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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Racial Profiling won't win War on Terror

The broad brush of racial profiling has spilled into our post-9/11 domestic security apparatus. The FBI and Homeland Security will now profile terrorists according to their ethnicity. In other words, if you look Middle Eastern, you are more likely to be considered a terrorist. Whether guilty or innocent, you will be presumed to be a bigger threat if you appear to be of Arab descent.

I'm trying to understand exactly how racial profiling will be put to use. Whether it will actually work is the subject for another day.

We already have have another war--one against drugs--that uses racial profiling. Its eminently questionable results include the disparate legal treatment of African Americans, who serve longer sentences than do whites.

The admission of profiling in another war--the one against terror--emerges from the reality that most anti-terrorist surveillance will be directed towards people of Middle Eastern descent. Since 9/11, Americans have grown to loathe a stereotypical "Middle Eastern." The image is not that far removed from that drawn about Jews by the Nazis, where racial features are grossly distorted--noses lengthened, or eyes slit, like the Japanese. With the War on Terror, the stereotypical picture of a Middle Eastern is not that far removed from the turban-wearing Osama bin Laden, or the "diabolical-looking" Saddam.

Inconsistencies in the uniformity of racial stock (attesting to intermarriage) leave much of the profiling of Arabs to the imagination. Just who looks Middle Eastern? Just who can we trust to know the differences between Middle Easterners and those from elsewhere, Central Asia or North Africa perhaps? What about the millions of people of Arab descent who look virtually the same as an Anglo--will they be screened out on the basis of their names? Or, in a high tech world, will face recognition software be deployed that identifies Middle Easterners-and thereby the more likely terrorists--through their facial structure? Will ICE agents have some swath of skin color samples by which to measure ethnicity, like a dentist replacing a tooth, comparing the color of the tooth with that of its replacement?

FBI agents can't be sufficiently well-versed in their knowledge of ethnicity as to distinguish between people of traditional Arab descent and other groups. Unlike the Israelis, who are masters of racial profiling, as their treatment of Palestinian journalist Muhammed Omer attests, most Americans have little practice distinguishing someone Middle Eastern from someone from other regions.

Just how dark or brown is a typical Middle Eastern? Some terrorists, like Richard Reid, might look marginally Middle Eastern, but certainly don't look like they're from the Gulf, which tends to be darker in complexion, I guess though I couldn't say. I do know darker skin is more likely to generate more fear and suspicion among whites, so will Homeland Security--being mostly white--find "darkies" more worthy of extra scrutiny and suspicion? Under this new brand of racial profiling, I suppose lighter skinned people of Arab descent--looking like Mohammed Atta--might actually receive less attention from the authorities.

We are who others think we are

In prison, Malcolm X--then a Muslim--begins tutoring a fellow inmate. His first act is to get his new pupil to open the dictionary and begin learning words. Soon thereafter, Malcolm instructs his student to turn to "black" and asks him to read back what is said: "dirty", "evil", "sad" are just a few I have in my dictionary. Malcolm X then turns to the word "white", which is defined as the opposite of black: "good", "pure" are a few descriptors.

We grow to become what society expects of us, Malcolm X explains, and blacks often grow to accept the mentality of a slave just as their carry the surnames of slavemasters, as many blacks in North America do.With a slave's name comes a slave's attitude, and so Malcolm X extols his newfound convert to Islam to shed his slave name, and pick up a new name, shed the identity of a slave and start anew.

Malcolm X's example shows just how much society shapes our perception of who we are around the color of our skin. We base a whole set of assumption on what it is to be black, versus what it is to be white--this thinking pervades our sense of who we are within our society.

Those practicing black liberation theology might be a target of the profilers, although Islam does preach non-violence, which our government should find non-threatening. Instead, during the 1960's, black radicals were hunted down alongside antiwar dissidents, student activists, and revolutionary types. In the Cold War, Operation Cointelpro was launched which spied on vocal dissidents who opposed the Vietnam War. It took the discovery of FBI files in Media, Pennslyvannia, in 1974 and the extensive hearings of the Church committee in the US Senate to enact legislative reform. The end result was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, which made spying on US citizens illegal, even abroad, and constructed a legal framework to protect the privacy of American citizens. Now, FISA has come under attack, being labelled inadequate despite the fact that FISA judges--who are on 24-hour stand-by alert--have only twice in their history denied any warrants requested by the government.

