Saving Private Enterprise: Paul, Petraeus, and Two Kinds of Patriotism

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This past week the buzz has all been about the House testimony of General David Petraeus on the "surge" in Iraq and an inflammatory ad in response that dubbed him General "Betray Us."

The ad, the brainchild of an antiwar group, ripped the general’s assessment that the increase in manpower in Iraq in 2007 (the "surge") has been effective. It pointed out that the Petraeus report is in stark contrast to independent evaluations of the situation by the GAO as well as evaluations by the Republican party itself.

At issue is the timing of troop withdrawal.

The antiwar movement (with a large part of the population) wants the troops out immediately and insists that the US presence in Iraq is itself inciting violence and terrorism. Bush supporters, many Republicans, some Democrats, and the rest of the population support staying on. They say that immediate withdrawal could create a strategic and humanitarian disaster.

Whatever we think of the administration, we can safely assume that most war supporters really do believe that the occupation of Iraq is central to US national security and the war on terrorism. Questioning their good faith isn’t necessary. Asking why they think this way is.

Take the language war-supporters use. It suggests that people like Ron Paul who want immediate withdrawal are dangerously unrealistic, not merely unpatriotic.

These critics should take another look and see if it isn’t their ideas that run counter to reality. They give us "withdrawal" and "staying on" as mutually exclusive opposites. But any kind of withdrawal can’t possibly happen without some staying on. The troops can’t simply come home tomorrow, presto, because we want them out. So, the issue really is not withdrawal but different lengths of staying on. A few months or many years? At this point you’ll notice that the troops have already stayed on for four years.

Is all this hairsplitting?

No.

By constantly talking in binary terms (withdrawal/no withdrawal), we play into our brain’s hard-wired tendency to think along the lines of group rivalry. We play into the “mob mind” that loves nothing more than slogans.

Obviously if there is a yes/no, either/or divide, we can safely perch on one side and shove our rivals (and the divide immediately creates rivals) to the other side. Then we can devote all our energies to reinforcing this fictitious model with every shred of evidence and lung power at our disposal. Anyone with a passing interest in psychology will tell you what the result will be. We will get more and more of what we focus on — an impasse. And our model of the world will increasingly diverge from the reality underneath.

Take away the "withdraw/no withdrawal" slogan and something happens.

What you get turns out to be not one question but at least two, both of which require us to look at history, not just ideology.

The prescriptive question is —

How long should we stay?

(The post-mortem version is more accurate, how long should we have stayed?)

And the descriptive question is —

How long have we already stayed?

The second question is more interesting….and quite clear.

We’ve been in Iraq not for 4 years, but for 16. (If we count all the meddling with different groups, we’ve been there even longer — for decades). A baby born when George pre halted at the gates of Baghdad would be taking her SAT’s by the time George fils first started showing withdrawal symptoms.

To people who think that getting out now will create a national security and humanitarian disaster, the question we really should be posing is this one:

What sort of national security and humanitarian contingency ever needed a 16-year troop presence half way across the globe that took, all told, around 1.5 million civilian and military lives and around 1.5 trillion dollars?

Seen this way, the issue is no longer the timing of the withdrawal. That’s simply the logistical seal on a 16-year bipartisan strategy that’s already about as big a disaster in humanitarian, economic, and national security terms as you could possibly have without entirely wiping out a country.

The real question is the point of such a disastrous strategy in the first place.

Focusing on the past 16 years (rather than the past 4) tells us where we should be looking for explanations: To the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War, of course, was a boon to the mob mentality. There were all those stark slogans of bi-polarity — us/them, good guys/evil empire, capitalist/communist.

At one level there was good sense in them. Nobody can read Solzhenitsyn or Robert Conquest without being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors in Soviet Russia. Or in Mao’s China. Or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

It would be easy to conclude from that that what the US did from fear that such communist regimes would expand was always and everywhere justified.

But it wasn’t — because the slogans swept a great deal under the carpet. Some of which was more precious than the painted furniture on top. The label of communism, for instance, failed to tell apart communists and nationalists, communists and anti-imperialists, communists and anarchists, communists and socialists. The real facts of history and politics got washed out in the ideological spin-cycle.

Worse yet, instead of standing firmly on its own individualist, libertarian, and rational principles to counter the evils of utopianism, America — or rather the US government — began to adopt the collectivist methods of its enemies. From a modest republic content with commercial pursuits it transformed itself into a grasping empire of ideologues. Some would say that this has always been the case and that the roots of empire reach much deeper into American history. They could be right.

