nearby Tiquipaya. I found this segment with Canadian Pat Mooney to be particularly interesting:

In many ways, this conference takes the climate debate to ground zero as it draws direct cause-and-effect lines from our demands for "ever more" to the consequences: rampant exploitation of poor nations by the wealthy nations, environmental degradation, and the resulting climate change and threat to all life on this planet.

While the conference is underway, protesters are blocking access to a silver mine in the city of Potosi, Bolivia. The Japanese company operating the mine has failed to deliver on its promises to local communities. The same mining company is under attack for plans to develop lithium extraction operations on the Salar de Uyuni, one of the most popular destinations in South America. Among other things, lithium is used to power batteries in our computers, portable electrical devices and electric vehicles. With the emphasis on electric vehicles, demand for lithium is expected to skyrocket.

Elsewhere, protests are drawing attention to the northeast, near Altimira on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, Brazil, where up to 40,000 indigenous Brazilians may be displaced or seriously impacted by the proposed Belo Monte Dam, the third largest dam in the world (and only one in a series of proposed dams to be built in the Xingu River system - thus effecting many more indigenous peoples and destroying even more of the Amazonian rain forest.) Bel Monte is being developed largely to supply power for the mining of bauxite and other minerals in the Amazon Basin. Bauxite is the raw material for aluminum. Not only will these projects lead to the initial displacements, destruction of forest and damage to the river system, but the construction and mining jobs will draw further migrants (and hence, settlers) into one of the Earth's most important ecosystems, only exacerbating an already dire situation.

The conference also spotlights the sad fact that only the United States and Canada have maintained their opposition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America

Last night, I was able to see the film The Most Dangerous Man in America in our local Rialto Lakeside theater. I was surprised how much of the film is taken directly from Ellsberg's memoir mentioned below. It serves a useful purpose, cementing with imagery and sound the memoir's narrative.

Co-director and co-producer Judith Ehrlich was on hand to introduce the film and take questions afterward. When I asked if Ellsberg had ever been considered for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she chuckled and said "no, but he did receive the 'The Right Livelihood Award'", sometimes referred to as "The Alternative Nobel Prize".

Monday, April 05, 2010

A worthy candidate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Daniel Ellsberg should be on President Obama's list for the 2010 awards.

Ellsberg's 2002 best-seller Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers should be required reading for all high school government and college-level basic Political Science courses. Ellsberg describes in remarkable detail his progression from "cold warrior" (Marine Corps officer) to Washington insider (nuclear weapons analyst and consultant with the Rand Corporation, State Department official in Vietnam for two years, special assistant to Robert McNamara's Assistant Secretary) and finally to anti-war activist.

In his preface, Ellsberg writes:
The heart of this memoir tells the story of how it was that starting from this common insiders’ position critical of our policy, I eventually came to go beyond efforts to stop the war from within the executive branch, to be willing, instead, to give up clearances and political access, the chance of serving future presidents, my whole career and to accept the prospect of a life behind bars. It focuses on what in my experience made it possible for me to do in 1969 through 1972 what I now wish I (or others) had done in 1964 or 1965: go to Congress and the press and tell the truth, with documents.

It’s easy to say that the idea of doing this simply didn’t occur to me at the time, any more than it did to others. The question remains why it didn’t. Like so many, I put personal loyalty to the president (and to my career, my access to inside information and influence, however I realized my purposes) above all else.  Above loyalty to the Constitution. Above obligations to truth, to fellow Americans, and to other human lives. It was the face-to-face example, for which I will always be grateful, of young Americans who were choosing to go to prison rather than to take part in a war they knew was wrong that awakened me to these higher loyalties.
(As I've done with other readings, I intended to extract and transcribe here some of the more significant passages from Ellsberg's memoir, but when I finished the book, I had literally hundreds of "Post-Its" flagging "important" passages. I couldn't very well transcribe the entire book! So, you'll just have to check it out yourself.)