Will the terror war be like the drug war, where people of dark color--black--are arrested in droves while whites face fewer arrests for drug-related crimes? A July 2007 report (.pdf) by the Sentencing Project lists drug arrests county-by-county. In some counties, the ratio of black-to-white drug arrests was more than 100 blacks for every white. In practice, the war on drugs is indeed a war on blacks. See The Sentencing Project's website for more on the vast racial disparity.

Like the War on Terror, the success should be leading to results, there should be fewer drugs on the street with so many imprisoned for so long. Not so. Garden pests always come back, it seems.

Racial profiling also leaves a more subtle imprint on the functioning of law enforcement and the judicial system. By focusing attention on one group, members of that group are increasingly likely to be found guilty of something. "Driving while black," African Americans call it. Jim Crow laws in the South worked along patterns still prevalent in many American communities today: any blacks outside their historic physical community were automatically suspected of criminal activity. In the extreme, any non-White became an immediate suspect, traffic stops are routine, and arrest is therefore much more likely.

Do blacks commit more crimes per capita? Perhaps. But to profile is to make someone's blackness sufficient evidence of criminality in and of itself. By assuming blacks will commit more crimes, we deny African Americans the opportunity to be treated equally. These prejudices also extend to the Courts, where heightened suspicion translates into higher conviction rates as well as longer sentences.

Profiling in some form needs to be done. Bill Maher's 2002 book When you ride alone you ride with bin Laden shows an excellent illustration by James Bentley of bin Laden walking through a metal detector as a grandma and child are subject to enhanced screening. The caption reads "Political correctness is dangerous."

While terrorists among us will probably be non-White, they might be Arabic-looking. You may recall that soon after 9/11, in airports across America, passengers with 11 digits in their name were automatically pulled aside for additional screening at airports. Using the arbitrary standard gives the impression that our government is doing something to protect us. In times of crisis, security measures may need to be felt in order to reassure the public.

So much of the War on Terror is about public perception--how the public sees its government. In the drug war, whites might feel better seeing blacks arrested--it provides the image of progress in the war on drugs. Likewise, airport travelers upset about 9/11 would probably feel better if the dark-skinned foreigners were given additional screening. So for perception purpose, the practical side of enhanced security measures--preventing terror--is subordinate to the political message that predominates, which is that yes, your government is working to keep you safe, that 9/11 was mistake--we're doing better now.

Can the government be trusted when it spins every event, so the "facts" resemble the message? Look at the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman stories. In times of war, revealing the truth becomes a crime. What if the entire War on Terror is nothing more than show, an Orwellian version of the War with East Asia that Londoners in a 1984 world wake up to each morning? What if the War on Terror and all its malignant tentacles had been created out of a false flag operation--or to glaze over the fact that our government knew 9/11 was coming, yet did nothing?

Whatever the conspiracy theories floating about on the Web, the War on Terror has been a political tool from the start, a oft-jerked mass panic rope designed to woo suburban moms in the 2004 Election by showering the people with Orange Alerts and other fabricated security measures that in reality do nothing to protect us. The fear has value to the State, as it motivates Americans, the perceived targets of the terrorists, to take collective action, to do something to"them" before they get us. In short, the government massaged post-9/11 fear into a political expedient, one which would make rival politicians appear soft on terror and weak against the threat.

Profiling is likely just one more technique meant to deceive us into thinking that the government is seriously focused on doing its job to protect us and that we are safer as a result. Yes, the threat of terror is real, as real as the ugly truth that people of Middle Eastern descent are more likely to commit acts of terror.

Race alone isn't very useful as an indicator of risk. How could you function on a daily basis if race is the chief determinant of suspicion? Statistically you are more likely to be robbed by a black than a white, it's true. But should you cross the street every time you see a black person? And what of the seedy-looking white lurking in the alley that you took in order to avoid the young black man--who could be a minister for all you know--walking towards you in the street?

