No victims of the ballistic attacks, according to US forces or Iraqi news, but about eighty victims according to Iranian news. It seems that the Iraqi government was informed before the attack, which means that the US might also have been told about it and had the technology, in any case, to see what was coming. This demonstration of force seems to have been meant to calm the Iranian enormous outpouring of emotion and for their government to derive a much needed feeling of unity from it. The choice of targets (one in Sunni territory, Al Asad, west of Baghdad, and the other in Kurdistan, at Erbil) doesn’t make immediate sense to me, nor does it to Juan Cole’s article in his Informed Comment site today. The proclaimed Iranian primary goal is still to get rid of all US presence in the whole area. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn eventually, however, that the assassination of Suleimani not only was encouraged but partly organized by the Saudis as one important way to slow down the rise of Iran. The Saudi government would cover its responsibility in the assassination by pretending that they were willing to lower the tensions between Iran and themselves. Perhaps there has even been something of a partial strategy behind the political murder. Now that ISIS is under control, partly thanks to Iran and Suleimani, the US, Saudis, and Turkey can share the goal(s) of getting rid of annoying, dangerous allies of circumstance, namely the Kurdish forces in NE Syria for Turkey, general Suleimani and its foreign military policy for the Saudis and the US. And it doesn’t hurt that it allows Trump, Pompeo, or Pence to put on masks of messianic gravitas, while being a convenient distraction from impeachment. Israel and Palestine are disputed footnotes in all of this. Both are shamelessly used by the main adversaries, the US and Iran. Yet, in this context of post-Cold War calculations driven by greed and pride, I don’t think it is going too far to remember and ponder that Israel’s presently weak, destructive prime minister, Netanyahu, also owes his power and career to the politically successful assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir.
Que l’année vous soit douce et légère…. Image: Marie-Claude Bugeaud, 2020.
The BBC today carried a story about Alexis Carrel who got the 1912 Nobel Prize in medicine for his development of vascular grafting and tissue culture. It mentions in passing the island of St. Gildas which Carrel bought sometime after the end of WW I, I think, together with the house on it. It is in Port-Blanc, about 2 miles from the respective farms where Jean Hamel and Marie Gourhant lived. I got my name from it or rather from the Welsh saint that we imagine had lived on it. I would learn later that he lived in the sixth century and wrote in Latin the first book on the history of Britain, his De excidio et conquestu britanniae. My mother liked to reminisce on the occasional presence of Carrel at the church in Penvenan, nearby. Did she think, perhaps with her mother who was unusually educated for a farmer’s wife—she had her brevet—, that he was a miscreant tempted by the Catholic version of the faith, somewhat à la Paul Claudel behind his Notre Dame pillar? She gave me his book, L’homme cet inconnu, when I was fourteen. To bring that book back to the small seminary and have the “préfet” of discipline authorize its reading was a cinch (we had to submit all of our own books to his vigilance. The story of Tristan and Iseult was not authorized, but that is another story). No objection anywhere. Only a few years later (3 or 4?), did I finally realize that Carrel was or had long been a eugenist and was concerned, like Hitler, with the survival of a very narrowly defined, racist, western civilization. I was naïve enough not to realize what he was doing in that long-lost book. Aside from his racism, or rather along with it, he dreamt that modern science could bring immortality. Lindbergh is also featured in the BBC story because he became a friend of Carrel and lived on a close-by island with a small strip where he could land his plane. He and his wife lived on that island for barely one year. Lindbergh and the famous doctor were figures of fame that occasionally surfaced in our local conversations. Carrel is unfortunately not the only one whose skill with a scalpel got to his head and heart.
Children and grand-children made me realize that I need not fear losing the wonder that the Catholic liturgy of my childhood brought every Sunday. It is alive, albeit in different colors, in the grand liturgy of American baseball. It was wonderful, while the sabbath rang slowly / In the pebbles of the holy streams, to contemplate these perfectly raked paths, the players decked in impeccable altarboys’ and -girls’ outfits, the green open to the unbound horizon, the pitcher on the mound, and the division of the faithful into two theological camps.