However, it was really during the Cold War that the non-interventionist principles of the old republic were most thoroughly dismantled. And the sloganeers trying to rally the masses were the primary victims of the sloganeering:

Conservatives started discarding rather than conserving traditional principles of state-craft to pursue a world order made in their own image.

Free marketers began to believe that the state ought to subsidize their risk-taking.

Capitalists started adopting socialist language and policies.

Liberal democracy — of the particular kind enjoyed by western states in the twentieth century — was now said to be an unconditional good for all states, at all times.

But, as a mad, wise man said, "everything unconditional belongs in pathology."

So, at the end of several decades wrestling with the unconditional theories of world communism, the US too began to display its own pathology.

This was enough the case that in 1989 when the sloganeers said that the capitalists had defeated the communists, some observers feared that both had lost. They were right. The rivalry between capitalism and communism turned out to have been a race to the bottom. The price of winning the fight against communism was the loss of the principle at stake in the fight.

Liberty holding up the torch of reason to guide the state became liberty torching reason in abject service to the state.

This new liberty was not liberty at all but license. The regulations it effectively dismantled were mainly those that applied to businesses feeding off government contracts that were large enough to rule out the rule-makers. The rest of America was hog-tied with rules. Here, too, employing the slogans of the mob misleads: It turns out you can have too much regulation and too little — simultaneously.

So, while ordinary individuals and businesses are persecuted at every turn by ham-handed bureaucrats, a handful of corporations, especially those connected to the military, banking, finance, and energy, have become a rentier class, deriving their profits not from genuine free enterprise, from value added, innovation, foresight, and risk-taking, but from their special relationship to the government. Entrepreneurs have been displaced by over-paid technocrats, experts, and managers every bit as bureaucratic and wasteful as the state enterprises they claim to be stream-lining.

Even the most sensitive government functions, like intelligence, are handed over to private contractors working hand-in-hand with the state in mercantilist ventures that rely increasingly on war and disaster to achieve their goals. Simultaneously, the life-blood of the economy, its paper money, is subject to continuous manipulation. As more and more of middle-class savings in the bank, in pension funds, and in home equity, are sucked into the financial markets, financiers siphon off the profits for themselves, while government bailouts socialize the costs of their risk-taking.

It is this corrupt "corporatism" that has claimed the mantle of liberty and free enterprise and swindled millions all over the world into believing it is the true face of free enterprise.

Thus, in her new book, “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” Naomi Klein, author of the anti-globalization manifesto, “No Logo,” draws a connection between government shock therapy and human rights violations (echoing a fine essay by Peter Linebaugh in Counterpunch in 2004).

For her, as for many on the left, mercantilism and financialization are capitalism.

But why should we argue the point with socialists when so-called capitalists themselves agree? When the right claims that opposition to torture and war are opposition to the American way of life — isn’t it conceding just this? That capitalism and individualism require endless war and torture?

But suppose, just suppose, the case is precisely the opposite. Suppose it is our slogans that are at fault, not capitalism. Suppose — as it really is — that capitalism and free enterprise best go hand in hand with peace and that the welfare-warfare state we’re so comfortable with is properly called collectivist, not capitalist.

Suppose that the war on Iraq is not a defense of the individualist way of life but the final assault on it — then what?

Then we might notice that the sense of duty that General Petraeus shows — the unquestioning loyalty to the organization he works for, the competitive desire to get the job done, is quite a different thing from that displayed, for instance, by the plain-speaking General George C. Marshall, whose name happens to be on an award given to Petraeus.

Today, plain-speaking is out. Part of the duty the military is to undertake public diplomacy so extensive that it is no more than disinformation.

It is disinformation, for instance, to say that a reduction in troop size of around 30,000 by next year (that is, after the elections) is a withdrawal of troops, when all it would do is return troop strength to what it was before the surge in 2007.

That is not a reduction, it is actually an extension of a surge originally expected to produce a result in 6 months — or be declared a failure.

But should we blame this on Petraeus, who, with a PhD from Princeton in Public Administration, is after all as much a technocrat as he is a general? A technocrat who is intimately part of the financialization and mercantilism of US Govt. Inc. In Bosnia, for example, he was Deputy Commander of the U.S. Joint Interagency Counter-Terrorism Task Force (JITF-CT), specially created after September 11 to add a counter-terrorism capability to the U.S. forces under NATO in Bosnia.

That was at the time when Dyncorp, one of the largest private military contractors in the world, was providing police officers as part of a $15 million annual contract for logistical support.

Two of its employees alleged that several colleagues had colluded in the black-market sex trade of women and children — allegations supported by a court finding that the firing of one whistle-blower was retaliatory and by an out-of-court settlement with another.