Race is not an effective criterion for assessing risk. A good cop scouting for a criminals might consider a suspect's race as a potential indicator of criminal activity, but no more. A far more effective than profiling racially is the act of watching someone's behavior, what they say, and what they do. If they behave suspiciously, law enforcement needs to take action.

Al Qaeda--an organization created and funded by the Western intelligence agencies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan--has adapted to the racial profiling already, and is said to be seeking to recruit terrorists from the ranks of people of European descent--who look like us. Racial profiling will divert law enforcement resources towards perfectly innocent people of stereotypical Arab descent, whatever that might mean to each individual security officer.

Limits in fighting terror

I say the war on terror should be fought with a law enforcement tactics. Don't use a strong stick where other methods can require less exertion, loss of life, and monetary cost. Wars are too pricey, and killing just a few terrorists shouldn't require indefinite occupation nor wholesale destruction alongside the loss of innocent lives.

Pakistan is demonstrating that we can only use military force in so-large a geographical space. Yes, we now have agreements with Pakistan that allow us to launch limited strikes, but recent US strikes have incurred numerous civilian deaths. The loss of innocent lives may be a price that the people in the home country are presumably willing to pay in exchange for their safety. Yet strategically, every innocent life lost incenses Iraqis and builds hostility towards the US. Hard power enthusiasts might like the way war generate their own momentum, but dead children provide anti-US insurgents with their best source of propaganda.

Each time the US exercises force, it undermines the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. The more force it exercises, the more likely and damaging the collateral damage.Politically, radical Islamic political forces are empowered, just like what would happen should we strike Iran. If the Pakistani government gives us carte blanche, we will bring to Pakistan Iraqi-style overkill simply trying to eliminate the vermin scattered through the country.

Our occupation doesn't end the terror threat. With the use of force comes a huge benefit to our enemy by generating sympathy. For these reasons, the large-scale use of force is counterproductive in a counterinsurgency.

The exercise of US force leaves a wake that inspires more hatred and violence. The flexing of our military muscle generated an insurgency. When the American empire wields "hard power," it rejects soft power alternatives and thereby relies increasingly on the barrel of a gun. Those who would oppose the exercise of American force become terrorists. Killing civilians in the name of eliminating these terrorists becomes justified, much more so than if the so-called "terrorists" were simply Iraqis defending themselves from Americans on their soil.

If stopping terrorism is the goal, Iraq has yet to be declared free of terror--nor will it ever really be--so occupation is not the method by which we can win, at least if where we are today is the sum total of our efforts.

Endless wars for endless peace

Can these wars on drugs and terror be won? We don't know the terms for victory in the war on terror. Will victory be the elimination of all terror? No, we can't do that, any more than we could eliminate the enemy in the war on poverty launched by Lyndon Johnson.

It's not that we've haven't made progress in these wars. Sure, terrorists who've needed eliminating, have been eliminated. But it's like saying we'll have a war against garden pests. Yeah, we can kill them off, but they always come back, like the Viet Cong or mujahideen, they'll just keep coming. Why? Because we've chosen to make war with them--or at least the terrorists among them--, go on their turf, and try to stretch our mission out in what degenerates into nothing more than a brutish display of military superiority.

How long are these wars to go on without being won? How much longer will those fighting these wars for us be able to continue, with victory always just out of their grasp? While defeating terror makes a great sound bite, the vast majority of Americans have no stake in the outcome, nor do they feel compelled to make shared sacrifices in the name of the war on terror.

Now there are the poor families of the military service people who've been sent overseas in what is framed as an effort to win the long war. I don't know what these poor people get out of the War on Terror. The politicians who started this war are quick to thanks the families of fallen soldiers for their sacrifice, but for George Bush the greatest sacrifice he's made in the name of supporting the troops is to give up golf. He gives up golf, while the little folks offer up their sons and daughters to be wounded, maimed, or killed--why can't the American people understand they've been duped into fighting a war that can't possibly be won? Yet so many believe in their commander-in-chief and choose to be loyal despite the total absence of impending victory in a war that won't end, as if blind obedience were a surefire path to success. Obstinacy won't help the winning formula, as time will tell. Six years in, we're already stretched to the limits of our endurance; I can't see how the passage of time will help us.