Democrats are being encouraged by the media and political or financial interests (including Obama or Bloomberg, ex-mayor of New York) to find the mythic center of their big blue tent. It is clear to many voters that we need many changes or “recalibrations:” a universal health plan, a more rational foreign and military policy, a return to progressive taxation (without having to go to the 1945 to 1970 level of payments for WW II, Korea, and Vietnam, or the extraordinary expenses of the cold war), an infrastructure program, a rational regulation policy, resumption of an anti-monopolistic economy, a courageous and enlightened climate policy, and finally a steady, clear, and fair immigration policy. That is a long list of things that are needed to steer our modern capitalist economy towards less troubled times. It means that our system of winner-takes-all economy will have to be put under some control and regulation. We are not talking about socialism but about a mixed economy in which profits are shared more universally because we urgently need to fund infrastructure—including bodies and souls—so that all have a fair chance of living in dignity and freedom. The US have many advantages that haven’t disappeared yet in culture, education, inventiveness, trust, and generally speaking, ethical values. These are being eroded over time, and the list of changes above would go a long way towards shoring up the crumbling foundations. A new start is needed and for that we look to elect a truly brave Democrat, not a middle of the road, mediocre one. Not a sugar substitute or ersatz. I agree with this comment I found this morning in the NYT:
Please stop describing the ideal “electable” Democrat as “moderate.” Moderate really means “status quo” or “business as usual.” Moderate means acquiescence to the longstanding Republican agenda of helping the wealthiest persons (individual and corporate) acquire more wealth, while leaving everyone else ever further behind. Income inequality is not a problem, but a feature of how they believe our economy should function. Moderate means reinforcing a medical-industrial complex devoted to wealth care for its executives and shareholders. Health care for patients is “medical loss,” and we pay billions of dollars for their ceaseless efforts to reduce it. People who get sick, die, or go bankrupt because they can’t afford health care are mere externalities, burdens those CEOs have successfully imposed on someone else. Moderate means dismantling regulation that burdens greed. Boeing can regulate itself, so the 737Max can start creating shareholder value as soon as possible. If people die because of corner-cutting, that’s just another externality. Thoughts and prayers don’t cost shareholders anything. Moderate means continuing to plunder and pollute the planet, so that the executives and shareholders of extractive industries can expand their wealth until there is no more to plunder. Moderate is what big-money donors want in a candidate, as it means protecting and serving their interests. But based on 2016 and 2018, voters are entirely fed up with “moderate.”
According to an article in the New Yorker, Amos Oz thought that the written word was fragile and limited in its ability to reproduce the fullness of being. I take it that this limitation is part of that fullness. Children at play experiment with the creativity that poets also seek, the illumination or miraculous ability not only to point to the world as a whole and in part, but to see itself as part of a creation accomplished with the most fragile of means, an articulation of breath, a streaking of the brush and ink, or blades of grass and sticks over a stream of water.
Capitalism is in worse shape than I thought if people like Barr at Notre-Dame’s law school three weeks ago or Marco Rubio this week at the Catholic University of America feel that they need to have recourse to dubious moral philosophy or nineteenth-century Catholic encyclicals in their hot pursuit of moral rearmament at the individual or government level (Barr) and in boardrooms and union shops (Rubio). As Catholics, they could simply begin by rereading the story of the Samaritan businessman in the gospel of Luke… It is an impossible task to defend capitalism when it has long been clear that it destroys community and the public good in general. Its sharing, as in the sharing economy, has become an obscenity. Oh, it does depend upon individual freedoms alright (remember the “go shopping” of GW Bush after 2001?), but it ends up gnawing at human dignity and freedom from deep inside our souls. Marcus Aurelius is of no help when the gospel is turned into a farcical prosperity revival. Politicians who shamelessly insist on yawing and tacking between Trump and some form of unregulated capitalism had better read Leviathan.
Bullying constitutes the whole being of the current US president. The group of 20 is meeting in Japan today and none of the chiefs of state is ready to go public and take on a paper tiger who would collapse immediately if unanimously or near unanimously confronted. He doesn’t attack Putin or other dictators, understandably, as they are also calculating bullies who have no moral status fit to be brought down. The whole exercise is about seeing how low heads of state and US representatives can stoop. We the reality-show viewers and media readers are playing the frantic or phallically-fascinated crowd. This red-tie or fascinus doesn’t protect against envy or evil eye, it multiplies it. It might not be enough in 2020 or 2024 to ban the memory of this era with some form of damnatio memoriae because our capacity to exercise moral judgment will have already sunk so low.
The US administration pulled back from direct confrontation with Iran three evenings ago and decided not to retaliate directly against what was claimed to be the destruction by Iran of a surveillance drone over international waters. Iran counterclaims to have destroyed the drone when it was flying over its coastal waters (within the twelve nautical miles considered national territory by international treatises). The US seems to have painted itself into a corner. It did so by unilaterally pulling back from the 2015 nuclear agreement signed by the US under Obama (not Congress, however), GB, France, Germany, Russia, and China. It compounded the problem by issuing crushing sanctions and forcing other nations, including the co-signatories above, to follow along. The goal(s) of these sanctions is (are) not clear: regime change, return to the negotiating table for a more radical denuclearization of Iran, defanging of Iran’s support for war parties in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, or simply chaos? The third aspect, little discussed in the media—at least those I read—is that the Persian Gulf and especially the Strait of Hormuz are a vital sea passage. According to my readings again, a third of sea-transported oil and gas—from the UAE, Iraq, Qatar, Iran—goes through that region, Given the economic blockade of Iran, which is a war, the pusillanimity of the Europeans, and the separate fight between the US and China over economic matters, it would not be surprising that Iran began to test both the responses of the pact’s signatories to US pressure, and especially the willingness of the US to respond militarily. No one in top political positions, in the US at least, seems to have the courage to propose a solution in which the enmity of Iran would be recognized as well earned by the USA and GB since 1953 and especially 1978–79. Of course, this would demand that the US rejoin the 2015 agreement, which is impossible now, given the weight of the far right in shaping the war mongering. House Speaker Pelosi and many other Democrats are so scared to look weak that they only offered anemic answers and effectively accepted the administration’s framing of Iran as the aggressor. The subtext is the coming elections of 2020 and the perceived need to look strong and decisive.