Nonetheless, Dyncorp was active again in Iraq, sending out ex-cops and security guards to Iraq to help train a new police force. And again, it was none other than Petraeus who was in charge of that training as well as in setting up Shiite militias (death squads) to go after Sunnis.

Recall, too, that conditions for interrogations involving torture were often set by private contractors unaccountable to government through traditional channels.

And that it was General Petraeus who set up the Shia militias in July 2004 as part of a "surge" that immediately followed the exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib but was immediately displaced by it in the media sensation.

Now, with this new surge in Iraq, three years later, what Petraeus is doing is simply switching his enemies. He is now arming and training Sunni militias to fight Shia.

But he’s not switching contractors. In June 2007 Dyncorp was again chosen by the US army to provide logistical support, this time to the tune of $5 billion a year.

This is the backdrop to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s falling out with Petraeus this past summer. Al-Maliki, a Shia, demanded that Petraeus stop creating Sunni militia. He wanted an end to the surge and the US out of Iraq immediately.

But why would the administration want to get out when arming Sunni militias provokes Iranian support of the Shia? And when that, in turn, provides a convenient justification for more sabre-rattling against Iran? It perfectly fits a decades old neo-conservative plan to destabilize the Middle East.

Obviously, Petraeus, who did his doctoral dissertation on the impact of Vietnam on the conduct of war, has learned the lesson from it that public perception of a war must be thoroughly managed. Too bad that’s not quite the same lesson learned by one of his best advisors, Col. H. R. McMaster, a soldier celebrated in Tom Clancy’s novels.

McMaster’s book on Vietnam, "Dereliction of Duty," blames not just the arrogance of Johnson and McNamara for the failure in Vietnam but their calculated deception of the American people. The book is now required reading in the army. Yet, oddly, its author was passed over twice for promotion, while Petraeus shot to the top. That should tell us exactly which lesson from Vietnam is in favor with this government. And what sort of patriotism is popular these days.

Just there lies the difference between the Patriot Acts of this administration and the acts of patriots like Ron Paul, who owes nothing to any organization for his views. Who stands entirely apart from the two-faced one-party system currently in power.

Paul’s patriotism comes from an older time, when someone like “George Marshall could tell the truth and be praised for it, not slandered.

“When General Marshall takes the witness stand to testify," it was said, "we forget whether we are Republicans or Democrats. We know we are in the presence of a man who is telling the truth about the problem he is discussing."

The truth-telling of General Marshall and Dr. Paul is what this country desperately needs today. Without it, we face a defeat much greater than anything than we have experienced in Iraq so far. We face a loss whose magnitude dwarfs any loss of security or power that could be feared from withdrawing at once.

We face a defeat of the very values that originally formed and guided this country. The values professed especially by the Republican party — individualism, free enterprise, limited government, and liberty. Ultimately, these values will be discredited simply because they will be seen as part of the discredited policies of this un-republican Republican administration.

For the truth is that to the world the occupation of Iraq is not simply a blunder. It is a neo-colonial adventure of a very savage sort. One that recalls, to many, the carving up of the globe in the nineteenth century by the European empires. And in much of the developing world today, these empires are identified, falsely, with free enterprise and individualism. Colonialism and capitalism are attacked as one.

Which is why severing the ties of enterprise to empire is the crucial task at hand for individualists and free marketers everywhere. A task only a man like Ron Paul can undertake, when all the other enemies of imperialist collectivism are also friends of socialist collectivism.

Buy this book.

As individualists, though, we know better. We know that it is only free markets (and the laws that protect them) that let the poor raise themselves out of poverty. Corrupt governments and crony capitalists can never do it. And if we cannot care for the poor, sheer self-interest should tell us that our commerce too cannot thrive in a world where people are impoverished by war and plunder.

Before defending the blundering of an inept administration this should have been the first duty of Republicans — defending the slandered honor and interests of free enterprise

Instead, today, Republicans have done what a century of communism failed to do. They have let the occupation of Iraq triumphantly resurrect collectivism from the ashes of Cold War defeat. They have given it a credibility its own performance never could.

Buy this book.

Everywhere we look, collectivists celebrates moral victories: the fiery analysis of anti-globalization activists and antiwar activists strips the corporate-state of its last fig-leaf. And rightly so.

What is truly calamitous, however, is that in the popular mind, the free market stands equally stripped as well.

That is why the important question before us now is not who will save Iraq.

For Iraq was lost the day we attacked it without just cause.

The question before us now is who will save individualism and free markets.

Lila Rajiva [send her mail] is the author of the ground-breaking study, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media (MR Press, 2005), and the co-author with Bill Bonner of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007). Visit her blog.

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