Through the ineffectual exercise of military force, the war's supporters have projected the war in Iraq as part of the War on Terror. The two were never connected. By militarizing the war on terror, making Iraq the central battleground, our political leaders have tried to apply conventional military force to stop an insurgency--a proposition which hasn't made sense since Vietnam.

Insurgency adapting to us, us to it

I recently read a good article in AlterNet by Gary Brecher comparing the problems we're facing in Iraq with those the British faced in Northern Ireland.

The US can end the resistance one way: by letting the insurgents win politically. Give them responsibilities in the government. Let the insurgents take responsibility for their country. Turn them into a political force.

Brecher brings up the strategy morph that occurred when the IRA realized it couldn't confront the US militarily, like Sadr's militia did when it tried to hold Fallujah against an American assault in 2004. The stronger power wielded by the US made the slaughter of poorly trained Iraqi insurgents a certainty. While the US did suffer casualties, the ratio might be 20 insurgent dead for each American, a ratio I came up with in regard to the Blackhawk Down mission in Mogadishu, which involved a small number of elite US forces and mostly untrained mobs.

More effective for the anti-US elements in Iraq (and the occupier as well) is transition to a smaller, more professional force. Ultimately, this transformation becomes a political task, one of reigning in radicalism, and harnessing anti-occupation sentiment in more productive ways than flinging masses of insurgents head-to-head against US troops (although I guess that's good for the body count.) The main benefit for the occupier is that the security environment can improve. More control can be brought to bear over the insurgent forces, so collateral damage and the corresponding political liability can be reduced.

The consolidation of the insurgency may be what we're told is progress in Iraq, which has been attributed to the results of the "surge" in the mainstream media. Whatever progress we've made reflects the truth--that I've said for years--that our original occupation force was too small and thus inadequate. The US faces massive strain in sustaining the surge, however, and handing over responsibility to Sadr might allow the US to focus on fighting al Qaeda, who may be resurgent in Western Iraq, where the Sunni have increasingly been driven out of positions of authority and thus have little to gain by participating in a Shia-led government.

While Iraq is radically different than Northern Ireland, Brecher's main idea is to provide a political solution when a military one achieves nothing. Rather than let US forces crush military opposition--especially one that would dare brazen confrontation--the Iraqis have learned to follow a Hezbollah model. According to Brecher, Hezbollah advisers are embedded with Al Sadr's people, as both enjoy favor with the Iranians.

Hezbollah gained huge credibility in the Arab street when it stood up to the Israeli invasion in August, 2006. In three weeks of fighting, the mighty Israeli army in some places made only a few kilometers progress into Lebanon. Casualties were far higher for the Israelis than the 20-1 kill ratio of the Somali rabble and Iraqi militiamen at US hands.

Hezbollah's fighters aren't just ordinary Lebanese, by any means. The standards are quite high, I've heard, and not just anyone can join. It is for all practical purposes a professional armed force. Sadr has a way to go before his men can claim those kind of credentials. In a politically splintered Iraq, he'll need to maintain a legitimate military authority and most likely rely on Iran to do it.

Hezbollah has a great deal to offer the Iraqis, especially if the US uses Israeli-style tactics in an attack on Iran. The month-long August 2006 war provided Hezbollah with a great deal of intelligence into how any outside invader might behave in an insurgency. Also, the effectiveness of Iranian anti-ship missiles was proven, a major factor that the US must contend with should it strike Iran and that country respond by sinking ships in the Straits of Hormuz

The next act

Getting tired of Vietnam war analogies yet? Hopefully things can get much worse. With a little more trying we could have ourselves embroiled in yet another budget-busting extravaganza in Iran. Join Bush and his crew in its last Gotterdammerung, as Eric Margolis calls it, writing for the Toronto Star. The German term comes from a Wagner play that refers to "a war of the gods which brings about the end of the world" (according to Wikipedia.)