The above paragraph, I feel, only scratches the surface of things and simply adds to the burden felt by the vast majority of people. We need to analyze and confront structures that are not all that hidden but do look now like monstrous forces imbued with a logic of their own. To change them and move towards a peaceful resolution requires skill, clarity of mind, courage, and a lot of patience. The first ominous force is the huge development of the military in the US, including the industrial and engineering aspects of defense that are entrusted to profit-driven private companies and contractors. This part of the US economy is simply overwhelming and to switch this destructive enterprise from its advertised objective (“defense” rather than “war”) by transforming the goals of most of the human energies developed to it—education, health, care of the young and the aged, new technologies, climate challenges—will require a fundamental political change, not simply the election of Democrats to the House, the Senate, and the White House. The second structure is related to the first. It is the control of vast natural resources that are necessary to the lives of the world population: energy sources, ores (including uranium), water, forests and lands, etc. The history of hydrocarbon extraction is closely linked to the imperial and colonial rise of a few European nations and the US, all of it hardened after WW II and since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political means, financial structure, and war, have been systematically and thoughtlessly used to impose the will of advanced industrial nations, a will that reflects to some degree the expanding desires for comfort and for expansion of the self of modern people.
By political means, I understand the design of artificial nations on the nineteenth century mode in an area where the separation of state and religion, though wished by a minority (often Christian), could only be done by terror, as in Iraq, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich kingdoms. I’m also thinking of war as an extension of politics: the assassination of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, the war against the Houthis in Yemen—clearly supported by the US today, pace the Senate’s tepid efforts to hold sales of arms to Saudi Arabia—, or the present attempt to force Iran to do the chaotic will of the US and its followers or de facto allies (including France or GB that sell weaponry to Saudi Arabia, while wishing to get market shares in Teheran). In regard to this extended will-by-default, one wonders on what side Russia really is. It seems to be an ally of Iran, probably by default rather than choice, as the religious leadership of Iran is probably not fond of Russian ways and culture. But yesterday’s visit by Bolton to Israel and his meeting there with Israeli and Russian leadership, purportedly to prepare possible strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, points to the complex role Russia plays in the area. Russia’s interests are not firmly anchored in the capitalist world and its oligarchy presumably would like to see an increase in the prize of oil—even thanks to tensions in the Persian Gulf—but not to the point of threatening the “world order.”
As for financial aspects, the main one is the denomination of energy contracts (including insurance?) in US dollars, especially since 1973. Instead of a basket of currencies, the trading of oil is done in dollars. But as the sanctions against Iran show time and again, it’s not the denomination in dollars that only counts but more importantly the chokehold that the US treasury, bolstered by US military power, has on the world’s financial settlement system, via SWIFT arrangements and the structuring of securities and investments by foreigh sovereign funds.
Finally the war capability of the US and its allies—even though the latter now are rather weakened and not in a position to try significant moves of their own—means that decisions on the distribution network of energy that should obey the logic of markets and engineering, in practice follow the logic of war and narrow financial advantage. Perhaps it was understandable, even years after the end of the Cold War, that oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea and its region would go through northern Turkey and compete with the Russian project north of the Black Sea. But it was rather surprising a few years ago to read that a project of gas pipeline from Iran to India was nixed by the US, when it seemed to make complete engineering, financial, and geographical sense. The events of 1979 in Iran turned it into an enemy that was to be destroyed.
In a NYT opinion piece today, Susan Rice, who was the national security adviser under Obama from 2013 to 2017, invites the WH to do a climb down, which is unlikely to happen. More chaos is to be expected, inasmuch as the five interlocking steps she advises the WH to take require dexterity and firm control of administrative and military matters, not to mention self-control. The five steps that she recommends are first to fire Pompeo and Bolton (translation of her phrase, “to sideline”). Second, to define a few red lines: no attacks on US personnel by Iran, no highly refined fissile material for bombs, no direct attacks on Israel, and in counterpart no assimilation of Iran to Al Qaeda, a move that allows war without Congressional authorization. Third, open channel(s) with Iran regarding these red lines, through experienced diplomatic personnel. Fourth, lay out a list of reciprocal steps, for instance allow Iranians to export low-enriched uranium, stop the US military buildup in the Gulf, and in counterpart stop the targetting of international shipping or foreign aircraft. Fifth, “suspend” the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and also suspend sanctions temporarily if US prisoners are released, and the principle of direct talks is accepted. Then, expand relief from sanctions if the initial talks are promising.
Rice is playing good cop versus the unhinged bad cop. The latter behaves like an alcoholic abusive parent who threatens violence and occasionally backs off though not without threatening delayed punishment later. The sadistic pleasure of making millions of people anxious in the spreading chaos may be its own reward. Iran’s position has been clear all along. It has little to lose in confronting the agression. Its demands are that the US reintegrate the nuclear pact and that sanctions be lifted. At the other extreme, the “maximal pressure” that the present US government imposed and that effectively forces the whole world to follow looks like a recepe for self-defeating chaos.