With an end to the Bush regime just months away, there's only so much time left available and so much to do. The path to hell is only half paved. To do the bidding of AIPAC, it seems Bush must attack Iran. Obama, the alternative, is willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat Israel's enemies--and he means whatever, so the US military machine might be able to wait 'til the new king is crowned. The collateral deaths come as part of the price of military intervention, paid of course by The Others, those who just so happen to be in too close proximity to our bombs.

Just how much will things change under Obama? If elected, Obama will taper our military presence in Iraq down to what is necessary to interdict terrorists. Yet the SOFA under consideration would force him to defend Iraq from outside enemies. In other words, we're on the hook to defending the Iraqi regime, one which could be dominated by Iranian operatives and sympathizers.

I've heard a troop number of 60-90,000 batted around, but unfortunately Obama appears to be waffling on the extent of his troop withdrawal commitment. Where the spinning wheel of Team Obama's foreign policy decisions will land is anyone's guess.

How professional is Obama with the selection of his advisers? Obama's primary campaign was unorthodox in its open recruitment. Twenty-somethings with no experience in politics were given leadership responsibilities over entire cities. Such an approach has no place in the highly professional world of Mideast policymaking, which is no amateur's place.

Choosing advisers is a careful business because Obama has admitted that he would rely on his inner circle to compose many of his positions. While this much delegation sounded fine on the primary trail, appeasing the Democratic base, proving to Americans that he can handle the complexity of the Middle East might be a bigger issue. The choice of advisers puts progressive policies at risk.

The 60-90,000 troop number comes from an adviser, Colin Kahl, in the Obama camp who wrote a paper on what the occupation of Iraq might look like in the future. See the New York Sun article which explains Obama's policy on Iraq thusly:
"In early Iowa debates, the senator would not pledge to remove all soldiers from Iraq, a distinction from his promise to withdraw all combat brigades. Also, Mr. Obama has stipulated that he would be open to having the military train the Iraqi Security Forces if he received guarantees that those forces would not be the shock troops of one side of an Iraqi civil war."

During an April interview at DemocracyNow (link-1/3 way down), Obama hedged. He rightfully questioned the current criteria for victory, but steered well clear of a precipitous withdrawal. He said maintaining a "sloppy status quo" would be a mistake.

In other comments, Obama has said that he didn't want the large force of American contractors to remain, but did say that it would be good to replace some of our soldiers with these "contractors," who could more accurately be called mercenaries. Not all present-day private sector employees in Iraq fight--like the Hessians of our Revolutionary War period--but instead provide support functions, part of a general move towards privatization of many duties traditionally assigned to our armed forces, a highly dubious transition well documented by author and West Pointer Andrew Bacevich in his book "The New American Militarism."

Now Obama's critics--which at least on unconditional support for Israel would have to include me--can't say that Obama has flip-flopped because the Senator from Illinois hasn't clearly committed to withdrawing all forces from Iraq. In other words, staying vague provides Obama with political cover. But the constant delegation of important foreign policy decisions and vacillations hint at an emerging agenda which might be far less antiwar and progressive than we are told.

As for Obama's actual position, it's hard to determine if he wants total withdrawal within 16 months, which is what Robert Creamer claims in HuffPo. Creamer goes a step farther and extols progressives to help protect Obama's reputation from GOP accusations of flip-flopping, similar to those that damned Kerry (alongside a lot of help from Diebold in Ohio.)

I understand the need to lock arms in defense of the Democratic candidate, who happens to be Obama. Still, I have a right to know where Obama stands before I "have to" vote for him. If the conclusion of the primary serves as a example of what is to come, after the election Obama will likely feel free to do as he pleases. Trying to hold him accountable now is the real responsibility of progressives, whether he becomes President or not. Without any accountability to the progressive base, Obama can continue towards the Right (called the middle in the MSM) on Iraq, FISA, and wherever else he feels like triangulating. (A few posts ago I talked about how important it is for Obama to stay true to his character, not to succumb to the dumbing down of his positions or commitment to them.)

Controlling damage from accusations of flip-flopping is really the responsibility of Obama's campaign managers and reflect their skills and abilities. Their inability to do their jobs, and clarify Obama's positions reflects poorly on them, and their candidate, not on the progressive community, which knows quite well where it stands on Iraq and other important issues. It's not the responsibility of progressives to demand consistency in what Obama says, or see to it that he upholds his positions, even under fire. That is Obama's job, and that of his staffers. If progressives must blindly support Obama, they risk putting their values at the whim of a single man, one whose political orientation might have already taken a serious turn to the right since securing his nomination. Alienate the base at your expense, Mr. Obama; it may only take a few thousand defections to Nader to sink you.

Already we've seen the penetration of Obama's foreign policy team by Zionist zealots, judging by Obama's AIPAC performance. "Oh, yessir Senator Obama, we do need to do whatever Israel says," goes the line. Just how much can we trust Obama if his international policy advisers are beholden to the interests of another nation?

Meanwhile a Status of Forces Agreement is getting rammed through the Iraqi parliament. I guess the sole benchmark for the effectiveness of the "pact" will be how well the Iraqis stand besides their obligations to more or less be good guys, and let us continue to stay while all the while supporting our counterinsurgency effort. I say "pact" because the agreement with Iraq can't be called a treaty as it has not been, nor will it ever be, ratified by the people's representatives in Congress.

A Iraqi government that we prop up can't stand without our military presence--US military power is the sole source of its authority. The SOFA would mire US forces in Iraq for decades, which would allow us to provide a continuing protection racket in exchange for defending the Iraqi government from foes both external and internal, which is a recipe for disaster. Corrupt, and illegitimate, the Iraqi government will need constant help. Meanwhile the Oil companies would reap the profits from oil contracts wrangled out of the Shia in Baghdad. US taxpayers will pay for the continued occupation, just as they pay more and more to Big Oil for the oil that their tax dollars and their soldiers' sacrifices helped liberate.

See Gary Leupp's article about the proposed Status of Forces Agreement in Counterpunch.

All about oil

Hopefully Obama will figure out that the higher troop presence is precipitated not by anti-terror interdiction needs, but rather the geopolitical considerations of American empire, which revolve around the continual pursuit of a scarce resource: oil.

Now oil can be had all over the globe, and there are huge reserves all around. So in this sense oil supplies will last for centuries. Problem is the cost of extraction. Many are in inhospitable climes, or deep in the sea. Extraction could simply be astronomically expensive. Even a simple exploratory operation can cost tens of millions.

The oil companies need to meet investor expectations and are thus inclined to drill at the easiest locations first. This could explain why some 68 millions acres have been leased by oil and gas companies yet go undrilled year after year. Yes, any number of decent sites could be brought to productive use, but at what net profit to the company that must pay the costs of exploration and take the risk of failure? Plus, in a rising market for oil, every day that goes by, the price of reserves--on which so much of an oil company's share price and ability to borrow is based--rises. So why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?

The availability of easily extracted oil is the real golden egg. And the Middle East has it. The alternative is very expensive extraction. Cheney's is quoted by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship in their article "The Iraq War Was About Oil, All Along":
"...the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies."

Major oil companies have been rewarded with control over vast portions of Iraq's oil fields. Originally, the US had claimed that its oil majors would bid on undeveloped fields, but just recently the US acknowledged that its oil companies (alongside BP and Total) would tap into Iraq's developed fields, the same ones discussed by Dick Cheney in his secret Energy Task Force meetings before 9/11.

Oilman Ray Hunt, friend of W. and member of the task force, actually negotiated independently with the Kurds, using his insider information based on access to national security data. See the article by Jason Leopold.

The Iraqis' portion of the profits will be only 25%, which will require the US to continue to work the protection racket, claiming that the oil infrastructure is vulnerable to attack, and thereby justifying a continued troop presence in Iraq, just like some government mafioso.


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